Woman’s inhumanity to woman

Woman’s inhumanity to woman

Douglas, Carol Anne


Woman’s Inhumanity To Woman

by Phyllis Chester, Thunder Mouth Press, 2002, hardcover.

I suppose this was a book that someone was bound to write. Phyllis Chester, long-time radical feminist and author of books such as Women and Madness and Letters to a Young Feminist, explores how women treat each other badly. She says she is writing the book so that women will learn how to treat each other more respectfully, which is certainly a worthy goal.

Chester refers to studies, anecdotes, and literature about problems in relationships between mothers and daughters, mothers-inlaw and daughters-in-law, sisters, young girls, women friends, women co-workers, and women in groups. Mothers may be overly critical of daughters, mothers-in-law may oppress daughters-in-law (she cites China historically and India, with its dowry deaths), sisters may be competitive, girls may form and abandon friendships at the drop of a hat, a woman’s friend may “steal” her husband, women bosses may be harsh to women who work for them, women may undermine their women bosses in ways they would not undermine male bosses, and women in groups may form cliques and cold shoulder those who don’t belong, Chester says. Certainly all of this happens.

But why do these things happen? Is it enough to say they happen because women are pitted against each other by a patriarchal system, or do women have to take some of the responsibility for their own actions?

Chesler emphasizes that latter point, which I think is valid, but I wished that she had emphasized the patriarchal constraints a little more.

But Chesler may not think that patriarchy is the root cause of tensions between women. She cites primate studies saying that females of some species have killed other females’ babies. She discusses the horrifying scene in one of Jane Goodall’s studies of chimpanzees in which Passion and her daughter, Pom, kill and eat another female’s baby. She also tells about a lemur female killing and eating another female’s baby. She says that there are many similar stories about other primates. Chesler notes that the chimpanzee whose baby was eaten was still afraid of the killers when she had her next baby, and sought out the protection of big males when the killer came near.

Chesler uses this anecdote to suggest that human females may have sought to bond themselves to particular men because the men could protect them from other human females who might kill their children. Women may be “hardwired” to be hostile to other women, Chester suggests.

I don’t believe that anyone is “hard-wired” to do anything. I don’t think that men are hard-wired to rape, and I certainly don’t think women are hard-wired to be submissive to men or hostile to other women. I think this is the weakest part of Chester’s book and the strangest explanation for the development of patriarchy I have ever heard. How many men (or male animals, for that matter) kill or abuse the young compared with how many women (or female animals)? Chesler said she interviewed many women for this book. Did she ask them whether they were more afraid of men or of women? How many women in the world would say the latter?

Chester said that even if our behavior to women is determined by our primate heritage, we can rise above the animal in our natures. This sounds quaint at best. There are so many different varieties of primate behavior that people canand do-cite examples of to prove just about any theory of human behavior.

Sometimes Chesler sounds as if she thinks that boys and men are better at resolving differences than girls and women. The mother of a son, she lauds boys for fighting physically and then getting along the next day, and openly accepting competition. Girls and women don’t admit they are competitive, but they hurt each other indirectly and stab each other in the back, Chesler says. She quotes someone as saying that women don’t start wars because they could never figure out how to end them, whereas men know how to end them. Yes, when “the enemy” is wiped out. Gosh, that’s so much better than talking behind someone’s back.

She suggests that women are more devious than men, gossip more, and are less able to take criticism of their ideas. I think perhaps she doesn’t work much with men. The most devious person I know is a man. I work in a nonprofit with lots of men, and they gossip and take criticism of their ideas personally. I once made the mistake of reviewing a male coworker’s book, giving it both praise and criticism, and he was furious, much more so than feminists whose books I’ve reviewed critically generally are. Just because men can take losing a tennis game to another man doesn’t mean they don’t take criticism of their ideas personally. A feminist friend of mine who’s an academic also laughed at the idea that men aren’t devious and don’t gossip as much as women; not the men in her department.

Chester cites literary characters at times to illustrate her points. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, saying that women would have punished Hester Prynne for adultery more cruelly than men did, with a brand on her face instead of a scarlet letter around her neck. Hawthorne, after all, is a man. What proof is there that women really would demand a harsher punishment? I think of Susan Glaspell’s story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” in which women guess that a woman killed her brutal husband when they see that he killed her canary, but they suppress the evidence. (Chesler makes a stronger and more frightening point when she takes her data from real life, saying that women are more likely than men to convict battered women who kill their husbands.) As for ruining lives with malicious gossip, I can’t refrain from noting that Shakespeare’s Iago-who tells Othello that his wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful, leading Othello to kill Desdemona-was a man.

Chester has enough women’s testimony about problems among women; there’s no need to quote from men. She did occasionally, and it annoyed me, particularly when she included, with no comment, a quote from a man saying that sexual harassment rules may stem from professional women’s resentment of professional men paying attention to lowerranking women in the workplace. That’s the most outrageous distortion of feminist history I’ve ever heard.

It never should have been left in the book without comment, if there was any reason for it to be there at all.

Sometimes Chester is cynical. I was particularly annoyed when she wrote that some women are good at visiting the sick-if they expect to inherit money from them. I found that insulting to all of the millions of women who have taken care of sick relatives and friends with no hope of financial return.

Why did Chester feel compelled to write this book? Reading through it provides the answer. She has had some very painful experiences with other women, starting with her mother, who screamed at her frequently, hit her, constantly criticized her, and never kissed her. Nevertheless, Chester was sorry that she couldn’t respond in the way her mother needed when her father died. She says she wrote this book for her mother, apparently in hopes of understanding her and in hopes that other mothers will learn not to behave like her.

Chester also says that when she was an adolescent other girls labeled her a “slut” and shunned her.

But the most terrible experience that Chester had with another woman is not revealed until near the end of the book, when she tells how another famous feminist prevented Chester from getting other women to help her confront a man who had raped her; the feminist later collaborated on a project with the man who had raped Chester. Chester doesn’t name the feminist, but gives sufficient information for me to guess easily who she is. This happened about twenty years ago. Perhaps not coincidentally, Chester says she worked on this book for about twenty years.

Feminists are no better and no worse than anyone else, Chester writes. That made me take pause. I had never thought of it that way before, and I will have to ponder a long time to decide whether I believe it’s true. It’s a sobering thought. Feminists can be gossips, charlatans, manipulators, or empire-builders, as well as courageous warriors for justice, Chesler says. I suppose so. But I must say that all of the worst people I have met have been in the straight work world, not the women’s movement-although the one-time off our backs collective member who stole $5,000 from the collective does not rank high on my list of acquaintances.

Another thing Chester says that shocked me was that the National Organization for Women’s elections sometimes had stuffed ballot boxes. I had heard about manipulative tactics at N.O.W., but not outright vote-stealing. I’m afraid I believe Chester about that.

But it does bother me that all of her accounts about groups seem to come from disgruntled women who left them. Who says that the people who leave a group are those best able to evaluate it? As someone who has stayed with a group (the off our backs collective) for nearly 29 years, I beg to differ. That’s like assuming that someone’s ex-lover has a clearer perspective on her than her current lover. It’s possible, but it ain’t necessarily true.

It’s hard for me to believe that the women’s movement hasn’t, at least sometimes, found better ways of handling problems. In my experience at off our backs, it’s often been possible to sit down with someone you are having difficulties with and discuss them with her. I’ve tried this approach when encountering problems with people-both women and men-at my straight job, and they’ve thought I was nuts to try to have a frank discussion.

Chester says she finds the same behavior in women’s church groups and traditional women’s clubs that she does in feminist groups. That’s a discouraging thought. However, she suggests that all-woman therapy groups lea by a woman therapist may be better. (She leads all– woman therapy groups).

But, if the feminist movement is to be compared with church women’s groups and women’s clubs, why not a comparison with groups in male-led social movements? Have they treated their members better and been less riddled with internal dissension? True, the feminist movement has often, particularly in its early years, been hard on women who spoke publicly “too much” or dared to sign their own writing. But in the last years of his life, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was discounted by many young activists because he did not use the rhetoric of revolution. Malcolm X was killed by a member of a rival Nation of Islam group. Rosa Parks was ignored and left to fend for herself in poverty for many years.

The merest look at European revolutionary movements shows that the more murderous revolutionaries killed off their rivals. I have often thought, only partially joking, that at least we don’t kill each other. Better trashed than dead.

Of course everyone in the feminist movement has been hurt by other feminists. And of course we need to learn how to do better. I understand that Chesler wants to bring up these matters because her goal is to persuade us to admit how we hurt each other (she does not hold herself blameless) and to learn how to treat each other more directly, compassionately, and respectfully. I think I might resist the book less if it didn’t hark back to primates for explanations. I’m not so sure that a general theory of women’s mistreatment of other women needs to be developed.

Perhaps I am simply luckier in my relationships than Chesler. My mother was loving, affectionate, and supportive; yes, she guilted me, but I coped. My women friends (most of whom are from the feminist movement) are generally terrific (which is not to say we always agree with or please each other). Chesler says she lost most of her feminist friends during her long bout with undiagnosed Lyme’s disease.

My worst experience with a girl in my childhood was not the backbiting and shunning that Chesler deplores. When I was playing cowboys and Indians with a slightly older girl-I was the “Indian”-she tried to hang me. Fortunately, some younger children told my mother and she saved me, but I was left with rope burns around my neck for months and a permanent feeling of terror when anyone suddenly puts a hand on my neck. Is this the kind of “boyish” aggression that Chesler thinks preferable to more traditional “girlish” behavior? How much better it was than if the girl had stopped speaking to me!

It is true, as Chesler says, that many of us became involved in the feminist movement with unrealistic expectations of bonded sisterhood. The reality was bound to be less glorious.

I think that as many of us came to depend more on women emotionally and in other ways, we have become angrier at them. It’s been many years since I’ve gotten as angry at any man-except for one at my workplace-as I sometimes get at women, because I care so much more about what women think and do.

Chesler also says that, like other women, feminists have longed for the women we know to mother us. Chester thinks that women long for mothering because we did not get enough from our own mothers. I think that whether we did or not, mothering is so appealing that most people (both women and men) secretly long for it; no matter how much we get, it’s never enough. I also am intrigued by her idea that mothers may envy children the mothering they are getting and that women who seem kind may envy other women for the attention they are giving them. I think we often are attentive to others when we want others to be attentive to us.

Chester suggests that what we need to do is hold educational groups-not therapy groups-in which women admit that they are aggressive and competitive and start dealing with how we express that aggression and competition. But who would we trust to lead those groups? I think I’m not as critical of women as Chester is, but I can’t imagine who I would trust to lead me in such a group. Perhaps we could use new consciousness-raising groups in which the way we treat each other is among the issues.

I don’t much like it when feminists suggest that the first few years of the movement were its most glorious, and it’s been downhill from there, and it’s pretty much dead now; this book seemed to do that. I think some of us have learned to treat each other better than we did in the ’70s.

I still think that women’s behavior in general is better than men’s, and that men need to learn to be more like women.

This is certainly a provocative book. Chester says that some of her feminist friends urged her not to write it, but some others-such as Ti-Grace Atkinson and Charlotte Bunch-read at least parts of it and gave her feedback. Chester clearly deeply believes in what she is doing. But I don’t like the thought of how anti-feminists will respond to the book.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. May/Jun 2002

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