August 24, 2002
Women Are Nurturing? How About Cruel, Especially to One Another
Phyllis Chesler is a feminist psychotherapist, author of several books about women and the founder of the Association for Women in Psychology. In her latest book, "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" (Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002) she explores the often cruel relationships between women. Felicia R. Lee spoke with her.
There have been several books in the past year about how women and girls treat one another badly. Why is this topic receiving so much attention now?
I began working on this 20 years ago so I think I anticipated the curve. Had I published it sooner I would not have been able to back it up with the extraordinary research that has only begun to gather steam in the last 10 to 15 years.
The media are now willing, for whatever reason, to pay attention to the subject. I think that as women we're strong enough now to not only acknowledge our racism, our class bias and our homophobia but our sexism. The coming generation, and second-wave feminists as well, can acknowledge that women, like men, are aggressive and, like men, are as close to the apes as the angels. Our lived realities have never conformed to the feminist view that women are morally superior to men, are compassionate, nurturing, maternal and also very valiant under siege. This is a myth.
You are known as a radical feminist who has written extensively about how the courts and the medical system mistreat women. Are you afraid that this book will be used against women?
Women don't have to be better than anyone else to deserve human rights. Our failure to look at our own sexism lost us a few inches in our ability to change history in our lifetime. The first thing we do is acknowledge what the truth is, and then we have to not have double standards. We have to try not to use gossip to get rid of a rival, we have to try not to slander the next woman because we're jealous that she's pretty or that she got a scholarship. I think we have to learn some of the rules of engagement that men are good at.
Women coerce dreadful conformity from each other. I would like us to embrace diversity. Then we could have a more viable, serious feminist movement.
Why did so many feminists make the mistake of believing in what you call the myth of female superiority?
Because the stereotypes of women have been so used to justify our subordination and since it was a heady moment in history to suddenly come together with other women in quantum numbers around issues of women's freedom and human rights, it took a while before each of us in turn started looking at how we treated each other. The unacknowledged aggression and cruelty and sexism among women in general &emdash; and that includes feminists &emdash; is what drove many an early activist out of what was a real movement.
Isn't there conflict and psychological warfare in any social justice movement or workplace?
I think it gets worse when it's women only. Men are happy in a middle-distance ground toward all others. They don't take anything too personally, and they don't have to get right into your face, into your business, into your life. Women need to do that. Women, the minute they meet another woman, it's: she's going to be my fairy godmother, my best friend, the mother I never had. And when that's not the case we say, "well, she's the evil stepmother."
We don't serve ourselves so well with our depth-charged levels of capacity for intimacy because then we can only be close to a small group. We can't command a nation-state.
Isn't that just an extension of arguments that have created glass-ceilings in workplaces?
No. I think the conclusion is not that women should be kept barefoot and pregnant and at home because they have no executive capacity. The conclusion is that there is something about the workplace that is deadly to all living things and men adapt more.
I do have a chapter that says if you have a situation that is male-dominated with a few token women, women will not like each other, they will be particularly vicious in how they compete and keep other women down and out. We can't say how women as a group would behave if overnight they had all the positions that men now have.
The cruelty you document ranges from mothers-in-law burning their daughters-in-law because of dowry disagreements to women stealing each other's boyfriends. Can it all really be lumped together?
It helps to understand that in these non-Western countries where you have mothers-in-law dousing daughters-in-law with kerosene for their dowries and we say "how shocking," we have a version here. You have here mothers who think their daughters have to be thin, their daughters have to be pretty and their daughters need to have plastic surgery and their daughters have to focus mainly on the outward appearance and not on inner strength or inner self. It's not genital mutilation but it's ultimately a concern with outward appearance for the sake of marriageability.
Although you note that women don't have as much power as men, you view them as equally culpable for many of society's ills.
I'm thinking back to the civil rights era and the faces of white mothers who did not want little black children to integrate schools. What should we say about those women who joined the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi party? You have a lot of women groaning under the yoke of oppression. Nevertheless, there are women who warm the beds and are the partners of men who create orphans. Women are best at collaborating with men who run the world because then we can buy pretty trinkets and have safe homes and nests for ourselves.
You say that women are the ones who police and monitor one another and silence dissent.
Women are silenced not because men beat up on us but because we don't want to be shunned by our little cliques. That applies to all age groups. That's one of the reasons that women are so conformist and so indirect: we end up sabotaging her rather than risking the loss of her intimate companionship. Women stealing each other's lovers and spouses and jobs is pandemic.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company