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Woman's Inhumanity to Woman

Woman's Inhumanity to Woman

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by Phyllis Chesler

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“Man’s inhumanity to man”--the phrase is all too familiar. But until Phyllis Chesler's now-classic book, a profound silence prevailed about woman’s inhumanity to woman. Women's aggression may not take the same form as men's, but girls and women are indeed aggressive, often indirectly and mainly toward one another. They judge harshly, hold


“Man’s inhumanity to man”--the phrase is all too familiar. But until Phyllis Chesler's now-classic book, a profound silence prevailed about woman’s inhumanity to woman. Women's aggression may not take the same form as men's, but girls and women are indeed aggressive, often indirectly and mainly toward one another. They judge harshly, hold grudges, gossip, exclude, and disconnect from other women. 
            Like men, women are exposed to the messages of misogyny and sexism that permeate cultures worldwide. Like men, women unconsciously buy into negative images that can trigger abuse and mistreatment of other women. But like other social victims, many do not realize stereotyping affects members within the victimized group as well as those outside the group. They do not realize their behavior reflects society's biases.
            How women view and treat other women matters. Are women oppressed? Yes. Do oppressed people internalize their oppressors' attitudes? Without a doubt. Prejudice must first be acknowledged before it can be resisted or overcome. More than men, women depend upon one another for emotional intimacy and bonding, and exclusionary and sexist behavior enforces female conformity and discourages independence and psychological growth.
            Continuing the pioneering work begun in Women and Madness—Chesler's bestselling book that broke the story on double standards in psychology—Woman's Inhumanity to Woman draws on important studies, revolutionary theories, literature, and hundreds of original interviews. Chesler urges us to look within, to treat other women realistically, ethically, and kindly, and to forge bold and compassionate alliances. This is a necessary next step for women, without which they will never be liberated.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A heady amalgam of research . . . again, Chesler's voice is breathtakingly bold, ruthlessly honest, provocative, challenging and compassionate. This is rough terrain, and Chesler is leading the way. This book's usefulness [is in] furthering an open conversation among feminists–men and women alike–who want to get past the infighting to a more expansive view of human liberation."—Tikkun

"A staggeringly thorough study of the cruelties, conscious and unconscious, that females visit upon one another." —Denver Post

"Fascinating . . . Chesler takes on the sisterhood like Sherman took Atlanta . [Woman's Inhumanity to Woman] is a provocative take on the nature and behavior of women." —Seattle Times

“Phyllis Chesler has one of the most original and provocative minds in modern American feminism. It has always been her style to turn the conventional wisdom on its head, and take us wherever that leads. Here she is in top form, enlivening her readers with an exciting and thought provoking argument about the other side of sisterhood.” —Vivian Gornick

“Once again Phyllis Chesler braves uncharted waters. In this lucid book, she explores a topic forbidden among feminists for too long. She provides an understanding of jealousy and anger among women, yet she is also compassionate. Like her groundbreaking work, Women and Madness, this book will strengthen feminism and help to end the sad bitterness Chesler so ably describes." —Susan Griffin, author of The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues

"Chesler's credentials are impeccable, her explanations thorough, her research well documented. This is not about men vs. women or women vs. women: lt's about people learning to be fair." —St. Petersburg Times

"I love what Chesler has done in this very important work. I find Chesler's careful perspective confirming, provocative and comforting." —Judy Grahn, poet and author of Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds

"An important book . . . Woman's Inhumanity to Woman proves that Chesler still has a thing or two to teach the kids after all." —Salon.com

Publishers Weekly
Chesler, author of the bestselling Woman and Madness, explores the "shadow side" of sisterhood: women treating each other badly. How could her own mother have been so mean to her? How could someone who "borrowed" published ideas from her not acknowledge her or say "thank you"? In this treatise on breaking the "cycle of cruelty" between women, controversial feminist Chesler addresses why sisters fight, why some women prefer to work for men rather than for women, and other highly subjective cases of woman/woman cruelty. From the "demented Demeters" and "murderous Electras" of Greek mythology to modern-day Mommie Dearest, Chesler warns, mothers and daughters are doomed. Whether they acknowledge their mothers' viciousness, as Chesler does, or whether they're "unconscious" and suffer "amnesia" about the hurt, she says, the patterns are set. Throughout girlhood and into adult life, women repeat the basic lesson in Chesler's words, "maternal envy teaches daughters to be passive, fearful, conformist, obedient as well as similarly cruel to other women." Thus, she says, "an assertive woman manager might be viewed as bitchy and non-maternal." This comment is certainly more digestible than, say, "what complicates the aging process is a woman's life-long experience of all other women as rivals and potential replacements." Chesler draws her evidence from interviews with an unspecified group of women with horror stories: backstabbing by feminist colleagues, sadistic gynecologists, battering lesbians, etc. Needless to say, her book sometimes comes off as quite cynical, despite her claim that "I would like women to treat each other in good ways." (Mar.) Forecast: It's prickly and contentious, but it's Chesler so expect some buzz in the academic feminist circles she inhabits. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Second Wave feminists have for 30-plus years operated under the assumption that sisterhood is powerful. Indeed, women acting in concert have forced society to redefine gender, domestic relations, and the workplace. Still, despite huge gains in public visibility, female ascendance has been hampered by a rarely acknowledged reality: women often betray, hurt, and humiliate one another. Mothers stymie daughters, biological sisters compete, girlfriends gossip maliciously, and women bosses exert arbitrary and capricious authority. Chesler (Women and Madness, etc.) has been studying this phenomenon for 21 years, and her research is fascinating, resonant, and unsettling. While the book focuses on psychological rather than political factors and pays too little attention to race and class, it is nonetheless a groundbreaking look at how women perpetuate oppression. Anthropological, biological, literary, and sociological theories are also tapped, giving the book added heft. Although the text is somewhat repetitious and self-congratulatory, it is highly recommended for all public and academic libraries. Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"Women are sexists too" is the not-very-surprising thesis of this reference-packed tome from psychologist, feminist, and author Chesler (Letters to a Young Feminist, 1998, etc.). While male crimes against women tend to be direct and violent, the introduction notes, the wrongs women inflict on other women are more indirect but can also have tragic consequences. The female style of aggression is examined first in primates, whose favored strategy is sabotage of the reproductive cycle, and then in humans, who use gossip and shunning as weapons of choice. Chesler examines those tactics at length in chapters on the behavior of young girls and teenagers, whose primary motive for punitive behavior is the desire to become intimate and bond with other girls, and of adult women, who are competing for men and their resources. Also under the glass are mother/daughter relationships in myth and reality, including Chesler's conflicts with her own mother, who "never had a kind word to say to me," and with her "intellectual daughters," some of whom betrayed her. A look at women at work and in volunteer groups offers an intriguing analysis of women-only enterprises, which may not be as gratifying as they appear from the outside. The splintering of the feminist movement in the 1970s is discussed from a first-person perspective, and the narrative closes with some advice on how women can stop undermining each other. Although this often seems a vehicle for Chesler to vent her personal injuries, she has done her homework, digging into psychology, anthropology, law, primatology, economics, and feminist studies, as well as drawing on her own case studies and a series of interviews conducted specifically for thisbook. There are footnotes and references for each chapter. The material is familiar, but feminists and sexists alike should find the package challenging.

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Woman's Inhumanity to Woman

By Phyllis Chesler

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2002 Phyllis Chesler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-278-3



Most men are not physically violent. However, the deadliest killers of other human beings on earth are men, not women. Male violence poses a serious threat to human survival and stability. It is, therefore, the recurring, often glorified, subject of literature, cinema, and learned treatises. Because male aggression is both so visible and so deadly, it tends to obscure our view of female violence and aggression, which is more often subtle, less visible, but chronic. Female-female violence has, erroneously, been deemed unimportant because it is unlikely to result in someone's immediate death or serious physical injury.

Male aggression is spectacular, terrifying. Male soldiers enter a village and shoot everyone in sight. Male pilots bomb an entire city from a plane. Male soldiers torture, massacre, and imprison enemy men and systematically rape and gang-rape the enemy's women and children. Individual men dominate others by force and through intimidation. Men, not women, are responsible for ninety percent of the violent crimes in our society. Finally, no more than ten percent of all living men own and control most of the world's resources, thereby condemning all others to lives of poverty and struggle. In comparison, female aggression is barely visible. What can mere women do that is as violent as this?

Women ardently collaborate in the maintenance of this culture. They create homes for such men and socialize children to become — or to marry — similarly successful men. Only the rare woman resists doing so.

British evolutionary psychologist Anne Campbell, who is now affiliated with Durham University, and University of Texas psychologists David H. Buss and Joshua Duntley agree that women sustain and help to reproduce patriarchy, by systematically choosing men with more resources and by "favorfing] sons over daughters." Buss and Dundey argue that female "co-involvement" was crucial in the creation of patriarchy, since women's evolutionary "preferences [for 'Alpha' mates] thus established an important set of ground rules for men's intra-sexual competition." Buss and Dundey contend that "neither men nor women are united with members of their own sex," but, rather, in the main compete with others of their own sex.

Indeed the primary targets of women's aggression, hostility, violence, and cruelty are other women. As most women know, a woman can make life hell, on a moment-by-moment basis, for any other woman whom she envies, fears, or with whom she must compete for resources. For example, older women and all-female cliques tend to bully girls and women into submission; cliques shun any woman whom they view as prettier, smarter, sexually freer, or "different."

Female rivalries tend to support, not disrupt, the status quo. Thus, in order to survive or to improve their own lot, most women, like men, collude in the subordination of women as a class.

In addition to exercising brute economic and physical force, I believe that women psychologically tame girls and other women into conformity by threatening to withdraw their considerable capacity for emotional intimacy from any girl or woman whose growth or change of circumstance threatens the status quo. In a sense, women maternally enchant — then terrorize or "turn" upon each other. Fairy tales are fraught with just such Fairy Godmothers and Evil Stepmothers, and should be understood as a history of embattled female relationships and other sudden reversals of blissful, dyadic fortune.

Scientists have only recently begun to study what has been termed "indirect aggression." Female indirect aggression can be very painful psychologically, socially, and economically. Such aggression is both verbal and nonverbal and includes reputation-wrecking gossip and shunning, which may lead to social "death" and, in some cultures, to real death as well.

Because it is so widespread, male aggression is seen as natural; even when it assumes violent and criminal proportions, it is not necessarily regarded as pathological. Most women, on the other hand, do not engage in male-like aggression. When they do, their behavior is deemed unnatural and therefore pathological — even if what a woman has done is kill in order to save her own life. Women who physically fight other women — or men — are viewed as having "no class."

Female-female aggression has been less studied, less discussed, and less recognized than male aggression. Perhaps, in a society that values men over women, what women do to each other is simply deemed less important by both men and women. Similarly, in a society that values beige-colored people, what people of other colors do to each other is viewed as less important.

In 1987, University of Western Australia anthropologist Victoria K Burbank published a study of female aggression in 137 societies: in Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and among native-Indian tribes in North America. The data she used had been gathered by social scientists over a period of more than a hundred years. Burbank looked only at cases in which women initiated the aggression and where the aggression took place in the context of the home or neighborhood. Burbank found that women engaged in physical, verbal, and indirect aggression "around the world." Women "shriek, scream, scold, revile, and insult their (mainly) female opponents." For example, in 1870 Aymara women were observed "venting their anger" by "kicking apart the clay cooking stoves of their rivals." In 1895 Kashmiri women were described as "famous for their vocabulary of abuse." In 1931 Ona women were observed having "word duels that lasted for several hours." In 1964 a Kapauku woman who was in a dispute with her husband and co-wife was described as "destroying her [rival's] house, uproot[ing] part of the garden, and wreck [ing] the fence." And, in 1974, the data described how a "Ute woman may kill her rival's horse."

Burbank writes that one of the "most striking findings of this survey is that women are by far the most common targets of female aggression. Women are targets in 124, or ninety-one percent of the 137 societies; whereas men are targets (of female aggression) in seventy-four, or fifty-four percent of the 137 societies. Women targeted mainly co-wives, sexual rivals, a wife and 'the other woman,' and women whose relationships are not specified."

Because we do not expect women to be physically aggressive and because both men and women view aggressive behavior in women with great alarm, people tend to view women's aggression as more emotionally and physically out of control than even the deadliest male aggression. To some extent, studies suggest that men are in control when they use violence and that women are not. In addition, women will say that they engaged in violence because they lost control, not because they used violence to get their way. It is also possible that the out-of-control quality that accompanies women's perceived and experienced outbursts of violence might, according to Campbell, "result either from females' lack of early training in ritualization" or because women are responding to an impetus so strong that it "overcomes their reluctance to engage in physical aggression."

Robin Fox, a professor of Social Theory at Rutgers University, quotes the late, great anthropologist Margaret Mead: "It was a good thing that wars were in the hands of men since, although they were very good at starting them, they were equally adept at knowing how to bring them to an end." According to Fox, Mead thought this was true "because war was always at bottom a status game for men, and men had an inbuilt capacity for ritualizing such games." Women, on the other hand, "would take war far too seriously. They would see it as protecting their children and nothing but a total fight to the death would satisfy them."

Although Mead may have a point, she is also missing something important. Consider what the historical and anthropological record has to tell us about the cruelty, for example, of mothers-in-law toward daughters-in-law in classical Japan, China, and India. In Fox's words, as a rule, the younger women

came under the strict and punitive rule of their mothers-in-law. [They endured] aggression in the form of constant harassment, abuse, and beatings, [which] was used to "train" these unfortunate girls in the ways of their new households. A girl could only hope to have sons quickly to improve her status and eventually put her in the "mother-in-law" position where she could herself become the aggressor.

According to New York anthropologist Ilsa Glazer, family life was torturous for women in China:

In order to save money, parents who gave up daughters for adoption adopted female infants to replace them. For the same cost of rearing a girl, the adopted daughter could later be married to their son, saving the cost of a wedding. Mothers and adopted daughters conflicted, for it was in the mother's interest to get the maximum work out of her adopted daughter at the least possible cost. Adopted daughters could be sold if need be. Adopted daughters and natural born sisters were "natural enemies." Higher in status, natural daughters commanded the labor power and obedience of adopted daughters. Beatings of younger women by older women were common. Mothers beat daughters-in-law, daughters, and adopted daughters. Slaves were safe targets for women who vented on them the aggression they dared not express in other relationships. Women in weak positions expressed their aggression in violent temper tantrums, by withdrawing labor, or by complaining to women from other households.

A new bride might be more compliant than an older wife or sister-in-law. They vied for their mother-in-law's approval and for property for their own sons. They were, in Glazer's words, "natural enemies." In addition,

mothers-in-law had rights to the labor of daughters-in-law and to their obedience. Since widows were not permitted to remarry, and since daughters-in-law could be sold or pawned, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law were also "natural enemies."

Today, in India, young brides are sometimes doused with kerosene and set on fire. Mothers-in-law are often involved. In December of the year 2000, one young Indian wife described being repeatedly beaten by both her husband and her mother-in-law for minor infractions. One day, after she had completed all but one of her non-stop, back-breaking chores, her husband flew into a rage over the single chore left undone.

"I had done everything except this," she said. "But he was angry with me. He said I was lazy. He said if he could get another wife, she would do everything." That afternoon, as she walked toward the kitchen, she said, she felt something splash on her back. Then she burst into flames. When she turned around, she saw her mother-in-law holding a kerosene can and her husband with a matchbox.

In addition to such mother-in-law violence toward a daughter-in-law, Burbank notes that "women aggress against their co-wives verbally in twenty-nine percent of the societies and physically in eighteen percent of the societies. Sisters-in-law also "aggress against one another in fourteen percent of the societies; mothers-in law and daughters-in-law are an aggressive dyad in twelve percent of the societies." Interestingly, sisters who are co-wives sometimes live under one roof with relatively little aggression, but co-wives who have not been thus socialized to get along with each other from childhood on, tend to live separately. Even so, "at least twenty percent of the cases of co-wife aggression may be between 'sisters.'"

Clearly — given Burbank's statistics and the examples cited from Japan, China, and India — the cause of women's discontent is not alleviated, and thus chronic frustration and chronic irritability remain. No male-style ritualized ending is possible because no resolution of the problem is possible. The co-wife has come to stay; the sexual rival is preferred; one's own children — and oneself — may sink ever further into poverty, danger, illness, death.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning science writer Natalie Angier does not view women as innocent victims. She writes:

They have complied with customs that control female sexuality, such as infibulation, purdah, and claustration, and they have insisted that their daughters comply as well. They may even be the active agents of such customs.

In Ilsa Glazer's view,

The more subordinate women are to men and the more dependent they are on patriarchal social structures, the more injury they inflict on each other.

Whether female-female cruelty is caused by female opportunism or by female captivity, the harm done is real. Often women are also aggressive in indirect ways.

Indirect (nonphysical) aggression may take many forms. A woman may refuse to return your smile or to talk to you at all; this can be quite unnerving to another woman. Or she may bang the plate down on the table, stalk out of the room, or complain about you to others behind your back. Indirect aggression is often "up close and personal." It may be accompanied by a smile and by earnest denials that one has intended to harm anyone. Included here are the most hair-raising power struggles between mothers and daughters and between sisters, as well as intense competition for a mate among female intimates. Of course, such competition also takes place between female strangers.

Some feminists have insisted that women are prisoners of men or of a patriarchal system and are, therefore, unable to resist its values and demands. Others, feminists included, have insisted that both women and men have free will and, as such, are responsible for their actions, even if they are forced to engage in an unending war for survival against all others. Thus, although it is true that women do have many things in common with others of their gender, this does not mean that most women are altruistic "sisters." Like men, women belong to different, often warring classes, races, religions, or political parties. Most women do not identify with or feel compassion for all other women.

Shirley Abbott, the former editor of Horizon magazine and an Arkansas native, reviewed two centuries of African-American slave testimonies. She notes that some slaves speak of their white mistresses as "good" or as "merciful Christian women." However, Abbott writes, as a group "White mistresses were demanding, harsh, impatient, capricious, and quick to call for the laying on of the lash. Some were even sadists, with no redeeming qualities."

The writer Alice Walker describes an incident in the 1930s, in which her mother, an impoverished sharecropper in a small Georgia town, walked into town, wearing a used, donated dress and bearing a voucher to obtain food and flour from the Red Cross. When Walker's mother presented her voucher "she was confronted by a white woman who looked her up and down with marked anger and envy."

"What's you come up here for?" the woman asked.

"For some flour," said my mother, presenting her voucher.

"Humph," said the woman, looking at her more closely and with unconcealed fury. "Anybody dressed up as good as you don't need to come here begging for food ... the gall of niggers coming in here dressed better than me!"

Delia Aguilar, a professor of Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, describes her experience teaching feminism to Asian-Pacific women in the Philippines. Initially — and to her consternation — her students proudly espoused a Second Wave, Western, "essentialist" vision of global sisterhood. Aguilar had to remind her students that they were not academic Western women, that they faced other realities which included

Massive [Asian] rural to urban migration, ever-increasing poverty and homelessness, militarization, dominance of multinationals, [and] external debt, migration overseas as domestics, or ... staying home to do backbreaking labor ... low-paid employment on the assembly line; [becoming] mail-order brides or working in the "entertainment industry."

Thereafter, when Aguilar's students identified themselves as feminists, the "tone was not celebratory." They understood that feminist ideology did not change the fact that some women are more privileged than others.

These are only three examples of interpersonal cruelties and structural difference between women who belong to different classes, races, and geographical regions. Where can we find examples of woman's inhumanity to woman within the same race, class, and country? Just about everywhere. Instances abound in our most beloved novels and poems, in countless studies, even in popular plays, musicals, and operas. We rarely notice them. They do not register.

For example, most readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter remember it as being about sexual immorality and hypocrisy among eighteenth-century Puritan Americans. Hawthorne's fictional hero, Hester Prynne, has been tried for the crime of having a child out of wedlock. The male magistrates sentence Prynne to wear a scarlet letter upon her breast. The women in the novel, however, feel that the sentence is too lenient.


Excerpted from Woman's Inhumanity to Woman by Phyllis Chesler. Copyright © 2002 Phyllis Chesler. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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