In "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman," pioneering feminist Phyllis Chesler dares to talk about the ways women -- including famous feminists -- stab each other in the back.

Published March 29, 2002 8:53PM (EST)

Comedian Chris Rock does a routine in which he instructs men on how to listen to a wife or girlfriend talk about her day. Actually paying attention, he insists, isn't essential, just remember to look at her, nod your head and at regular intervals say "Uh huh," "Really?" and "I told you that bitch was crazy." That last response might seem overspecialized, but, Rock insists, no matter what a woman does for a living there's always another woman at work who she's convinced is trying to ruin her life.

The thing is, she just might be right. Phyllis Chesler, author of the pioneering 1972 feminist exposé of the psychiatric profession, "Women and Madness," has produced a mammoth volume, based on 20 years of research, arguing that other women can often be a girl's worst enemies. The supporting evidence in "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" comprises primate and anthropological research, workplace studies, sociological data, original interviews, memoir, even literary criticism and fairy tale analysis -- all documenting the usually underhanded and often devastating ways that women attack each other.

To which some readers will say, "So what else is new?" Even Chesler admits that she is hardly the first to write about the subject, and she makes a point of listing such predecessors as Dorothy Allison, Margaret Atwood and even Sophocles (for his characterization of the deadly conflict between Electra and her mother, Clytemnestra). Neither is "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" the definitive book about intrafeminine warfare; despite its heft and the wide range of materials it draws on, it's just too repetitive and rambling to be the kind of galvanizing work that brings a thousand inchoate impressions into crystalline focus.

Yet "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" is still an important book, in large part because of who Chesler is: a veteran and luminary of the Second Wave feminism of the late 1960s and early '70s. She has always been one of the more doctrinaire and unreconstructed members of that generation, a user of the kind of hoary lingo that makes everyone but old-guard true believers wince. Her 1998 book "Letters to a Young Feminist" mostly seemed to piss off its intended audience; writing for the New York Times Book Review, Kim France complained about Chesler's reliance on terms like "womanned the barricades" and "God/dess rest her soul" as well as, more substantively, the book's patronizing tone and general ignorance of young feminists' own culture and interests.

All of which makes the step Chesler has taken with "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" more remarkable. Like most of her cohorts, she subscribed to the idea of sisterhood, the belief that women enlightened by feminism would live and work together in perfect, nonhierarchical, mutually supportive solidarity. Later, theories about women's superior skills in communication and forging relationships (spearheaded by Harvard professor Carol Gilligan) burnished that notion, and this idealized vision of how beautifully women get along seeped into all sorts of corners of American society, many of which would hesitate to call themselves feminist.

From the very beginning there have been dissenting voices to this cheery chorus, but they could usually expect to be attacked as anti-woman, often by feminists like Chesler. And in "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman," Chesler not only details the varieties of "indirect aggression" conventional women inflict on each other -- she comes clean about some pretty ugly battles within the ranks of feminism's elite as well.

So when Chesler gives herself credit for courage in publishing this book, she does deserve it. She is breaking ranks with a group that, she writes, gave her "the most romantic and liberating experience of my life," but one that can be merciless to apostates. In her introduction she describes telling "an old feminist friend ... a celebrated writer for whom I have great respect" about her project. To her dismay, her friend took a dim view of it:

"'I think you should be writing about how men oppress women, not about what oppressed people do in order to survive.' She said this smugly, sternly, and sanctimoniously ... I am surprised, a bit frightened for my work. Here was a feminist writer who had pre-judged an intellectual work, who was reluctant to even read a book if it did not seem to espouse the party line."

That Chesler should be astonished by this is in itself astonishing, as anyone who has ever dared to question this party line can testify. Without a doubt, Chesler has responded with the same chilliness to other women who challenged prevailing feminist analyses of, say, women's sexuality, one of the flashpoints of controversy within the movement during the 1980s. Surely she recalls dispensing such treatment herself? Actually, as "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" demonstrates again and again, most women can vividly remember being on the receiving end of this kind of damning, potentially ostracizing disapproval; what we "forget" are the times we've dished it out.

This kind of pressure, as Chesler goes on to relate, is typical of the emotional tactics women use to coerce each other. Groups of women tend to espouse an "illusion of equality" (and uniformity) in which variations from the norm are seen as dangerous betrayals. "Any expression of anger or the introduction of a tabooed subject may result in the group's scapegoating of one or two of its members," she observes. Because one of the biggest taboos is against any overt display of female aggression, these attacks are invariably covert, indirect and maddeningly unexplained -- which makes them especially devastating. "Most women have a repertoire of techniques with which to weaken, disorient, humiliate or banish other female group members," Chesler writes.

Because women tend to place tremendous value on belonging, they can experience exclusion from the group as a kind of death. One of Chesler's interview subjects -- a psychotherapist who made the mistake of frantically appealing to a group of affluent women colleagues when one of her patients, a battered wife pursued by a violent husband, needed emergency shelter -- got dunned by these professional friends for behaving "inappropriately" and being "too needy." But the punishment didn't stop there:

"One day, you think you're part of a community, the next moment, you're all alone, no one you used to know looks you in the eye, no one says anything specific, but you just never see anyone again. It's like having your entire family get wiped out, only they're still alive, and seeing each other. You're the one who's really been wiped out."

"Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" is full of such tales (many of them, like this one, redolent of an untold side of the story). The horrific, inflammatory anecdote is a time-honored tool of feminist rhetoric, but it should be said that Chesler provides ample quantities of harder data (particularly about the social lives of girls, a popular new area of study) as well. The anecdotes, of course, make for much more compelling reading -- these are sagas of intrigue, deception and puppet-mastery that put the doings of Cardinal Richelieu to shame.

Oddly enough, considering all the novels, myths, plays, fables, Freudian case studies and other cultural artifacts Chesler sifts through in assembling her panorama of female perfidy, there's one she doesn't mention, even though it epitomizes the kind of betrayal that plagues her: "All About Eve." Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 film tells the story of Margo Channing, a leading lady of the stage, who takes the adoring young fan Eve Harrington under her wing, only to discover later that Eve has been scheming to replace her in both her career and her engagement.

Similar scenarios crop up again and again in Chesler's account of her life and those of her friends. She devotes several pages to a complex dispute with a woman she calls Inge (not her real name). Chesler had been working as a consultant for the United Nations and organized an international feminist conference in 1980, with the plan of publishing the proceedings along with her own introduction. She invited Inge to the meeting. Sometime before the conference, the man who hired Chesler, a foreign diplomat, began to sexually harass Chesler and then raped her in her home.

When Chesler attempted to get the attendees of the conference to join her in confronting the culprit, who was black, Inge managed to convince the women that this would be perceived as racist. Not long afterwards, Inge somehow collaborated with this man to publish the proceedings of Chesler's conference herself, with her own introduction, effectively taking credit for Chesler's work. "Why did she need to usurp my place?" Chesler laments.

Chesler organized a "private, feminist mini-tribunal" to address her grievance with the "charismatic and immoral monster" Inge, but despite the participation of four other (unnamed) feminist leaders, it didn't amount to much. "None of us were able to live up to our rhetoric or to face our failure to do so," she writes. As for herself, she has only just now come to see that "Inge simply viewed herself as my competitor for a highly limited, much prized resource and did what millions of women do to each other in similar circumstances." In other words, instead of competing openly -- another taboo -- many women, "even ideologues," engage in surreptitious and "unethical" skullduggery in order to get what they want without seeming to fight for it.

Chesler later learned that, as she suspected, Inge had deployed another classic technique of covert feminine hostility by bad-mouthing Chesler behind her back to their feminist friends. Chesler sees Inge as embodying one of the most noxious of traditional female propensities -- the desire to sabotage and undermine exceptional women. "She is the kind of woman who feels cheated ... She experiences excellence in others as a form of persecution." In groups, this can take the form of punishing talented and effective members for making the rest of the members feel inadequate. Of course, this is not a great idea if your group actually wants to accomplish something in the world, as early feminists initially did. Chesler watched much of the movement descend into poisonous infighting and "navel-gazing."

"In this case, feminist women simply behaved like women," Chesler writes. "This was our weak point, not our source of strength." Although she doesn't name names (this would amount to stooping to the kind of corrosive "gossip" she condemns), the very fact that a Second Wave feminist thinker as conventional as Chesler is admitting that such self-destructive internecine warfare went on in the movement's most exalted ranks amounts to a kind of breakthrough. And that is not her only concession; in her introduction, Chesler refers to herself as "a lapsed Utopian" who no longer shares "as an article of faith the belief in the power of political-social programming to improve human nature."

An early chapter of "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" is devoted to primate research that suggests that aggression among females can be as ferocious and even as murderous as the aggression shown by males, if less spectacularly so. She repeats accounts of hair-raising and occasionally tragic power struggles among female apes -- chronicles of dominance, exile, infanticide and sometimes even cannibalism, all part of a relentless battle for survival. That Chesler is willing to allow that rivalry and cruelty among women may have a biological basis is yet another startling development; traditional feminists usually subscribe to a strict "social construction" view that blames most bad behavior on culture.

It's a surprisingly liberating admission; as long as feminists and other social constructionists continue to fruitlessly bicker with the evolutionary psychology crowd about what causes people to act the way they do, any talk of how to change things for the better is forestalled. Chesler asks herself and her readers to consider how women might unlearn some of their worst habits, and comes up with the refreshing suggestion that men can teach us a thing or two. Specifically, she urges women to acknowledge that aggression and competition, even among women, is an inevitable part of social life and that the healthiest way of dealing with it is directly and decisively -- no backstabbing and grudge-nursing.

It's damaging, she maintains, to expect other women to "fulfill unrealistic family or fantasy needs," such as providing the perfectly loving maternal care that almost nobody gets from her real mother. She agrees with British psychoanalyst Nini Herman that "unresolved issues 'which are active at the core of the mother-daughter dyad' are, to some extent, what psychologically holds women back," and with a pair of women college professors who have observed that "the extent to which academic women view each other as (failed) mothers and (too greedy) daughters suggests to them that working women still 'remain haunted by the residue of unresolved conflicts from another domain.'"

Does it matter that sometimes Chesler doesn't seem to have laid her own ghosts to rest, despite devoting many passages here to her difficult relationship with her critical mother? Chesler does have a respectable history of trying to get women to communicate forthrightly; Sydney Ladensohn Stern's biography of Gloria Steinem describes a meeting Chesler organized between Steinem and junior staffers at Ms. Magazine in order to encourage the younger women to air their complaints about their boss directly instead of whispering behind her back (it failed). But Chesler also has an annoyingly queenly authorial persona, which leads one to begin to wonder whether her many tales of treacherous protegés tell the whole story.

In one such anecdote, Chesler tells of her dust-up with "two young feminists" collaborating on a book; it's transparently clear that they are Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, authors of "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future." The two women interviewed Chesler, but when the book was published, she felt that she came in for unduly "personal" criticism and a "sneak attack" that "mocked the maternal tone of voice I'd used in my book 'Letters to a Young Feminist.'" Chesler relayed a request to talk about the matter through mutual friends, but Baumgardner and Richards never responded. Later, she bumped into one of them, who confessed, "Maybe we did single you out. It's probably a mother-daughter thing."

Without a doubt, Baumgardner and Richards showed their resentment of Chesler in a typically feminine -- let's face it, cowardly -- way, and "Manifesta" is in some respects a childish, if spirited, book. But its authors are not the only young women to bristle at Chesler's tone in "Letters," or to object to patronizing treatment from her generation of feminists. Sometimes people treat you like a mother because you insist on acting like one, and in an especially irritating way. What's challenging about the much-needed reforms in female behavior that Chesler advocates is how slippery such dynamics can be.

Chesler complains that "Manifesta" doesn't address her "ideas or actions," but in its own dysfunctional way it does. The authors object to her idea that they are best off seeing the world and feminism in her terms and accepting their roles as the acolytes of Chesler and her peers. To Chesler's credit, though, she was the one willing to hash out the issue face-to-face; it was her critics who chickened out. Whatever her lingering blind spots about her own role in fostering some of the corrosive tensions she documents, "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" proves that Chesler still has a thing or two to teach the kids after all.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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