"Backstabbers"

By Laura Miller


Letters to the Editor
April 9, 2002 12:00AM (UTC)

Read the story.

I read Laura Miller's good review of Chesler's book on women and once again am struck by the naive portrayal of women as unfortunately, not perfect.

Well, duh.

Of course women hurt and undermine one another. We all hurt and undermine one another. Why should women be expected not to? Because "we're above that"? How foolish.

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I am disappointed that an obviously smart feminist holds women to some undefined higher standard than men. We all, regardless of sex, have our narcissistic moments of self-indulgence. We all do crappy things that we should be ashamed of. There is a reason we call it "survival of the fittest."

To assume that women shouldn't do horrible things to one another is unfair to women. Can we not be as smart, talented and shallow as men?

-- Jake Goodrich

I'm a singer songwriter, and years ago, I wrote all sorts of feminist songs, including my first recording, "Fetish for the Underdog." I definitely would call myself a die-hard feminist, so imagine how disturbing it was for me to recently say to my temp agency, "I won't work for a woman. Don't send me to a woman boss." Whoa. That was a tough thing to hear myself say. And when I admitted this to the other female temp secretaries, they all agreed: 9 times out of ten the woman boss is just a nightmare to work for. Much worse than the men. Especially female attorneys.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and some women have been too wonderful to me. But I have to say, in the office world, where I toil by day, women bosses often treat their women secretaries like dirt. Hooray for Phyllis Chesler for bringing this nasty little dynamic out into the open. Come on, ladies, let's give each other a break. It's bad enough trying to fight the guys.

-- Julia Douglass

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I regret that Phyllis Chesler is writing about women versus women for two reasons.

First, she should know that the near-powerless in any society vie for scraps.

Second, she should spend her time and energy helping, not hurting, her sisters.

She must need the money quite badly to sell out so completely. But she will surely not get it from feminists like me. On the other hand, she will get rousing welcomes from D.C.-area conservatives and lots of talk show face-time.

-- Phyllis Guest

I am not going to say that I haven't seen groups of women behave badly with each other, but I will say this: Chesler seems to be coming from an environment filled with large egos all competing for a larger stake in their own arenas, be it the feminist movement or the United Nations. The larger the egos and the bigger the power struggles, the more problems you encounter. I have seen a lot of men behave toward each other in the same manner. I work with all men, and it often seems that the higher-order boys will whisper into your ear about who they do not like and who they disrespect. And will oft-times not be confrontational, as professional environments require tact. I have seen many people shut out and cold-shouldered in this way. I would read Chesler's book with the thought that in any political movement, the people who are making the most noise are the people who need to be seen and heard.

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-- Laura Joffe

Perhaps the greatest failure of the feminist movement has been its inability to engage the issue of violence head on. The feminist view of young boys -- that they "learn" violence through a corrupt culture and must get in touch with their feminine side to understand their "true" emotional selves -- fails completely to acknowledge that men are responsible for violence, war and death across cultures, almost uniformly. Men are the generals and foot soldiers, lunatics and extremists, terrorists and heroes. Yet feminism has abhorred violence so completely that it's averted its eyes from the belly of the beast, pretending that violence in men is some sort of socially created mistake that can be corrected in the future boys of the species.

What Chesler's book seems to do is turn this feminist blind spot inward, looking at the woman-on-woman violence that manifests itself in more subtle and often psychologically destructive ways than male violence does. In their desperate attempt to avoid overt confrontation (that evil part of the male psyche), women undermine each other through manipulation, exclusion and emotional assassination. While men hurt with fists and weapons, women hurt through social domination.

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The point that feminism must face is this: As helpful as it would be for men to resolve their problems without violence in the style of thoughtful women, women can learn something from the ways men resolve their problems. Male friends, for instance, will yell, challenge, and even fight one another to resolve a conflict, yet still remain friends afterwards because the problem has been addressed, albeit bluntly and sometimes violently. Women, on the other hand, are famous for pretending the friendship is intact, only to exact revenge for months or years in more subtle ways as the initial conflict simmers below the surface. Which way is better? As long as outward aggression and anger is taboo for women, they may never face the violence within their own souls.

Violence is in all of us. It may be obvious with men -- who continue to kill and injure their fellow humans at alarming rates around the world -- but it's in women, too. When feminists begin to accept this and think about ways to harness both the thoughtfulness of women and the directness of men, perhaps the next phase of feminism will be born.

-- Jason Owens

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I'm male and therefore genetically oblivious and clueless. But it sure seemed to me that Laura Miller got a boatload of digs in against Chesler. Damning with faint praise and backhanded compliments left a "catfight" taste in my mouth.

I know guys aren't allowed to comment on feminism. But now it seems women can't either.

-- Robert Redelmeier

Sisterhood is powerful ... if it don't kill you first, as Flo Kennedy used to say. I'm 41 years old and consider myself a post-feminist. I respect and admire the work the Second Wave did, but I also don't cut women any slack for the chickenshit things we do to each other.

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As your writer Laura Miller points out, we remember the many slights and attacks other women have visited upon us but seldom if ever remember dishing them out, so I'm sure I'm guilty myself. And here I began to type out a long, drawn-out account from the early '80s of just these sorts of behaviors among women.

It began with me being criticized for not exhibiting solidarity among women (for naively giving an asked-for critique) and ended with one of my criticizers maneuvering her boyfriend into my job with the support of some of the other women.

But you know what? Who cares. Every woman reading this has been there (and probably done that, on both sides). Ultimately, all this proves is a central tenet of feminism: That women are -- gasp --people, capable of the same foibles as men though we use the "weapons" at our disposal, words instead of fists. Just as recent research shows women "tend and befriend" instead of "fight or flight" under stress, our aggression is a little different -- but it's still aggression nonetheless.

I lost my utopian belief in sisterhood when I was 21. I can't say I've missed it much in the 20 years since; it served me badly.

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-- Lynn Siprelle

Female aggression is not a problem. The real problem lies with our culture, where women are still hobbled by Victorian notions of female passivity and purity. With the advent of capitalism in the 18th century came the ideologies of the "separate spheres" (women in the house, men in the outer world) and the cult of "true womanhood" (the ideal of the passive, chaste, submissive woman).

In her book "Woman: An Intimate Geography," Natalie Angier notes that in cultures where female aggression is not suppressed and outspoken women are not regarded as "unfeminine," female aggression never takes on the poisonous, backstabbing aspects that it does in cultures, such as our own, where women are expected to be demure and submissive.

Women can learn, not just from men, but from other cultures as well: We're flawed humans, not earth angels. Get over it.

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-- Crystal Di'Anno


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