Some of my worst frenemies are women!

Mean people suck, but why are mean girls accused of betraying the feminist cause?

By Amy Benfer
Published May 11, 2009 9:51PM (EDT)

This weekend the New York Times ran a story that could be summed up thusly: Women are sometimes mean to each other. Even at work! This seemed so unsurprising to me that I had to look at it a few times to even figure out why this was news. (Why, some of my worst frenemies are women!) Apparently it is news -- this morning it was the newpaper’s No. 1 most e-mailed story of the day (no doubt aided by fiendishly undermining underlings who felt compelled to anonymously flood the in boxes of their dragon-lady bosses).

The subject of the article is specifically workplace bullying, and, it turns out -- "no surprise," writes Mickey Meece -- that 60 percent of workplace bullies are men, according a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute. So the first part of the surprise is that there are women who bully in the first place, even if they apparently do so at much lower rates than their male colleagues (and one might argue that some people may have a fairly gendered definition of "bullying" in the first place). The second part -- what "executive coach" Peggy Klaus calls "the pink elephant in the room" -- is that those women seem to prefer to go after one another -- "choosing other women as their targets more than 70 percent of the time."

This factoid unleashes a torrent of questions that seem  to recall that age-old womanly problem, hysteria: "In the name of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, what is going on?" "How can women break through the glass ceiling if they are ducking verbal blows from other women in cubicles, hallways and conference rooms?" Has corporate America turned into one giant ladies roller derby match? (And hey, if it has, maybe I’ll drop the freelancing-from-home thing and get me a pleated skirt!)

Actually, even Betty and Gloria weren’t always pinky-swearing allegiance to one another, as this juicy, nuanced piece written by Laura Miller makes clear. Or this review of Phyllis Chesler’s recently reissued book "Women’s Inhumanity to Women," which specifically talks about how even famous feminists could have a famously tough time just getting along. Maybe you’ve heard of this book about all the insidious ways teen girls come up with to make each other miserable, which ended up inspiring the film “Mean Girls” by one of our favorite lady comedians, Tina Fey? Or maybe you were once a junior high school girl or happened to love someone who was?

I’m not trying to be -- merely -- glib here. I get that this global movement called feminism can  only exist if one believes that women, as a class, are systematically discriminated against in similar ways and that to get over it, we have to collectively work together to change the ways in which people are treated badly -- or stereotypically -- because of their gender. There’s nothing feminist about women using institutional sexism as a weapon, and if women are going after each other because of some misguided idea of gender competition and tokenism in the workplace -- there can only be one female V.P., dammit, and it’s going to be me! -- that is something to worry about. And yes, as long as members of any group are underrepresented in certain fields, it makes us all look a little shinier when we score another newscaster or senator or president or V.P. in charge of Northwestern auto sales for the team. But every woman does not have to think of every other woman in every situation as being on her team. In fact, one may mildly dislike or outright despise another woman without having to revoke one’s feminist card. Shocking, right?

But the message of this piece seems to be that mean people suck, but mean people who share one’s gender are betraying the Cause. I am irked when, say, Peggy Klaus, tells us girls that "We are supposed to be the nurturers and supporters.” And while I suppose that the straw Bully Broad might be moved by being reminded, as Grace Lau suggests, that "women are part of the same group," I’m not sure why that means we are supposed to agree on, say, the strategy to take at the next shareholders meeting. The woman down the hall who gossips about you to your boss isn’t much different, in kind, than Betty Friedan’s suburban housewife who might have tattled to the neighbors about your scandulously dirty floors.

Feminism was never about proving that women are nice. It’s about what’s fair. One of the worst workplace bullies I’ve ever encountered when I was a manager was a woman who routinely terrified our interns, talked shit about me, and made our copy editors cry. I didn’t spend any time at all thinking about our sisterhood under the skin; I just thought about how to take her down (calmly, professionally and fairly of course). Do Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly have to clasp hands and sing with Keith Olbermann and Stephen Colbert and bask in their shared penishood? Can’t I just say I really fucking hate Ann Coulter? 

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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