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Denying the Truth about Female-Female Aggression Won't Make it Disappear

..but taking these steps can help.

Phyllis Chesler
Phyllis Chesler

This essay was written as a contribution to an anthology named "Female Collectives" by co-editors Vera Bachmann and Johanna-Charlotte Horst about to be published in 2023 by Brill Fink.


Once upon a time, a long time ago, I believed that all women were kind, caring, maternal, valiant, and ever-noble under siege—and that all men were their oppressors. As everyone but a handful of idealistic feminists knew, this was not always true. Living my life and researching this subject over a forty-year period have helped me to acknowledge that, like men, women are only human beings, as close to the apes as to the angels, capable of both cruelty and compassion, envy and generosity, competition and cooperation.

One of the reasons that it’s so difficult for a woman to acknowledge that women—including herself—are aggressive and cruel is because these are not socially acceptable traits for women to have, and because a woman's best friends and confidantes are most often other women. Exceptions aside, most women befriend each other and create intimate dyads and all-female “families.”

Women expect to be emotionally “groomed” (listened to, sympathized with) by those women who most resemble themselves. This is why difference (in appearance or ideas) is so threatening to most women who rely upon shoulder-to-shoulder egalitarianism and “sameness” among their female intimates, rather than male-like hierarchies with a leader and a chain of command. To many women, even the smallest “difference” signals potential abandonment; to men, it merely clarifies an accepted social arrangement.

Psychologically, seemingly contradictory things can be true. Women mainly compete against other women and women mainly rely upon other women; women envy and sabotage each other through slander, gossip, and shunning, and women also want other women's approval and support. Once we learn how to think “in opposites,” certain things become clear.

Female-female aggression and competition is normal and may, to some extent, be hardwired. In addition, women, like men, have internalized sexist beliefs. We either idealize women as Fairy Godmothers or we demonize them as Evil Stepmothers. Women often have higher and different expectations for other women than we do for men. We tend not to forgive women when they fail us. We suffer such betrayals and do not want to experience such pain ever again. Paradoxically, but understandably in terms of economic and social survival, women are more willing to forgive male failure, imperfection, violence, and betrayal—but never such behavior in another woman.

I know this now but, for a number of reasons, I clung to my original view of women as both superior—and as victims. Why? Because women are both oppressed and maligned and I did not want to expose us to any further harm. Because it was—and still is—problematic, even dangerous, to challenge the politically correct feminist view of women as morally superior. In the past, woman's “dark side” was routinely exaggerated to justify her subordinate status. In reaction, many feminists tried to focus only on woman's “bright side” and to silence those who refused to do so.

"We either idealize women as Fairy Godmothers or we demonize them as Evil Stepmothers."


The acceptable paradigm among feminists was based on a misreading of psychologist’s Carol Gilligan’s work. Little girls are “silenced,” not by little boys, but by other little girls whose power of shunning and social ostracism terrified them. This information is contained in Gilligan’s own work. However, the feminist takeaway was that girls are morally superior to boys.

Was I afraid of offending other feminists? Indeed, when a group of British evolutionary biologists learned that I was studying this phenomenon, they told me to “be prepared for some heavy feminist criticism.” They were right. What I hadn’t expected was left-feminist lobbying within one publishing house not to take my work on this subject; liberal-feminist lobbying against this work with the very literary agent who was representing it; random feminists coming up to me to say that I was making a terrible mistake, etc.

One lives and learns. What were such feminists so afraid I might expose? One woman finally asked me whether I planned to “name names?” I said: “I’m not publishing the phone book, I’m not naming the name of every woman in the world who’s engaged in slandering or shunning another woman. This is bigger than just feminists.”

I eventually concluded that women should not have to prove that we are better than men in order to be entitled to equal and human rights. Nor should feminist ideology remain forever fixed and one-sided. Most feminists understand the importance of acknowledging their light-skin color prejudice, ageism, classism, and homophobia. Acknowledging women's sexism is a long overdue, but absolutely necessary, next step.

"In the past, woman's 'dark side' was routinely exaggerated to justify her subordinate status."


Nevertheless, it is painful for a feminist to acknowledge that, in the course of human events, a woman may steal her best friend's husband, children, job, and other best female friends; that a female relative or coworker may slander and sabotage other women at home, on the job, and in social organizations. It is painful to admit that many women do not believe or support a woman who files a sex discrimination lawsuit or alleges rape, battery, or sexual harassment. Indeed, prosecutors have preferred men as jurors in rape trials, since women, for a variety of reasons (fear of rape, the need to distance themselves from it), often choose not to believe or even to blame the woman who alleges rape.

The feminist resistance to such information is profound. I once delivered a lecture to feminist therapists on the subject of Electra and Clytemnestra, which is the Greek story of how a daughter participated in her mother’s murder, in matricide. I said: “Psychologically, we are all Electra’s daughters. We have a hard time crediting even our feminist foremothers, we live in a world in which God is envisioned as a tall white man with a beard, not as a small, round woman…we’ve killed divinity in female form…” I got no further when the therapists began shouting that “this was a white woman’s problem, that black women had each other’s backs;” that this was a “straight woman’s problem, lesbians are all sisterly.” One poor woman stood up, a bit distraught, and asked: “We killed our Mother-as-Goddess. What was her name?”

My book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman took me more than twenty years to research, write, and publish. I read thousands of studies and books—everything from anthropological and primate studies and psychological and cross-cultural studies, to fairy tales, psychoanalytic case studies, biographies, memoirs, and fiction. I interviewed hundreds of women who, although grown, still remembered being taunted, shamed, shunned, and silenced in childhood—not by boys and men, but by other girls and women. I met interviewees whose relationships with their mothers, daughters, and sisters were fraught with mutual recrimination, competition, miscommunication, and lethal envy. Most women longed for more positive and redemptive connections with each other but had yet to find them.

"I heard about how mother-daughter and sister-sister dynamics invariably surfaced among women in the workplace."


I heard similar stories of frustrated love from women of all ages, classes, and races. I heard about how mother-daughter and sister-sister dynamics invariably surfaced among women in the workplace. I came to understand why many women find it harder to work for women than for men, and what kinds of managerial and leadership styles women prefer and admire.

I was also lucky to have taken my time to complete this work. Had I published this sooner, what I am saying could not have been so well supported by the extraordinary, global research that only began to gather steam later in the 20th century and in the 21st century. Timing is everything, and it seems that I’d anticipated a curve. A few months after Woman's Inhumanity to Woman came out, a spate of books touching on this topic were published. For the first time, society in general—and the media in particular—were paying attention.

World focus was initially on teenage “mean girls” and not on what happens when those “mean girls” grow up.

Six months before I published Woman's Inhumanity to Woman in hardcover, I began calling some of the women whose work had guided me. “Thank you so much for your book or article,” I would say. “Are you interested in doing an educational presentation together?” One author said: “Welcome aboard sister! But wait and see, women will attack you pretty viciously for telling this truth.” A psychotherapist-author told me: “I made a vow not to write or speak about this subject anymore. I never want to experience such hostility from women again.” A third author: “I've already written about this as truthfully as I know how but it made no difference. Why do you think women will listen to you when they did not listen to me?”

Their comments surprised me, but, as it turned out, what had happened to them in the past did not happen to me. Nor did I draw the same conclusions. True, some leading, even iconic feminists refused to read or review this work (and convinced others to behave accordingly); some mainstream media did not review it; and some women who did review this book did so with hostility and contempt.

"How dare I write about women being violent when men are so much more violent?"


But many more readers and reviewers, both male and female, thanked me for breaking this silence, for confirming that they were not alone or “crazy,” that being shunned by other women was not necessarily “all their fault,” that women do disappoint and betray each other every day, and that this is not a “small' matter.” A retired professor said: “May God bless you for exposing this dirty little secret, this catastrophe.” A psychologist who works with adolescent girls described this book as “a prayer answered.” A mother wrote that she had read a negative review of this book “but by a woman, so I thought you might be telling the truth.” This very kind woman exclaimed: “You are the next stage—after Friedan, but I think that women will continue to deny that this problem exists and will keep playing the game.”

The online responses were colorful and original. For example, one woman wrote: “If you have ever been the target of female envy, the girl who was never included, the one they called nasty names or wondered why your best friend just ruined your life—in other words if you ever were a girl—read this book!”

The most important “reviews” were not reviews at all, but letters in which readers poured their hearts out to me. One never-married woman wrote about how painful it was for her when her married women friends did not include her in social events—but did include unmarried men. Another woman described how a small group of women had ruined her career and how that ruination led to her suicide attempt.

At first, I was very pleased by the extensive international interest in this book. Almost immediately, I was interviewed in Russia, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Nepal, Poland, Germany, Italy, England, Brazil, Chile, and all over North America. Such interest confirmed that what I was writing about is a global, universal phenomenon; the book is all about women. A Chilean journalist wanted to know how I knew so much about the mother-daughter relationship in Chile—and so did the Nepalese journalist! A query from mainland China concerned why women find it so difficult to work for a woman boss; I received the same query from Germany, Brazil, and the United States.

Alas, other than Chinese and Italian the book has still not been translated into any other foreign language.

Of course, the book was damned on several feminist email groups. How dare I write about women being violent when men are so much more violent? Didn't I understand that the “near-powerless in society are always forced to fight over the scraps?” Clearly, I'd written this book because I was “ready to sell out,” “wanted to become a millionaire” (I’m still waiting for that check!), had not “gotten over my negative relationship with my mother,” and because I “wanted revenge.” Some women were angry that I'd gotten published it at all given that “they had always known the truth about other women; why bother to publish a no-brainer?”

Twenty years later, younger women, including feminists, claim to know all about “mean girls,” and are not reluctant to denounce female employers who’ve been arrogant and bossy—and who have not sufficiently mentored them, or moved over and made room for them. I do not know if they think this same way about male employers. Going forward, one wonders whether they will mentor their junior female employees differently or better—if at all.

Every media interviewer, without exception, ended our conversation by asking me what steps women might take to deal with women's unacknowledged aggression and sexism, and what might the parents of teenage girls tell their daughters about how to handle female taunting and ostracism. My advice always made the article's final cut. Thus, what should women do?

Humbly Accept That Change Is a Process

We must first accept that change is a process—one that can't be rushed. We will have the rest of our lives to work on transforming envy and conformity into tolerance and individuality, and on doing good, not evil, in the world.

Acknowledge, Do Not Deny, the Truth

We must acknowledge some painful truths. Women must admit that women are normally aggressive and competitive and that oppressed women are also very angry; as such, they tend to take their anger out on each other. Such an acknowledgment may help a woman become more realistic about what to expect from other women and clear about her own limitations as well.

Become Strong

Ideally, each woman must develop a strong sense of self and a sense of her own utter uniqueness. No one can take your “good” away from you. Honor your own ambition; honor other women's ambition. Learn to support strong women who are “different” from you, not only weak women who agree with you totally and who therefore do not threaten you.

Become Strong Enough to Take Criticism

Women—me too—often become offended and emotional very quickly. We may be oversensitive to criticism because we’ve been excessively and unjustly criticized by both women and men from a very young age; we also might have been treated as if we were invisible. Women have been primed to hear unjust criticism where none exists. Therefore, I would like to see women learn how to listen to each other respectfully. Asking another woman what she really thinks is not the same as asking her to support you, right or wrong, or to falsely flatter you. Ideally, a woman has to learn how to hear opposing views without feeling personally betrayed by those who hold such views.

Learn to Express Your Anger: Rules of Engagement

A woman may hold a grudge against another woman for a long time; she might turn others against her unsuspecting victim. A woman might instead learn how to express her anger verbally, directly, to the woman who has offended her—and then let go of that anger. This is not easy to do. Perhaps here is where women can learn some rules of engagement from men about how to fight fairly and then, win or lose, move on, befriend our opponents, or at least quit holding a grudge. Men find this easier since they comfortably occupy a psychological middle distance from each other. Perhaps women might have to modify our intense intimacy needs in order to create and maintain more stable or flexible alliances with other women.

Learn to Ask for What You Want; Learn to Move On If You Don't Get What You Need

A woman must be encouraged to put what she wants into words, to ask for it directly rather than waiting for someone to guess what it is she wants. If a woman cannot get what she wants, she does not have to blame herself, give up, disconnect, or become enraged. She must learn that she can get what she wants another day or at another job or with another person. Women must be encouraged to move on as well as stay the course.

Do Not Gossip

Do not initiate gossip about another woman; if you hear gossip, do not pass it on. Let it stop with you. It's perfectly all right to talk about a woman when she is not present as long as she is someone you like, love, care about, and if what you are saying will not damage her reputation or ruin her life. It is not alright to punish and sabotage another woman whom you may envy or fear by slandering her or by turning other women against her.

No Woman is Perfect: Apologize When You've Made a Mistake and Move On

If you behave badly (see the above), apologize directly and move on. Cut yourself some slack and cut the next woman some slack too. If she has slandered or sabotaged you, talk to her about it directly; deal with it quickly. Do not let it fester.

Treat Women Respectfully

Finally, even if we disagree with another woman, we must do so respectfully. Women must cultivate the concept of an honorable opponent. We should not automatically demonize our opponents and competitors. Women are not obliged to love or hate each other. We do not even have to like each other. I am suggesting that women treat each other in a civilized manner. Women might learn how to thank other women for each small act of kindness—as opposed to expecting everything from other women and being angry when we don't get it all.

These suggestions may not seem radical. Trust me: They are. If every reader begins by acknowledging each point as true, and if she vows to bring this newfound consciousness into her daily interactions with other women, she will be part of a profound psychological evolution. It takes many individual ripples to form a wave. My work, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, is an attempt to rouse the slumber of the briny deep.


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Phyllis Chesler

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology, the author of 20 books, including Women and Madness (1972), An American Bride in Kabul, and Requiem For a Female Serial Killer (2020).