"Why are women so awful to other women?"
I see this written in various iterations, almost daily. I spotted a comment from a woman decrying a lack of sisterhood and solidarity just yesterday. Her complaint was about women who complain about other women, another example of an apparently oblivious self-referential meta spiral.
And yet, she already knew the answer, and so do you.
Misogyny is the central organizing factor of nearly every human society. It’s the thread in the fabric of our lives. It’s in our homes, in our workplaces, in our relationships. Hateful beliefs, comments and actions towards women are within jokes, the media, movies, billboards, casual conversations. Gynophobia is alive and well in clichés and cancel culture. It is the hatred and oppression of half the human race.
“It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television…It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth…you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot see or touch. A prison for your mind.”
- The Matrix
Misogyny is the real Matrix.
Perhaps the commenter hangs with the wrong tribe because I do have a clan of supportive women, and when joining a new group I always feel safer and more respected and accepted around women than I do in a new group of men.
Or perhaps she’s lucky in her choice of men, and unlucky in her choice of women.
Or maybe she should consider reframing the issue.
Women (as a sex) are raised in the same systems men are. Yet men commit more than 90 percent of all violent crimes. Girls raised by the same fathers and mothers as boys who grow up to be rapists and serial killers rarely follow the same path.
Across all cultures and ethnicities, men are much more violent than women
If you hear a man quote statistics of violence against men, please consider that the part of the sentence he may be leaving out is “by other men.”
When my children were small, I taught them my own “stranger danger” rule. If they lost sight of me on a busy street they were to: Ask a woman with children for help first. Ask a woman on her own for help second. Ask a man with children for help third. Only as an absolute last resort were they to ask any man without children for help. Women instinctively recognize the threat and the reasons behind that rule.
Women are force-fed the same toxic societal poison as men are. We’re raised within the same malevolent system that shares widespread lies about women, that has kept women worldwide in various states of oppression for centuries. Women are subjected to the same ongoing slew of sewage of objectification and minimization aimed at women, from birth.
Internalized misogyny exists because of the systems we are raised in.
However, men who are misogynistic often do a lot more than just talk about it. Online abuse is also led by men, as a sex. Men are overwhelmingly responsible for revenge porn, and much more likely to be trolls.
In her book, Troll Hunting, Ginger Gorman notes: “Women… were often afraid to say anything publicly because of the harassment they receive: ‘We’ve got to acknowledge, already, that the way public debate is shaping actively silences at least half the population.’”
Why then, do we expect women to be paragons of virtue when they’re raised in the same systems and by the same people as men are? Why censure and expect so much more of the sex which has so much less power and does so much less damage? And why do so few women seem to acknowledge this? Is it cognitive bias, fear, low self worth?
I can understand why women might prefer to blame other women. My mother was unfortunately often an acolyte for internalized sexism. The pain of patriarchy is frequently passed down through women, applied from mother to daughter. As Andrea Dworkin wrote in Woman Hating, “Mothers fuck up people’s lives in direct proportion to how fucked up their own lives are.”
When you’re raised in a society that has contempt for women and idolizes aggressive men it can be difficult to have self-awareness. I have manifested internalized sexism myself at times. You may not even realize you’re doing it.
Many people grow up identifying with their abusers, consider it a sort of Stockholm Syndrome en masse, or, as Dee Graham termed it, “Societal Stockholm Syndrome.” It’s hard to read the label when you’ve lived inside the jar your whole life. Graham describes how women become isolated from each other, physically and ideologically:
“The fact that women lack power over our own lives isolates us from one another. Male power and female powerlessness force most women, and pressure all women, to align ourselves with men for purposes of survival...
“As long as women have to attach themselves to men to avoid violence and to indirectly share men’s power, prestige, and wealth, there will be a sizable portion of women who will do so.”
When women seek an outlet for their rage, it can feel safer to turn on other women. Women turning on other women know they’re unlikely to be assaulted for it, or stalked, or otherwise physically or materially endangered. It can be an absolute minefield making assertive, truthful, and non-pandering statements to men, on or offline. It can take years to pluck up the courage.
A woman throwing other women under the bus may earn (temporary) cookies from the wrong sort of man by doing so. And women are a much softer target than men. Standing up to men can have “side effects” like death and rape threats, violence, doxxing, stalking, murder, being burned alive.
Rape and death threats made by strangers are also common, however. They coexist online with violent sexist, racist commentary on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook and the sharing of gifs, images, jokes and memes depicting gross violence against women as “humor.”
As Graham writes, “Women as a group are in a position comparable to a hostage whose captor has a gun to her or his head and says, ‘Try to escape and I’ll kill you.’”
We even see this in the women’s movement itself. Rather than spending energy fighting patriarchy, energy, time, and even writing and organizing is too often spent trashing other feminists. This pattern has been noted as early as the 1970s, such as in the classic article by Joreen Freeman, “TRASHING: The Dark Side of Sisterhood”, published by Ms. Magazine in 1976:
“Rage is a logical result of oppression. It demands an outlet. Because most women are surrounded by men whom they have learned it is not wise to attack, their rage is often turned inward.”
So, I get it. Siding with the powerful group over the group who are still fighting for power can feel safer. Can even feel natural if you’ve never examined it.
But if a particular woman demonstrates a lack of solidarity with other women, it’s no surprise. That’s what the world has taught us from birth, to compete against one another and beg for male attention and protection.
What should amaze us all is that despite the hateful deluge of nonsense about females that we are all subjected to daily, women, as a sex, still manage to be a lot less violent and dangerous to their fellow women.
Reframing Internalized Misogyny
Instead of feeling exasperated by women who aren’t singing Kumbaya and holding hands in a circle of sisterly solidarity, you could instead focus on the underlying problem: systemic sexism and misogyny.
Let’s not blame women for believing what they are told from birth and vying for male cookies in a patriarchal system. I don’t even blame the woman whose comment inspired this piece. I’m not throwing her under a bus. I’m hoping she reads this and thinks about it.
Let’s teach females critical analysis and encourage them to keep demanding change. Let’s keep demanding change from the structures that minimize and limit women and are the author of the sort of internalized misogyny that means sometimes women try to limit other women too.
The question is not why are some women unkind or harmful to other women.
The question is : why do so many women still help other women?
How do so many women manage to be brave? How do they keep their courage?
Despite having a fraction of the power of men, despite being victim-blamed, shamed, degraded, and minimized; despite the threat of abuse, rape, or murder; despite the chance they’ll lose their job or livelihood for speaking up; despite having far fewer weapons in their arsenal—how do women manage to still be so brave, so kind, and so supportive of other women so much of the time?
Please stop asking why women do harmful things to other women, because you already know the answer. Sometimes women do vile things because that’s what a small percentage of humans do. And because that’s what men do. And because they are raised that way.
Speak up about it, read about it, educate yourself and other women about it.
By all means, if you wish to, you should challenge women you feel are being unsupportive to other women. But please remember she’s just as human, fallible and subject to the same conditioning as men, and more vulnerable within the systems we live in than the man you didn’t stand up to. And even if she did disrespect her “sister,” she almost certainly didn’t do anything worse than make a comment which annoyed you.
So no, women are not their own worst enemy, not even the ones who make unpleasant comments or are unsupportive of one another. Sad to report, the worst enemies are still those men who oppress, rape, beat and murder us.
How about we ask ourselves this instead - how do so many women still manage to be so brave?
That’s the question I’d like answered.
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