Listen to this article
If you were to believe the headlines in most newspapers, you would assume women do not like each other very much. Consider: “My female boss wouldn’t promote me because I’m pretty”; “A scheming harpy stole my man”; “I have no women friends because I like wearing short skirts”; and “Women hate me because I’m so beautiful”. The list goes on.
I am a feminist, so I should deny that any of this goes on, right? I should believe women are amazing and we all support each other without question. We are paragons of virtue, models of kindness. The day I became a feminist was the day I realised that all those snide insinuations that we are our own worst enemies were just patriarchal nonsense designed to keep us down.
But there is some truth in both positions. Women can be cruel to each other. Women can deliberately sabotage each other’s success. But the way this is interpreted – as the consequence of some innate female “cattiness” – ignores the position women are placed in from the moment they are born.
Women grow up being taught about what men have done through history. Male scientists, male mathematicians, male leaders – even when the peasants get involved, it is all about men. They see male politicians on the television talking to male journalists. They see men running around kicking, hitting, dunking balls. They read books and watch films where men take action and where women talk about men taking action.
When men still hold the reins, should we be surprised that women see other women as a threat, as potential usurpers of the male attention they need to succeed? It is clear where power lies – so is it any surprise when women know on which side their bread is buttered? Should we be surprised when this manifests itself in agreeing with the umpteenth man that his girlfriend does sound hysterical, whilst making it clear that you yourself are the picture of rationality? Should we be surprised when it manifests itself in resentment and jealousy of the few women who do manage to break through? In the playground, no one bullies the strong, they bully the weak. And the behaviour that sees women attacking each other illustrates that women still tend to lack power.
This resentment does not just arise over success – or at least, not traditional definitions of success. I recently ran a fairly high-profile feminist campaign to make sure at least one woman (other than the Queen or Britannia) was depicted on English banknotes. Happily, we won. But in the aftermath of that, I was subjected to a barrage of violent rape and death threats. The vast majority of women were supportive. They had been there, some of them said. And they had been ignored.
It was different for me. I was not ignored. Because of my campaigning, the media took an interest in the backlash that followed – and media pressure forced the police to investigate crimes that they had ignored when perpetrated against less high-profile women. This disparity led some of those women to take their resentment out on me. Rather than rail against a system that unfairly privileges certain women over others, they railed against a woman who had unfairly benefited from it.
Feminism has long ignored this issue – and with good reason. With women pilloried, misrepresented, and under-represented in public life, why would we give that culture more ammunition? Why would we give that culture more excuses for claiming that women are their own worst enemies – and that is why they have failed to achieve equality?
This reaction is understandable, but ultimately futile. More than this, it is damaging. If feminism keeps ignoring this issue, then it accepts the sexist narrative about why it arises. What we need to do instead is to acknowledge the anger and understand it. Until we stop brushing this issue under our copies of The Female Eunuch, it will never be resolved. Feminism will continue to fail women who have been so traumatised by growing up in a society that devalues them and threatens them with violence, that they fight back in the only way that feels safe: against each other.
The writer is a journalist and feminist campaigner
Get alerts on Equality in workplace when a new story is published