Phyllis Chesler is a scholar. A host of previous books and papers testify to a lifetime dedicated to illuminating womenís issues. It follows that her book Womanís Inhumanity to Woman goes deep and long into the subject of female aggression. As such, itís a bit too much doom and gloom for vacation fare. As a reference, however, her work is organized, readable and relevant. I found myself muttering, ďOh, yeah!Ē and marking passages with Post-It flags.
Ms. Chesler presents a topic. She describes it with quotes from researchers and other famous people. She clarifies with stories drawn from literature or anthropology and the anecdotal experiences of anonymous interviewees. Then, she comments about what this information means within the context of womanly hostility.
Her observations touch chords of recognition within the reader. For example, if you are a prosecutor, it goes without saying that female juries are far less likely to convict in rape cases. The same holds true for other kinds of crime if the accused is a young attractive male and the victim is female. Remember O.J. Simpson? If you are a woman in a male-dominated field, you face resentment from wives of colleagues, secretaries and female assistants every day. If you are a mother, daughter or sister, you know how fractious these relationships can be.
Delving into the raw emotions that motivate these examples of sexism and bias against women by women, Chesler explores the distinction between jealousy and envy. Jealousy, she says, is fear of being replaced. Envy is when you long for something that someone else possesses. So is the primal fight for scarce resources at the core of feminine conflict? In companies where men and women are integrated, the incidences of female squabbling and discontent are lower, she notes. However, clustered into token positions, women compete with each other and things get down and dirty. Okay. I buy that. That happens with men too. Heck, monkeys bash each other over the head with tree limbs if there arenít enough bananas to go around. Whole countries attack their neighbors for water or oil or lebensraum. Why should women be any different?
What makes women interesting, according to Chesler, isnít so much that they will fight for what they want, but HOW they elbow their way to the front of the line. In most societies, young boys are encouraged when they behave aggressively. However, girls learn that violent outbursts are ďunladylikeĒ. Perhaps because women are smaller and unlikely to win in physical confrontations with men, girls soon discover the womanly art of sabotage -- even when going after other girls. Gossip, shunning and the withering gaze become primary weapons as early as age eight. By adolescence, cliques, betrayal and intrigue have been added to the arsenal.
Thatís not to say that women NEVER use physical force. One has only to take a look at Judge Judy, where cases of female aggression abound. Oh, they donít always smack each other around. Throwing bleach on expensive clothes and keying luxury automobiles seem to be the leading methods of laying low hated competitors. Chesler doesnít mention those particular battles, although she does discuss harridan mothers-in-law in India and China who beat up on the hapless wives of their sons. What was that about being replaced?
Phyllis Chesler is a respected feminist. This book stands on its own merits. However, itís a measure of just how intimidating feminine disapproval can be that Chesler spends an inordinate amount of time in two different introductions explaining WHY she chose to write about this particular topic. Itís not that sheís excusing menís behavior, she says. Itís that women can be pretty darn cruel to each other. Okay. I buy that. Back in college, I went out with the guy my roommate wanted because she made fun of me behind my back. Despite the authorís defensiveness, the book is worth a read. It explains a lot!