Why Women Are Mean to Other Women

“No Gossip”
Thomas Benjamin Kennington, 1907

Why Women Are Mean to Other Women

Whew! This is a touchy subject. Almost taboo, since we are these days denominated the compassionate, caring, anti-violence sex.

Labels of these kinds call to mind the way 19th-century suffragettes made the case for giving women the vote.   They vowed that women would bring their maternal and nurturing qualities into public and political life. The trouble was, they were maternal because they were in the nursery and nurturing because they were in the kitchen! Train them to be Navy Seals and they won’t be so nurturing.

The differences between the sexes are not moral differences. Badness and goodness are equal opportunity traits. I have enormous interest in women and the greatest sympathy in the world for my sex, but some of the baddest people I have known were women. Recently I had occasion to say to an old friend that her mother was the coldest thing I had ever stood next to that was still organic!

How did she react? She thanked me. I knew what she’d been through.

Badness and goodness are not, in my view, mere effects of conditioning, whether biological or environmental. That said, men and women cope with somewhat different conditions, under which to make their respective decisions for goodness or badness.

So what – for women – are the conditions that make meanness to other women so ready-to-hand? And, if one’s purpose is to treat other women in a gentle and kindly way, what are the temptations that pull against that?

Before we get to that, shouldn’t we first ask if sex differences aren’t really social constructs? Sure, let’s ask.   I remember attending a panel on Sex and Gender whose main speaker was a widely-respected philosopher. Her thesis was that sex differences are societal artifacts. No surprise there. While I was listening to her beautifully articulated argument, I was also thinking, Who does your hair? It was simply fabulous … blond, cut with art … but of course I would rather have dropped dead than ask her. No one dared to raise a doubt about her thesis, which was the regnant opinion then and now.

After the panel, I went out alone to have lunch at a local diner. The American Philosophical Association meeting was being held in the South that year. At an adjacent booth, two couples were seated facing each other. The men were brawny, hulking giants. The women were little bitty women. The men were talking about huntin’, fishin’ and other forms of legalized killin’. The women were talking about … Absolutely Nothing. They were sittin’ there, quiet as little mouselings. Just as I would’ve done in their shoes.

Is this configuration of figures and forces “natural”? I dunno. Why don’t you go over and ask them? I’ll wait here and you tell me what they said.

We are not turned on by cruelty and brutality, especially when turned against ourselves, and we want to be listened to and understood. But in the larger sense, the famous philosopher is leading her sisters astray. As she probably knows, and as we know, the asymmetry between the sexes is part of the attraction. The Official Story is that we want men who can cry like a sensitive girl and that we just hate their manly ferocity. In real life? Not so much. We don’t want our own porousness and malleability mirrored in the other sex.

Are these remarks being directed narrowly just at heterosexual relationships? Without supplying any more anecdotal data, I can call in Plato’s Symposium where the discussion of love pertains only to same sex relations. What is striking in that dialogue is that the same patterns found in man/woman relations reemerge in the same-sex setting. It seems that such relations do not provide any built-in escape from the erotic polarities.

So let’s get down to it. What are the conditions that tempt women to be mean to other women? People compete for what they perceive to be scarce goods. So what’s the scarcity problem, for women?

Good men. They’re scarce and hard to find.

Time. It’s running out. The sand is running through the hourglass. This affects fertility and, to an extent, attractiveness.

Why should women want to “attract”? Isn’t this so passive, so yesterday? Uh huh and yeah yeah yeah. But in the ritual dance of courtship, men are reinforced in their … shall we say … virile importance if they lead. There are different styles of telegraphing this than there used to be, but the underlying choreography … is the underlying choreography. Be very careful of the woman who tells you otherwise.

So what does all this cash for? What am I saying? That there are winners and losers and suck it up?

No no no no. Don’t suck it up. Find a good woman friend. That’s what they’re for. And one other thing:

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder) …

Cry,–clinging Heaven by the hems …

When it’s not all right, no need to pretend it is.

There are political helps as well. This is not the 19th-century. The feminist movement has given us permission to forge our own freedom and find the talents and preferences that are our own. The woman who is prepared to live out her story will acquire an attractiveness that can outlast youth and be more than cosmetic.

The stories we live have room in them for fun, for danger, for tragic losses, for adventure. There is only one thing to keep in mind:

The stories we live are not fictions.

We live true stories.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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