Phyllis Chesler, “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman”

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Reviewed by Femflection

Phyllis Chesler (born October 1, 1940) is an American writer, psychotherapist, and professor emerita of psychology and women’s studies at the College of Staten Island (CUNY). She is known as a feminist psychologist, and is the author of 16 books, including the best-seller Women and Madness (1972). Chesler has written on topics such as gender, mental illness, divorce and child custody, surrogacy, second-wave feminism, pornography, prostitution, incest, and violence against women.

Some “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman” quotes:

  • “Before I began research for this book I was not consciously aware that women were aggressive in indirect ways, that they gossiped and ostracized each other incessantly, and did not acknowledge their own envious and competitive feelings. I now understand that, in order to survive as a woman, among women, one must speak carefully, cautiously, neutrally, indirectly; one must pay careful attention to what more socially powerful women have to say before one speaks; one must learn how to flatter, manipulate, aree with, and appease them. And, if one is hurt or offended by another woman, one does not say so outright; one expresses it indirectly, by turning others against her. Of course, I refuse to learn these “girlish” lessons.” 
  • “The idea that women’s strong attachments to each other are what make them so vulnerable is horrifying. I count my close friendships with a few girls that I know as one of the best things I have going for me right now. My love for them leaves me open to hurt, but … all love does, or at least that’s the cliche. Perhaps girls and women do come to love each other too quickly, or once they are trapped into appearing as though they love one another, they don’t want to back out of it. That is probably true. But a fear of confrontation in relationships is the downside. The ability to love easily is a positive.” 
  • “For most women, being seen, having others pay attention to you, is imagined and experienced as more desirable and more powerful than commanding an army or seizing control of the means of production and reproduction.” 
  • “That these girls avoid use of physical violence in resolving conflict, does not mean that these conflicts are resolved in meaningful and enduring ways. Girls might smile, give in, give up – and then continue the conflict behind their opponents’ backs. Girls might also smile, give in, make fatal compromises, because their need to belong (or not to be excluded) is more important to them than sticking to their principles.”
  • “ [As a result of internalized sexist views,] women unconsciously expect constant nurturing from other women, and this expectation is irrational. In reality, normal women are quite aggressive and competitive toward other women. Women have been taught to deny this. The denial leads to grudge-holding, rumor-mongering, slander, and ostracism. This sort of indirect aggression is painful to experience, since most women also depend on other women for emotional intimacy, friendship, and social approval.”
  • “One day, you think you’re part of a community, the next moment, you’re all alone, no one you used to know looks you in the eye, no one says anything specific, but you just never see anyone again. It’s like having your entire family get wiped out, only they’re still alive, and seeing each other. You’re the one who’s really been wiped out.”
  • “Calling another woman a “slut,” “crazy,” “difficult,” and “enemy,” is a way to get her out of the way, punish her, break her spirit, because you envy her… What might help is a commitment not to believe everything you hear, but in fact to disbelieve it, especially if it’s something negative about another woman. It is important that a woman develop the courage to stand up to a slanderer or a bully, knowing that she risks being the next to be slandered or intimidated… The women whom I interviewed about woman’s inhumanity to woman mainly talked about how other women had disappointed or betrayed them. Few were able to recall the ways in which they had disappointed or betrayed other women.”

“Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman” – The book:

This pioneering book addressed the subject of female indirect aggression, both in the family and the workplace, both in childhood and adulthood, and covered woman’s capacity for cruelty, competition, envy, and ostracism; the ways in which women, like men, have internalized sexist beliefs; and the importance of acknowledging the “shadow side” of female-female relationships, especially because such relationships are so important to women.

The book was reviewed in many publications, and the author was interviewed widely in South America, North America (including in The New York Times), Europe, and Asia.

It received a front page review in the Washington Post Book World written by Deborah Tannen.

Tannen wrote: “Chesler seems to have read everything and thought deeply about it….Along with social commentary and psychological insight, Chesler offers astute literary criticism….many of Chesler’s richest scenarios are drawn from the more than 500 interviews she conducted … many of Chesler’s examples have an unmistakable and heartbreaking ring of familiarity. The time has come to stop idealizing or demonizing either sex. Seeing women, like men, as capable of both courage and jealousy, of providing care, and causing pain, is no more nor less than acknowledging women as fully human.”

Most women have had some experience of disempowerment or out-and-out mistreatment at the hands of a woman. This largely taboo subject Is the focus of Phyllis Chesler’s book, “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.”

Chesler has not lost her passion for women’s liberation; nor has she abandoned her analysis of patriarchy. It is still the case that most overt violence against women comes from men. But here Chesler is interested in how and why women hold each other back and put each other down. With its heady amalgam of research in psychology, anthropology, primatology, and evolutionary theory; interviews with victims of same-sex sexism and woman-on-woman aggression; mythology and fairy tales; psychoanalytic studies; feminist history; and personal narrative, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman examines every conceivable form of female-on-female injury, from destructive gossip to female support for sexual mutilation and “honor killings.”

When Phyllis Chesler conducted interviews for her book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, women “mainly talked about how other women had disappointed or betrayed them. Few were able to recall the ways in which they had disappointed or betrayed other women.”

How women view and treat other women matters. Are women oppressed? Yes. Do oppressed people internalize their oppressors’ attitudes? Without a doubt. Prejudice must first be acknowledged before it can be resisted or overcome. More than men, women depend upon one another for emotional intimacy and bonding, and exclusionary and sexist behavior enforces female conformity and discourages independence and psychological growth.

Why do girls and women engage in these kinds of direct and indirect acts of aggression towards one another? Why do we smile while stabbing each other in the back?

Chesler said she wrote the book so that women will learn how to treat each other more respectfully, which is certainly a worthy goal.

She urges us to look within, to treat other women realistically, ethically, and kindly, and to forge bold and compassionate alliances. This is a necessary next step for women, without which they will never be liberated.

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