“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” – Madeleine Albright
“We have a problem with women supporting women.” – Chelsea Handler
You never hear men talk about the need to support other men. You never see male celebrities talk about how important it is for men to rally around each other and lift each other up. Yet it seems to be a steady drumbeat from women with public profiles.
Why is that? Why are women constantly asking each other to be nicer to each other?
It could be because women just aren’t really nice to each other. You don’t have to search very hard to find an op-ed decrying the lack of woman-to-woman support in the workplace or complaining about the tendency of women to let men define and/or ruin their friendships with other women. In the #MeToo era there are plenty of social justice groups dedicating themselves to establishing all-female workplaces. However, if you ask the average American woman most will tell you the idea of working in an exclusively female environment sounds horrible. You certainly don’t hear the same thing from men.
There are surely all kinds of sociological studies and biological/neurological research projects out there that could explain this issue more intelligently and scientifically than this beleaguered housewife masquerading as an opinion writer, but I’ll take a stab at it.
I’ve heard it said that women are conditioned by society to be competitive and tribalistic, but I think it’s even more innate than that. We women are biologically programmed to compete for resources. When Adam and Eve first sinned in the garden of Eden, God cursed Adam with increased labor in order to feed himself. No longer would the ground willingly yield his nourishment. He and his ancestors would have to employ hard labor from that point forward. Eve was cursed with the pains of childbirth and another peculiar edict – “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16
“Your desire will be for your husband” is also translated as “You will desire to control your husband“…and doesn’t this just summarize the battle of the sexes in perfect clarity? We have been cursed with the patriarchy (“he will rule over you”) even as we constantly fight for control over the patriarchy.
Haven’t you ever asked yourself why women get so petty with each other over a man? The answer is biblical. We’re cursed with “desire”, be it for the companionship of a man or the desire for freedom from men altogether.
But maybe you can’t get down with God’s explanation. Maybe the faith angle is a bridge too far for you. Naturalistically speaking, women have always been dominated physically and socially by men. In the modern Western world we have laws and concepts of equality to aid us, but traditionally (and still in most parts of the world) women have been left to fend for themselves. That has set us up to see each other as competition. We fight for the limited resources a man can provide. It is primal. When children come along, it only amps up the female drive to survive.
Instinctually it creates a powerful compulsion to want to eliminate anything that threatens our clan and our resources.
We might not be fighting for food and shelter and the protection of a husband anymore (perhaps), but now that many of us have matriculated to the workplace we often find ourselves trying to push each other out as we scrape and scrap for power and influence in our place of employment.
Those women in industries like entertainment (and I include political punditry in that category) will often talk a great game about supporting the women around them and helping to propel each other to success. However, the truth is that many successful women are threatened by the success of women around them. In particular, there is an unspoken hesitancy to assist women on a lower rung of the ladder who might end up eclipsing us. It’s petty, but also instinctual. Resources at the top are limited and chances are she’s had to fight hard to get where she is in the first place. A Chelsea Handler or someone of her stature can say all the pretty things she wants about lending a hand to other women, but she isn’t about to let any of them stand next to her on the podium.
Even outside of the workplace women often complain about our own tendencies to form “cliques” – exclusive groups of women we deem “worthy” of our tribe. Typically these cliques will consist of women who view each other as of the same social status. Those women don’t pose the same kind of “threat” as they already have their resources locked down.
It sounds barbaric, and my description is purposefully rudimentary. Obviously, women don’t walk around viewing each other with open suspicion. This is all just the constant subtext of our lives.
The plain truth is this – women aren’t that nice to each other and women know that. I know many women who prefer to keep their group of female friends to a minimum. “Women are catty/women are mean/women are petty” – these are all things I hear women say about each other all the time.
Because we are. We aren’t just “programmed” by society, we are physically and neurologically imbued with the drive to judge each other and push each other away as threats. This doesn’t mean we as women should be resigned to the laws of nature. We fight nature every day and as a Christian, I particularly believe that human nature is broken at its most basic level. The argument “it’s just natural” isn’t always the best argument because our nature is mired in sin.
But even if one doesn’t take the idea of “natural sin” seriously, we can still look to nature and understand that we are not and should not be resigned to it. It is the nature of animals to kill and dominate in a “survival of the fittest” mentality. Yet we human animals fight that (and win) all the time, every day.
Women don’t have to be enemies. We can choose loyalty and generosity. We can choose not to succumb to the temptation to close our ranks and push out other women we don’t deem “worthy” of our friendship. We can choose our better nature over our natural nature. It is extremely distasteful and disappointing to see women gossip and cut each other down because they have caved to their basest instincts.
We don’t have to act on extremes. We don’t need to push away our female colleagues and friends, nor do we need to push men out of the equation. Male/female relationships and female/female relationships are equally vital to human existence.
But perhaps we all need to recognize the part we play in earning reputations as “bitchy” and “petty” and refrain from the hypocrisy of shouting at other women to be more supportive of each other while simultaneously closing our ranks on our own sisters.