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Jewish World Review August 21, 2002 / 13 Elul, 5762

Betsy Hart

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Mean girls and monstrous women: A feminist blows the whistle on the 'sisterhood' | That girls and women can be petty, mean, backstabbing and jealous is not news to any female who has survived the seventh-grade.

But it seems to be big news in the popular culture (really, don't baby boomers discover everything?) where the subject of "Mean Girls" has recently been the focus of lengthy articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the stuff of tabloid talk shows.

Enter "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman," by Phyllis Chesler, author of the best-selling "Women and Madness" along with "Letters to a Young Feminist," and a leader of the so-called "second wave" of feminism. It comes down to this, a disillusioned Chesler essentially laments: In spite of all the wonderful, generous goodness one should find in the Sisterhood - as opposed to the brutish "brotherhood of man " - women can be really nasty after all.

Actually, one can't help but feeling the book may have been written to settle more than a few old scores.

Chesler looks at everything from ancient mythology, to today's middle-school, to the animal kingdom and the modern workplace and finds that women tend to resemble Cinderella's step-sisters a lot more than they do Cinderella.

One woman named Elsa recounts, "My best friend was a divorced woman who could not have children. I refused to discriminate against her. . . In retrospect, I should have shunned her the way the other married women did. My friend not only made off with my husband. What was worse was her systematic campaign to become my son's mother."

Another woman has a similar tale. ". . . I became friendly with a woman in our new neighborhood. . .I confided in her and considered her a best friend. Guess what? About a year into our friendship she had begun having an affair with my husband."

Fortunately, even Chesler admits that women's betrayal isn't always so complete. Still she writes that young girls "learn that a safe way to attack someone else is behind her back, so that she will not know who is responsible. This tracks girls and women into lives of chronic gossip and rumormongering. . .girls may use social manipulation to dominate or express anger because they have learned to do this from their female role models: adult women." Ouch.

Throughout the book, Chesler maintains an air of sad incredulity that women can be, in their own duplicitous, manipulative way, really awful people - just like men. Remember "Lord of the Flies?" Sigh. Weren't we supposed to be so much better than "them"?

But of course we aren't "better." Women are different from men, and different from each other. We're also fully human which makes us just as capable of sin in all its amazing manifestations as our brutish brothers.

Chesler offers her prescription for how women can overcome nasty habits. "A woman must be encouraged to put what she wants into words, to ask for it directly, not to wait for someone to guess what she wants. If a woman cannot get what she wants, she does not have to pout, blame herself, give up, disconnect, or become enraged. She must learn that she can get what she wants another day or at another job or with another person."

OK, great. But, how about the notion that civilized people should just try to be better human beings, whatever their gender, and we should be working to inculcate better character into our children of both sexes? After all, doesn't being fully human, and capable of sin, mean being capable of goodness too? Which really is the great weakness of "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman." Having suddenly discovered that women can in fact be superbly nasty to each other, Chesler then seems determined to put virtually EVERY woman into the fully evil, conniving stepsister category. Which in turn may say a lot more about her world than the world the rest of us inhabit.

I fill my life with terrific, positive, women. I don't fill my life with she-monsters. Why does Chesler?

In the end Chesler's book is important because as a leading feminist she's a "whistle-blower" when it comes to truths about women that the feminists would much rather gloss over. Yet in almost universally savaging women - the very thing she accuses our sex of doing so exquisitely - she seems to be moving women as a gender from "hero" to "villain" status. Such broad group-based descriptions are not only equally absurd - they are equally dehumanizing.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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