When my children were small, I taught them my own “stranger danger” rule.
If they lost sight of me on a busy street, they were to:
Ask a woman with children for help first.
Ask a woman on her own for help second.
Ask a man with children for help third.
Only as an absolute last resort were they to ask any man without children for help.
Women instinctively recognize the threat and reasons behind that rule.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone confidently declare “Women are their own worst enemies,” I’d be significantly less economically precarious. I’ve heard it said from the time I was an impressionable teenager, young enough to accept it as gospel truth, comments like, ‘Girls are meaner to each other than guys.’ I know better now. Let’s talk about why that phrase is not just false, it’s also steeped in misogyny.
The idea that women stand in the way of other women’s success
That statement has the underlying implication that women are mainly the ones keeping other women from succeeding. What a lie. Women as a group are massively underrepresented in decision-making positions. Even in female-dominated fields like the education and health sectors, decision-making positions are often occupied by men. When it comes to something like hiring and issuing tenders, they are unsurprisingly biased towards other men. A woman is more likely to miss out on an opportunity because of the boy’s club than because of some jealous woman in the room.
The underlying idea of sisterhood
The statement has underlying implications about the sisterhood. One of the reasons “women are their own worst enemies” is said because of this underlying idea about a sisterhood. Somehow women are supposed to be some kind of monolith. Women are not a monolith. There is no sisterhood and that’s fine. Women are under no obligation to act and think the same way. About the world and everything in it. There will always be differences and disagreements, that’s normal. Like with other groups, there are women committed to the defence and preservation of women’s rights and those who aren’t just as there are men who support freedom for women and those who don’t.
Underlying internalized misogyny
Women are their own worst enemies is likely said by men as much as it is by women. The fact that women say it is so dispiriting because it reveals that the person has unknowingly accepted a whole lot of negativity about herself and her gender. Thanks to the patriarchy, this is something women grow up accepting about themselves and others. That’s devastating and further blaming for it is borderline wicked.
Underlying implication is that women have to earn equality
When Hilary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, there were a million think pieces castigating women for voting against their interests and not rallying together to support the person who would ostensibly secure their rights. There was this underlying idea that until women begin to do better, they don’t really deserve equality. Women don’t have to prove they are being kinder and nicer and supportive of each other to deserve to be treated as full human beings deserving of freedom, justice, and equality. Women are just people; they don’t need to be saints to be accorded the same consideration men get.
It’s counterrevolutionary and anti-progress. You see this playing out with other marginalized groups where instead of pointing a figure at the power structures, the exploited blame each other. So, there was a time when black celebrities everywhere in the US were talking about how black men needed to pull up their pants and whatnot if they wanted their lives to be different. Black men’s problems don’t stem from where they wear their pants. Systemic racism is the problem. The fact that women are locked out of too many positions is not the fault of the few women who have found their way in there. In order to fix whatever problems women are dealing with, identifying the real problem is critical. The real problem is society-wide sexism and misogyny. That’s the problem. Until we’re ready to talk about that we’re not ready to deal with the issues causing women harm.
Fuels stereotype of women as catty, petty and immature
The perception of women as catty and immature always caught up in petty jealousies and fights is one society loves. It’s pretty much the foundation of reality TV. It’s patronizing and demeaning and there’s as much truth in it as there is in reality TV shows.
Once again, blame capitalism
Women like all other people in capitalist society are socialized to view each other as competition and act accordingly. Women are further encouraged to view each other as competition but in the same way people transcend that socialization in other relationships, women do too. They transcend that socialization and support each other as friends and colleagues and siblings. Women aren’t busy plotting and scheming about ways to take each other down.
It’s also important to point out that patriarchy and capitalism conspire to limit the seats at the table for women pitting women against each other even when they would rather not. If in a company, you only have a provision for 30% of leadership to be women, you’re forcing the women in that organization to fight against each other for some artificially scarce resource. You don’t then get to turn around and talk about how women refuse to help each other when those are the rules of the game you’ve set.
Misogyny is the water we all swim in and to the extent that women hold misogynistic beliefs, it’s because society as a whole does. It’s nothing unique to women. Internalized misogyny is society’s fault. Men do the same thing to other men, and you’ve never heard anyone say men are men’s worst enemies. Men kill more men than women could ever hope to, and I’d bet my last cent you’ve never heard anyone say with grave seriousness, “Men are men’s own worst enemies.” Try it with any other group of people and see how absurd it is, revealing the underlying misogyny when it’s used concerning women. For example, “Don’t you think Jews are their own worst enemies?” ”Don’t you think Arabs are their own worst enemies?”
Underlying implication is that women hurt women more than men do
This statement carries with it the underlying implication that women harm women more than men harm women. When people talk about women being far worse to women what they’re usually talking about is something like gossip. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, what are men doing to women? 60-99% of sexual assault perpetrators are men, 1 out of 3 college men would rape if they thought they could get away with it and 97% of intimate partner violence perpetrators are men with female victims. Globally, femicide, men murdering women is a leading cause of women’s premature death.
Society’s interest is always in criticizing and controlling women. Now we’re not talking about the staggering harm men cause, we’re talking about the minuscule harm women cause in comparison. One of the worst things ‘women are their own worst enemies’ does is it lets men off the hook. If we think women spreading rumours is worse than men raping, we are imposing wildly different morals on men and women; and the low standards we set for men prevent us from requiring them to do better.
If what we’re interested in is the harm caused, men are far worse to women than women could ever be to other women. If what we’re interested in is improving women’s lives, that’s where we start, where the most harm is being done. How about we circle back to jealousy and petty backbiting once we’ve dealt with rape, murder and domestic violence?
We’re all raised in a society that has active contempt for women and then we somehow expect women not to be impacted in any way by this socialization. Women have to be paragons of virtue to deserve even the least respect and consideration.
Society uses that statement as an opportunity to sit in judgment of and demonize women which are some of patriarchal society’s favourite pass time activities. Part of what’s amazing is that women are raised in the same homes as men with all that misogynist vitriol, yet they still manage to be a lot less violent and dangerous to their fellow women and all of nature in general. The women who don’t join the struggle for freedom, equality and justice instead choosing to side with their oppressors, are doing what’s normal for people who have been so conditioned all their lives. Internalized misogyny is powerful so instead of piling on the women not singing kumbaya, focus on the real problem at hand which is systemic sexism and misogyny. Until then, stop with your reactionary rhetoric about women being their own worst enemies.
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