We live in a time where women are no longer in the trenches. Women have fought and won a level equality that no other generation has experienced, and yet after all of these victories, the twenty-first century has brought about an age when women are no longer allies but often enemies.
“I don’t like women. I don’t have female friends. Women are crazy.”
I believe these statements don’t just reflect an opinion. I believe they reveal a growing rift among women and a need to reject not just specific women but women as a whole. We don’t say I don’t like mean women or women who act crazy. We say I don’t like WOMEN.
To explain where I think this comes from, I have to take you back over a hundred years ago to a time when women’s bonds were so strong, it went beyond simple friendship. In fact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries women shared a level of intimacy that we would only equate to that which is experienced in romantic relationships, even though, for the most part, these relationships were not sexual in nature.
According to the premier historian on this topic Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, in her 1975 article “The Female World of Love and Ritual”:
“. . . from at least the late eighteenth through mid-nineteenth century, a female world of varied and yet highly structured relationships appears to have been an essential aspect of American society. These relationships ranged from the supportive love of sisters, through the enthusiasms of adolescent girls, to sensual avowals of love by mature women.
“. . . nineteenth-century American society did not taboo close female relationships but rather recognized them as a socially viable form of human contact—and, as such, acceptable throughout a woman’s life.”
|Society accepted psychical |
touch among close female friends.
These same-sex relationships could involve verbal expressions of sentimentality and love or physical expressions such as hand-holding, cuddling, and even kissing. And this is true for both female and male friendships. Historians site evidence from Shakespeare, Montaigne, and even the Bible to show that these types of intimate friendships existed and were accepted if not glorified all the way back through ancient times.
The reason for this, at least in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was that men and women were raised and existed in a culture of separate spheres. Women managed the household, educated their children, and interacted with a hierarchy of other women. Men worked in all male workplaces and socialized in all male clubs and when they returned home, their wives were supposed create an atmosphere of peace.
Women were not supposed to burden their husbands with emotional or personal dilemmas. Nor were husbands supposed to burden their wives with such issues or worse corrupt them with matters of the outside world like business and politics.
At this time, it was believed that men and women’s roles were a byproduct of their natural inclinations. Women were thought to be weaker physically and mentally – their emotions symptoms of this. This weakness led society to believe that women were more susceptible to mental illness and corruption from the outside world.
Since it was so difficult for men and women to connect and they still needed emotional outlets and support for mental wellbeing, they formed those intimate ties with the gender they spent the most time with.
So what happened? How in the last hundred or so years did we go from intimate friendships to hating each other’s guts?
There were a number of things that changed throughout the twentieth century but I can only go over some of the larger ones, the first of which was anxiety.
|Richard von Krafft-Ebing|
Breaking Down Our Bonds
Sexual & Homosexual Anxiety
Sexual identity is a relatively new idea. Even though we know same sex relationships have existed throughout time, people didn’t always identify themselves by their sexual choices. The social constructs of heterosexuality and homosexuality were not fully formed until the late nineteenth century when German psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert coined the terms and Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing wrote Psychopathia Sexualis, a book that categorized psychological sexual disorders and ultimately deemed all sexual acts that could not result in procreation to be unnatural perversions. As these ideas grew in popularity, the intimacy shared among same-sex friendships became more and more taboo.
The Dissolution of Separation Spheres
Plus throughout the twentieth centuries, the separate spheres keeping men and women apart were breaking down as a result of the women’s rights movements and the infiltration of women in the previously male-dominated workforce beginning at the turn of the century.
As these barriers broke down, men and women were able to connect on an all new level. In the nineteenth century, marriage was an economic or procreative decision. People knew what love was, but it was a fairy tale fantasy and wasn’t practical. It was common to have loveless marriages. In fact Rosenberg points out that if men and women grew up having only close relationships with members of the same sex, trying to connect with someone of the opposite sex, might feel like trying to have a relationship with a member of an alien race.
Nevertheless, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries romantic love became the ideal, and throughout the century, more and more, emotional intimacy became something satisfied through romantic relationships. Although still important, friendships today are often trumped by the emotional and psychological support we now gain from romantic relationships whether they are with members of the same or opposite sex.
Plus the more and more women grow toward equality the less likely we are to bound together and connect as a gender in the fight for our collective rights. Even though most women would say they are supporters of women’s rights, that doesn’t mean they are actively involved with a group of women fighting for those rights. Those fights are still going on but they have become niche and require an expertise. It’s just no longer required of the everyday woman.
Increased Female Aggression
Although all of these things have allowed for a distance to grow between women, what has really created the rift is an increase in aggression among women. Before I can explain how aggression increased throughout the twentieth century, I need to first explain where the aggression comes from in the first place.
This is an image from a New York Times article called “The Cold War Fought on Women.” It discusses a research experiment that had groups of women in a classroom setting. While there, the researchers had the pictured young woman enter the room, ask the professor a question and then leave. Sometimes she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Other times she wore the hot pink blouse and mini-skirt.
When she wore the jeans, the women in the room barely noticed her but when she wore the skirt . . .
“They stared at her, looked her up and down, rolled their eyes and sometimes showed outright anger. . . . Most of the aggression, though, happened after she left the room. Then the students laughed about her and impugned her motives. One student suggested that she dressed that way in order to have sex with a professor.”
This led researchers to conclude that much of same-sex aggression among women is related to sexual competition.
Now sexual aggression has been around forever. If we go back to the nineteenth century, we would totally find some catty Victorians being rude due to sexual and marital competition. The difference however is the changes that have occurred throughout the twentieth century.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we as a society were restrained by strict codes of conduct and etiquette. For example, one of the worst things a woman could do to another woman was something called a Cut Direct. This is when two women seeing each other in a public setting, one of them acknowledges the other with a nod or verbal greeting but the other woman keeps on walking as if she doesn’t know her or even have seen her. This was one of the worst things a person could do to another person at this time—ignore her! Obviously throughout the century, we have lost these strict codes of conduct and can now express our anger in a much more forthright manner.
Plus, we now express our sexuality at a much younger age and since we express it at a younger age, we also experience sexual competition and thus aggression at a much younger age. This is something that may even account for the increase in bullying in the last few decades and not surprisingly, teen and young adult girls show some of the most aggressive and cruel behavior toward each other.
Unfortunately, this is also an age when young women are learning important lessons about who they can and cannot trust in this world.
According to Dr. Jill P. Weber in an article “When Women Bully Women” on Psychology Today
"Early in puberty, girls may begin to look at one another in an acutely competitive and judgmental manner...Many girls see one another as scary, untrustworthy, ruthless and cruel."
"By judging, fearing and by turning on their own sex, women effectively self-sabotage their opportunity for strong female relationships and greater empowerment. A self-fulfilling prophecy manifests whereby a woman may begin to believe that most other women are untrustworthy. These women tend to catalogue this phenomena as more evidence to the nature of women and fail to consider the impact of their own actions."
So Why are Women Rejecting Each Other?
All of these changes over the last century explain why we no longer have intimate friendships and why there seems to be a growing rift between women, but what it doesn’t explain is why there is this growing group of women who reject the gender as a whole and reject all female friendships. But more importantly, it doesn’t explain why this happened to women and not men because all of these things: homosexual anxiety, dissolution of the separate spheres, romantic intimacy, no need to fight for equality, and an increase in sexual competition and aggression can be applied to men as well.
Yet men don’t go around saying I don’t like men or I don’t have male friends—men are too aggressive for me. No, in fact men still very much value their male friendships.
So what’s the difference here? What happened to female relationships that did not happen to male relationships?
|Gustave le Bon|
The difference is that women are still struggling with echoes from our past and in this case, nineteenth century perceptions about women. As you may recall, the Victorians believed that women were weaker physically and mentally, that their excessive emotions were symptoms of this weakness, and that women were more susceptible to things like corruption and mental illness
According to the Psychologist and Anthropologist Gustave Le Bon in 1879:
“All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason.”
This is a perfect example of the scientific ideas that led to nineteenth century perceptions about women, ideas which were accepted by both genders as fact. Such ideas were so ingrained in our society’s collective consciousness that even when women proved them wrong throughout the twentieth century, they have lingered in our society’s perceptions in varying forms throughout the generations and continue to color views of women today.
photo credit: charliebarker via photopin cc
For example, when women express sexual aggression they are often seen as causing drama. When women express emotions in the workplace, they are usually considered weak and unprofessional. When women express emotion in general, on some level, they are often considered as being out of control or crazy.
These perceptions give natural female emotions and normal behaviors negative connotations of being weak, out of control, or mentally unstable. These are things that are much harder for women to pin down and fight the way we fought for our rights because women too are unconsciously socialized with these perceptions. Women struggle with these perceptions daily, and worse they struggle with their own socialization which believe it too.
It is my opinion that unconsciously or consciously a growing group of women are reacting to these archaic stereotypes by shedding them altogether through dissociation from their own gender.
I think when women reject female friendships, they are rejecting these negative associations. When women say I don’t like women, they’re saying I’m not like women. When they say women are crazy, they’re saying, I’m not crazy!
by Laura Smith via Flickr cc.
I believe that by dissociating from gender, women are trying to dissociate from the negative undertones of our gender, to be seen and treated as human beings and not as women. The problem is that by doing this, women aren’t combating the real issue, but in fact perpetuating it by basically agreeing with it.
This seems to be a growing trend in recent years, and it is my concern that this will spread to more and more women and even to the next generation.
According to Dr. Seth Meyers in the Psychology Today article “Women Who Hate other Women:”
. . . women who are mean-spirited about other women were often raised by a mother who probably didn't like herself and didn't feel warmly toward women, in general . . .
At the turn of the century, women were bound together through societal and cultural norms. Throughout the twentieth century, we have accomplished great things but we have also taken away the need for female solidarity and allowed other issues like sexual competition to drive a wedge between us.
Although the rift is partially a byproduct of our achievements, the new development of women who reject the gender as a whole appears to be the product of a society still harboring versions of nineteenth century perceptions about women. By dissociating from their gender, more and more women are trying to shed these negative associations, but by doing so are perpetuating them and spreading them to the next generation.
I encourage you to go out and look deeper into what I’m talking about today and see if my conclusions make sense or if there are other explanations. From my studies and experiences, what I see is that in spite of the level of equality we have achieved, there are still inequalities we need to overcome.
But I think that we can overcome these inequalities by understanding the origin and history behind them. We can rise above simply by appreciating ourselves and others regardless of gender. We can erode the hostility by teaching our daughters the importance of girlfriends and the value of womanhood. Our gender’s future in the twenty-first century is not just about reconstructing a world of equality—it’s also about recovering the sisterhood that got us here in the first place.