(Content Warning: sexual assault)
“So, were you being criticized mostly by men or women? Because I hear it’s more often women attacking each other.”
A radio host is interviewing me about a viral article about not shaving my legs and the backlash I got for it.
I think through the responses I received from readers. Some other male radio hosts made barfing noises. One man emailed me to tell me I should just grow a mustache and become a man while I’m at it. Another told me that if anyone ever married me, he’d be gay. The only positive email from a man (if you could even call it that) asked if I shaved my pubes.
Then, I think of the responses from women. Several sent Facebook messages thanking me for helping them have the courage to be themselves. A few tweeted at me to keep being me and ignore the haters.
Not one nasty message I got was from a woman. Yet this man assumed most would be.
My trans and non-binary friends – a group he left out – were also all supportive. The complete erasure of this group within this conversation is particularly telling: Whenever we talk about the differences between men and women, we not only assume opposition between these two genders, we also assume that these are the only two genders.
The only people who weren’t were cis men.
I wasn’t surprised by the radio host’s comment, though. This was, after all, the same thing I heard all the time from classmates and teachers in school. “Girls are meaner to each other than guys,” and “Women are their own worst enemy.”
This idea about social interactions also comes up when we talk about feminism on a larger scale.
Last month, Chelsea Handler wrote an essay calling on women to “do better” to support one another. In it, she blames women’s lack of solidarity for Trump’s election. She quotes H. L. Mencken’s definition of “misogynist” as “a man who hates women as much as women hate one another.”
But in fact, more men than women voted for Trump. And I’d venture to say that the women who voted this way didn’t do it because they were lashing out at other women out of insecurity.
That’s not how anyone would characterize male Trump supporters. Even their opponents at least give them enough credit to believe they’re voting based on actual political issues.
Despite its inaccuracy, we’ve stubbornly clung to the assumption that women hurt women more than men do. Here are some reasons why we need to let it go.
1. It Fuels a Stereotype of Women as Catty, Petty, and Immature
“We need to rise up and use our votes to help ourselves, and to stop hurting ourselves,” Handler’s letter reads. “Forget the jealousy. Forget the competitiveness. We are stronger together. Find a woman you have nothing in common with and give her a hug. Then hug yourself. Then roll up your sleeves and stop looking in the mirror.”
This quote illustrates the connection between believing women are out to get one another in social situations and criticizing women’s lack of political solidarity.
While there’s definitely a conversation to be had about women – particularly white women – undermining feminism, Handler makes this issue into a product of girlish cattiness rather than societal sexism and ignorance.
In a recent Time interview, Sarah Jessica Parker called out people’s assumption that there was a feud going on between her and her Sex and the City costar Kim Cattrall. “Nobody asked those questions of shows with men,” she said.
People who claim women are out to get one another are often operating off the stereotype they saw in Mean Girls, in which girls go out of their way to make one another’s lives miserable.
But that movie doesn’t characterize the majority of high school girls, and it certainly doesn’t characterize the majority of grown women, let alone grown women making political decisions.
While women are socialized to view other women as competition, many manage to transcend that socialization and support one another anyway. Most women aren’t busy plotting and scheming to ruin one another’s lives.
And when they are (as I’m about to address), we have patriarchy to thank for that.
2. It Victim-Blames Women
While it’s true that many women vote against women’s rights and hold misogynistic beliefs, talking about this as some product of our own nastiness – rather than a product of patriarchy – insults women and skirts the real issue.
To the extent that women do behave in anti-feminist ways, it’s not women’s fault. It’s because of the internalization of misogyny, which women did not invent themselves.
Struggling with feelings of inadequacy and jealousy toward other women is extremely understandable when women are taught to value themselves based on their looks and compare their looks to others’ based on an oppressive hierarchy.
So, when women are “looking in the mirror,” as Handler puts it, it’s not because they’re being vain or superficial or because they believe looks are important. It’s because they’re in distress.
Calling on women to “do better” misses the point that we’re doing as well as we can in the circumstances we were given. If we want to change those circumstances, we can’t put it on individual woman.
How about calling on the media to do better in depicting women as allies, calling on men to do better in including women in traditionally male spaces and activities, and calling on everyone to do better in seeing women as humans, not embodiments of stereotypes?
Because it leads us to criticize women for behaviors that result from their own oppression, holding women responsible for ending internalized misogyny is a form of victim-blaming.
3. It Lets Men Off the Hook
The notion that women hurt women more than men do not only exaggerates the harm women inflict on one another, but also downplays the harm men inflict upon women.
Think about it. When under half of women vote Trump into office, we accuse them of being traitors. Then, when more than half of men do, we say “not all men” and praise the ones who instead acted as allies.
There’s a double standard here. When people do something to further women’s oppression, we attack the women among them as examples of how women are out to get one another, but let the men among them slide under the radar and award other men with Nice Guy™ status.
A famous saying popularized by Madeleine Albright and quoted by Taylor Swift states that “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
But why aren’t we condemning men who don’t support women to this proverbial hell?
It may seem to make sense that we’d expect women to be feminists more than men are. But this expectation furthers the idea that it’s women’s responsibility to end their own oppression, when gender equality should be on us all.
Plus, when we say that men aren’t as problematic toward women as women are, we ignore a lot of problems.
We ignore the fact that 60–99% of sexual assault perpetrators are men and a third of college men would rape if they knew they wouldn’t get caught. We ignore the fact that 97% of intimate partner violence perpetrators are men with female victims.
Where’s the place in hell for these people?
When people say women are worse to women, they’re usually talking about far less serious issues, like gossiping.
If we think women spreading rumors 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 calling on them to do better.
The fact of the matter is, men are worse to women than women are. Instead of pointing our fingers at women, we need to acknowledge men’s wrongdoings to improve the situation.
Ultimately, the assumption that women are worse to one another than men are serves to uphold the patriarchy. It absolves men of responsibility for oppression, demonizes women, and blames women for injustice inflicted upon them.
There is truth to the idea that women are capable of furthering sexism, the same way people of color are capable of furthering racism. But we can talk about that without claiming that women are snotty bitches who just love to obsess over looks.
People who call women out for cutting one another down often have feminist goals, like encouraging women to help one another. But they’re actually encouraging anti-feminist stereotypes.
To truly further feminism, we should view women with the assumption that they want more for themselves and other women. And if they don’t behave that way, we can at least give them the benefit of the doubt and believe it’s because of the oppression they’ve faced, not their innate cattiness.
It’s not that women need to do better than Mean Girls characters; it’s that we need to wake up to the fact that they already are.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss. Read her articles here.