Ok, I confess. Sometimes I watch “The Real Housewives of New York City.” My husband caught me sneaking a peek and sat down to watch with me. Within five minutes he proclaimed, “Oh, c’mon…this is so fake! Women aren’t really that manipulative and catty.” My response, “Oh yes they are!” He didn’t believe me….and why should he? He’s a man. Regardless, I’ve asked myself many times: Why are women our best friends, but also our worst enemies? As a counselor in our stake Relief Society presidency, I conference with various ward Relief Society presidencies and board members. Repeatedly, I hear this theme: “The sisters in our ward are wonderful women, but we have a real problem with pettiness and meanness toward each other.” Yep, we women surely have a great capacity to love and nurture each other….and we can be just as mean and snotty. Our individual “pettiness radars” can spot a mean woman 15,000 miles away. Ironically, our personal radar malfunctions when gauging our own meanness toward other women. We don’t see ourselves as mean–or we justify and continue our meanness anyway. Truly, with one push of a sensitive button, we can morph into the “grown-up” version of manipulative, snotty little “Mean Girls.” Obviously, we hold enormous power over each other. So how can we use our power in more righteous, ethical ways? My next few posts will address this issue.
I’m fully aware of the “danger” and taboo against speaking so frankly about the dark side of our LDS sisterhood. Surely, this post will generate criticism from other women. Happily, I no longer cry “crocodile tears” when other women disapprove of me. Regardless, I feel the need to raise a type of “standard of liberty” to emancipate ourselves from this subversive, mean-spirited oppression. By denying and refusing to speak to each other about our annoyance, anger, resentment, etc., we thus communicate through a mask of inauthentic “niceness.” But it isn’t nice; it’s simpy indirect forms of aggression. And it ain’t pretty. Like Dr. Phil says, “We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge.” Our denial feeds the dysfunction. And I surely include my catty, snotty self in this post as well! Hopefully we can obtain greater self-awareness, discipline, and courage to learn new communicative skill sets in order to minimize, if not eradicate our destructive thought and behavior patterns. Furthermore, when women claim complete innocence of (and in) their individual participation in negative dynamics, they are not being honest—with themselves or others.
I teach interpersonal communication, critical thinking, argumentation/debate, and other courses at San Jose State University. Communication study is what I do—it’s my thing. Consequently, I know the games people play (especially women), and I know how to play them—exceedingly well. I don’t say this to boast nor to confess; I have a point: Peacemaking and peacekeeping require every bit as much strategy, skill, and energy as conflict/war. Peacemaking isn’t the absence of conflict, but the presence of fairness and justice. Moreover, justice is effortful and fueled through positive energy rather than negative. Hence, I try hard to use my communication skills in attempts to set and maintain peaceful emotionally healthy boundaries for healthy relationships. At the end of the semester, I encourage my students to use their newly acquired skills in productive, constructive ways. Obviously, these same principles apply to small groups, larger communities, and global interactions.
As “sisters in the gospel” we like to think (or at least hope) we refrain from sabotaging each other. We don’t. When another woman threatens us in any way, we act out our fear and hostitlity through the following attitudes and/or behavioral patterns: incessant neediness and self-pity, unrealistic and perfectionist expectations, pettiness and hypersensitivity, sanctimony and self-righteousness, and relentless judgment. The woman or women we target (or who target us) can be a casual acquaintance in our ward, women we work with in our callings, or our close friends.
Can I share a bit of my own history? By the time I reached my mid 30’s, I backed off in my friendships with women. I’d spent too much time and negative energy feeling hurt, vengeful, angry, and defensive toward—get this—close girlfriends! (I totally get the term “frenemies.”) I resented the relentless judging and comparing. For sure, I had pushed back with lots of gossiping. I was a “sad sack” alright. But, I was too afraid to directly confront women who hurt me. And perhaps they were too afraid to directly confront me. After all, direct confrontation wouldn’t be “nice.” (As if gossiping is any nicer….) A few years later, I decided I still needed/wanted closer connections to women friends. And I do have wonderful, nurturing women friends. But here’s the difference: Having consciously worked to spiritually and emotionally evolve, I now have a greater capacity to live and love without needing the approval of women. If women have issues with me, I don’t personalize it nearly as much anymore; I have found that most women’s hostility stems from their own insecurities as they compare themselves to other women. Surely, each of us deals with some form of insecurity. However, measuring ourselves to other women only serves to increase our anxiety and resentment. When we choose to stop our harsh measurement and labels of other women as “less than me,” “the same as me,” or “better than me,” our resentment and anger will vanish.
I have empowered myself by refusing to hand my power over to other women—regardless of how outwardly kind or benign they appear. When I finally decided to define myself on my own terms and by my own standards, I became my own best friend. In turn, I also became a much better friend. As I learned to set healthy boundaries my fear, vulnerability, and susceptibility to criticism, rejection, and gossip from other women no longer crippled me. I stopped trying to please and appease other women in order to be accepted or regarded as a “good” or “nice” LDS woman. Instead, I decided to leave that judgment up to husband, my kids, and my Heavenly Father. They were the ones who mattered most. With increased self-respect, my insecurities no longer stifled my ability to love others unconditionally. Consequently, I now use my stake calling to negotiate and broker a more peaceful, healthy communication climate among the sisters in our stake.
Feminist writer, Phyllis Chesler, in her book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman discusses her ostracism from her fellow feminists for writing this particular book.They considered Ms. Chesler traitorous to the feminist cause for “outing” women’s oppression toward other women. Her feminist sisters insisted she stay within their ranks and talk the party line: Men were the total bad guys, not women. When Ms. Chesler refused, she was shunned by many of her feminist “sisters.” By the same token, many of our Relief Society sisters suffer a similar fate: We tend to feel threatened by other sisters who dare to be different. They dare to define themselves. They dare to question the unwritten behavioral rules/codes of their women friends and/or associates. They dare to be their authentic selves without getting unwritten “permission” or approval from the group. When targeted women confront the hostile woman or group, denial and/or shunning is often the response. Ms. Chesler says thousands of studies show that when questioned or confronted, women tend to deny their subversive behavior. Women’s indirect aggression toward other women is their weapon of choice according to Ms. Chesler. Direct aggression is scarier, but easier to confront and therefore resolve. Again, most women don’t see direct confrontation as “nice.” Indirect meanness is far more effective and “polite.” Chesler discusses theses various subversive tactics:
Recent studies and crime statistics confirm that men are aggressive in direct and dramatic ways. Although most women are not directly or physically violent, women are highly aggressive but in indirect ways. The targets of such female aggression are not men–but other women and children (p. 2). Researchers in Europe, North America, and Australia have found that verbal and indirect aggression among girls and women includes name-calling, insulting, teasing, threatening, shutting the other out, becoming friends with another as revenge, ignoring, gossiping, telling bad stories behind a person’s back, and trying to get others to dislike that person (p. 3). As among men, power struggles among female peers can be very fierce (p. 380).
In my subsequent posts, I will further my discussion regarding this issue. The painting I’ve showcased in this post is called “The Weavers” by Daniel Gerhartz. What do we weave? As LDS sisters, we surely weave both beautiful and not so beautiful (sometimes pretty ugly) threads into our Relief Society fabric. Again, my intention is not to foster guilt or contention. I want to empower us individually and collectively. I end this post with Ms. Chesler’s words:
Given the reality of female oppression, how women treat each other matters more, not less. I want my readers to acknowledge that what women do or refuse to do for other women matters deeply. I want women to understand that we have real power over each other. I want women to use this power consciously and ethically (p. 6).
Here’s to weaving our own “Title of Liberty,”
(Note: The title of this post comes from the movie An American Quilt.)