The Collapse Of The Sisterhood

Hannah Betts
·11-min read
Photo credit: pidjoe - Getty Images
Photo credit: pidjoe - Getty Images

From ELLE

I have been a feminist since I first learnt the word, back when I was seven. Feminism is my life’s great cause, and the faith that I hold in place of a religion. And, yet, my relationships with actual women have not always been so straightforward; a statement that can be understood as a euphemism for ‘often a total f*cking disaster’.

Growing up, there was an older girl who attempted to blacken my name in my home town by inventing ridiculous lies.

When I started work, there were the colleagues undermining me by claiming I slept my way into the job; the stranger who set up a website dedicated to me being a stupid, ugly loser; the fellow writer who literally issued a curse upon me; the boss who claimed I had bizarre sexual issues; and the kind of online trolling that leaves one feeling punched in the gut. Now, in my late 40s, I can tell you that the worst things that have ever been done to me have been by men: attempts at control and sexual aggression. However, the worst things that have ever been said to or about me have been by women.

‘Feminist me’ delights in the sisterly supportiveness of other women, those individuals who have loved me, bolstered me, had my back. Realist me acknowledges that women can be complete b*tches. If one agrees with former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s line that, ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,’ then a good many appear destined there, feminists included.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in the business of blaming feminism for society’s ills. Without feminism neither me, nor my editor, nor you, the informed reader, would be in the position we’re in. It’s a necessarily inclusive movement – we won’t all agree, nor should we. However, taboo as it feels to acknowledge, at times it can feel like a bear pit; not least now, when arguments can go nuclear in the click of a button, assailants piling on.

Where social media was once equated with ‘micro-blogging’, so now it is an interminable war of words. The scale of Twitter messages in particular leads to a crass lack of nuance made for maniacal hotheads; a belligerence that has crept into other platforms, even the traditionally touchy-feely Instagram. And, if it isn’t incels and other male misogynists invigilating women’s behaviour, then women appear happy to take each other down. Many privately speak of feeling ‘silenced’ by these tormentors far more effectively than by male aggressors.

Photo credit: Anna Bu Kliewer
Photo credit: Anna Bu Kliewer

This feeling has formalised into so-called ‘cancel culture’ or ‘no-platforming’. Those who argue that the category ‘woman’ has a biological basis are called cis or TERFs. The pale, female and stale are satirised as Karens, which encompasses the notions cis, racist and banally mainstream. Meanwhile, baby boomers dismiss the #MeToo generation as whingers, while everyone tells everyone to check their privilege.

In 2013, Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead – the feminist manifesto written by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg – became a phenomenon, ranking on The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year, selling more than four million copies. Thousands of Lean In ‘circles’ sprang up around the world. By 2018, Sandberg’s message had been declared past its sell-by date by no less a luminary than Michelle Obama.

‘I tell women, that whole “you can have it all” — nope, not at the same time; that’s a lie,’ Obama informed a Brooklyn crowd. ‘It’s not always enough to lean in, because that sh*t doesn’t work all the time.’ She was immediately backed by women lambasting Sandberg for her rich, white-woman elitism.

As recently as 2015, television host Ellen DeGeneres – famed for her ‘Be kind’ catchphrase – was nominated for feminist awards in her capacity as an LGBTQ+ and women’s rights activist. However, over the past few months, she has come under a barrage of criticism for being an ‘anti-feminist egomaniac’ (to quote a CNN reporter) with an alleged habit of bullying women, from Mariah Carey – whom she ‘pressured’ into revealing a pregnancy that later ended in miscarriage – to her own employees. In September, DeGeneres addressed the allegations of bullying, admitting that ‘things happened [on her eponymously titled TV show] that never should have happened’. ‘I take this very seriously and I want to say I'm so sorry to the people it affected,’ she noted.

Even feminist spaces – both physical and virtual – that claim to have been built around concepts of empowerment and collaboration have succumbed to much-publicised toxicity of late.

Witness the policing of the website ManRepeller by its own readers back in the spring, in a ferocious argument over race issues that led to the expulsion of its founder, Leandra Medine Cohen, previously regarded as the poster woman for sisterly supportiveness. Cohen later published an essay titled ‘I Owe You Better: A Commitment To The Future’ on the website alluding to the backlash, writing: ‘I have let you and the members of the Man Repeller team down and I am sorry.’ Prior to this, The Wing, the members’ club billed as a ‘women’s utopia’, became accused of less utopian behaviour, including racism, elitism and gaslighting the women it employs. This alleged toxic atmosphere led to the resignation of founder Audrey Gelman. In a letter directed to Flew The Coup (a group of former Wing employees), which she shared an excerpt of on her Instagram account in October, Gelman wrote, per Fortune: ‘I chose to create a business model that was a continuation, not a radical reimagining of the service industry.’ She noted in her post’s caption: ‘My hope is that my errors will not discourage other women from taking big, ambitious ideas into the world, but that they can contribute to the creation of a blueprint for how to get it right in the future.’

Meanwhile, midwife blogger Clemmie Hooper, aka Mother of Daughters, confessed to abusing her competitors on Tattle Life, a gossip forum where 53,000+ members scrutinise the lives of influencers.

As girl-power advocate Mother of Daughters, Hooper spouted the usual platitudes to her 66,000 Instagram followers. But under the anonymous account of ‘AliceinWanderlust’, Hooper joined the fray, posting put-downs and targeting other influencers.

‘Smug as f*ck that #gifted ski trip made me want to stick frozen icicles in my eyes,’ she posted of one influencer whom she had previously collaborated with. When Hooper’s cover was blown, news spread quickly from Tattle Life to Instagram and the national newspapers as the ensuing warfare was billed as ‘Instamumistan’.

Photo credit: Anna Bu Kliewer
Photo credit: Anna Bu Kliewer

There’s no denying that an obsession with warring women lies at the root of human culture, whether it’s Mary versus Martha in the Bible’s New Testament, historical antagonists Elizabeth I versus Mary Queen of Scots or Cersei Lannister versus the Dragon Queen Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones.

And, while conflict between individuals is to be expected, there’s something unique about the way women fight that feels more insidious and more hurtful. Distinguished professor David C Geary is the author of Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences, a classic of evolutionary psychology, which appeared in its third edition in August. He explains: ‘Men are more prone to physical aggression, but both sexes engage in what’s called “relational aggression” – in which harm is caused by damaging a competitor’s relationships or social status. For aggression among women, this would be the primary strategy.’

One has only to look at the ongoing ‘Wagatha Christie’ spat between footballers’ wives Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy to see such a dynamic in action: Vardy (allegedly) badmouths Rooney; Rooney immediately bites back. As Geary elaborates: ‘Women have a preference to be part of a socially supportive community and relational aggression often involves the spread of gossip, lies and other social information that undermines the social capital of competitors; essentially attempting to disrupt their network of social support.’ The result will be shunning and exclusion, plunging the isolated woman into anxiety and depression, as Vardy has indeed claimed.

‘Relational aggression’ is evident from school days, when we attempt to prove ourselves – both professionally and in relation to our sexuality – hence the Mean Girls free-for-all that ensues, making it a chaos of ‘female derogation’ (b*tching) and slut-shaming.

Later, in the workplace, we may encounter ‘Queen Bee’ syndrome, in which a woman who has fought her way into power subordinates the women – but not men – beneath her. Many argue that the very notion is misogynist. However, others have felt themselves victim nonetheless.

The consequences of being rounded on by other women can be devastating. Just ask writer Polly Vernon who, in 2015, published Hot Feminist. ‘It was part autobiography, and partly intended to ask if a feminist could be at peace with enjoying male attention,’ she recalls. ‘It was somewhat a response to the toxic feminism I could see brewing on social media, a growing demand for compliance, which made me uncomfortable.

‘The book caused uproar. The response from Twitter was so damning, personal and designed to be shaming. The majority of women involved hadn’t read the book, they just climbed on the shaming bandwagon,’ Vernon says. ‘And all of it happened under the banner of feminism. It really messed me up. I became depressed. It took me a long time to get over it, and there are still elements that haunt me.’

Photo credit: Anna Bu Kliewer
Photo credit: Anna Bu Kliewer

While still involved in fighting legislative battles over reproductive rights, Vernon no longer calls herself a feminist. ‘I’m not sad about it. I love and look after the women I love and look after, and they do the same for me. No labels required.’

Even when feminism is your job, you’re not immune to vicious infighting. One former feminist academic tells me: ‘It was a relief to leave “professional” feminism behind. I felt as if anything I said would be judged and found wanting, as if I were constantly about to fall into a trap. Ironically, in a group that was meant to be about “sharing”, nothing has ever made me feel so silenced. Everyone was trying to out everyone else as being insufficiently radical, a closet conservative. I’m still a feminist – I couldn’t be any other way – but I’ve never felt as bullied or as bruised; all of it by my supposed sisters.”

There’s a danger here that this sort of behaviour will be used to undermine the force of feminism. It also begs the question as to why the cause should be prey to such belligerence. According to Laura Bates, the founder of Everyday Sexism and author of recent book Men Who Hate Women:

‘There is huge debate within the movement because it doesn’t have any one leader and encompasses myriad grassroots groups working on everything from period poverty to female genital mutilation (FGM) to media sexism. Not to mention that “feminism” also includes any individual who believes that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of their sex. That’s a very big membership pool, and so of course there will be disagreement. But that is how we learn, how we move forwards, how we educate one another and change our opinions.’

Besides, as Gloria Steinem – one of the most famous feminists of all time – has noted, if we are led to believe that women are our own worst enemies, ‘it keeps us from recognising who our worst enemies are’. After all, the feminist cause also features an enormous amount of sisterly solidarity. While, if we look at ‘male’ movements, such as Marxism, its leaders actually went at each other with pickaxes; which is pretty off-the-scale on the catfight front. We shouldn’t expect women to be any better, or worse, than men, merely human, complete with human complexity and foibles; even where these foibles include a degree of mutual antagonism.

Being nice doesn’t make you a better feminist. Indeed, it must be part of our collective mission to keep being critical, of each other included. It’s being a misogynist that should actively exclude you from the movement – a misogyny, alas, that isn’t always confined to men.

This article has been updated and originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of ELLE UK.

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