As I reviewed my research and thought about my own experiences with envy, it seemed to me that our fascination with female rivalry had three sources. First, there was our own sense of despair at the ways in which modern society, apparently so open to female success, still makes it so difficult for women to get ahead. Whether we're talking about the shortage of good men, the scarcity of women at the top of the financial tree, or the impossible pressures on women to remain perpetually youthful and beautiful, it seems clear that female success is still elusive for most of us. Although we may be able to achieve more than was possible for our mothers and grandmothers, the glass ceiling and the unrealistic standards for female beauty still hold us back. In such a context, looking at women who seem to have succeeded where we have failed can become almost unbearable. We need to believe that our heroines have feet of clay, that they'll gain weight and grow old just like the rest of us, that they, too, worry about losing their men to younger, prettier rivals. If we worry that a lust for success makes us somehow less feminine or desirable, how can we help savoring the hardships of high-achieving women such as Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart? Their success seems to mock our failure even as it tempts us to take steps that we fear may make us less feminine and alluring. It may seem preferable to put the conflict to rest by tearing these women down and watching them fail.
Second, even healthy competition for women is still largely taboo. It's very difficult for most of us to admit that we want to win, to snag the promotion at the expense of our coworkers, to rise to the top of our profession. Although the recent prominence of female athletes has given us at least some models for women who openly admit their desire for victory, most of the successful women we see in our culture have been forced to hide their ambition. Women like Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart have obviously put a great deal of effort into achieving their prominent positions. No one wins a senate election or builds a multimillion-dollar company without making an enormous amount of effort -- effort that by definition includes the wish to defeat one's competitors. Yet both Clinton and Stewart were excoriated for their ambition, even as they tried their best to act as though they weren't, in fact, competing. Clinton's infamous attempt to portray herself as "just a housewife" by offering her recipe for chocolate-chip cookies backfired -- no one could believe her in the housewife role, and both homemakers and career women resented her pretense. Stewart's ambition likewise shone through her role as contented homemaker, leading to numerous attacks on her supposedly cold and heartless nature.
The message couldn't have been clearer: women may rise to the top, but they must seem as though they don't care whether they win or lose. Nice girls care only about being nice. They win only by accident or by someone else's efforts. For those of us in real life, however, this is an impossible injunction -- we know that success takes hard work and a will to win. So how can we avoid hating the women who seem to succeed so easily when we ourselves are trying so hard?