In graduate school, the stakes got higher, and the competition got stiffer, a trend that continued when I went on to vie for a limited number of academic jobs. I always had friends and colleagues with whom I could have trusted my life -- but I also found women who seemed to view not only me but all other female academics as their rivals.
This sense of rivalry became more painful when I divorced my first husband. Many of the friends I depended on for comfort and support suddenly began to view me as a threat. Some took me out to lunch to get the dirt, then dropped me soon after. I think they found it disturbing that I had left my unhappy marriage while they were still committed to theirs. For other women, the threat seemed more immediate -- twice I was told in no uncertain terms that I had better stay away from someone's husband, despite my protests that I would no more go after a friend's husband than I would stay friends with a woman who went after mine.
Thankfully, I also had some true friends who remained loyal and supportive during one of the most difficult times of my life. To this day, I trust them implicitly, with the kind of faith you reserve for the people who have proved themselves under fire. But I've also never forgotten the shock and disappointment of discovering how quickly those other friendships turned to rivalry.
Nor was the problem limited to other women. Reluctantly I began to admit that I, too, had felt competitive, envious, even jealous of my fellow females. I, too, had walked into a dinner party and done a quick tally of how I stacked up. Was I as talented as the other women? As pretty? As prestigiously employed? During my divorce, before I met my second husband, I, too, had looked longingly at the few women I knew who seemed truly in love, thinking, "Oh, to have what they have." I, too, had caught myself viewing my daughters with something close to envy for their youth and self-confidence, for the advantages their generation would have that were so far beyond my own. I had even wandered through my local bookstore while I was working on my first book, checking out the other women writers, envious of their apparently secure place on the bookshelves when I wasn't even sure whether I could find a publisher.
Meanwhile, of course, I was continuing to write about the topic that has preoccupied me for the last fourteen years: women. I wrote books about sisters, second wives, and women having affairs. I met women who were struggling with their roles as daughters, mothers, workers, and lovers, seeking to create new identities for themselves, trying to make traditional arrangements work. I talked to women from all ethnic backgrounds and social classes, from struggling Jamaican immigrants to the trust-funded descendants of Mayflower passengers. Everywhere, no matter what other topics I was asking about, I found hints of a dark secret, a problem that everyone seemed to sense but no one was willing to talk about: women's rivalry.