In fact, when I recovered from my first wave of shock at the extraordinary stories I was hearing, I was able to boil down my findings to three conclusions:
1. Despite all the efforts of the women's movement to change this troubling pattern, we're still willing to cut each other's throats over what we value most -- jobs, men, and social approval. Although we've moved into the workplace and the public arena as never before, we tend to ignore men when it comes to competing, focusing our rivalry almost entirely upon each other.
2. We'll do anything rather than face up to female envy and jealousy -- especially our own. Between traditional social pressures to be the "good girl," and feminist expectations of female solidarity, we sweep all evidence of a bleaker picture under the rug. Indeed, in these postfeminist times, women are often rewarded for romanticizing female friendship and punished for telling the truth about female rivalry.
3. Even though my focus is on female rivalry, I have also found some wonderful examples of female bonding -- within families, between friends, among colleagues. In these positive instances, I found that the key was for women to have realistic expectations, of themselves and each other. When we stop demanding total, unconditional support; when we accept our loved ones' differences as well as similarities; when we own up to our own rivalrous natures; and when we confront problems rather than ignore them, we can create extraordinary bonds that nourish us throughout our lives.
A New Look at Female Competition
I walk into a party with my husband and immediately feel everyone's eyes upon us -- perhaps more upon him. I notice that when he goes to the bar to get drinks, one woman in particular follows him. Although she has to know we are together, she proceeds to move close to him, beginning a seemingly intimate conversation. I am talking to a group of friends I have not seen for quite a while. By the time I get back to where my husband is standing, the woman is telling him that she loves to play golf and can go to the range with him any Saturday. I look at my husband, who seems to be enjoying the attention, and realize that he has been sought after, regardless of ownership. This woman moves away reluctantly when I introduce myself as his wife, but manages to find my husband repeatedly throughout the night. I ask my friend, the hostess, about her and she tells me that this woman is absolutely a flirt and will steal anyone's man if she can.
Later, when we get home, I tell my husband that if he ever speaks to that woman again, I will be gone. While I am indeed protecting my turf, I am also well aware that this woman is a sexy blonde. I am not in despair, but my antennae are up.
As you can see from this anecdote about my husband and me, I'm no stranger to female rivalry. Perhaps because the subject is so personal, this has been the most challenging of all the books I've written. It hasn't been easy coming to terms with these painful issues, either in myself or in the hundreds of women I interviewed.
But once I acknowledged that female rivalry was a problem, I started to see it everywhere -- in the media, in my personal life, and in the lives of my daughters, as well as in the experiences of the five hundred women who shared their stories with me. Consider, for example, the story of this real-life high school queen: