It was a freezing cold day when my best friend, Allison, and the other two candidates for homecoming queen stood on the football field, shivering in their gowns, waiting to see who would be crowned. The bleachers were packed ... and people actually held banners with a name of each contestant written in big letters.
Allison didn't win, and she was devastated. I remember how she tried to hold it together. She changed into jeans and sat with me for the rest of the game, as hard as that was. At first she asked me if I thought that the winner was prettier than she was. Then she asked me if the winner was more popular. That was an odd question, since the obvious answer was yes.
Finally, as we were driving home from the game, Allison began to cry. She said she wished the winner ill and that she didn't deserve to win. Allison said she hated her for winning. All I could think of was how the winner stood on that field, alone with her crown, while the others moved to the side. Nobody was even happy for her.
Certainly, I had recognized female rivalry in my previous books. On each project, I heard tales of envy, jealousy, and competition. When I wrote about sisters, I ran into sibling rivalry. When I wrote about single women and dating, I heard how much they envied married women. When I wrote about married women having affairs, I heard about how much they envied their lovers' wives, or their own happily married friends, or the single women whom they knew. Stepmothers and mothers envied each other, as did first and second wives. Divorced women envied the still-married or remarried; married women envied the divorcées who had gone off to greener pastures.
Finally I realized that it was time to do a study focusing on how women treat each other, a study that would show both the external pressures and the internal dynamics that lead to envy, jealousy, and competition. I was particularly concerned to show where this female rivalry begins: in women's insufficient options. In a world where there simply isn't enough to go around, women compete. In a world that limits women to narrowly defined roles, women compete with each other.
I also wanted to explore the ways in which female rivalry has intensified as women have moved from 1950s-era housewifery and child raising to the expanded options of the twenty-first century. Ironically, as women's options have grown, so has our rivalry, from the old-fashioned sphere of hearth and home to the brave new world of career and professional success. Although each new breakthrough for women has opened up wonderful new opportunities, it has also created more occasions for competition. "It is definitely a problem how many avenues are open for women to compete with each other these days," comments Dr. Claire Owen, professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College, whom I interviewed in connection with this study. "If there is a pretense of getting along, it only exists at a superficial level. Underneath, there is the urge to outdo one another."