Phyllis Chesler established her feminist credentials in 1972 with the publication of the groundbreaking work Women and Madness, which decried a patriarchal mental health system in which women were often considered mad simply by not conforming to accepted feminine behavior. Among other things, she criticized the use of addictive sedatives to control women and the definition of lesbianism as a mental illness. With her reputation as a prominent feminist secure, the publication of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman represents an audacious departure, for it dares to question the myth of “sisterhood” and to call women to task for some of their behaviors, without laying blame entirely on men.
Feminist writers have discussed at length the well-documented history of male violence against women. In fact, according to Chesler, “Because male aggression is both so visible and so deadly, it tends to obscure our view of female violence and aggression, which is often more subtle, less visible, but chronic.” In Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, Chesler tackles this often overlooked phenomenon of female-to- female violence and aggression. In researching the topic, Chesler interviewed more than five hundred women from various age groups, races, sexual persuasions, religions, social classes, and professions. In the twenty-one years she spent on her research, Chesler also studied psychology, anthropology, economics, history, literature, mythology, feminist studies, and fairy tales. She weaves her findings from these diverse disciplines together with a plethora of anecdotal evidence into a fascinating picture of the unique way in which females express aggression and violence against one another.
Chesler first examines primate research for parallels between human female aggression and primate behavior, finding that for years female-female aggression in primates was rarely studied, to some extent because male primate aggression was so dramatic, but also because, conversely, female violence was generally so subtle. However, renowned primatologist Dian Fossey recorded some rather sensational instances of violence in female gorillas, who usually demonstrate their aggression by sabotaging the reproductive cycles of other females in order to improve their own status within the group. She witnessed several incidences of infanticide on the part of dominant female gorillas, who fed their own progeny on the remains of a lower-ranking female’s offspring. During a three-year period, one dominant female and her adult daughter kidnaped, killed, and cannibalized most of the infants born to their group.
Chesler points out that this type of female violence does exist in the human world, although it pales in comparison to the magnitude of male violence toward women. For example, mother-in- law cruelty to daughters-in-law is common in Japan, China, and India. In India, the practice of a mother-in-law dousing her daughter-in-law with kerosene and setting her on fire to obtain more dowry money from the next daughter-in-law is not unheard of. In Cambodia, jealous wives throw acid at their husbands’ girlfriends rather than punish their wayward husbands for their infidelity. Genital mutilation in Africa and honor killings in Islamic nations, while carried out by men, are often supported by women. In Egypt, seven out of ten women believe that genital mutilation is justified, while in India, more than 50 percent of women believe that wife-beating is justified.
Despite this evidence of violence, women’s “shadow side” most often reveals itself not as direct aggression,
but in indirect ways, and mainly toward other women. Since women depend upon each other for intimacy, they do not acknowledge that this is the case. Instead, girls and women often refrain from telling each other what they really think for fear of being offensive or “different.” . . . Rather than risk this, girls and women talk behind each others’ backs.
Commonly, frustration and anger are expressed physically by females only until about the age of eight, at which time social manipulation replaces direct physical action. Girls...
(The entire section is 1684 words.)