Sisters Doing It For Themselves

Jo Bartosch
11 min readJul 28, 2019

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This is the text from a talk I gave for the ‘Elephant in the Room’ event organised by the inspiring and growing Manchester-based feminist collective Make More Noise. Please do feel free to share it on any other blogging platforms and please do have a look at the Make More Noise website.

Before I start this talk, which is about the shitty behaviour of women, I need to make something very clear. Since I started learning and writing about feminism I have been surrounded by warmth and love from other women, the hostility I have experienced and witnessed does not over-shadow the sisterhood, but neither should it be ignored. So, before I begin I would like to issue a #notallwomen disclaimer!

This was going to be about the rise of the ‘woke woman.’ About the women who throw their lot in with the sex industry lobbyists, so they can look sexy. About the women who are so eager to please men they would make a gift of our rights and spaces. About the fools who even sacrifice their own breast milk and wombs to satisfy the fetishes of men.

I had intended to draw attention to the fact that some of patriarchy’s most effective spies and shock troops, are women, and often lesbian to boot. High profile ‘Woke women’ are legion, and included in their number are the likes of:

Linda ‘Jack the Ripper museum’ Riley, Ash ‘fucks like a champ’ Sakar, Ruth Hunt, Laurie ‘what’s a good name for those people who have uteruses and stuff’ Penny…

I was planning explore theories as to why women side with men, be it popularity, power, Stockholm syndrome or raw fear.

As I said, that’s what I was going to talk about, but actually since planning this talk I’ve come to realise the problem isn’t limited to those outside out women’s liberation. Neither is it a problem of right-wing trolls and lefty snowflakes. It is a problem that affects all women, including those within our own movement, and it is as undeniable and widespread as male violence.

Around two weeks ago I wrote a piece explaining why I call myself bisexual. I expected to ruffle feathers, but I didn’t brace myself for the intensely personal, vicious and dare I say it, characteristically female harassment I received. I should have prepared myself, because it’s happened before. I was called a traitor, disease-ridden, a misogynist. I was told that I was a closeted lesbian and that I was straight. My civil partner was told that I was I was using her and that I would leave her for a man. This wasn’t a political disagreement, it was personal. Moreover, I realised that while I have never had rape threats from a woman, I have never received such vitriol, the type calculated to cause maximum pain, from a man.

I am not alone, it seems every week I will be contacted by a feminist friend who has been targeted by other women. Some describe the impact of psychological abuse suffered from females as comparable to the after-effects of male violence. Women are left sick, shaken, mistrustful and forced into a cycle of self-doubt and self-blame. I think what makes it harder is that hostility from women isn’t something feminists want to admit is a problem, because if there is something that unites us it’s that we’re idealists, otherwise we wouldn’t bother trying to change things at all.

This sickness at the heart of all women is corrosive. In her work ‘Women’s Inhumanity to Woman’ Phyllis Chesler explores this phenomenon which she terms female ‘indirect aggression.’ She ascribes it in part to the desire of women and girls to be included in groups and the disabling impact of living a world which hates women.

Feminists like to think of ourselves as above the mob mentality of those activists who parrot ‘sex work is work’ or ‘transwomen are women’ but actually, when we descend on other women who break rank or voice unpopular opinion we follow exactly the same pattern. Indirect aggression isn’t just about women siding with men, it is also about scapegoating individual women to curry favour with the group. This finding is dangerously close to sexist stereotypes about women’s ‘bitchy’ behaviour, but that does not mean it should be discounted.

Whatever the group, whether it is an Amazonian band of lesbian separatists or the ‘gender equality networks’ that infest our universities, women will assiduously police the social rules to exclude women and in doing so secure their own position. And in a society that already dehumanises women ‘othering’ those with whom we disagree is all-too easy.

I don’t think there is one of us in this room today who hasn’t either witnessed or been the subject of trashing. Indeed, whether we admit it or not the chances are we may well each have participated in it.

Something that punctuates Chesler’s work are her recollections of the feminists who told her to stay quiet. She was repeatedly told that in writing on the subject of women’s sexism she would damage the feminist movement, and play into misogynist stereotypes about women. It might be extreme but there is a parallel here with every mother who tells her daughter not to talk about the incest she suffers lest it break-up the family.

For me, the realisation that women are socialised to hurt one another, and not to voice the pain, was as shocking a revelation as when I realised that male violence was a pattern rather than isolated incidents.

As feminists we analyse the limited ‘choices’ we are presented with within patriarchy — whether to wear make-up, whether to wear practical clothes, whether to include men in our lives. But we do not as a rule think about the misogynist patterns of behaviour we are socialised into — the suspicion, the hostility and the competition towards other women.

bell hooks faced this head-on when she said, we need to ‘challenge the simplistic notion that man is the enemy and woman the victim.’

The power to end female indirect aggression lies in our heads and hands but to do so we need to acknowledge that the ‘woman problem’ is our responsibility. Blaming men for our own behaviour towards women might be ideologically correct, but it is useless in any practical sense.

There is money to be made from reflecting and fostering women’s indirect aggression, its kept women’s magazines in circulation for one. The editors of ‘Take a Break’ and ‘Femail’ know that women are cruel, petty and bitchy to each other. Why do feminists pretend to be above it? We might not critique one another’s bodies, but there will always be something to sneer at– she’ll be too needy, too posh, too honest. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t beat each other senseless, start wars or rape each other like men do. Comparatively we’re pretty awesome! Though when we’re up against a common enemy we all too often turn against one-another for personal advantage. It is tribal, it is destructive, and it hinders the movement.

Men, from building sites to Davos, they have one another’s backs. History and current affairs are a parade of powerful men sticking together; from Putin & Trump to Corbyn and the beardy nutters of Hamas. When women outside of our very small movement want power or popularity they attach themselves to men. Think of Mhairi Black cosying-up to Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Dianne Abbot playfully flirting on Andrew Neill’s sofa with Michael Portillo — it is shocking to me that I can’t think of a single instance of a woman in politics pairing with another woman in a similar way. Indeed, when Andrea Leadsome wanted to score points off Theresa May she sunk so low as to use her personal life. Such public examples show how women’s animosity and jealously toward other women infects every sphere of life. When the same standards are applied of men they remain impervious to social opprobrium; we still don’t know how many children our esteemed new PM has.

The government commits money to encourage women into man-shaped political roles, ignoring not just the barriers from men but also the social and psychological reasons why women, as a rule, don’t help each other. Obviously, anything designed to increase women’s representation in politics is to be welcomed, but ultimately the change we need is more fundamental.

There is a parallel to the policing of women’s speech in the language of the left. Expression is stifled by the desire to seem moral. From the smug, sanctimonious watchtower of righteousness, the ‘saved’ know that they can abuse non-believers with impunity. The right fear no such censure. Feminists occupy an uncomfortable space in the no-man’s land between the ongoing culture wars; abandoned by the left but with no friend in the right. While the Guardian and BBC fall over themselves to be seen to be diverse and inclusive, they will gladly ignore or misrepresent the violence and harassment from transgender activists because feminists have unacceptable views and are therefore a legitimate target. This ‘insider/outsider’ thinking is a fractal pattern, replicated from the world stage to interpersonal relationships. It works to dehumanise outsiders, but regardless of the group or cause, what is constant is that women fare worse.

Free-thinking, opinionated women make both men and women feel uncomfortable, even in 2019 it disrupts the social order. The idea, so helpfully articulated by James Joyce, that “Men are governed by lines of intellect — women: by curves of emotion” is culturally embedded bullshit that surfaces in surprising ways.

One such is something I’ve done throughout this talk. In order to promote ideas women have to give of themselves emotionally– it seems our opinions are only deemed valid if we have personal experience to back up our political points.

Male writers are not expected to do this in the same way, they are permitted the liberty to have ideas that exist independently of their bodies and their direct experience, because they are of course the setters and arbiters of truth. While the ‘personal is political’ is a rallying call to unite women and share previously unspoken truths, it can also tie us to an unhelpful framework.

Because women are encouraged to find a personal peg for our political opinions when our viewpoints are challenged it can be difficult not to take it personally. Moreover, as women we are taught not to trust our judgement, so the slightest blow or criticism can feel cataclysmic. In order to voice our opinions, particularly unpopular ones, women have to overcome the weight of self-doubt, to defy social prejudices and then to navigate the suffocating conventions of femininity. To then be hurt by the women we look to to lift us up can be devastating.

It’s a bind, because of course showing our hurt risks being seen as irrational and emotional — exactly what sexists have long accused women of. This is of course despite the fact that it is predominately men who weep at football matches and kill when they don’t get their own way. We need to create a space where we can play with ideas, and we need to recognise when we are targeting the messenger not her message.

Another point that serves to divide women, and elephant in the room, is the weaponizing of intersectionality in the form of identity politics. Rather than a legal tool to explore the additional barriers faced by different groups, it has been used by women to justify the silencing of other women. In ‘The Lesbian Revolution’ Sheila Jeffreys recalls the destructive impact that this had on the second wave, effectively factionalising what had been a united movement until the point where women had to list their multiple oppressions before feeling confident to speak. Fear of being labelled with ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ is just another way that indirect aggression plays out. It is particularly cruel tactic to use on women, as we have been socialised to ‘care’ and to fear breaking the social conventions of groups. Whatever the merits of intersectionality as theory, in practice it is more commonly used by women to rationalise their hatred and envy of other women.

Identity politics turns the guilt women bear in on ourselves. Rather than listening to and acting on the experiences of marginalised women, women are held responsible for the injustices done toward one another and our collective interests are fractured. Feminists are divided into inward-looking, ineffectual support groups rather than a unified, political outward-facing movement.

Given we’re subject to the same messages it is unsurprising that like men, women divide one another into the ‘virtuous’ and the ‘fallen.’ Men are not torn-down for being self-interested. Their campaigns are not invalidated because they happen to have egos. However, women with any standing within the feminist community are expected to embody every aspect of their values, with any trace of impurity sniffed out. Of course, it is disappointing to realise that your heroine is human, but this should serve to caution against idolising women. As Andrea Dworkin notes in ‘Right-Wing women’: “The morally good woman is put on a pedestal — a small, precarious, raised stage, often mined, on which she stands for as long as she can — until she falls off or jumps or it goes boom.” We hold women to ridiculous standards, circling to pick over their faults when they fall, or worse still, we persecute them for having the temerity to cling on despite not being perfect.

When the realisation that all of us are biased against women hits, it can be a shock. I remember the first time I noticed it as a young woman feeling a profound sense of guilt on recalling how I had disbelieved female friends who had told me they’d been raped, particularly when the perpetrator was within a shared friendship group. I was so quick to chalk it up to regret at ‘sex gone wrong’ because that rationale skirted uncomfortable truths and made me feel safer. This is the same process as when we avoid recognising or excuse women’s indirect aggression. As with the excuses we make for male violence, we need to stop and ask ourselves in whose interests we are working when we ignore the destructive, bullying behaviour of women. If we do not we risk repeating today the mistakes of the past, as Chesler warns: “minimising and denying women’s sexism is what grounded an entire liberation movement.”

To conclude, we can all have a laugh about the dick-pandering liberal feminists, but first we need to take the cock out of our own eye. Until women see each other as human will never be able to create a world where we are treated as human. All the while feminists waste time smearing one another, silencing one another and telling one another we aren’t sufficiently oppressed to speak, the pornographers, the pimps and the politicians and plutocrats who enable them are laughing at us.

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