It reminded me of the first of these conversations I ever had, on a high school debate trip—a disastrous weekend when the mood and conversation on the bus, in meetings, even in the speeches, felt so predatory and male-dominated that a bunch of us spontaneously erupted in rage and tears.
Back then, the group sitting around in the hotel room venting its frustration included earnest types like me who just wanted to be taken seriously as writers and thinkers without constantly being made to hear gross talk about women’s bodies, as well as some who had already been sexually assaulted or mistreated by boyfriends. There were girls who felt overlooked or rejected because they didn’t fit the rigid beauty or behavior standards of high school, and some who simply felt an inchoate rage. And yet again, there we were: mad for slightly different reasons, but mad together—because the tenor of that weekend away from school just felt so deeply wrong.
Because the reality is that as much as the Wieseltiers of the world want to divide us, we women are not pitted against each other in these situations. It’s not the bikini-wearers vs. the maxi skirts, the flirts vs. the prudes. No, there’s a reason it’s called a hostile environment: if you target one woman, you implicitly target all the women in the community—and same goes for offices or spaces that are racist, or LGBT-unfriendly.
The woman who worries that she’s not feminine enough so she’s not getting a promotion, the woman who feels isolated and scared because her harasser is powerful, they are both working in an environment that’s unsafe. And so is the woman who gets talked over, has her ideas stolen, is made to do demeaning menial work at her retail job as punishment for being late, or can’t pick up her sick kid from daycare for fear of being fired.
We’re all trapped in a combination of capitalist domination and pervasive sexism.
And it starts early. As a final example, take the situation of a college club or publication—an a cappella group, magazine or debate club. As a freshman, a woman arrives and feels noticed and paid attention to, which is initially intoxicating—and people nod and smile when she talks. Then she gets hit on by a senior at a party, a senior who has the power to let her into the club or deny her application. Can she really say no? And after she hooks up with the guy, she feels like the looks she gets are more hostile; there are eyerolls when she talks.
One woman can whirl through all the above roles at a breakneck speed. Three years later, in a kind of whiplash, she has risen up through merit and is in a leadership position. Maybe is even in a relationship with another senior. But at a meeting determining the next crop of initiates, she listens to her own partner and the other men discussing the latest group of young women to apply for initiation: their bodies, their sexual histories. She feels invisible, maybe even ugly—and as though her authority is undermined just by being made to listen to this. If she speaks up, she risks getting labeled a killjoy, a buzzkill.
The point is that both sides of this equation are degrading. There is no need for us ever to be divided into the “game girls” on one hand and the Humorless Prigs on the other. We are all all of them. We are all swimming in the same toxic sea.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.