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Feminism and Spirituality
by Feral

Lammas 2002, Vol 1-4
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Imperfect Love, Imperfect Trust

When I was eight, we moved onto a street where girls my age lived next door and across the way. Soon Stephanie and I took unwilling turns being outcast while the other was Mary's "best friend" in the neighborhood -- though neither of them was my friend at school. This painful, bewildering triangle went on for a couple of years, until Mary's family was about to move away. Only then did Stephanie and I become "best friends" to exclude Mary for two weeks. It was deeply satisfying.

book cover, CatsEye

Then I did my best to forget the whole thing, though for a long time the idea of best-friendship made me queasy. Margaret Atwood brought it all back with her novel, Cat's Eye (1988). Her narrator, Elaine, explains:

The things we play are mostly Grace's ideas, because if we try to play anything she doesn't like she says she has a headache and goes home, or else tells us to go home. She never raises her voice, gets angry, or cries; she is quietly reproachful, as if her headache is our fault. Because we want to play with her more than she wants to play with us, she gets her way in everything.

Here Elaine is the supplicant and Grace the subtle bully, but before the book ends, Elaine plays all the roles in the girl-group psychodrama.

The Vicious Circle
By the time I read Cat's Eye, I was a longtime feminist, experienced in the peculiar politics of women's groups. The book was so true it made me feel disloyal -- because, of course, I didn't want to see the pattern still working even in groups of grown-up, powerful, radical women. We knew we had to change ourselves to change the world, but it was so easy to be distracted into trying to change each other. And the old tools came into play, the tools we learned as girl-children.

book cover, Odd Girl Out

In Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (2001), Rachel Simmons names those tools:

Our culture refuses girls access to open conflict, and it forces their aggression into nonphysical, indirect, and covert forms. Girls use backbiting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling, and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on targeted victims. Unlike boys, who tend to bully acquaintances or strangers, girls frequently attack within tightly knit networks of friends, making aggression harder to identify and intensifying the damage to the victims.

Within the hidden culture of aggression, girls fight with body language and relationships instead of fists and knives. In this world, friendship is a weapon, and the sting of a shout pales in comparison to a day of someone's silence. There is no gesture more devastating than the back turning away.

Simmons isn't talking about the girls of my pre-feminist girlhood or the women we've become. Her work is based on hundreds of interviews with today's girl-children. They're the beneficiaries of 30 years of feminism. They expect to succeed in the world, to have both careers and families. And still they're teaching each other to avoid any appearance of competition, assertiveness, self-esteem -- or risk being shunned.

hand-colored photo
courtesy of Jason Freeman

According to Carol Gilligan, a pioneer in this research, isolation is the worst fear -- and thus the best weapon -- among girls. In a girl-group, the risk of confrontation is too great.

The girl who is different -- disabled, fat, unfashionably dressed, unconventional in her family or attitudes -- is a target. So is the girl who's too pretty, too confident, who doesn't understand or respect the boundaries of the popular groups. The message, originating in patriarchy and enforced by and upon women and girls, is that girls should be hyper-aware of social expectations and strive to fulfill (and not exceed) them.

A girl who doesn't want to be a target may choose her friends for social acceptance/advancement, not for authentic connection. Maybe this makes it easier to turn on a friend who becomes a target in the group. Bullying a target girl strengthens the alliance of the tormenters.

The torment is often wordless, a matter of body language and exclusion rather than quotable insult. The target girl often wonders if she's crazy, misinterpreting, awful for not trusting her friends. Yet trusting them instead of her own perceptions sets up an intolerable conflict that can lead to withdrawal, depression, and sometimes suicide attempts. Changing schools is an escape, but the damage to survivors can persist into adulthood. Simmons says:

Many survivors of bullying…described feeling unfamiliar with the most basic rules of relationship, things taken for granted by any socially adjusted person. They no longer feel certain of what makes people angry or upset, not to mention how to tell when someone is feeling that way. Their emotional radar is incapacitated. This can turn a girl into a cautious ghost of her former self, stifled and silenced by fear.

If the target herself can't understand what's happening, teachers, counselors, and family are likely to be clueless. The alpha, the ringleader of a girl-group, may be the most socially skilled, the most charismatic. Her "power lies in her ability to maintain a facade of girlish tranquillity in the course of sustained, covert peer abuse." She chooses the targets, but often it's the other group members who carry out the bullying. Eerily, in adulthood the alpha may genuinely remember the target as her close friend, not her prey.

As with other kinds of abuse, most bullies are former targets. And the transition doesn't take a generation -- more like a school year.

Two little girls...
courtesy, Library of Congress

The Lady or the Tiger
Not all girls participate in this pattern of intimate, indirect aggression. Some of the African-American girls Simmons interviewed are more likely to be assertive with their friends, to stand up for themselves both verbally and physically. They credit their parents, especially their mothers, for their ability to respect themselves and demand respect from others. Their families and their life experience have prepared them to handle confrontation. In the words of '70s feminism, these girls are able to "take their power." They're more likely to reach adulthood without the distorting, disorienting experience of giving their deepest trust to the girls most likely to hurt them.

On the other hand, they may run up against one of the finest double-binds brought to us by sexism: It's healthier to confront and resolve conflict directly, but it's not ladylike, and mainstream culture still prefers the lady to the tiger. So do a lot of feminists. How many of us secretly or openly believe that women are intrinsically more evolved than men because we're less violent, less competitive, more cooperative? The girl-group research shows us how well girls use their vaunted cooperation skills to inflict emotional violence on their friends.

Of all the women who grew up this way, we -- feminists, Dianics, and/or lesbians -- are most likely to know the persistence of girl-group abuse. We're the ones who, as adults, have kept women's groups at the heart of our lives. That means a lot of us have witnessed, suffered, and participated in the grown-up form of girl-group aggression, often known as trashing.

In April 1976, Ms. Magazine published an article called "TRASHING: The Dark Side of Sisterhood" by Jo Freeman, writing as Joreen. She was the editor of the first national women's liberation periodical and a member of one of the first women's liberation groups in the country. Ms. had never gotten so many responses to an article, most of them from other women who had been trashed.

I was one of the first in the country, perhaps the first in Chicago, to have my character, my commitment, and my very self attacked in such a way by Movement women that it left me torn in little pieces and unable to function. It took me years to recover, and even today the wounds have not entirely healed. Thus I hang around the fringes of the Movement, feeding off it because I need it, but too fearful to plunge once more into its midst. I don't even know what I am afraid of. I keep telling myself there's no reason why it should happen again -- if I am cautious -- yet in the back of my head there is a pervasive, irrational certainty that says if I stick my neck out, it will once again be a lightning rod for hostility….

What is "trashing," this colloquial term that expresses so much, yet explains so little? It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.

The means vary. Trashing can be done privately or in a group situation; to one's face or behind one's back; through ostracism or open denunciation. The trasher may give you false reports of what (horrible things) others think of you; tell your friends false stories of what you think of them; interpret whatever you say or do in the most negative light; project unrealistic expectations on you so that when you fail to meet them, you become a "legitimate" target for anger; deny your perceptions of reality; or pretend you don't exist at all…. Whatever methods are used, trashing involves a violation of one's integrity, a declaration of one's worthlessness, and an impugning of one's motives In effect, what is attacked is not one's actions, or one's ideas, but one's self. (For the full article, see

Freeman's experience in the '70s is a chilling match with the stories Simmons heard from middle-school girls in '99 -- and with the present-day experiences of adult women I know. This is one of the sources of internalized gynephobia, women's fear of women. It corrodes our institutions, our covens, our friendships -- even our partnerships. It causes us to fear our leaders because they perpetuate the pattern of hidden aggression -- or because we're afraid they will. It causes our leaders to fear open conflict and use or suffer bullying tactics. It causes women to run away from their heartwork because they don't feel safe with the women who share that heartwork. In short, this fear weakens us, wastes our energy, and handily distracts us from the work we want to do in the world.

girls, courtesy

In the '70s, feminists had to retrain ourselves. We didn't want to call adult women "girls," or humanity "mankind." We had to learn to identify internalized sexism, homophobia, and classism. We had to treat ourselves as powerful, smart, worth listening to -- when few of us had much practice in perceiving women like that.

Now, we're challenged to retrain ourselves again -- to recognize the girl-group patterns and to interrupt them without repeating them. As witches we believe we co-create our reality. In practice, that means we must enact our lives in the world we want, rather than the one we were born to. We're responsible for the loud unspoken thoughts, the rolled eyes, the large and small manipulations, as well as the smoldering fires of grudge, gossip, and character assassination we learned to nurture in middle school. We didn't always know what to call this stuff, but now we do.

The Matrilocal mission statement commits members "to unlearn behaviors that separate us as women, such as gossiping, secrecy, shunning, and power-over relationships." What it comes down to, though, is the old lesson from the early consciousness-raising groups: to change the world, each of us has to change herself.

+ Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons.
+ Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School, edited by Carol Gilligan, Nona Lyons, and Trudy Hanmer.

Graphics Credits
+ book covers (CatsEye and Odd Girl Out), scanned images of Feral's hardback copies
+ hand-painted photo, courtesy of and copyright © Jason Freeman 1990-2001
+ Two little girls in a park near Union Station, Washington, D.C., courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USW361-746 DLC.
+ trashing,
Copyright © 2002, Sage Starwalker. All rights reserved.
+ girls,
courtesy of and copyright © 1969-2002, Bill Hocker
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