07/22/2013 05:23 EDT | Updated 09/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Hey Men, Women's Conflicts Aren't "Cat Fights"


Women write often about female friendship, paying tribute to its strengths and joys. The ideal of friendship between women is the woman who knows all our secrets, who lifts and supports us and whose advice we rely upon to get us through life. Less is written about how and why women fight, why we fall out, why we may dislike other women, and how to deal with another woman who hurts us.

Whether this woman be a former friend, a colleague we don't get along with, a family member, or a woman in our community with whom we may have disagreement, I have found that feelings of shame and silencing around female conflict can make it very difficult for women in particular to understand and thus heal from disagreements.

One thing I have noticed is that men always minimize and refuse to take seriously conflict between women. When men conflict, it is understood that there can be serious political or intellectual disagreements, or that injustice did occur, or that real slights have been experienced. Conflict between women, however, is assumed to be trivial and due to "cattiness" or "jealousy" and that the women ought to just get over it and stop being silly.

I have personally explained to men a situation where I felt uncomfortable working with another woman who had been abusive towards me in the past, only to be met with the response that "maybe you two are just jealous of each other." I find it highly unlikely that had a man explained a similar situation in his workplace or organizational life that he would be told that he was simply jealous of the other man for being handsome or some other trivial example: however, women are regularly assumed to simply not be getting along because someone is prettier, or stole somebody's man, or is thinner, or other superficial reasons that deny the ability of women to behave reasonably.

Besides being a reiteration of the old idea that men are objective and intellectual while women are emotional and irrational, this treatment of female conflict makes it much harder for women to resolve differences -- particularly when a woman has a genuine complaint about another woman's abusive/exploitive/unjust behaviour.

Women are shamed by this idea into not being able to honestly assess or mediate problems since it is seen as women just being petty. Because we are not encouraged to name and recognize behaviour, we can remain guilty about our role in conflict, confused about what the problem is, and unsure how to reach out for help in resolving differences.

For Black women or women of colour, there is the added guilt of "but y'all are sisters!" as though all Black women automatically share one perspective and no legitimate disagreement can be possible. While it is normal that women in communities of colour who have numerous relationships with other women of colour will at some point clash, women of colour face the expectation that they will get along with every woman in their community and that if there is a problem this is a failure of political consciousness or of personal character.

Similarly, in women's organizations where women work with other women it will be natural for conflict to arise, but women can be made to feel that conflict is a sign of not being feminist enough or that not getting along with another woman makes activism around women's issues illegitimate ("How can you talk about patriarchy/rape/wage gap etc. when you can't even get along?"). In reality all communities, organizations, families and groups will periodically deal with conflict. It is how we solve or manage that conflict that tests our consciousness, compassion and collectivity, not the impossible ideal that we should automatically love every woman we encounter.

Paradoxically, precisely because female conflict is not acknowledged as being based in real points of contention, this attitude is exactly what forces women to seek justice in asking friends to choose sides or talking with others about the issue in an attempt to get empathy, which is then treated as petty women gossiping which further feeds the idea that women are catty.

Because women are conditioned to be nice, and shamed about any behaviour which causes difficulty, it is hard for women to get practice in dealing with and mediating problems. When we feel shame about our feelings, particularly anger, we feel prevented from seeking help and so may turn to our friends to vent, prolonging our sense of injustice and spreading the conflict into our circles of friends.

Being able to recognize the source of conflict, to reflect on one's responsibility, to own bad behaviour, to address miscommunication, etc. are key to solving conflict but when women are socially prevented from validating disagreements these processes become impossible. It is important that we recognize that particularly within oppressed/marginalized groups conflict is both inevitable and based in real tensions, and rather than expecting oppressed parties to simply work it out based on shared identity, that we validate hurt, acknowledge legitimate problems and work with the involved parties to mediate, repair and progress.

Women are capable of being critical of each other without being "just jealous." And because women are often so unfairly branded as petty, it can make real critical engagement between women -- so important in working out political values, for example -- even more difficult.

Unfairly subjecting women to sexist criticism makes women more sensitive to critique and can end up causing even more conflict and shame cycles as women are urged to be "nicer" to each other when they attempt legitimate critique of another woman's politics or ideologies. Again, for women of colour in particular, this threat of being called "angry" or a "bitch" if you speak up can lead to silencing and resentments that are suppressed until they boil over dramatically.

Both men and women will inevitably experience challenges in their relationships with other men/women. But while men tend to be given the benefit of the doubt and are assumed to be behaving from serious motives, women are frequently treated as though we are being childish.

When women are comfortable acknowledging that conflict is real, that it is frequently justified, and that we have a right to our hurt feelings, it can help us to move forward in approaching each other with a clear sense of what the problem is, a strategy to address it, and a plan for moving on. And as we become more comfortable in recognizing and owning conflict we may find in turn that we are able to communicate more clearly with other women and anticipate potential sources of disagreement, thus leading to healthier relationships and stronger friendships with each other.

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