A RECENT STUDY of tweets sent in the UK found that half of the abusive tweets with the words “slut” or “whore” in them were sent by women and girls. Researchers arrived at a similar conclusion in a 2014 study.
This information reminds us that sexism isn’t just a problem of men devaluing women. Women can turn misogynistic standards and the expectations of societal gender norms on one another, and we (but not all women!) do.
Each one of us responds in one way or another to gender norms and the sexist messages inherent therein with varying degrees of consciousness. When women engage in slut-shaming, they’re adopting and perpetuating the standard that women should be pure and tempered in their sexuality. Women who internalize this message and project it on other women are engaging in sexism.
Another way in which women adopt and perpetuate sexist standards is by devaluing other women, doubting their abilities to be strong, competent, or any other positive trait typically associated with masculinity. Back in 2013, Gallup found that 40% of women preferred a male boss; 27% preferred a female, and 32% had no preference. Among men, 29% preferred a male, 18% a female, and 51% had no preference. The idea that women aren’t leaders is, apparently, quite prevalent among women.
And then there’s the method I adopted for being misogynistic: associating oneself with the masculine, devaluing the feminine, and devaluing a substantial number of women along with it. Since men are better than women (the unconscious thinking probably went), being “manly” is better than being “girly.”
I was a boastful “tomboy” growing up. And I would be lying if I said I don’t still get a little ego bump when someone tells me I’m “not like other girls”; it’s a difficult thing to shake. I was hardly the most confident kid, but in terms of gender norms and performance, I felt superior to most other girls.
This performance was not always genuine. There have been times when I played up supposed masculine traits and qualities to appear as an even more formidable opponent of everything women and girls are supposed to be. So I’d put on an act, believing that this performance would raise my worth in the eyes of men — the ones whose judgment weighed the most.
Throughout the early years of my adulthood, I gradually came to see this attitude and this performance as problematic. I was acting on the idea that girls are a certain way and boys are a certain way and I was one of those rare birds who could be different. And better.
In my glorification of the masculine, I was hating on my fellow girls by feeling superior to them through resisting norms that, to varying degrees, many of them adopted. Rather than understanding their response to gender norms — with a sense of compassion concerning the profound social pressures women and girls face to adapt to them — I thought they were inferior.
I have a healthier, more accurate, and less sexist orientation toward gender norms now, though I may slip back into my younger self on occasion. I see these norms as socialized, not essentialized. I’m able to look into myself and find skills, interests, and deficits associated with both masculinity and femininity. I can value qualities from both norms within myself, and work to temper some of the less desirable ones. And, most importantly for the topic at hand, I can appreciate other women who have responded to gender norms differently than I.
The work that we do toward eradicating sexism can’t end with trying to get men to value women. Sexism is perpetuated by women against one another (and against men), too. It is essential that we reflect critically on how we have responded to misogyny and gender norms ourselves, and that we are vigilant in recognizing the ways that women disparage one another, speaking out against slut-shaming, mistrust of women’s abilities, and the glorification of the masculine, even when these are coming from fellow women. Even when they are coming from ourselves.
And it’s particularly important to talk with the young girls in our lives. Their self-concept is in the process of forming, and how they respond to misogynistic messages early on will make it either more or less likely that they will grow up respecting themselves and other women. Reform through education is always possible later on, but challenging norms and values that have posed as givens over a long span of time is, to say the least, a difficult enterprise.
Let’s respect the pressures women (and men, too) face, root out our own misogynistic internalizations, and be supportive rather than beating each other — and ourselves — down.