My preoccupation with how women compete with one another, here labeled sexism, is born out of a profound sense of frustration. Despite the emergence of the #MeToo Movement and numerous allegations against prominent men—CEOs, movie stars, journalists, athletes, and even the president of the United States—nothing seems to shake women’s preference for male leadership.
Jay Newton-Small’s recent article in the Washington Post shows low poll numbers for every female candidate running for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination. In May, only two of the six women who declared consistently poll at or near 5 percent—Senators Kamala Harris (CA) and Elizabeth Warren (MA). Two older, white male candidates led by wide margins—more than 50 percent. Why is this the case? Why is it that even women seem to prefer men over more accomplished women candidates? Why do women find it so hard to support another woman seeking a higher position than their own?
At the root of this issue is sexism by women—against other women.
On Wednesdays between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., the only Black-owned radio station in Rochester, NY, invited residents to call in and ask a lawyer’s advice. One spring morning, I was struck by the pain in the voice of the first caller, whom I identified as an African American woman in her late thirties. She said that she and her brother had started arguing during dinner at their mother’s house. The escalating tension made her mother so uncomfortable that she called the police. The caller said that when the cops arrived, they told her mother that, in order to keep the adult children from being arrested, she would have to ask one of the children to leave: the caller. Heartbroken, she recounted how unlike her brother, she takes her mother to medical appointments and the grocery store; reminds her mother when to take her blood pressure medication, among others; calls nightly to make sure her mother is safe and has locked the doors and turned off the lights. Her bother, the caller insisted, did none of these things. The caller asked the lawyer to help her understand why her mother would treat her as though she were the child who did nothing.
The lawyer and the DJ were silent. This kind of silence is not meant for radio. Neither of the men on air would say what was obvious: women are socialized to value the child who, by virtue of their gender, provides the greatest sense of security and protection.
My most recent ethnographic study at a suburban school chronicles a similar pattern of sexism by women. Nadine and Keyshia, two Black girls in the same graduating class, were BFFs, until they were not: Keyshia, the more middle class of the two, began dating Nadine’s boyfriend, Kyle, without her knowledge.
When Nadine learned of this violation, she terminated her relationship with Keyshia. School officials were even compelled to assign Nadine to a different section of their shared English class. This estrangement lasted for almost an entire year, until they agreed to have lunch together in the school cafeteria. They chose not to sit at the “Black Table,” instead opting at an unoccupied table. They left their book bags and went to get snacks from the designated area. When they returned a group of white girls were standing near the book bags and told Keyshia and Nadine that they could not sit at that table because, referencing themselves, a segment of the school’s cheerleaders sit there every day.
Nadine invoked a legal argument: no one can claim proprietary rights in the school’s cafeteria; this is public, communal space, not private property. No one seemed to hear her. But the moment the tall, willowy, blonde, white girl says the words “nigger” and “bitch” in the same sentence, everyone hears it.
Nadine is chilled to the bone. Her sense of shame and humiliation is too much to bear. With her right hand, she reaches up (the girl who uttered the slur is taller) and, with every ounce of strength she can muster, she slaps Kirsten, her antagonist, full across the face. Her hand stings. She notices her handprint on both sides of Kirsten’s face, interrupted only by her nose, which turns from pink to beet red to splotchy purple. Tears well up in her eyes, she cries silently at first, then convulses with sobs. Adults arrive. An assistant principal orders Nadine immediately to his office.
Just like that, Nadine disappeared. No one heard from or saw her until she returned to school at the end of her five-day suspension. Her graduation just around the corner and her need to take the appropriate regents exams were totally ignored.
Sexism, a ubiquitous and (mis)recognized form of violence, constrains female agency and “[is] violent because [it] cause[s] injury to [ women].” It is present in particular moments, but also in different contexts and over time. While I identified this as gender-specific competition in Downed by Friendly Fire: Black Girls, White Girls and Suburban Schooling, sexism is the appropriate term to describe women’s preference for male leadership and how Black and White teenage girls learn to compete with each other as they begin the laborious process of putting into practice their versions of femininity. At this developmental stage, these girls’ rudimentary practices are brutal. They discriminate against each other—intra and intergroup—in a “war” for male attention, protection, and the hegemonic contemporary courtship script that closely approximates the traditional marital one.
You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge, so goes the old adage. Women have to stop misrecognizing sexism as the behaviors and practices of men alone. Our journey to transformation comes with the acknowledgement of our complicity in what appears to be the ultimate examples of banality: men protecting women. However, if we are committed to gender equity and social transformation, we must look inward to interrogate the socially approved forms of violence in our lives. At the same time, we cannot limit our analysis to individual shortcomings. We must also look outward and recognize that without considering the relentless durability of structural arrangements and violence embedded in the individual response(s), we will fail to achieve our idealized version of a democratic United States.
Signithia Fordham is an anthropologist and a former Susan B. Anthony Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies (2002–2007), University of Rochester, in Rochester, New York.
Cite as: Fordham, Signithia. 2019. “Sexism by Women—Against Other Women.” Anthropology News website, September 3, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1254