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Let’s stop perpetuating the myth that women are bullies – a rebuttal

I’m going to take a little break for sewing and cats and fashion history to have one of my rare rants about something that matters hugely to me.

First, a caveat: It’s well after midnight.  I’m writing this because the prompt for this distressed me so much that I couldn’t sleep.  I’m not supposed to be blogging tonight.  I’ve got two dresses to hem, put fasteners in, and do a ridiculous amount of appliqué on before I get on a plane tomorrow.  Oh, and a hat to make.  I’m not supposed to be blogging, I’m supposed to be sleeping or sewing and I’ve done too much of the latter and haven’t had enough of the former.  So this won’t be my most well-written or eloquent post, but it is, nonetheless, important.

A blog post entitled ‘I won’t be *that* woman’ is doing the rounds of Facebook.

At first I read the post and thought ‘Yes!  Totally!  Let’s not bully!  Bullying is bad!’

And then I realised that she’s not just saying ‘Let’s not bully.’  She’s saying ‘Women need to not bully other women and pull them down, because that’s what women do’

You know what?  It’s simply NOT true.

Women do NOT bully more than men.  Women are NOT inherently mean and catty.  Women AREN’T mainly held back by other women.  Women’s groups do NOT advance the women in them at the expense of other women any more than men’s groups do or do not advance the men in them at the expense of other men.

Women are NOT bullies, and we need to stop perpetuating the idea that women are mean to other women, and pull them down, because it’s NOT true, and it’s destructive to women as a whole.

I was bullied in intermediate school.  By girls.  And it was indeed awful.  Then I homeschooled for two years, and went back to the same school, with the same girls who had bullied me when we were 12 & 13, and you know what I noticed?  They had grown up, and in growing up, had grown out of being bullies.  By 15 and 16 the girls at my high school were, by and large, kind and supportive.  The boys still bullied each other, and certain boys in particular, mercilessly, but the girls had matured out of it.  The most popular girls were also the nicest – we rewarded and respected their kindness.

I was still an outcast, but it was by choice (I just wanted to read!), and I was welcome to be part of a group any time I wanted, and was even elected student body vice president.

We had squabbles, but they were respectful.

My high school was not an anomaly in my life.  As an adult, my overwhelming experience has been that women are kind and supportive, particularly to other women.

I went to a women’s university, and while there were girls I didn’t like, and girls who didn’t like me (I’m outspoken and opinionated – not always popular!), we were still respectful of each other, and when push came to shove, we were there to support each other and the university as a whole.

I’ve worked almost exclusively in female dominated fields: museums and sewing.  In both, I have received huge amounts of support and help from other women.

My life today is the product of hundreds of amazing women who have supported me.  Most of the groups I am in are full of women, and they all support each other.

The Historical Sew Fortnightly?  Vastly women, and all of them helping each other, and complementing each other, and congratulating each other.  3000 of them, 3 years, and only 3 times in 3 years have we had to remind a member to be kinder.

Wellington Sewing Bloggers?  30 amazing women who all help each other with sewing and life.  No competition, no trying to one-up or do better.  Just helping.

My sewing classes are mostly women, and in every class the members help each other out with the actual class projects, as well as everything from recommendations for paediatricians, to networking, to wear to get the shoes someone is wearing.

Yes, some people are bullies.  Yes, sometimes we slip up and say something bullying.  Yes, we need to not do that.  Yes, bullying is BAD.

But bullying isn’t something that women do to women in particular.  Let’s not say ‘I won’t be *that* woman’, as if that was something unique to women.

Let’s say ‘I won’t be *that* PERSON’.

I won’t be the person who bullies anyone.

Let’s not perpetuate the myth that women hurt each other and pull each other down, because, it’s NOT true, and it’s hurting women, and it’s pulling us down.

We aren’t mean and catty and backbite-y.  It’s a terrible stereotype that society has foisted on us, and that the media perpetuates.  Every time a women criticises another woman, that’s called ‘bullying’, or ‘being catty’, but when men criticise other men, they are called ‘strong’, or ‘thoughtful’, or ‘well considered.’  The standards are totally warped.  Yes, some women are bullies, or catty.  But so are some men.  It’s not something that we inherently are as a gender to our own gender, and the minute we stop buying into the media spin, stop accepting the idea that that’s how women are, and look around, we see how supportive and NOT BULLIES women actually are to each other.

I don’t want to be a bully to anyone.  Male or female.  And I don’t want anyone to be a bully.  Male or female.  But it’s not a woman thing.  It’s not an ‘I won’t be *that* woman’ thing.  It’s a person thing, that we all need to stop.

So I won’t be *that* person.

But when I comes to what my experience with women has been?  Supportive, kind, helpful, willing to share knowledge, experience, and resources?

Yes.  I will be *that* woman.

Because that’s what women actually are to each other.

And to all the women who have been that to me, too many to name, but you know who you are, from the very first and most important (hi Mum!) to someone who has just read one blog post but stopped to say thank you, THANK YOU!  Your kindness has been felt, and I try to pass on all the support you’ve given me to the next woman.  You’re what women are really like.

22 Comments

  1. ABSOLUTELY! People are people are what they are. It’s almost never gender specific when it comes down to personality quirks. Not that bullying is something that should be reduced to a “quirk” but you know what I mean, I hope!

  2. Yes! That is such an untrue gender stereotype! While there are some women who bully and pull others down, there are also men like that and most women are quite lovely people. There are, unfortunately, a large number of stupid things floating around the internet and hopefully people will stop sharing them!

    Hope you were able to get some sleep!

  3. Good catch, and thank you for spelling it out so succinctly. I discovered the pleasures of female friendships in my 30s and what a pleasant surprise that has been. 😉

    And you know, making things better counts as construction. 😉 Happy sewing!

  4. For the last months I’ve been heavily involved in some conflicts/drama, and the thing that has hit me is that it’s me and the other woman in the group that have been attacked because we are frank and outspoken, while the men go behing each others’ back and refuse to say anything that might be seen as criticism towards other men. They are basically behaving like the worst examples of what people claim women do. So nope, there is no difference between how men and women behave.

  5. Grace Darling says

    Hmm…..maybe the Facebook person had read Phyllis Chesler’s 2009 book,
    “Women’s Inhumanity to Women”.

  6. I’ve never read the article so I’m not going to say anything if it. All I know is that women are catty and mean to each other. I was bullied my whole childhood and teenage years and it was mostly from being homeschooled since 2nd grade and dressing “weird”. After that I went to fashion school in college. The females were still the same. catty! I was the star student in college and doing all the fashion shows so it was fine for me. We were all in competition with each other and judgmental.
    Ever since I was able to walk practically I’ve dressed vintage. I still to this day get the catty and judgmental up and down looks, constantly while I’m out and about. I was in the army for a long time and it was great to have a break from women. But even in the military it was a competition between women and it was worse because there was usually only me and one or two other females and we had to prove ourselves in A mans world and even more so with each other.
    Nonetheless my women friends are supportive and kind but they’re also over 60. I love them. I do have a friend my age (from the army) who lives hundreds of miles away but we have such a good bond, there’s none of that “in the back of my mind I’m really better than you” thoughts going on, I would slit throats for her.
    Was it Coco that said women don’t dress for men but to outdo women? Something like that I think. But it’s true. That’s one example of how women are but that’s just my opinion and experience.
    Bullying is wrong and I hate bully’s.

    • Perhaps Coco Chanel had her own spin on the saying, but Jane Austen wrote it earlier, in Northanger Abbey: “Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.” Of course, Northanger Abbey was mostly written tongue firmly in cheek.
      I think we’ve all had experiences where certain women were catty or mean towards us, but it is no less a female trait than it is a male trait. I’ve experienced meanness and bullying from both men and women in my life. One might even say that women sometimes focus on tearing other women down BECAUSE they live in “A man’s world” that forces them into competition with each other, whether they’re aware of it or not. Patriarchy is a real and insidious thing, and because it is so ingrained in our society, it operates at all levels of consciousness.

    • Heather says

      When I read the part you wrote about getting the once over for your vintage wear, I actually think some may be thinking (as I would). “Wow! That looks amazing, I wish I were brave enough to wear that, she’s so self confident. “

      • Heather: Yeah, I’ve taken to thinking that when I get looks at my attire. :-) I think it was a little girl gawking at me when I was wearing a large sunhat and dress that gave me the idea… it was definitely the “Are you a princess?” look rather than criticism. 😀

  7. Thank you ! I’ve heard the “women are just bullies to other women” excuse for bullying and excluding the dissenting voice in a group, and it makes me see red. Bullying is no more in the X chromosome than in the Y one ! It’s just a very useful way not to look at the bullying problem itself.

  8. I mostly agree with you, but…
    Your paragraph that starts “Women do NOT bully more than men” gets it right.

    However, the following paragraph goes from ‘no more than men’ to perhaps suggesting that no women bully. I think this is not quite what you meant, but it is how it reads.

    Some women bully. I’m glad that your 12 & 13-year old bullies turned into good people. That wasn’t my experience of high school, where there was still some serious evilness going down at 15 and 16 and 17. The ‘popular’ set in my (all girls) school were not ‘popular’ because they were nice people, but for all sorts of other complicated social reasons.

    We do not have to set women up as more or less supportive than men. Not all, but some, women bully. Not all, but some, men bully. The style of bullying is probably gendered, but all genders do it.

    Maybe that is what you meant, but I thought I’d check.

  9. liseli says

    Very well said!
    PS I just discovered your blog and I love it, even though I can’t sew (but I’d like to learn, sooner or later). Sorry for my poor English;)

  10. I didn’t get from the original article that all women are bullies, I got that there can be an element in women, or some women, that will pull other women down instead of supporting them. Like you I have been incredibly blessed in being surrounded by fabulous women who look out for one another, support one another and are generally awesome. I got bullied right up until I was about 15, by girls mostly, and teased (I am drawing the distinction between being physically threatened vs insulted and taunted) by both genders all through. And I had lots of fab friends.
    And yet I know through other groups I am involved in, that some women don’t have those quality friendships in their lives. They seem to have “friends”who use them to make themselves feel better. This makes me very sad, and is a form of bullying I feel.
    I guess what I got from the original article is that to bully another woman, in a situation where she is basically as much a victim of an absurd patriarchy as you are likely to ever see, is just downright nasty and vicious. For men to do it is terrible, but when your own “sisters” do it, there is an even further level of betrayal.

    • “I got that there can be an element in women, or some women, that will pull other women down instead of supporting them.”

      And what I’m saying is that is an element in PEOPLE, not just women, and that we need to stop ascribing it to women specifically, because saying that women have a crab-in-a-bucket mentality that men don’t have is very, very damaging to women. Especially since so many women are so, SO good at supporting others! (and you know you are definitely one of them for me!)

      “to bully another woman, in a situation where she is basically as much a victim of an absurd patriarchy as you are likely to ever see, is just downright nasty and vicious.”

      That I absolutely agree with!

  11. I appreciate your post, but unfortunately I have the opposite experience.

    I’m disabled and am often bullied because of my looks. I was bullied in grade school, high school, college, and still to this day in my thirties – mainly because I am asymmetrical. It’s almost exclusively been by women. While in grade school both girls and boys bullied me, by high school, the boys stopped – the women continue. In such a beauty obsessed society, differences because of birth are not tolerated in my experience. I have found that women are more than willing to tell me my hair is bad, I dress poorly, am ugly etc. without prompting or the topic on the table.

    I wish just once in my life to be judged solely on accomplishment – without appearance taken into account. I am glad you were able to get past it and find supportive groups who value what you do. I haven’t been that lucky.

    • UGH. Sorry to hear that. Especially sorry to hear you move in circles that feel compelled to pronounce such judgements on your looks out of the blue… I wish you luck in finding a good support group soon!

  12. HoiLei says

    Bullying is non-gendered behavior, but there’s a particular type of “bullying” that I see more from women than men: victim blaming when other women get hurt or in trouble. In my experience, women tend to speak judgmentally, even meanly, in cases like Monica Lewinsky’s. Men make crude jokes, but the judgment is not so harsh… they kinda wish they had an attractive intern willing to sleep with them. Women, on the other hand, pass judgment.

    But I believe victim blaming is motivated more by fear of danger than mean spirit. We don’t want to believe that we could be victims, so we look for reasons that the victim was really at fault, and therefore not like us. In Lewinsky’s case, WE would be smarter than to fall for our married boss; WE’RE not ‘sluts’. In rape cases, WE don’t dress like that/leave drinks unattended/go to bars/walk in bad parts of town/’lead him on’ etc. In domestic violence cases, WE wouldn’t pick a guy like that/make him so mad/stay for so long. I’ve even seen women blame other women for being treated badly by their kids (WE wouldn’t raise such disrespectful hellions)!

    We live in a culture where, not so long ago, a woman’s security in the world and ability to survive was heavily dependent on men, and her reputation was her all. She needed to stay within narrow limits of social and sexual behavior, or she was lost. Vestiges of that mentality still linger, even though our reality is different. When empathy makes us feel insecure, we find reasons not to empathize.

    I’m sure this thoroughly human response to feeling insecure manifests in men in other ways. The lesson we need to learn as we try to be better than our knee-jerk responses is this: We have to be stronger than our own fear in order to be good to others. And conversely: Showing grace to people who are like us is showing grace to ourselves, which we all need.

    • HoiLei says

      I feel like I ought to add, Leimomi, that every time I come to your blog, I relax into the feeling of fun, goodwill, and support you create. Your posts are always kind and positive toward others, and you openly share your own hard work and lessons learned, as well as giving credit and kudos to others for their hard work and tutorials! Your responses to people’s Historical Sew Monthly efforts are a shining example of a woman supporting and celebrating other women. Thank you for your wonderful presence online!

  13. Emilia says

    More often than not, I find women who are the biggest advocates of “all women are catty and mean and shallow,” usually have a lot of internalised sexism that tells them that to be valuable, they have to be “not like other girls” and “one of the guys.” It’s a really insidious form of sexism, because it uses an actual problem (that women are conditioned culturally to compete with one another for the attention/approval of men) and turns the expression or experience of it into a reason to tear down other women, often pre-emptive. Bullying is a society-wide problem. But it’s not confined to or most expressed by women. We as women are just taught to disavow other women as catty bullies in order to prove they’re not a normal, shallow girl, but a cool girl. No-one wins that competition, and it ensures women will be reluctant to reach out to other women.

    I was bullied by girls in school. But not because women are naturally catty and mean. I know now that it was to fight for male attention and to assert dominance. I am like other girls, and proudly. My refusal to be cruel says nothing about my gender expression, and everything about my ethos of rejecting dominance games and positioning myself as superior to other women. This shouldn’t be radical, but it often is.

  14. Lynne says

    I agree that women are not the main bullies of other women – I think bullying is an equal opportunities activity. It seems to be a combination of character and circumstance that produces bullies. My working life was spent teaching in a secondary school, and I saw bullies who were female and bullies who were male. Girls tended to pick on other girls, and boys on other boys, but one of the most distressing examples I witnessed was of a group of seventeen year old girls picking on a seventeen year old boy. I didn’t quite twig what was happening until he became upset and left. It seems they had made a habit of this when they were thirteen year olds.

    My bullies have been men, and fortunately, not too many of those. I was bullied as a five year old in a country school by the ‘big boys’ who were about fourteen. It didn’t go on long. One of the big girls gave them a right seeing-to. Wherever you are, Libby, I thank you! As a teacher, I and many other female teachers were bullied by one of the male teachers.

    Possibly men and women have been too ready to make on-going jokes about Monica Lewinsky. As someone said, many of us have been able to leave our early mistakes behind us, and it does seem unfair that the shame seems to be all on Monica, and not on Bill.

    Thank goodness for open, supportive, and inclusive groups like this one.

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