Does society's lesson of sexism lead women to pick at each others' looks and lives?

November 19, 1992|By Cox News Service

ATLANTA -- The middle-aged mother who bore kids straight out of high school declares women at 30 are too old to have children. The professional woman who prides her independence insists careers should come before babies.

The female lawyer gets judged by her appearance. The teacher who shuns makeup is mocked.

Blondes are thought to have more fun, but "brainy" brunettes thank God they're not "bimbos."

The stealth war between females is constant. Women target each other's hair, clothing, figures, husbands, houses, children, wedding rings and family choices.

"Women are much more focused on rating themselves," says Yale psychology professor Judith Rodin, author of "Body Traps" (William Morrow, $22).

"They sweep the room [with their eyes] as they enter to see who's more attractive or thinner or fatter. Men tend to do it more for performance," she says. "But women tend to do it more for appearance."

The Great Cookie Contest of 1992 forced women to choose between Barbara Bush, archetypal '50s mother and politician's wife, and Hillary Clinton, '90s model of the female overachiever who can bake and give birth.

"Don't you think it was ridiculous?" asks Susan Koppelman, a feminist writer from St. Louis. "Neither of them have been to mother's school and cookie school, and yet both are expected to be competent cooks because they have vaginas."

Pundits are already speculating how long the future first lady will remain popular. Mrs. Clinton inevitably will be reviled by some as she attempts to widen the traditionally narrow role.

"I'm sure she will encounter criticism, but first ladies always encounter criticism no matter what they do," says Carl Anthony, author of "First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power" (William Morrow, $15 paperback). "Our expectations are still laden with pre-suffragette sexism.

"We have this notion that they must somehow symbolize every virtue that we've always placed as a burden on women."

And you needn't look far for examples of how women are criticized.

Marion Brock of Atlanta has been criticized both for wanting kids and for waiting to have them. Women will say to her, " 'You're going to have children in your 40s? You're not going to have any children?'They want you to make a decision right there," she says.

Theories about why women criticize each other span the spectrum from biological to environmental. Sociobiologists say women compete for men in a Darwinian skirmish. Others say women denigrate each other's dreams, achievements and opinions because our male-dominated society considers them irrelevant.

Female one-upmanship may "represent a manifestation of competition for first-rate males," says University of Arizona scientist Robert L. Smith.

While some women concede this possibility, they also point out otherreasons.

Jewell Harper, an Environmental Protection Agency executive, in part blames human nature, which she sees emerge in business meetings. "Men sort of do an overall sweep and move on. Women are much more discerning about the details. . . . There's an evaluation of whether or not the outfit is a really nice one, whether or not it really suits the wearer, how much she paid for it. . . . Basically, I think we're animals."

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is a history professor at Emory University who's been criticized by female colleagues for dressing too sexily and marrying a "macho" man. "There's plenty of competition for men, but feeling good about yourself somehow seems to mean being better than," she says. "You've got to put the others down."

Some women, of course, disdain the gamesmanship. Looking back to elementary school, 32-year-old Kate Paradis remembers "people talking about other people behind their backs. It just appalled me. I realized it wasn't how I wanted to behave."

According to feminists, verbal bashing of other women is a consequence of the patriarchy. "Basically, we live in a fundamentally women-hating culture which socializes all of us to belittle other women," says women's studies professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall of Spelman College.

"Women are perceived as property, and women themselves even perceive themselves as belonging to somebody," she says. "We primarily think of women in relational terms -- somebody's mother, somebody's sister, somebody's wife. We don't think of men in relational terms. We think of men in their professional identity."

Consequently, women grow up seeking approval through appearance and accommodation. "Girls are rewarded early on as children for looking pretty and being nice and being popular," says Dr. Rodin.

"We're judged in beauty contests so much in society," says Joy Hannan-Copanezos, 39, a jewelry maker and mother of two. "That's the way we're brought up. . . . We're taught to compete with each other before we're taught to be friends."

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