This is may be the most controversial aspect of life I write about on this blog. I am not kidding. Women feel hurt by men, sure, and men feel hurt by women, you bet, but there is no hurt like the emotional hurt women inflict on women, wittingly or unwittingly. And that's an understatement.
If you ascribe to the stone age model of gender relations, which I rather do, you can easily imagine the women back at the camp grinding up meal together, farming, tending to babies and generally inventing civilisation while the men go off to hunt.
No doubt someone has conveniently discovered (or will conveniently discover) that in caveman times there was a race of Superwomen Better Than All The Other Women who also went off to hunt, brave loners for whom all the other hunters lusted, etc: "By Dadga and the Three-headed One, Siobhaedd, you are different from all other womankind upon whom I look with scorn from my manly heights. Become thou the captainess of my hunters."
Anyway, that's cool for Siobheadd, but for some reason it doesn't endear her to the other women. Why not, eh? Why do they not admire her like the Chief and all the other hunters? Well, for one thing, the gals back at the camp don't have a tiny, sometimes barely perceptible voice working its way through their bloodstreams saying "Gosh, Siobheadd is A WOMAN. I wonder if she'd ever sleep with me?" And also they don't like it that Siobheadd is hanging with their husbands all day because, unlike Siobheadd, they can hear that tiny voice burbling away.
In general, and I found this out the hard way, women are collectivists. As a sex, we could have taught the Soviets a thing or two. Unless we are homeschooled, we go from home to schoolyard and eventually form cliques, just about the time boys naturally decide they don't want to play with us any more, unless they have been caught and drugged with Ritalin into submission.
(Okay, I actually don't know what Ritalin does to little boys. But I do know that it is normal for many if not most boys to not want to play with girls for a few years.)
Personally, I was a complete failure at schoolyard collectivism. This had a lot to do with my parents, who did not believe in children watching television, chewing gum, wearing trendy clothes, listening to rock music or reading comic books, unless written in French. This may sound great, but unfortunately I believe that abstinence from all these things was not a lifestyle choice but a sign that I was a cut above everyone else. And it was this, I think, not the absence of Motorhead from my life, that made the schoolyard a living hell.
There I was, the young aesthete alone with the vulgar herd, wondering why the vulgar herd, with its mindless entertainments, corrupted tastes, obscene language, degraded trendy clothes and, quite often, wrongful assumption that "being Italian" was something to brag about, didn't like me.
My only friends at elementary school were an unusually amiable girl liked by everyone and a fellow freak, but for some strange reason, I got along very well with girls at Brownies, ballet class and, eventually, the parish youth group.
(Wait a minute--why? Hypotheses: Rather unfortunate male-female dynamic at school upped ante? One to two hours a week of the Young Aesthete's company was bearable, even bracing? Edwardian Brownies philosophy jived well with neo-Edwardian upbringing? Physical and emotional suffering of ballet created bonds?)
Then I went to high school, and the sun of female friendship shone like never before. By the tenth grade, I had figured out how to get along with enough women to form a collective. But it wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I learned how to get along in any collective. This was because I had taken my B.A. degree, which I honestly thought made me a better person than women who went to community college, and it took me quite a while to get over myself.
When I first joined the adult lady workforce, I was horrified by the recipe-and-horoscope culture. I definitely thought I was TOO GOOD for that. But eventually I found myself making the recipes, and discovering that they were good. I still have Sharon's pumpkin cheesecake recipe somewhere and, lo, it is very good.
In short I discovered that it is okay to talk recipes and possibly even star signs with women without losing the part of me that prefers dogmatic theology and T.S. Eliot. And, in fact, I have discovered that it is this discovery that makes me a nice person to be around.
Getting along with other women is a lot like inter-religious dialogue. If you want to have a decent inter-religious dialogue, you have to obey some ground rules.
The first ground rule of inter-religious dialogue is that you're not allowed to try to bully your interlocutors into admitting that they are wrong and you are right. The second is that you're not allowed to stress that your religion is better than theirs. The third is that you don't TELL them what they believe, but that you ASK them what they believe and LISTEN to the answers. The fourth is that you don't stress your differences: you always begin with what you have in common. If you're talking to Jews, your beginning point might be Moses. If you're talking to Muslims, your beginning point might be Adam or Noah. If you're talking to Buddhists, your beginning point might be respect for life.
Okay, so the rules of getting along with women are as such:
1. Don't try to dominate your fellow women. And try your best not to look like that's what you are trying to do. Rough and boisterous humour, e.g. saying "Wow! You got hit with the ugly stick today!" is not a good idea.
2. Don't ever, EVER give another woman the impression you think you are fundamentally better than she is. It used to be a class marker in Britain how a woman spoke to women whose husbands or fathers had humbler jobs than her husband or father. Aristocratic ladies (supposedly) spoke in an easy, friendly, confident fashion, and middle-class ladies, eager to differentiate themselves from the Common Herd, often made the fearful solecism of sounding snotty and rude. "She's a real lady" didn't necessarily mean a woman from a posh background; it meant a woman with exquisitely good manners--which doesn't mean acting like you have a poker up your butt, but acting like everyone you speak to is enormously important, likeable and interesting.
3. There are women who enjoy a good intellectual argument, and there are women who don't. 99% of the time, keep your opinion about another woman's life or conduct--unless it affects you directly--locked up in your teeming brain. If she asks what you think, and you have reason to believe she won't turn it into World War III, tell her in the gentlest possible terms. But if she gets mad, point out that she asked. If she's your friend, eventually she will stop being mad. If she tries to turn the collective against you, point out the unfairness of this behaviour because "she asked for my opinion, and I gave it in the gentlest possible terms." And if you have a reputation for minding your own business, and the collective shares your opinion anyway, it will probably rule in your favour, and tell Miss Thinner Skin Than She Thought to grow up.
4. Stress your similarities. If you like pie, graciously accept the pie recipe. If you were born in late February, admit that you're a Pisces. If you have been felled by cramps, ask the woman next to you if she has any painkillers. If the dreaded woman-dividing subject of abortion comes up, stress that you feel awful for girls who are frightened when they find themselves pregnant and mention the (pro-life) places in town that help these girls out. Then (if appropriate, and if it really is okay to be having this conversation at work, etc.) mention the babies. And for heaven's sake, always remember that there may be a woman with a scarred heart, soul and womb in earshot, so pick your words wisely--not only for her sake, but for yours.
The last thing I will mention is that women are not only collective, we are competitive. Being competitive and collective at the same time is very difficult. It is a headache. And the number one competition, one that pits sister against sister, friend against friend, daughter against mother (sadly), is the competition for men. There is no easier way to alienate other women than to make a huge and obvious effort to dominate the attention of another woman's man, even, sometimes, your dad.* Even if you don't want a guy, and are just trying to make him laugh or accept you as one of the guys, you can seriously anger his wife, girlfriend and other women around.
I will never forget watching a woman, a stranger, a friend of a friend, show up at a party in a ludicrously inappropriate and immodest dress. I was there with B.A., at the time my fiance, and it was the first time in my life I felt personally insulted by another woman's dress. Her huge breasts dominated the room, a room of close female friends, their boyfriends, husbands and fiances. The collective was collectively, if silently, outraged, and it broke its silence later when it was reported that The Stranger had done her best to flirt with one of the boyfriends.
Now, this is where someone or other (possibly Hilary) will jump in to comment that this is why she can't stand other women. But I will point out that drawing together into a wall to defend against attacks from strangers who want what's yours is not uniquely female behaviour.
To sum up, speaking as someone who took a long and painful time learning how to get along with other women, if you don't like other women, it's not really our problem. Most of us could care less. It's yours. It's yours because life is tough, and sometimes you really need other women around. As great as men can be, they can never quite understand what it is to be a woman, and sometimes someone who does is who you need around right then.
*Shocker! Some women can deal with going grey and saggy just when their own daughters are blooming into gorgeous roses, and some women can't. Nobody likes to talk about this, but it can be a source of horrible tension and division between mothers and daughters. The bright side of being 40 is that I am already falling apart, so if I had a daughter at 41, by the time my daughter was 20, I'd be like, "What a pretty girl! Did I EVER look like that? Hmm....so many years ago... can't remember..."