Women v. Women?
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A couple of months ago, I was talking to my grandmother about the presidential elections. As a female Indian American immigrant, I thought that she would be proud of the achievements of a fellow South Asian woman—an Attorney Generalship, a seat in the Senate, and now the vice presidential nomination of a major party. However, my grandmother stated that she didn’t like Kamala Harris and that she would much rather vote for Trump. She was not alone. Fifty-five percent of Caucasian women and 42 percent of all women voted for Trump in the recent election. I was confused and embarrassed by my own grandmother's statement, but I was also intrigued. In the eyes of my grandmother, Kamala Harris did not have enough experience compared to the opposing political party. Why wouldn’t my grandmother support a younger version of herself? This question led me to wonder: why don’t women support women in power?
We witnessed Hillary Clinton run to be the first female president and Kamala Harris rise as the first female vice president. Though Kamala Harris aims to be a role model for young girls around the world, many women are against her and not just for her political beliefs. Twelve percent of women who support Joe Biden believe that Kamala Harris will weaken Joe Biden’s campaign.
There are a couple of reasons behind this adversarial dynamic between women. First, there is the mindset of “I went through it, why shouldn’t they? Why should these women be in power when I had to suffer through constraining gender norms and lack of social mobility?” There is a similar mindset among first-generation Asian American immigrants. Many Asian American immigrants believe that because they were able to overcome hurdles despite the systemic racism against them and their economic disadvantages, other minority groups should face the same challenges and overcome them as they did. Older women have an analogous mindset when looking at younger women: the Queen Bee Syndrome refers to when women in power treat their female subordinates worse than they would treat their male subordinates. This mindset ought to be replaced with that of “I suffered these problems, but younger generations shouldn’t have to.”
Along with the “I went through it, why shouldn’t they?” mindset another contributing factor is envy: “If someone looks like me, faces the same obstacles as me, and has a similar background as me, why and how were they able to forge through the barriers while I couldn’t?” 70 percent of female executives feel as though other women in the workplace bully them, thus stunting their professional growth. Five to nine percent of women were more likely to receive hostility from women than men in the workplace.
But why do women feel the need to compare themselves? Our society has created an environment where women are compared all the time. For example, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B are always pitted against each other in the media because they are both female rappers in the music industry. Most of the criticism these two amazing artists face is rooted in the way they go against the messages that have been relayed through society.
Women are constantly told how they can and cannot act. These standards are so ingrained in society that women start to believe that they correctly define how women should act and perceive the world. Society imposes the idea that women are supposed to be dainty, quiet, submissive, and focused on being good mothers and wives. Gloria Steinem said, “Not one study has proved that women talk more than men, but numerous studies indicate that men talk more than women. Women are thought to be more talkative than men because they are being measured against the expectation of female silence.” When a woman does not stick to these stereotypes, her qualities are perceived as male-like. When a woman is in power, she is seen as bossy, difficult, and obnoxious, rather than portraying leadership qualities. When women look at women with so-called male-like attributes, they reject them because they go against the messages that have been so internalized, as described in “horizontal hostility,” a phenomenon where one member of an oppressed group reinforces the system that oppresses the group.
My grandmother grew up in India during the mid-1900s. Though there had been many advancements for women, like outlawing child marriages and the Dowry Prohibition Act, my grandmother still grew up in a patriarchal environment where men were worshipped and got to pick their wives from a line of women, while women cooked and cared for the extended family—my grandmother’s own mother took care of nine children—and there were absolutely no women in power. Despite these barriers, she received a graduate degree in Hindi literature and was one of the earliest AIDS/HIV researchers in the United States. That she has internalized this sexism is understandable.
The accumulation of the “I went through it, why shouldn’t they?” mindset, internalized sexism, and stereotypes has resulted in women failing to support each other. The environment that brews these problems has been created by society and is a barrier to the advancement of women. Once we overcome these obstacles, as Gloria Steniem said, “an army of gray-haired women may quietly take over the earth.”