Tripping the Prom Queen:
The Truth about Women and Rivalry
Introduction: Facing the Dark Mirror
All my life, I’ve relied upon the kindness of women.
I had a terrific relationship with my mother, who supported my earliest efforts to explore the world and discover a sense of myself. I had wonderful girlfriends, pals who were good for everything from a carefree shopping trip downtown to long, serious discussions about the meaning of life. When I got to college, I was fortunate to find female professors and mentors who nurtured and challenged me while offering a wide variety of role models for how to make my own way in the academic world. When I began teaching Gender Studies at Marymount Manhattan College, I found smart, interesting, and supportive colleagues with whom I could discuss the latest developments in our respective fields while sharing my feelings about the complicated business of balancing marriage, motherhood, and a career. And as I watched my own daughters become lovely young women with a world of promise before them, I cherished the thought that they were so much more self-confident than I had ever been, and would have so many more opportunities than I’d ever had.
I knew that partial credit for my good fortune went to the women’s movement, which had proclaimed in the early 1970s the value of sisterhood. Women, oppressed by men for generations, had finally realized that we needed to look out for each other. Luckily, solidarity came without effort to our kind and generous natures, once we had seen through the dangerous illusions of patriarchy.
OK, what’s wrong with this picture?
In fact, it’s all true. I have been blessed with wonderful friends, colleagues, and family. And the women’s movement has contributed enormously to our understanding of the kinds of bonds that women can build with one another.
But, like virtually every other woman I have ever met, I’ve also known the dark side of female bonding. I’ve had conflicts with my mother, my daughters, my girlfriends, my colleagues, with women whom I thought were my friends, with women whom I learned not to trust. I’ve been the subject of gossip, betrayals, back-stabbing, cat-fighting. I’ve found myself enmeshed in relationships marked by unexpected competition, envy, and jealousy. And in both my own life and the lives of other women, I have seen how female friendship can be both empowering and disabling, a source of rock-solid strength as well as a mire of treachery, deceit, and misunderstanding.
I’m reminded of my friends Cynthia and Elinor, whose bitter falling-out sent shock waves through our entire circle of friends. These two women had been close since college, with a blend of intimacy and rivalry that seemed to work for them. When Cynthia went into business for herself as a marketing consultant, it was largely Elinor’s mixture of support and prodding that had gotten her to take the leap. A few years later, Elinor began thinking of setting up her own consultancy—and Cynthia was there to challenge and encourage her. For nearly two decades it seemed that their friendly competition was actually good for them both, spurring each woman on to new achievements even as she continually measured her accomplishments against those of her friend.
Then Cynthia got engaged. Both women had had brief, unhappy first marriages and a long stretch of relatively satisfactory dating, but when Cynthia found her new love, Elinor was going through a dry spell, feeling lonely and unappreciated. The lack of male attention was particularly hard on Elinor, a stylish, exuberant woman and a flamboyant dancer who was known for taking center stage at any party.
Although Elinor herself didn’t particularly want to get married, she had a hard time watching Cynthia snag what society still considers a woman’s ultimate prize. And when she learned that her wedding invitation was for one only, she was outraged.
“How can she expect me to show up at her wedding without a date?” she fumed to any of us who would listen. “All of her other friends are married. There won’t even be anyone there for me to dance with! It’s her big day, sure—but does she have to rub it in that I’m alone?”
Cynthia, for her part, was deeply wounded that Elinor seemed more interested in her lack of dance partners than in Cynthia’s wedding. “I’ve waited so long to find someone, and now that I have, she can’t even be happy for me,” she’d say tearfully to me and our other friends. “Can’t she ever think of anyone besides herself?”
Eventually, Elinor confronted Cynthia in an angry conversation that left both of them hurt and upset. By mutual agreement, Elinor stayed away from the wedding, and the 20-year friendship ended. When I thought of how much the two women had meant to each other and how intensely each of them had approached this final encounter, I was shaken by the idea that female rivalry could run so deep. What had seemed a friendly and useful competition had turned into a deadly contest.
It wasn’t only my friends who suffered from female rivalry. I remember when I was just 16 years old, during spring vacation, being whisked off to an early lunch by my best friend’s brother—only to discover, to my astonishment and hurt, that she was expecting some college boys to drop by and didn’t want me there to compete with her. When I started college at Sarah Lawrence, I soon noticed that while some of my classmates were indeed true friends, others seemed to resent that I had a boyfriend. It didn’t help that Sarah Lawrence, a former girls’ school, included very few straight men among its student body—an early lesson in how competing for items in short supply often brings out the worst in women.
In graduate school, the stakes got higher, and the competition got stiffer, a trend that continued when I went on to vie for a limited number of academic jobs. I always had friends and colleagues with whom I could have trusted my life—but I also found women who seemed to view not only me, but all other female academics, as their rivals.
This sense of rivalry became more painful when I divorced my first husband. Many of the friends I depended on for comfort and support suddenly began to view me as a threat. Some took me out to lunch to get the dirt, then dropped me soon after. I think they found it disturbing that I had left my unhappy marriage while they were still committed to theirs. For other women, the threat seemed more immediate–twice I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had better stay away from someone’s husband, despite my protests that I would no more go after a friend’s husband than I would stay friends with a woman who went after mine.
Thankfully, I also had some true friends who remained loyal and supportive during one of the most difficult times of my life. To this day, I trust them implicitly, with the kind of faith you reserve for the people who have proved themselves under fire. But I’ve also never forgotten the shock and disappointment of discovering how quickly those other friendships turned to rivalry.
Nor was the problem limited to other women. Reluctantly I began to admit that I, too, had felt competitive, envious, even jealous of my fellow females. I, too, had walked into a dinner party and done a quick tally of how I stacked up. Was I as talented as the other women? As pretty? As prestigiously employed? During my divorce, before I met my second husband, I, too, had looked longingly at the few women I knew who seemed truly in love, thinking, “Oh, to have what they have.” I, too, had caught myself viewing my daughters with something close to envy for their youth and self-confidence, for the advantages their generation would have that were so far beyond my own. I had even wandered through my local bookstore while I was working on my first book, checking out the other women writers, envious of their apparently secure place on the bookshelves when I wasn’t even sure whether I could find a publisher.
Meanwhile, of course, I was continuing to write about the topic that has preoccupied me for the last fourteen years: women. I wrote books about sisters, second wives, and women having affairs. I met women who were struggling with their roles as daughters, mothers, workers, and lovers, seeking to create new identities for themselves, trying to make traditional arrangements work. I talked to women from all ethnic backgrounds and social classes, from struggling Jamaican immigrants to the trust-funded descendants of Mayflower passengers. Everywhere, no matter what other topics I was asking about, I found hints of a dark secret, a problem that everyone seemed to sense but no one was willing to talk about: women’s rivalry.
When I went to the movies or watched television, I saw similar signs of trouble in paradise. Although male friendships in the media abound—from buddy movies to the warm, collegial relationships among the guys on cop shows—I saw precious few portraits of female relationships. The handful of examples that I did find rarely offered any sense of how women could form friendships based on love, trust, and a sense of separate identities. In the romantic comedy Jerry Maguire, for example, female friendship is portrayed as a powerful obstacle to romance. The heroine’s sister and her feminist friends sit around carping about how badly the men in their lives have treated them, trying to entice the younger, more hopeful heroine to join them. But the heroine insists that she “just likes men” and eagerly forgives the wayward Jerry (“You had me at hello.”). Her youth, beauty, and romantic success make her the envy of the other women, who clearly would rather bond over their common misery than help each other to find individual versions of happiness.
Although I had heard many real-life stories that echoed this negative image, I didn’t want to focus on such a dismal view. I didn’t like feeling that I might be playing into the sexist stereotypes that had portrayed women as conniving little man-hunters; nor did I enjoy reliving my own painful experiences with female rivalry. But finally, I had to face the truth: This was too central an aspect of women’s lives for me to ignore. My next book would focus directly on jealousy, envy, and competition. Perhaps by looking closely at this problem, I could help women find new ways to overcome their dark side and form healthier, more satisfying bonds.
So I designed a study whereby I could interview 500 women—again, from a wide range of ages, classes, ethnicities, and religions—asking them directly about their experience with these feelings. I wanted to know the role that women’s rivalry had played in their lives, their experiences as both targets and perpetrators of female envy. I was eager to understand how these dynamics had shaped my subjects’ life choices, their relationships with people of both sexes, and, most important, their sense of self. I wanted to know why some relationships seemed to transcend these problems, while other bonds were marked by bitterness and betrayal.
What I found astonished me. I heard from women whose colleagues, best friends, and sisters had stolen their boyfriends and husbands. I talked with women whose fear of female rivalry was so strong that they chose to live in small towns, “so there would be less competition”; women who avoided certain parties “because I don’t want my husband to meet too many single, beautiful women.” I heard about girlfriends dropping a woman when she snagged a promotion at work, or finally found a great guy, or even when she became pregnant. Women described the wear and tear of constant competition, of continually comparing themselves to friends, coworkers, sisters, even to their daughters. Many women confessed that they had spent their lives trying to steer between two painful courses: reaching for the advantages that other women seemed to have and struggling to defend themselves from other women’s envy. Although I had known that female rivalry was a theme in many women’s lives, I emerged from my research feeling as though it must be a theme in every woman’s life. We’re just not allowed to talk about it.
In fact, when I recovered from my first wave of shock at the extraordinary stories I was hearing, I was able to boil down my findings to three conclusions:
1) Despite all the efforts of the women’s movement to change this troubling pattern, we’re still willing to cut each other’s throats over what we value most—jobs, men, and social approval. Although we’ve moved into the workplace and the public arena as never before, we tend to ignore men when it comes to competing, focusing our rivalry almost entirely upon each other.
2) We’ll do anything rather than face up to female envy and jealousy—especially our own. Between traditional social pressures to be the “good girl,” and feminist expectations of female solidarity, we sweep all evidence of a bleaker picture under the rug. Indeed, in these post-feminist times, women are often rewarded for romanticizing female friendship and punished for telling the truth about female rivalry.
3) Even though my focus is on female rivalry, I have also found some wonderful examples of female bonding—within families, between friends, among colleagues. In these positive instances, I found that the key was for women to have realistic expectations, of themselves and each other. When we stop demanding total, unconditional support; when we accept our loved ones’ differences as well as similarities; when we own up to our own rivalrous natures; and when we confront problems rather than ignore them, we can create extraordinary bonds that nourish us throughout our lives.
A New Look at Female Competition
I walk into a party with my husband and immediately feel everyone’s eyes upon us—perhaps more upon him. I notice that when he goes to the bar to get drinks, one woman in particular follows him. Although she has to know we are together, she proceeds to move close to him, beginning a seemingly intimate conversation. I am talking to a group of friends I have not seen for quite a while. By the time I get back to where my husband is standing, the woman is telling him that she loves to play golf and can go to the range with him any Saturday. I look at my husband, who seems to be enjoying the attention, and realize that he has been sought after, regardless of ownership. This woman moves away reluctantly when I introduce myself as his wife but manages to find my husband repeatedly throughout the night. I ask my friend, the hostess, about her and she tells me that this woman is absolutely a flirt and will steal anyone’s man if she can.
Later, when we get home, I tell my husband that if he ever speaks to that woman again, I will be gone. While I am indeed protecting my turf, I am also well aware that this woman is a sexy blonde. I am not in despair—but my antennae are up.
As you can see from this anecdote about my husband and me, I’m no stranger to female rivalry. Perhaps because the subject is so personal, this has been the most challenging of all the books I’ve written. It hasn’t been easy coming to terms with these painful issues, either in myself or in the hundreds of women I interviewed.
< But once I acknowledged that female rivalry was a problem, I started to see it everywhere—in the media, in my personal life, and in the lives of my daughters, as well as in the experiences of the 500 women who shared their stories with me. Consider for example, the story of this real-life high school queen:
It was a freezing cold day when my best friend Allison and the other two candidates for homecoming queen stood on the football field, shivering in their gowns, waiting to see who would be crowned. The bleachers were packed. . . and people actually held banners with a name of each contestant written in big letters.
Allison didn’t win, and she was devastated. I remember how she tried to hold it together. She changed into jeans and sat with me for the rest of the game, as hard as that was. At first she asked me if I thought that the winner was prettier than she was. Then she asked me if the winner was more popular. That was an odd question, since the obvious answer was yes.
Finally, as we were driving home from the game, Allison began to cry. She said she wished the winner ill and that she didn’t deserve to win. Allison said she hated her for winning. All I could think of was how the winner stood on that field, alone with her crown, while the others moved to the side. Nobody was even happy for her.
Certainly, I had recognized female rivalry in my previous books. On each project, I heard tales of envy, jealousy, and competition. When I wrote about sisters, I ran into sibling rivalry. When I wrote about single women and dating, I heard how much they envied married women. When I wrote about married women having affairs, I heard about how much they envied their lovers’ wives, or their own happily married friends, or the single women whom they knew. Stepmothers and mothers envied each other, as did first and second wives. Divorced women envied the still-married or remarried; married women envied the divorcees who had gone off to greener pastures.
Finally I realized that it was time to do a study focusing on how women treat each other—a study that would show both the external pressures and the internal dynamics that led to envy, jealousy, and competition. I was particularly concerned to show where this female rivalry begins: in women’s insufficient options. In a world where there simply isn’t enough to go around, women compete. In a world that limits women to narrowly defined roles, women compete with each other.
I also wanted to explore the ways in which female rivalry has intensified as women have moved from 1950s-era housewifery and child-raising to the expanded options of the 21st century. Ironically, as women’s options have grown, so has our rivalry, from the old-fashioned sphere of hearth and home to the brave new world of career and professional success. Although each new breakthrough for women has opened up wonderful new opportunities, it has also created more occasions for competition. “It is definitely a problem how many avenues are open for women to compete with each other these days,” comments psychologist Claire Owen, whom I interviewed in connection with this study. “If there is a pretense of getting along, it only exists at a superficial level. Underneath, there is the urge to outdo one another.”
We can’t understand female rivalry without understanding the pressure to conceal it. Although the women I interviewed spoke readily of competing with mothers, sisters, coworkers, and friends, many of them also seemed to buy into the myth of female solidarity, lamenting their own isolation from what they saw as a world of camaraderie and support. Women also described feeling betrayed when they realized that an apparently close friend was also a rival, a theme that was taken up by Mary Duenwald in a September 10, 2002, New York Times article entitled “Some Friends, Indeed, Do More Harm Than Good.” Duenwald cites research showing that “the ill effects of friendship are more devastating than experts thought.” Although previous studies had suggested that friendship—male and female—could be a powerful antidote to stress, more recent research indicates that broken promises, dashed expectations, and other side effects of friendship gone wrong can actually raise the level of stress in our lives, often to disastrous effect. In light of this new perspective, understanding why female friendships go wrong–and how to put them right—seemed more urgent than ever.
So I went on to design my research study, which covered 500 heterosexual women of all ages, races, and backgrounds. My first step was placing the following ad in flyers for YWCAs and health clubs:
Writer in search of tales of female envy, jealousy, and friendship. Anonymity guaranteed. Call collect.
When women responded, I asked them if they could recommend friends, relatives, or coworkers who might also have interesting stories to tell. Because such a wide range of women answered my ad, I had access to a diverse group of subjects. I also conducted interviews and research with psychotherapists, scholars, divorce lawyers, and even with plastic surgeons, who were surprisingly insightful about the ways that women’s rivalry over appearance affects us all.
I found the whole process fascinating—and surprisingly frustrating. To a much greater extent than in my other books, my interviewees often began by glossing over their deeper feelings, trying to portray themselves as “good girls” rather than admitting to the envy, jealousy, and anger that they actually felt. Frequently, the women were guarded and measured, so that I had to dig deeper than usual to get at their true feelings. As a result, I spent considerably longer conducting most of these interviews than I had for the ones in my previous books.
Although I’ve empathized with many of my interview subjects over the years, I felt a sense of kinship with these women that was more intense than usual. In some cases, I identified so profoundly with a woman’s story that I found myself wanting to speak to her as a friend, wishing I could share my own history with her and hear her perspective on my own friends and rivals. At other times, I was appalled at the degree of bitterness, anger, and resentment my subjects expressed, and saddened by how difficult some women found it to overcome their early rivalries. Many women made such statements as, “Since high school, beautiful women have made me feel insecure,” or “My friend and I have been competing for the past thirty years,” or “Even though I’m happily married today, I find myself consumed with bitterness whenever I remember how my best friend stole my boyfriend in junior high.”
It wasn’t only the stories of past rivalries that haunted me. Women told me that they had blatantly set out to steal another woman’s husband, lover, friend, or job. They described the times that friends had stolen jobs or relationships from them. They detailed the bitter envy that they still felt for or from their mothers, sisters, and in-laws. And I shuddered at the apparent freedom so many women felt simply to take what they wanted without regard for other women’s feelings, as though we were all crazed customers at some kind of year-end shoe sale, shoving our fellow females out of the way as we clutched desperately at the few remaining pieces of merchandise. I had the discouraging sense that our culture had created female monsters, dooming us to play out these intense and bitter rivalries, almost against our will.
But whether I felt close to my subjects as kindred spirits or horrified at the world of female jealousy they portrayed, I was always fascinated, particularly when I started compiling my data and realized how widespread the problem really is:
*More than 90 percent of women of different social strata claim that envy and jealousy
toward other women colors their lives;
*80 percent of women say they have encountered jealousy in other females
since they were in grade school;
*90 percent of women in diverse jobs report that competition in the workplace
is primarily between women, rather than between women and men;
*More than 65 percent of interviewees said that they were jealous of their
best friend or sister;
*More than 70 percent of interviewees were familiar with the concept of women stealing a friend’s husband, lover, boyfriend, or job;
*40 percent of interviewees reported themselves the victims of another woman’s theft of a husband, lover, boyfriend, or job;
*25 percent of interviewees reported that they themselves had stolen a friend’s husband, lover, boyfriend, or job.
Although hearing the stories of female competition was often disturbing, I concluded my study with a feeling of optimism. Yes, at first glance, this portrait of hidden rivalry and cancerous envy seems bleak indeed. But facing up to this gloomy picture is the first step toward a better future of more authentic, loving bonds among women. If we are willing to look closely at this issue, we may be astonished at the rewards we stand to gain.
Shades of Rivalry: Competition, Envy, and Jealousy
As I sorted through the stories I was hearing, I began to realize that female contests took three forms: competition, envy, and jealousy.
Competition is probably the most benign form of female rivalry. When we compete with one another, we’re saying, I’m willing to fight you for what I want. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when we’re competing for limited resources. A woman who withdraws from consideration for a job, for example, simply because she knows other women are also up for the position, would be almost pathologically unwilling to engage in the normal, healthy competition that is simply a part of life. Likewise, a woman who refused to consider dating a man merely because she knows other women find him attractive would not be coping with competition in a healthy way. Indeed, one of the great benefits of the women’s movement has been its permission for us to claim our ambitious natures, freeing us to go after what we want without always worrying about whether someone else wants it, too. In some cases, competition can even be a powerful force for good, motivating us to perform better, to be more honest about what we want, and to marshal our resources on our own behalf.
The problem, according to my research, appears in two places. First, despite the efforts of the women’s movement to open every type of job to women, we still tend to compete only with each other. The reality series The Apprentice makes this all too clear. Rather than presenting a group of competent professionals—male and female—all vying equally with each other, the series conveyed the idea that women’s primary rivals are other women. The mini-skirted apprentices were not competing on the basis of competence and knowledge along; they were also battling each other the basis of looks and sexual allure. A more sober presentation of workplace rivalry might not have had such high ratings—but the very popularity of the show’s catfights reveals the pressure women feel to size each other up while leaving the men alone.
Second, sometimes healthy competition for what we want turns into a problematic desire to have something merely because a rival already has it. We didn’t want that guy—until we saw him with our best friend. We weren’t so interested in getting into an Ivy League school—until we found out that a classmate was going to Harvard. We were content to put off getting pregnant for another few years—until our best friend told us that she was due in June. Suddenly, we’ve created a contest based less on our own authentic wishes than on rivalry with a competitor.
At this point that competition shades into envy, which might be expressed as I want what you have. Now, even this feeling has its positive aspects. If envy of a pregnant girlfriend spurs us to realize that our own child-bearing years won’t last forever, we’ve used that feeling to get in touch with something that truly matters to us. Although the envy may be uncomfortable, it’s helped us understand ourselves better, and, hopefully, to take positive action on our own behalf.
Or perhaps it never occurred to us that we could become a successful stockbroker or journalist—or that we could dare to try for such a glittering prize. Then a friend achieves that type of success and we realize, “Hey! If she can do it, why can’t I?” A little envy can be the catalyst that spurs us to aim a bit higher, try a bit harder, make our own dreams a little bit bigger.
In the same way, the momentary wish that we, and not our girlfriend, were dating that hot new guy can be a useful way to get in touch with our own feelings about romance. Maybe there are problems with our current relationship, or with our solitude, and we haven’t been willing to act on them. Perhaps we’ve been pretending to ourselves that things are fine, and only a sharp jab of envy wakes us up to the realization of how dissatisfied we really are. If we are willing to explore those uncomfortable feelings, we might make some important discoveries that can ultimately enrich our lives.
Or, we could go in the other direction and focus all of our discomfort upon our rival. This is the stage of female rivalry that I call jealousy, which might be expressed as You’ve got something I want—and I want you dead.
All right, maybe “dead” is putting it too strongly. None of the women I interviewed actually confessed to murder—though that story a few years ago about the mother who killed her daughter’s cheerleading rival suggests that women can indeed become deadly if their jealousy gets out of hand. But even when we don’t take our jealousy to murderous extremes, it’s important to understand how we sometimes project our own desires and frustrations onto other women. Instead of figuring out what we want and how to get it, we focus on what they have and why we hate them for it. My research showed me that the more powerless we feel—especially when competing for “scarce goods”—the more prone we are to turn healthy competition into a corrosive jealousy that can destroy our relationships, our peace of mind, and even our sense of self. Consider the story of Brenda, a 48-year-old registered nurse who had been married for about nine years:
Once I married Roy I expected to be satisfied, but a weird thing happened. I became jealous of other women’s lifestyles. . . Those with families seemed to be the most enviable of all. . . .
Suddenly, I had to have a baby. I hadn’t even considered it a possibility, and now I was consumed. I ended up in a support group for infertile women and when two of the members became pregnant, I went nuts. . . .
Once Roy and I adopted a baby, I settled down and today, I feel blessed. But I find myself competitive now over my daughter and other mothers and their children. I think this jealousy is just a big part of who I am.
Beyond Our Dirty Little Secret
All right, so what’s the good news? What do we have to gain from delving into the grim world of female rivalry, from taking a closer look at the backstabbing, undermining, and self-hatred that color so many of our female relationships?
As the early days of feminist consciousness-raising made clear, when we look more closely at a problem, we can feel relieved just by acknowledging it. Although everyone I spoke to had encountered jealousy, envy, and competition in some form, most women hadn’t been able to talk about these issues. They felt pressured by traditional views of women—and feminist platitudes. Many women expressed a sense of obligation to focus on the positive, to stress how important their mothers, sisters, and friends were to them, to tell only good stories about the other women they knew. To many of my subjects, women’s rivalry seemed like a dirty little secret, and they were afraid of how they might look if they were honest about it. One of my hopes for this book is that it will help women start talking freely about the full range of their experiences, including the negative aspects of female bonding.
Even more importantly, I believe that if we confront this problem honestly, we can create some new alternatives for ourselves. But the first step in solving a problem is understanding it. So Parts I and II of this book are a mirror of what female rivalry looks like. Then, once we have faced the dark side, we can look forward to better days. Thus, in Part III, “Revolutionizing Rivalry,” I explore how awareness of this problem and the willingness to confront it can help us create richer and more nourishing bonds. If we can learn to make competition, envy, and even jealousy work for us, rather than against us, and if we can resist the “urge to merge” by accepting our differences as well as our similarities, we can look forward to a new world of healthy and productive female bonding, free at last of the rivalry and destructiveness that have characterized our relationships for too long.