Monica Holmes had the prettiest hair of any girl in the fifth grade. Her chestnut locks flowed effortlessly down her back, while my delicate, thin hair broke off around my shoulders. Even so, I didn’t envy her hair; I begrudged her braggadocio. No matter the context—recess, lunch, or a bathroom break—Monica couldn’t say enough about her hair to anyone who would listen. “I just love my dark-brown, beautiful hair. Don’t you too?”
Most of us have memories of them. Those girls on the playground, in high school, in our sorority house and even in our workplace, who were bent on making life miserable for anyone not included in the elite “clique.” They teased, bullied and alienated. These are the girls now epitomized in a slew of Hollywood teen films such as the “Mean Girls,” but it’s a relational dynamic that strings it way through human history all the way back to Rachel and Leah: the harsh reality of female rivalry.
In politics, business and our personal lives, both men and women are guilty of merciless competition, envy and cattycriticism. We don’t need to look any further than ESPN or E! to know that competition and envy abound in relationships regardless of gender, but in relationships between females, it takes on a new form because of the scarceness of opportunities for women and even the scarceness of “good” men.
Often times envy is spurred on by fear: fear of rejection, of alienation, of anonymity, of a perceived purposeless of one’s life because ‘someone else’ did it first. Unfortunately, these expectations and fears can cause women, even more so than men, to have twisted relationships in which we are constantly comparing or criticizing one another.
As Kelly Valen, author of Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships, stated in an interview regarding an incident of alienation and abandonment by her sorority sisters, “Although the incident obviously involved both men and women, it was that lingering hurt that I had from women and that betrayal … we have expectations of support from women.”
Yet, in 1 Thessalonians 5:11-14, the apostle Paul calls Christians to rise above these contentions and set an example for those outside the faith.
In this passage, Paul exhorts us to “untwist” our relationships by encouraging one another, building up one another, helping one another, and seeking the good for each other. Matthew Henry comments, “We should not only be careful about our own comfort and welfare, but promote the comfort and welfare of others also. He was a Cain who said, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ We must bear one another’s burdens, so as to fulfill the law of Christ.”
I’m learning that to truly “untwist” our relationships, as Christian women leaders, we must be willing to stretch ourselves and let go of both our judgments and perceptions about other women—as well as our fears about our own perceived shortcomings—by acknowledging and supporting the giftedness of other Christian women.
When I think of female rivalry, that is, rivalry between women, I think of Cinderella and her step-sisters. I think of the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. I think of the escapades of the women on Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives. What I’ve rarely considered in recent years is how female rivalry impacts my growth and development as a woman leader.
In 1990, Carolyn Heilbrun, a Jewish American, wrote a provocative book entitled Reinventing Womanhood. In this book, she claimed that the number one reason women failed to achieve in leadership positions was not because men kept barring their way to progress in achievement, but rather because of the failure of women to bond. For Heilbrun, a few women inevitably rose to positions of power and leadership, but because of the failure of women to bond, these women became not woman leaders, but rather honorary men.
Susan Shapiro Barash, in her book, Tripping the Prom Queen, takes the issue a little deeper. According to Barash, the world is still a patriarchal culture, and this fact sets the stage for female rivalry—because women feel that they have to constantly compete with one another for limited and scarce resources such as leadership positions.
Competition between females is nothing new, and it is strung throughout the biblical text, from Sarah and Hagar to Rachel and Leah. If Heilbrun and Barash are right, then the question becomes: are we our own worst enemy when it comes to striving to become better leaders? Until now, most of our attention has been focused on how men hold us back from leadership positions because men, in most cases are the gatekeepers. That is, they have the say on whether or not a woman is welcomed into a leadership position in the church. But have we looked long enough at what women do to each other? Have we been honest about how women in our churches and in our workplaces treat one another—either outright or subversively?
While I don’t completely agree with Heilbrun and Barash, and I think that their assessment of female rivalry is a little overblown, their research makes me pause to wonder what we can do to improve the relationships among woman so that women leaders feel more supported and encouraged by her female friends and counterparts.
And so I am curious, lady leaders, to hear your experiences. Have you felt supported and encouraged by other women as you seek leadership positions, or have you felt the sting of female rivalry when you achieved a great accomplishment?