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?