Hobbes’s commonly cited phrase “man is wolf to man” refers to the prurient horrors humanity can do to itself. That metaphor poses men as a wild animal capable of barbarous atrocities against his own species and, ultimately, himself. Note how the word “man” implies the whole of humanity; philosophy cannot assume subjectivity without first supposing that the subject is masculine. Historically, women were designed to compete, determined by chauvinist hegemony and simmering misogyny, tamed to deliver; women tend to turn on each other. With that estranged camaraderie, a woman can be wolf to woman. She often views other women as an enemy. What is she like? ponders the friend or acquaintance of a cheated woman. Too often, women try to thwart other women because they are seen as dangerous competitors. I’ve noticed in my psychotherapy practice how women rashly ask about the other woman, assuming she is the provoker, inferring her hostility. This other woman becomes a measuring rod: Is she younger? Prettier? Better? Wolf woman is gossip, tattler, looking for the flaws, searching for “buts.” But…she has cellulitis, but…her breasts are not real, but… she is a fake blond.
Have you ever noticed how women stare at other women? Scanning, perusing, noticing, even before a man does. Slaves in a harem, always wary there is a mistrustful one, plotting and scheming among them creating a relentless and exhausting struggle for defense of territory, security and self-preservation. Too many hens in the same henhouse. In such an environment, nothing is more difficult to achieve than the applause of another woman.
Men blame women and women blame women. Women’s hostility to each other often seems unfounded, but in reality, it covers up a camouflaged accusation to our sex. The decree that the other woman provoked him, endorsed by a justifying narrative of a rapist society, is the most atrocious consequence of the historical women’s objectification by men. A woman-object also makes herself into a thing, viewing other women with suspicion. Isn’t she skinnier, smarter, sexier? A fundamental hostility against each other is established as the other woman becomes an adversary, a threat, with an ongoing reciprocal rivalry. That, in turn, gives more absolute power to men.
And some women even cheer and applaud misogynist narratives while condemning feminists. With self-esteem dependent on men, some women conform to the objectifier, who they estimate superior, validating locker room rhetoric used to minimize and humiliate them. Like a Stockholm hostage, a woman can adapt manners, beliefs, behaviors, and symbols of her captor. That dissenting feminist is, once again, inadvertently coerced. Systematically disempowered and underprivileged, women identify with the opposite gender, joining with them because they cannot transcend them. Exercising masculine oppression, paternalism, even naiveté, men can be arrogant, aggressive and disdainful to women, all while they are still enchained to a woman’s appeal. That is our ransom and some don’t want to forsake it.
But what happens if we decide not to be that woman? The one designed, shaped, constructed by the male narrative.
Masculine domination is so anchored in our social practices and our unconscious that we can hardly perceive it: symbolic violence, like male privilege; invisible dominance, ingrained in the very blueprint of what women must be. Implicitly and explicitly controlled, not gently but pervasively by everyday practice, women behave as men’s accomplices.
What are we really up against when we try to escape being men’s object? When we don’t comply with standards of femininity? When we attempt to break out of norms we didn’t create? The “reward” for such renegade behavior often, dangerously, is low self-esteem or diminished self-worth.
But if we don’t break out? Objectification confines women to sex. We become that desired enemy, needed but rejected. The abominable statistics of sexual abuse indicate how easily a man can usurp a woman’s body. An objectified woman, virgin or whore, is made frail, dependent, alienated, undermined and robbed of intrinsic worth. In my work as a mental health professional, I see how male abusers deny, minimize, and blame, on the premise that women are guilty on two fronts: They tempt so they deserve the usurpation. Abusers see their victims as objects and, by grabbing that body, they rationalize abuse as a righteous act, as if the temptation a woman arouses justifies his taking power and control.
How on earth did we get here?
History, as written by (predominately) men, has concocted this recipe for femininity, a formula of social and moral imperatives that straitjackets what a woman should be. We became rather than were born. Men in male-controlled society made us become the other gender, a weak and dominated one, perhaps to assuage some sort of anxiety about their own virility. But it has gained historical validity to the extent that most men cannot fathom the scope of gender inequality. Their privileges are as invisible to them as the injustices against women.
Some women don’t see the extent of the damage either. Simone De Beauvoir said, “Women don’t call themselves we.” We distance ourselves from other minorities and activist movements of equality or civil rights. Women don’t make revolutions. We don’t overthrow, usurp the dominance. The truth is, we have not achieved more than men are willing to concede.
But equality is not a mere ethical claim. It is more than an amendment to patriarchy. Equality is a truth, a certainty, a must, and a given; it belongs to the realm of what it is to be human.
So what happens if this truth brings us together? If we unite to break free from straitjackets? To reveal intrinsic repressive and abusive power and control mechanisms. To recover the strength of unity. To understand that our simmering hostility to each other only serves male dominance?
It is only through feminism, that women can form a united front. And activism is the only way women can bring about transformation in ourselves, not just socially and politically, but in refusing being wolf to women in our mundane realities. Feminism must be code, to imply unison and cohesiveness. It must breach the solitude of a few agitators and coalesce women of the present and future into a common cause.
Feminism is not revenge, anger or aggression. It is not blaming or victimization either. Feminism does not entitle women to take over men. That would simply chain us to the same patriarchal practices of dominance and supremacy. Feminism means coming together. It requires identification and understanding of the processes underlying gender identity. Feminism requires challenge and change. And if anything, and for starters, it means women is wolf to women, no more.