The Duplicitous Female Maze

A disturbing New York Times Modern Love column ran recently. It's about a 41-year-old woman reflecting on being raped in college and the collusion of her sorority sisters in the aftermath. Both sexes behave appallingly in Kelly Valen's tale of losing her virginity in an alcoholic stupor while her date's fraternity brothers watched from a nearby window ledge. (As an aside, the frequency of these so-called "Ledge Parties" and other bad boy behavior make me quake about sending my daughters out into the world of higher education.)

Afterwards, when she clearly needed a sisterhood of support, her sorority voted she was no longer "sorority material" and forced her out of her college home. Now, as the mother of three daughters, she wonders about a lifetime of navigating what she calls "the duplicitous female maze."

"In the two decades since, I've been a full-time lawyer, a working mother and a stay-at-home mother. In each role, I've found my fears about women's covert competition and aggression to be frequently validated: the gossip, the comparisons, the withering critiques of career and motherhood choices. We women swim in shark-infested waters of our own design. Often we don't have a clue where we stand with one another -- socially, as mothers, as colleagues -- because we're at once allies and foes."

My experience at work, home and in motherhood is starkly different. Surrounded by women in my family of two sisters and two daughters, and with my history of working in female-dominated industries, I've found a sisterhood of support. Not without its sharks, surely -- but more dolphins swimming alongside than vicious competitors out for blood. I think of the nurses who held my hand as I delivered my three babies, my female classmates at business school who kept an eye out for my ex-husband, my mother, the three best friends I've had since childhood, the boss who campaigned to let me work part-time when I was overwhelmed by juggling three children and a endless crush of responsibility at the office. But I have no doubt of the veracity of Kelly Valen's story.

What's your experience -- as a woman in the maze, or a man looking on from outside? Is the sisterhood of women a myth or reality? Or at times both?

By Leslie Morgan Steiner |  December 17, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Conflicts
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I've found women who are competing for men or promotions to be vicious to other women, especially when they are young. Adolescents are the worst. As I've gone from my 20s to 30s to 40s, I've seen less backstabbing over men, and more over the boss's favor. I had hoped that as little girls learned to play more team sports and less doll games that I would see more cooperative behavior in younger colleagues, but that hasn't happened either. What makes it so dismaying is the cloak of female solidarity which women use to lull others into thinking they are all friends. Fortunately there are great women out there who are genuine and nice - you just have to work hard to figure out which ones they are.

Posted by: babsy1 | December 17, 2007 7:16 AM

There are a whole lot of us free-agent women out there who pick and choose our friends on merit and respect and chemistry and understanding. I advise all women to do the same. Group-think is scary stuff, and you really need to take a good hard look at yourself if you only feel safe as part of a herd.

So, no, I don't have a problem with the "maze," because I don't run in those circles.

Sisterhood is not a myth, but it can't be forcibly engineered, as in a sorority (not that real friendships can't come out of them). Choose your friends wisely, and they'll be close to you forever.

Posted by: atb2 | December 17, 2007 7:34 AM

I've also found that the more true respect and equality of a place, the less snarky female behavior. B-school was a good example. Women were treated by professors and recruiters as 100% as important and "valuable" as men in terms of earning potential, and therefore we were more supportive of each other. My high school was kind of the same. Girls held many of the top elected student gov't positions, played our own sports instead of being cheerleaders for the guys, etc. There is a lot of duplicitous female (and male) behavior out there, but the causes are societal, not to be blamed on women per se.

Posted by: leslie4 | December 17, 2007 7:58 AM

It is unfortunate, but when I think about most of the highest-ranking female partners I have to deal and have had to deal with in my career, they are all without exception incredibly intelligent and highly respected but the overriding public opinion is that they're also
b!tches. With most, I've found that it's a veneer that disappears with familiarity, particularly with another woman. One woman, who sat on a former firm's executive committee, once told me that the old saying "never let 'em see you sweat" was what she lived by.

Posted by: wtf | December 17, 2007 8:05 AM

i've also found very high ranking women who were kind and supportive. but some are simply human -- nice at times, hard as nails at other times. it is a bit much to expect anyone to have the toughness to reach the top of an organization and still be mother teresa. not the same personality drivers!

Posted by: leslie4 | December 17, 2007 8:20 AM

I'm jealous, Leslie! I would love to be surrounded by supportive women. Actually, the women in my family are very supportive, but my workplace is a different story. I'm in a very male-dominated field, and there's only one other woman in my department. I've tried to become friends with her, but she's only interested in talking to the men who hold power. She tries very hard to act in ways she thinks will be pleasing to them: wearing inappropriately revealing clothes (inappropriate relative to the norm in my field), flirting like crazy, and constantly referring to her own sexual experience. She also delights in embarrassing me. Once at a group gathering, she said very loudly in front of all the men: "Catlady, you look much better than usual; have you been losing some weight?" I was mortified! Yet, I can't really blame her. There are a large number of men in my field who will only pay attention to a woman who is young, attractive, and dressed provocatively. If you don't have these qualities, they act like you don't even exist, and it's very hard to advance in your career when the higher-ups (all men) won't listen to your ideas!

Posted by: crazycatlady | December 17, 2007 8:39 AM

Wow! That piece in the Times was amazing, wasn't it? It moved me to tears. (Also, reminded me of Margaret Atwood's novel, Cats Eye).

This whole discussion is really timely for me, because we're a military family and we move a lot. Every time, I find myself largely starting from scratch in a new community, seeking out new friends and a new support network.

I've found that as I get older, I'm a lot slower to find new friends, and a lot more wary. Personally, I found that there was a lot of female solidarity in graduate school and in the workplace, but that as my kids get older, it's harder to make SAHM friends.

My theory is that in any environment where things are scarce (money, jobs, academic success) or perceived to be scarce, people tend to revert to their animal states and the veneer of friendship and social nicety wears thin. Also, I've been stunned by how much conformity can be still be expected and demanded by groups, even when we've reached the age where fitting in shouldn't matter so much anymore (says the SAHM who REFUSES to buy one of those dumb-ass christmas sweaters to wear to my kids' holiday party).

I grieve for the woman in the article.

Posted by: justlurking | December 17, 2007 8:39 AM

I'm with atb. I don't associate with people--women or men--who are like that. I choose to hang out with normal people.

"Often we don't have a clue where we stand with one another -- socially, as mothers, as colleagues -- because we're at once allies and foes"

I don't agree with this at all. I know exactly where I stand with every woman I meet. I am a friendly person. If my friendliness is met with disdain, I don't think "she's judging me! She must hate all women because it's a big competition!" I just think "what a jerk!" which is what I think about men too.

I think it's all about perception. People see things through their own filters of opinions, biases, and judgements. If you believe that women are big meanies to each other, you will see it everywhere you go. If you don't believe that, you won't see it. I certainly don't see women being worse than men.

It all comes down to how we're conditioned as a society. Little girls grow up "knowing" that their female peers are the enemy because that's how a patriarchal society tries to oppress women. Women focus on competing with each other and not with men. Women are taught that a man is the ultimate goal. All of these "truths" about women are just learned behavior.

Okay, sorry about the rant.

Posted by: Meesh | December 17, 2007 8:40 AM

By and large, the women I've encountered in the professional and social worlds have been pretty great. When I was in law school, I worked in a mall, woman-owned firm, and my boss was amazing -- committed to helping us younger women move ahead. When I was a young associate, the large group of other female associates were a huge source of support and encouragement. And as a mom, I've been lucky enough to find several other moms with whom I click.

I have, of course, run into a couple of snakes. But I've always assumed their personalities were who they were, not a result of their gender. I ran into several male jerks, too.

Posted by: newsahm | December 17, 2007 8:41 AM

I also have to add that the scope of this topic is very small. It's essentially middle and upper class professional women who we're talking about. In other classes (for lack of a better term) and in other parts of the world, this phenomenon is probably non-existent. Which is just more proof that our society conditions us for this competition. The sooner we all realize that, the sooner we can move on and ignore the sheep.

Posted by: Meesh | December 17, 2007 8:46 AM

Meesh- I don't think is isolated to the middle and upper classes. There are packs of women at all socioeconomic levels, as in inner city gangs. I think wherever you go, there are groups of people who dislike other groups of people. Women and men have generally been separated and grouped together since the beginning of time, so I'm guessing there were many outcast and shunned cro-magnon women, kicked out of the bead-making circle for (name the offense). Women are gifted with wicked tongues, which some use sparingly, others with impudence. We are a verbal bunch, and I think that drives a lot of the behavior. Men and women are different, and this is a glaring example of that.

Posted by: atb2 | December 17, 2007 9:01 AM

atb, we'll have to agree to disagree. I sincerely doubt that these behaviors would exist in the absense of a society.

And I think that generalizations like "women are verbal" are a myth. There is way too much variety among people to make generalizations like that.

You think men and women are different. So that's what you see. I think men and women essentially the same, so that's what I see.

Posted by: Meesh | December 17, 2007 9:23 AM

...says the SAHM who REFUSES to buy one of those dumb-ass christmas sweaters to wear to my kids' holiday party).

Posted by: justlurking | December 17, 2007 08:39 AM

Ooo...Wear black and go as coal! They probably wouldn't even get it...

Posted by: DLC1220 | December 17, 2007 9:49 AM

"Often we don't have a clue where we stand with one another -- socially, as mothers, as colleagues -- because we're at once allies and foes."

What makes you think this doesn't apply to men as well???? or kids?? Why should the converse (all women be allies, friends and supporters of all women) ever occur?? Women are diverse--just like men. Some are worthy of praise, some aren't.

Posted by: duguyisheng | December 17, 2007 9:52 AM

As I read the article, my first impression was that she was fearful for her daughter going off to college and winding up like the "shunned" sorority girl who let herself be assaulted because of alcohol use. Then, it morphed into "sisterhood." I prefer to stick to her concerns for her daughter: Alcohol use and frat parties don't mix. Short and to the point. Alcohol and men are lethal to any woman's wellbeing. If you feel your daughter has listened to you, don't worry, she'll be fine.

Posted by: marine2211 | December 17, 2007 10:06 AM

For the record, mehitabel (formerly catlady) is NOT crazycatlady, who posted at 8:39 AM today.

Bom dia, Mãe portuguesa, se estiver neste blogue hoje!

Posted by: mehitabel | December 17, 2007 10:36 AM

You ought to be a man for a month if you really want to experience the full brunt of this totally female dominated society.

Posted by: bryan | December 17, 2007 11:01 AM

My experience is more Leslie's than Ms. Valen's, though, like Leslie, I don't doubt the truth of Ms. Valen's story.

I think we have a remarkable capacity to see the things that support our view of life, the universe, and everything -- both good and bad -- and reason away or ignore the things that don't jibe with that. I grew up thinking of women as the "sisterhood," and so that's what I tend to see. I've definitely run across the other type, but I pretty much just dismiss them as jerks and go on my merry way in the opposite direction -- whereas someone who had the opposite world view would use that experience as yet another example of why women are catty and spiteful.

Just seems pretty simple that, if you value friendship and loyalty, you look for people with similar values, and avoid the rest. For ex., I avoided the whole frat and sorority scene in college -- yes, I know there are good ones and good people in them, but I was being very practical: in my high school, the people I knew who were interested in that scene weren't the people I wanted to hang out with, specifically because they were superficial and cliquish and catty. So why would I have wanted to put myself in a position where I was surrounded by people I didn't like?

Of course, it also helps to be an introvert who hates large groups of people and never felt some compelling need to be "in" with the coolest crowd. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | December 17, 2007 11:08 AM

What a bunch of interesting comments this morning.
I don't think anyone should make any big generalization about female behavior based on sorority dynamics. These groups tend to attract women who are more conforming and fear driven than average (although I'm certain that exceptions do abound). In my experience, fear drven people, male or female, are just not very reliable.

One thing I think that colors a woman's attitude toward other women is her relationship with her mother. Women that have healthy reassuring relationships with their mothers are more likely to pursue healthy relationships with other women in general. I think they just know the right qualities to look for in their friends. A bad relationship with mom can make it hard to trust other women through adulthood. I know that I have overreacted to criticism from other women because of shortcomings in my relationship with my mom. I imagine that other women have similar issues to work though, and I would guess that a woman who is always feeling betrayed by other women should probably take a good hard look at her feelings towards mom.

Like the previous poster said,its mainly dolphins out there. And even the sharks are likely to morph into dolphins in the right circumstances. None of us are good all the time, or bad all the time either, and guys tend to be more forgiving of each other's shortcomings than we are.

Posted by: pinkoleander | December 17, 2007 11:10 AM

We as women have no idea of the ferocity that lurks in our genetic past. We retain all the survival instincts that were with us in our hunter gatherer times. We just have channeled all that into more socially acceptable behavior. When push comes to shove, I'm sure that instinct is behind our actions, unfortunately because tearing someone to shreds isn't now in our best interest, our tools have become much more dangerous because we now know the soft underbelly is not so much physical but emotional and mental - and we have become masters of this new death. We do adapt don't we!

Posted by: goddessreturns | December 17, 2007 11:14 AM

I've had a couple notable experiences that made me a lot warier about female friendship. But with girlfriends I trust -- well those friendships are at the heart of what's best in my life.
What I'm careful about now is women in groups. This comes after participating in a stay-at-home Mom group, where we'd visit each other's homes with our kids once a week. A lovely woman who lived near me started it and there were only about four of us to start. Then a few newcomers joined and one woman began to take control and arrange to exclude others -- including the woman who'd started the group! It all started to get terribly ugly and I was fortunate to move away. I welcomed going back to work where people were occupied by, well, work! It doesn't help that a woman that I was very close to in the Moms group suddenly turned her back on me with no explanation. But it taught me I'm not as good a judge of character as I think. I'm a good deal more cautious now about the games women can play, particularly in groups.
That said, most of my female friendships are loving, supportive and bring me great joy.

Posted by: anne.saunders | December 17, 2007 11:19 AM

Unfortunately my experience with women throughout my life has been, for the most part, not that great--and that's putting it mildly. The exceptions are a handful of friends--two from college, one from childhood and maybe two since I've been a mom (11.5 years)--and my sister. My mom has always been negative and critical (of course you still have to love your mom anyway!)--whether it was about my previous marriage (she would tell me that I was just not a happy person and it was my fault that I couldn't just make myself be happy) or working (constant comments about how I'm neglecting my kids by working (even when it was part-time) or having "strangers" care for them (next-door neighbor's teenage daughter). My experience with other moms both when I was a SAHM and now that I'm a working mom has been, for the most part, just plain not good. I had a "best" friend I met at my first job out of college--I was her maid of honor, we timed our pregnancies together, etc--then when I got divorced she never spoke to me again.

And as for women at work--with the exception of a very few co-workers and one boss--I've had experiences ranging from not good to horrible.

I don't like to compromise and spend time with people I don't like or who I don't share similar values with--which means that, for the most part, I spend time either with my kids, my husband or alone--and it suits me fine.

Pinkoleander--I just read your post and never thought about it but think you're totally right. If you're not a therapist you should be one!

Posted by: maggielmcg | December 17, 2007 11:41 AM

I second what anne says about women in [large] groups... that seems to be where the power play/polarizing the group against one or more members behaviors seem to occur. Maybe because the greater the number of members in group, to some extent the less you have in common with each individual.

Posted by: tntkate | December 17, 2007 12:08 PM

maggiemcg, we'll I could probably use a therapist, but I'm too cheap!
My relationship with my mom has been ambivalent, really good in some ways and not so good in others. I notice that the ways in which she let me down are hot buttons for me, and when other women let me down in similar ways I overreact. I'm working on trying to recognize that when it happens. There are some people that are down right toxic though, and I'm trying to get better at recognizing them. Most people are somewhere in between, they'll let you down some of the time, at other times they'll be your greatest ally. You just have to give them a break, the same way you have to give yourself a break for screwing up sometimes. I'd like to be one of those women that has a long list of friends that she cherishes and adores but I'm not there yet.

Posted by: pinkoleander | December 17, 2007 12:13 PM

"We retain all the survival instincts that were with us in our hunter gatherer times."

Right you are. It's incredibly easy to generate explanations for this behavior by running down the path of evolutionary biology. Competition for survival 10,000 years ago undoubtedly included exclusion of women by women. If we assume the 'classic' view of women being totally dependent on hunter-gatherers/men is correct (unlikely), there are too many evolutionary advantages to list.

The relatively regressive social hothouse of a sorority can reproduce these "selection pressures" with a high degree of fidelity.

Posted by: judgeccrater | December 17, 2007 12:29 PM

To expand on what Ann posted, I've noticed that the women in our neighborhood seem to have a cap of 4 or 5 friends at any given time. As I have mentioned before, women are very complex, and a simple roll of the eyes, an exclusion invitation of someone to a party, mention of recent weight gain, misinterpreted gossip, or some of the smallest social violations can get a female booted from the pack.


If I was a woman, I would have few, if any, female friends. However, since I'm a man, and not expected to be on par with the social standards women impose on each other, I get cut a huge break. At least I'm tolerated, I think.

Boy, am I glad I'm a man!

Posted by: DandyLion | December 17, 2007 12:42 PM

"Boy, am I glad I'm a man!"

Posted by: DandyLion | December 17, 2007 12:42 PM

You're a great American, DandyLion. But shouldn't we all, man or woman, girl or boy, be able to say, as George M. Cohan said 101 years ago, "I'm glad I'm what I am"?

"I'm a cranky, hanky panky, I'm a dead square honest Yankee,
And I'm mighty proud of that old flag that flies for Uncle Sam.
Though I don't believe in raving ev'ry time I see it waving,
There's a chill runs up my back that makes me glad I'm what I am."
-- George M. Cohan, "You're a Grand Old Flag" (1906)

Posted by: MattInAberdeen | December 17, 2007 1:06 PM

For Heaven's sake, everybody, look at the elephant in the room. This poor woman was raped. A man raped her, but where does she direct her anger and distrust? Other women. I have no doubt the sorority girls behaved badly, but nothing they did compares to what the fraternity boys did. In a way, the writer, by blaming members of her own sex, is blaming an extension of herself, an unjustified, but sadly common, reaction from a rape victim.

Posted by: kaleberg | December 17, 2007 1:24 PM

I have had bad experiences with women, in my personal life and in the workplace. I only have a couple of really good girlfriends that I know would help me hide the body if necessary.

The thing I hate is the back-stabbing and sneaky sh!t. I'll take a man's fight any day: draw a line in the sand and go bare-knuckled until someone is too bloodied to stand. I don't mind getting my a$$ kicked, but I want to see it coming and know who is doing it.

I've yet to see the term "frenemy" used in reference to two men. That is rather telling.

Posted by: pepperjade | December 17, 2007 1:41 PM

"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer"

Posted by: KLB_SS_MD | December 17, 2007 1:54 PM

"I've yet to see the term 'frenemy' used in reference to two men. That is rather telling."

Posted by: pepperjade | December 17, 2007 01:41 PM

I never heard of such a term.

Kelly Valen's story of rape and betrayal in The New York Times raises another question that I have not seen discussed today. If a man got expelled from his fraternity for bad reasons, would he still be angry if one of the ex-fraternity brothers who threw him out approached him twenty years later?

On the grounds of the fictional Faber College in the movie, "Animal House," there stood a statue of the college's founder with the inscription, "Knowledge is Good." On the grounds of McGill University in real-world Montréal stands a statue of James McGill, the fur trader who founded the place, with a long-winded inscription that amounts to the same thing. Does any women's college have a statue of Limitations on the grounds? Does any men's college *need* such a statue? Or are men more likely than women to "forgive and forget," i.e., do men have their own built-in statue of Limitations?

Or, maybe not. Remember that even after twenty years, the Biblical patriarch Jacob was afraid that his brother Esau was gunning to kill him for stealing their father's blessing. And then there's Captain Ahab, still angry at the White Whale.

Posted by: MattInAberdeen | December 17, 2007 2:00 PM

kaleberg- I think what it says is that it's expected that a man would act that way (raping a half unconscious girl), but you expect more from your girlfriends (blaming you for potentially soiling their reputation by having the audacity to get raped). Those are pretty low standards for men.

Posted by: atb2 | December 17, 2007 2:07 PM

"If I was a woman, I would have few, if any, female friends. "

Oh, I doubt that, Dandy. You'd have many friends even if you were an earthworm.

"If you believe that women are big meanies to each other, you will see it everywhere you go. If you don't believe that, you won't see it. I certainly don't see women being worse than men."

Meesh nailed this one. If you project your issues about yourself on an entire gender, choosing friends wisely is probably mighty difficult. Step one, though, is losing the labels and paying attention to the personality characteristics and values of each person and not sorting them into pink and blue boxes.

Like kaleberg, I am puzzled that Leslie sees this story as a springboard for a discussion of sisterhood. I see it as a springboard for a discussion of teaching our kids how to choose friends wisely, e.g., how to distinguish between persons who are true friends and, OTOH, persons who will stab us in the back at the slightest whim, who demean us and others who hold different opinions on a variety of matters, and who might not speak to us again if we divorce, get a tattoo, drink a little too much from time to time, or otherwise do not adhere to their Standards of Acceptable Behavior. Shedding those persons from our lives can only make us happier and more at peace.

Posted by: mn.188 | December 17, 2007 2:09 PM

In addition to what mn.188 said above, people (not just kids) need to know that they don't need to blindly follow their peers, be it drinking, doing drugs or joining a sorority. It is harder to listen to your own drummer and not follow like a lemming but can untimately be more rewarding and perhaps safer.

Posted by: KLB_SS_MD | December 17, 2007 2:23 PM

I think it's all about perception. People see things through their own filters of opinions, biases, and judgements. - Meesh

Meesh, unfortunately being the fat, slow, only white female in my class was not just a perception.

Being ganged up on in gym class regularly screamed at that I was queer and stank, gum thrown in my hair, no one daring to sit next to me at lunch or on the bus and regular attempts to shame me in front of others- again, not just perception.

I was that social outcast and they were all females.

Blessedly that part of my life ended, but have regularly experienced female cattiness since then. I do not have to deal with it directly anymore and have managed to pick and choose a few friends along the way who really fit me and are honest- but you can't honestly think that it's all just perception that there are bad catty women out there?

Posted by: EmeraldEAD | December 17, 2007 2:26 PM

Kaleberg -- With you all the way. If I had been raped in college while a bunch of frat boys watched, I would be far more angry and disgusted with men than women. But it is harder to direct your anger at the "right" target when that target holds most of the power as white men, who have their own strong networks like former frat boys, do. And who knows, maybe this writer is even angrier with men than women -- but she just didn't cover it in this particular essay.

And Meesh -- you are right and you are wrong. It takes social conditioning to create this kind of mistrust among women. But it doesn't have a darn thing to do with economic level or gender. It could and does happen everywhere when there are unequal power levels among different people in the same group.

Posted by: leslie4 | December 17, 2007 2:40 PM

I'm with you all the way pepperjade. I've encountered so many women for whom backstabbing comes as easily as breathing.

This is not to say men don't resort to underhanded's just that it's usually part of a larger draw-a-line-in-the-sand type of fight. If you're an enemy of a man, you know it, flat out.

My favorite? In college, I joined the Geological Society of America, the standard professional organization for Geologists. The women in my department then spent a semester sniping at me (when they weren't giving me the cold shoulder) and bad mouthing me to whoever would listen about how I "betrayed" them by not joining the Association for Women Geoscientists instead. Um...okay...

I thought it was sad and funny, and ultimately, just annoying. And the staff - except for one younger, female short-term instructor with an admitted massive chip on her shoulder - couldn't understand the outrage and were annoyed with them for trying to stir up unrest in the department (I just ignored them and the male students in the department just shook their heads).

Personally, I am always slow to trust any woman who plays the "we're all sisters" card with me. Because I have a sister - she's married with two kids and lives in the greater DC area. And I have a sister-in-law up in Connecticut. That's all fine for me, thanks - I'm tanked up on sisters...

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | December 17, 2007 2:47 PM

"In addition to what mn.188 said above, people (not just kids) need to know that they don't need to blindly follow their peers, be it drinking, doing drugs or joining a sorority."

Posted by: KLB_SS_MD | December 17, 2007 02:23 PM

I agree 100% with the sentiment. My only quibble is with the word, "peers." To me, "peers" is not a synonym for "agemates" or "classmates." A peer is someone who is your equal, and dammit, Ted Kaczinsky is not my equal. There is (or used to be) a sign outside the New Haven State Jail in Connecticut, reading, "Anyone who asks you to do the wrong thing is never your friend." We taught our kids that druggies and drunks were not their peers, and were not to be followed or imitated, even if they were the same age and in the same class. The kind of guy who would participate in a "ledge party" is not my children's peer.

Posted by: MattInAberdeen | December 17, 2007 2:53 PM

I did mean peers as classmates. Plus, sometimes you thinks someone is a "peer" as you describe it until they do ask you to "do the wrong thing" or do it themselves. A harder lesson is how to say "no".

Posted by: KLB_SS_MD | December 17, 2007 2:58 PM


"Frenemy" is a newly coined term that combines "friends" and "enemies," i.e., backstabbers who appear to be your friends but gut you when it is opportune. The pair that this word is most closely associated with is Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

And with your analysis of "If a man got expelled from his fraternity for bad reasons, would he still be angry if one of the ex-fraternity brothers who threw him out approached him twenty years later?" misses the point of the article completely. The author was angry that she was victimized twice--the second time by the very people she thought were her "sisters." I can absolutely see where this was equally as painful as the rape itself. Even the rapist's frat brotehrs knew that the rapist was at fault--they expelled him. But the sorority sisters blamed the victim for "shaming" their good name (I wish the author had publicly named the sorority), and instead of coming to her aid, they banish her. That is incredibly harsh and unbelievably painful for an 18-year-old rape victim.

Posted by: pepperjade | December 17, 2007 3:00 PM

Chas, I too kind of cringe at "the sisterhood." It's more real when no one calls it that -- and anyway, it's about actions, not words. Also, real sisters can be pretty awful as well!

Posted by: leslie4 | December 17, 2007 3:00 PM

"but you can't honestly think that it's all just perception that there are bad catty women out there?"

I don't think Meesh is saying that at all - I think she is saying that whether you generalize that to all women, or whether you decide that's a difference between men and women is perception. My feeling is that are bad, catty women and bad, catty men and learning how to deal with them both is an essential life skill.

As MN said, I would think this is an issue of how to choose friends and cope with less than ideal relationships, not an issue of gender identity or differences between the genders.

Posted by: LizaBean | December 17, 2007 3:02 PM


You are right. And as for backstabbing, it is most certainly not limited to the womenfolk. The aggressive, assertive man may get frowned on, but listen to the song:

"At theater parties or Sunday brunch,
At the PTA or a business lunch,
I hog the spotlight for hours or more,
And speak in a ninety-decibel roar.

"But many a clean-cut Midwestern son,
If he wants to move up to be number one,
Must secretly stab more men above
Than brazenly out of my way I shove."

(tune: the Pirate King's song from "Pirates of Penzance.")

Posted by: MattInAberdeen | December 17, 2007 3:08 PM

Matt writes: "Ted Kaczinsky is not my equal."

While Matt was taking goodness-only-knows-what courses as Harvard in 1961-62, the undergradate Ted was already taking graduate-level Math courses there, including Analysis of Complex Functions. Then he went on to earn his Ph.D. at Michigan, and then a faculty member at Berkeley. So it's doubtless true that Matt is hardly Ted's intellectual equal. It's just that Ted was also tragically mentally ill, and failed to get the extensive medical treatment he needed to keep him from becoming a mass murderer.

Posted by: mehitabel | December 17, 2007 3:10 PM

Sorry for the typos. Should read:

Matt writes: "Ted Kaczinsky is not my equal."

While Matt was taking goodness-only-knows-what courses at Harvard in 1961-62, the undergraduate Ted was already taking graduate-level Math courses there, including Analysis of Complex Functions. Then he went on to earn his Ph.D. at Michigan, and then a faculty member at Berkeley. So it's doubtless true that Matt is hardly Ted's intellectual equal. It's just that Ted was also tragically mentally ill, and failed to get the extensive medical treatment he needed to keep him from becoming a mass murderer.

Posted by: mehitabel | December 17, 2007 3:11 PM

LizaBean wrote: "As MN said, I would think this is an issue of how to choose friends and cope with less than ideal relationships, not an issue of gender identity or differences between the genders."

What they said.

Posted by: mehitabel | December 17, 2007 3:13 PM

You know I think men and women are different, but I need to ask the men: do you have issues with catty men? I think this is definitely more of a woman thing. We injure with our words, and men use their fists. That may be generalizing, but it's pretty much all I saw growing up. I assume most people outgrow this, but there seems to be a loud and proud catty minority of women alive and well. When fist-wielding men age (I don't want to use the term "grow up") and fist fights are frowned upon, do they move to acid tongues?

BTW, the grown-ups cliques look like pathetic women-children desparately hanging on to their cool days of youth. It ain't pretty, women-children. It's just acknowledgement that you know you've already peaked, and it's just downhill from here.

Posted by: atb2 | December 17, 2007 3:20 PM

"So it's doubtless true that Matt is hardly Ted's intellectual equal."

Posted by: mehitabel | December 17, 2007 03:10 PM

But when we're talking about examples for our children to follow, what we're talking about here are moral equals, not intellectual equals.

"the undergraduate Ted was already taking graduate-level Math courses there, including Analysis of Complex Functions."

Catlady, many, many students in Professor Brauer's Math 213 ("Functions of a Complex Variable") consisted of undergraduates. The same was true of Prof. Lynn Loomis's Math 212 ("Functions of a Real Variable") and of Math 250 ("Modern Algebra"). I know because I was in all those classes as an undergraduate. Once a math concentrator has finished Advanced Calculus, there are not enough undergraduate (100-level) courses to fill up your schedule; you have to start taking 200-level classes. All any undergraduate needed to sign up for a graduate math class was "permission of the instructor." For all I know, I might have sat in the same classroom in Sever Hall with the future Unabomber.

Posted by: MattInAberdeen | December 17, 2007 3:24 PM

A cousin was set up to be raped by one of her sorority sisters- this was less than 5 years ago (cousin subsequently left the sorority, I don't believe anything happened to the other woman since it couldn't be proved that she actually did anything illegal).

There are plenty of women who are very two-faced. Fortunately, as an adult it is pretty easy to figure out who these people are. Unfortunately, it takes some experience to get to this point.

Posted by: floof | December 17, 2007 3:33 PM

"I need to ask the men: do you have issues with catty men?"

ATB, when men greet an old friend that they haven't seen for about 5 years they will say something like this:

"Hey, if it ain't good old goofyfoot! Still driving that piece of junk Ford around and drinking that rotgut beer? Looks like you got the beergut going and maybe you could use a little bean wax to polish up that spot on the top of your head, but other than that, you're not looking so bad. How long has it been?"

For men, it's a term of endearment.

Women don't do that, if they want to maintain friends anyway.

Posted by: DandyLion | December 17, 2007 3:46 PM

atb: "bros before hos" - Carlos Solis

Seriously - most men don't have issues with catty men because either we (a) ignore them; (b) beat the crap out of them; or (c) move to get away from them or get them away from us. I'd say (a) happens about 98% of the time.

Of course, I'm generalizing and there are certainly exceptions, but it's the exceptions that make the rule.

WRT this blog: Wow, it sounds like the author really got messed with by her "sisters". Yes, the one guy is guilty of rape, and there were probably much more appropriate punishments than getting kicked out of his frat and leaving school, but at least he did get punished in some way.

The spectators may or may not have been guilty of anything more than being cads (I'm not a lawyer and I'm not qualified to say if their behavior rose to the "accessory" level), but they didn't try to stop it despite knowing what the situation was, and were certainly no role models.

The "sisters" on the other hand chose to screw over the author in her hour of need (and yes I chose that word intentionally) and I think that's why she held it against them. Years ago, while a Fed, I took an EEO class proctored by a guy named Don Coyhis, a noted Native American speaker and engineer. Coyhis noted that, in Native American terms, everybody has an "internal picture" of what the world should be like and how people should behave; and the "external picture" they see. "Cognitive dissonance" happens when the internal picture doesn't match the external picture. People then only have two choices; change their internal picture to match the external reality; or change the environment to one in which the external picture matches the pre-existing internal picture.

It's possible that, put in those terms, when the men - rapist and voyeurs - treated her that way, they were causing the external picture to match her internal picture of men's behavior. (The author really doesn't address that.) On the other hand, the external picture of her sorority sisters bailing on her did not match her internal picture of a "band of sisters", and so in some ways that bothered her more than the men's behavior.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | December 17, 2007 4:04 PM

On catty men, I've never heard a man use the word catty to describe another man; usually I hear them use other words to describe guys who are dishonest, self-serving or not trustworthy, most of which I cannot get through the filter, even with the use of punctuation and symbols, LOL.

Posted by: LizaBean | December 17, 2007 5:07 PM

LizaBean's right (5:07 PM). I've observed firsthand plenty of men "stabbing in the back" other men, whether in the workplace, the dating context, or other arenas of life. I think Leslie was just trying to twist Kelly's experience into a battle of the sexes, to suit her own agenda.

Posted by: mehitabel | December 17, 2007 5:16 PM

LizaBean, I'll offer one: Tool.

Posted by: mn.188 | December 17, 2007 5:45 PM

btw, just to play devils' advocate regarding some of the negative fraternity comments that have been posted today, . . .

1. As a preliminary matter for the word usage sticklers, women's fraternities are fraternities. Sorority is not a name greek women apply to themselves.

2. The sisters in a chapter of a national fraternity have more to think about then the mental health of one member. They have an obligation to look out for the reputation of the chapter. Each sister, by her actions, represents both a large, national, branded organization, but she also represents all of the girls in her house on a particular campus. A chapter can tank pretty fast if one or two women develop a negative reputation on a particular campus -- whether for honor violations, speeding through a school zone, or whatever -- because the next group of eligible girls may be more likely to pledge another fraternity when they hear of her behavior. Like any social club, once recruiting becomes problematic, financial problems arise. Fair or not to Kelly, we don't have any idea whether the fraternity's choice to separate from her was valid or not, because none of us were in the room when the reasons were discussed. It's clear all was not Paradise before this tragedy. We do know though that the officers of that fraternity had a responsiblity to look after the health and well-being of the chapter. Perhaps they were spineless scaredy cats, or vengeful wretches, who should have encouraged Kelly to pursue a rape charge through her campus' judiciary system. Maybe they made a tough call in the best interest of 120 other women. We don't know. We shouldn't assume that we do.

Kelly seems like a very sweet and interesting person. I hope that she doesn't let the next 40 years go by as she has the last 20 - missing out on potential friendships with half the human population.

Posted by: mn.188 | December 17, 2007 6:06 PM

What a heart-wrenching article by Kelly Valen. This blog today evokes a lot of responses and feelings in me.

The first is to say that as someone who joined a sorority in college (like Valen - to make a large campus smaller and provide more social opportunities) I, thankfully, did not have an experience like Valen's where my sisters didn't support me. We are still friends today, some of us, although I'll be the first to admit that some of these friendships are fairly superficial. But like I said, during the college period, I wasn't being sold out and ripped apart by the girls that were supposed to be part of my sisterhood.

I think most of my relationships with other women (friendships and professional relationships) have been very positive, particularly those that I've developed as an adult.

(Perhaps my most painful friendship moments growing up was as a middle-schooler being told by my two best friends that they no longer wanted to be my friend because the wanted to be friends with some other group of more popular girls...)

But since then I've been lucky to acquire more friends than I lose, from college and from jobs, neighbors and spouses of my husband's friends, and so on.

In fact, up until two years ago, I believed that grown up women were different - that they were "grown up" but I have to say, unfortunately, that's not always true.

I moved with my husband for his job and had to start from scratch with a whole new social life and it''s been very VERY difficult to piece it all together. Women who were nice to me the first time we met seemed to decide later (after meeting other women) that I was less desirable to spend time with; women that I thought I was friends with would organize outings and dinners and parties with each other and I was excluded. Needless to say, this was very hurtful.

I don't think it's because they're women that they behave like this but rather because they aren't the kind of people that I want to be around. But it still hurts.

Posted by: viennamom | December 18, 2007 9:21 AM

It's been my experience that if you are sincere about getting your work done, that most women you work with are accommodating.

That doesn't mean that you always take off when you wish you could. It means you get down to business and hold up your part. Then you are in a position to get accommodation and flexibility from your co-workers.

I find that the women I work with are my best supporters. They KNOW what it's like.

Of course, I'm not a lawyer, just an IT gal.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 18, 2007 10:06 AM

Depends on whether the women were sociopaths or not. Back in the 70s, the workforce was filled with women who were the products of brutish child-rearing--their personalities were the result of abuse. The tales would astonish you. . .

Posted by: IIntgrty | December 18, 2007 4:26 PM

I found myself on the receiving end of catty female backstabbing at a much younger age than Kelly Valen - I was between the ages of twelve and sixteen. I was bullied in school, but instead of standing up for me, my female friends deemed me weird and oversensitive and gradually ditched me. (I think they had a crush on the bully.) The pack mentality develops early on.

But because it happened when I was relatively young, I haven't developed a fear of other women. Instead I concluded that teenagers are vicious little animals who should probably be kept in padded cells. I will never, ever work with middle-schoolers.

Posted by: kea_ | December 20, 2007 11:10 AM

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