Claire Lehmann

How women gang up on each other to get what they want



Women, especially young women, can be real bitches.

Anyone who has attended highschool with girls knows that women fight differently from men. We use covert, stealthy tactics of manipulation and ostracism. While men will ask each other to ‘step outside,’ beat their chests and use their fists, we women will sneakily sabotage our ‘frenemies’. We keep our enemies close. And while we attempt to sabotage them, we will appear well-meaning and well-behaved, so as not to besmirch our clean reputations.

Because such forms of female aggression are universal and common, they are found repeatedly in stories and art. They are also found in fairy and folk-tales. Such depictions are often more than symbolic; they are a form of communication, or a lesson, about the real world.

Researchers Sarah Hrdy, Joyce Beneson and Anne Campbell have researched female aggression over the last three decades. They have found that females often use indirect methods to hurt and harm each other. Whether this is due to cultural reasons or selective pressures, is unclear. But what is clear is that women fight in less violent and less noticeable ways compared with men. Our aggression flies under the radar.

See: Feminine Foes: New Science Explores Female Competition

A recurring stereotype of female aggression is the wicked step-mother. The wicked step-mother wreaks havoc on Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel while sinisterly appearing in folk tales in over 20 different languages. “Better a serpent than a step-mother”! wrote Greek playwright, Euripides, 2,400 years ago.

In the 1990s, evolutionary psychologists, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, completed study after study after study using cross-cultural data on what they called the “Cinderella effect”. They found that children were at much higher risk of abuse and neglect if one of their parents died. And if a step-mother arrived on the scene – with her own genetic children – that risk compounded significantly. Step-parents, sadly, have historically been one of the greatest dangers to orphaned or motherless children.

See: The Truth About Cinderella: A Darwinian view of parental love

But before becoming step-mothers we females practice our aggression through forming coalitions with one another to lock out our sexual rivals. We use tactics such as cold-shoulders, ‘silent-treatments’ and gossip to stigmatise. We will derogate our rival’s personality, appearance, nurturing capabilities, faithfulness and loyalty all in an attempt to lower their value and raise our own. And we often do this in groups.

An artistic representation of this specific coalitional form of aggression is the coven of witches. Art history is replete with depictions of witches (real and imagined) in plural form. The ancient Greeks depicted “The Fates” as weaving the fabric of human life from birth. And bands of passively-powerful women can be found all over classical and ancient mythology and are reincarnated in Hollywood films such as The Craft, The Witches of Eastwick, and The Crucible.

In Arthur Miller’s classic play about witch-hunts, the nightmarish power of a girl gang is played out in its extreme. Young girls of Salem group together and wreak havoc on their village. Their power exists in their cooperation and their gender. Because their aggression is both collective and passive, and because they are both young and female, their wicked intentions are never detected. They are perceived as innocent and compliant girls and use this to their advantage. Together in a group, they are able to destroy their community from the inside out.

A real-life example of the girl-gang can be seen online in Twitter-feminism. Young women pillory each other for not being ‘intersectional’ enough; or for having too much ‘privilege’; or for ‘slut-shaming’; or for ‘victim-blaming’.

This activity goes on and on and on in an endless frenzy reconstructing the dominant feminist clique. Normal men and women watch this confused gender-based activism from the sidelines and recoil with distaste. Recent articles written by online feminists have agonised over the toxic, cannibalistic nature of their community; these can be found here, here and here.

Yet not all female aggression is acted out behind the cover of a girl gang. There also exists the female super-manipulator. She is the high-status woman who does not gain anything from forming alliances with lower status “friends” (who might flirt with her husband and tempt him with novelty). But she gains everything from brokering power deals in secret, or out of public sight. The super-manipulator controls and directs the power possessed by her male relatives and lovers. She is immortalised by characters such as Lady Macbeth.

Women. We’re crafty, intelligent and capable. The notion that women are not players in the game of life and are not playing the game to win is archaic and quaint. It is an artefact from a bygone era.

Macbeth 15

26 thoughts on “How women gang up on each other to get what they want

  1. “Anyone who has attended highschool with girls knows that women fight differently to men. We use covert, stealthy tactics of manipulation and ostracism. ”

    On average, perhaps. Individuals of both sexes use similar tactics, depending on their particular strengths and weaknesses.

    “The notion that women are not players in the game of life and are not playing the game to win is archaic and quaint”

    And this idea wasn’t even dominant most of the time even among men, it seems to me.

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  3. Well-done. I imagine it’s difficult to write a scathing critique of one’s own gender. Ie, one would have to cultivate a certain amount of emotional detachment. Well-supported with studies and historical examples

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  5. Very good article.

    A classic is to tell her friend she should cut her hair short. (99,9% of men think virtually all women look better with long hair than short).

  6. Obviously this must somehow be the fault of men.

  7. This is kind of interesting. But it kind of reminds me of ‘The Manipulated Man’ by Esther Vilar, which I tried to read but couldn’t. Women as the secret manipulators and controllers of the world. It seems a bit weird to argue that when so many social indicators have women coming off second best (not in everything, of course).

    Maybe your more sympathetic to Naomi Wolf’s critique of ‘victim feminism’ in Fire With Fire that she argues is unable to compute the notion of female aggression.

  8. Both sexes use similar tactics? No, not really. Women are masters, while men are barely Padawans. Please, don’t try to rewrite history.

  9. Which indicators have women coming off “Second best”, exactly?

    Certainly not health, health spending, economic indicators, college degrees, etc.

    Even the wage gap is found to be 99% about choices, marriage, time off, etc.

    Women do exceptionally well, because they are smart, capable and have the whole gov’t backing them with support.

  10. The only thing I disagree with is: “The notion that women are not players in the game of life and are not playing the game to win is archaic and quaint. It is an artefact from a bygone era.”

    Honestly, I don’t think anyone with half a brain thinks this with any conviction.

  11. Thoughtful post, drawing on classic material. Would like to know, from a large sample and self-survey of adult women, if this generalization holds up, at least in “Western” cultures: “We use covert, stealthy tactics of manipulation and ostracism.” Have participated professionally in large groups that were, proportionally, mostly female (in the field of public health), and I would say my personal observation confirms that–and I believe in the power of personal observation too. There were simply too few males to generalize their tactics. I can’t speak how this works in cultures with Islamic, Confucian, or “Sub Saharan” traditions. That would be great to see fleshed out.

  12. Disagree. I have noticed that most, if not all, women look better with their hair up and/or short. The pixie gamine look is the most eye catching, especially on women with dark hair and eyes. Remember Audrey Hepburn? She was voted by a major selection of the population as the ‘most beautiful woman in movie history’ … or should I say ‘herstory’?

  13. There is no gender distinction in this behavior. For every single cinema example you identify for women there are certainly triple that among men. It may be that you mistake the prevalence of women working their bad behavior “under the radar” simply because they generally do not have the power and influence to do it comfortably in the open and get away with it.

  14. Go to a bunch of cafes folks and find a table near a bunch of females, any age, and will learn more about them then any uni professor can teach you. Most of the time the conversation boils down to a fuckton of bitching and backstabing.

  15. Women like this are evil. There are great gals out there, all of my ‘buds’ are. Outdoor people always seem nicer and more in tune with themselves and others. I am blessed in that way.
    But I had to leave several jobs due to conniving and downright evil women. There is no excuse for this behavior.

  16. “Women. We’re crafty, intelligent and capable.”

    Funny. Because your entire article thus far read as “Women. We’re cowardly, evil and sociopatic”.

  17. Well, all that you say is in fact true, however this zero-sum game usually zeroes in on the perpetrator over time. I had a girl who gave me alot of stuff during high school, because I was a male in class who was doing better than her gradewise. It was a shame, because she was rather attractive looking and I was interested, that is until I saw that she was trying all the above approaches in order to bring me down. In fact there were several girls in her clique like her, but not to the same extent. Funny thing is that once I ‘ostracised’ her it really started to drive her insane. I sincerely lost all interest, because although the face was pretty the mind was more than ugly. By the time college rolled around she eventually threw herself at me after another ugly episode after carrying her groceries 4 miles and nary a word from her. She threw herself at me and I walked not saying a word. 2 years later she saw me and was all tears, but….. I knew I needed someone that I did not fear turning my back on. So I would say, ‘careful what you wish for’.

  18. My problem is that I can’t forget the horrendous things the workplace ‘bitches’ did to me. I found that I was the object of the ‘smear campaign’ and heard all kinds of things about me that were absolutely untrue. This supreme narcissist who was taller and bigger than anybody probably resented my petite frame…and things got out of hand. She saw a handsome doctor talking to me and I know it flipped her out.

  19. I understand you. Women at work, or anywhere really, are sometimes hostile or more often covertly aggressive to a female whose presence makes them realize they are not secure in their self-esteem. The woman is usually prettier or younger, smarter or charming. Ganging up on said female is standard m.o. for eliminating her. The destruction of her reputation is always the goal and its never hard to do when a whole gang is pushing malicious propoganda regularly.

    Historically, never more than now have so many women worked outside the home. The result is that we are getting a more transparent view every day of the nature of women. It’s becoming more and more evident that women are too often just another burden to female success in the workplace. It makes me wonder if we women are the ones creating the glass ceiling.

    Try not to feel so alone in this. So many women have lost jobs, had to change jobs, had extra work stress, and their reputations ruined for a long time because of other women. So many. I don’t have enough fingers to keep count of the number of women I know who’ve been sabotaged at work by other women, self-included. Even the women I know who say that “it’s a shame how women are vicious toward each other” then turn around and display that same viciousness toward some other female. It’s crazy. And employers and society do not care at all. This is all treated as “normal” or minimized as petty cat-fighting. I know it doesn’t make the hardship less of a burden to deal with, but realizing that you are not in a class all by yourself will help you depersonalize your perception of what happened to you. It’s not about “you.” It’s about THEIR need to feel superior. When some other capable or good looking woman comes along, they’ll do the same crap to her. The cause has really has nothing to do with you. But it is a real shame that we do get impacted by it in more ways than one.

  20. That’s because you’re a man. Women’s vanity isn’t generally threatened by males. If it were, you would learn first hand just how crafty, sneaky, and energetically driven most women are capable of being in an effort to destroy someone. You don’t “get” women. They approach you differently.

  21. The government backs women? Do you watch the news? Work? Who are these women who the government backs? Please describe them.

  22. This is all very depressing…

  23. So very true. It never ceases to amaze me – how women can be….never.

  24. I will never trust another women in business again.

  25. I was so glad to find this article and to read some of the comments. Other woman have ganged up on me since high school. I have been pushed out of jobs and socially excluded by more gangs of women than i care to remember. Oddly the ones who copy my personal style the most are the worst culprits. This line below from a previous comment made my day…I am delighted that another woman actually wrote this…

    “Women at work, or anywhere really, are sometimes hostile or more often covertly aggressive to a female whose presence makes them realize they are not secure in their self-esteem. The woman is usually prettier or younger, smarter or charming. Ganging up on said female is standard m.o. for eliminating her. ”

    In my experience, other woman are always the worst enemies of unusually smart or beautiful woman. Good luck if you are both. Those bitches will tear you down to attempt to ease their feelings of inadequacy. It’s the greatest pity and one of the main reasons we don’t rise to the top.

    I have two good female friends, otherwise i try to have as little to do with woman as possible. In general i much prefer men. Especially as far as the workplace goes. They are generally fairer, kinder, more rational about the bigger picture and never try to copy my hair/outfit/personal interests while plotting to get me sidelined.

  26. Not only do evil two faced women try to sabotage other women in the work place, it also goes on in neighborhoods. Gossip is the favorite weapon of women. It is used to destroy reputations and to gang up on women whom the gossips are jealous of for an assortment of things. The targeted woman may be more intelligent or better educated than the group of rumor mongers. She may be better looking and fit and trim, The gossips may be jealous of another woman’s cars, house and her husband or her children. They hate other women for being happy. I agree with Anon that men are generally fairer, kinder and more rational, unless their own wife is a two faced gossip and they start playing the two faced games too. Usually men like that are spineless and totally controlled by their wives. If you have one or two good female friends, then you are blessed. Evil two faced women have deep seated issues and they’re all too happy to recruit other two faced dysfunctional women into their small armies where they can gripe and trash talk behind the backs of their unsuspecting targets. I think women who have been bullied by other women have learned from bad experiences that behind the big friendly smiles and phony friendly waves is a poisonous snake ready to inject her venom.

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