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Holding Up a Mirror Along with the Bullhorn: Why Women Can't Lay All the Blame Elsewhere

11/17/2010 06:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When we consider issues of gender in this country, we tend to assess the progress and prospects of the American woman through an amorphous sort of "look how far we've come" or "look how far we haven't come" analysis, eyes trained on the Man and related cultural influences that have historically beaten us back. It's a legitimate exercise. And yet, as we do this, I think it's also valid to consider a related, if more elusive and controversial, component to the contemporary female experience, one we'd much prefer to sweep under the rug. And that's the degree to which girls and women are -- or are not -- nurturing each other's ascent. 

For my new book, "The Twisted Sisterhood," I conducted an anonymous female relationships survey of more than 3,000 women, ages 18 to 86, of all backgrounds and perspectives. Women have extremely variant opinions, of course, their responses betrayed strong generational tensions, and some remain vehemently resistant to the mere idea of female incivility if we can't lay all blame elsewhere. Personally, I think a more measured, open-minded approach makes sense. Here's why.

A fair number of women feel that they're enjoying rough social, political, and economic parity in this moment. Most recognize that sexism continues to exist, that genuine ceilings remain, and that an insidious sense of "business as usual" prevails in too many sectors. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (and related litigation) suggest, for example, that the number of women in finance has shrunk substantially relative to men, and that we've borne an inordinate share of Wall Street layoffs thanks to the lurking stench of sexism. Rape victims tell Congress that police ignore or forget their cases; celebrity women open up about casting-couch creepiness; the lovefest for Franzen's "Freedom" prompts some to equate book reviews with old boys' clubs; pay gaps and work-life challenges persist; a federal prosecutor assures me that some neighborhoods of women live pursuant to misogyny rule; and we're still dissecting the gender-related detritus of the 2008 presidential election. Females around the globe, meanwhile, face daily horrors that I can't begin to wrap my brain around.

I've taken some heat for calling other women out for bad behavior, but many of us feel that it's fair to consider the unique ways that females affect one another -- for better and for worse. Most women told me that they had at least one reliable girlfriend -- excellent news. But an almost equal number say they've suffered palpable, gratuitous knocks in the female garden that to varying degrees affected self-esteem, subsequent relationships, and willingness to take risks. To them, a pointless and self-defeating undercurrent of negativity plagues our gender. They want something better.

Women are, obviously, so good for one another. Research confirms the unique dividends our healthy female connections lend, but those quiet nudges, slights, and jabs indisputably take their toll, too. Therein lies the rub. Coming clean about our own inhumanity is an unpleasant undertaking. It feels vaguely anti-woman to indulge these questions when we can readily point to other deserving suspects. Still, for those of us having the luxury to fancy ourselves rational, free-thinking, free-choosing beings, we'd do well to clean our own house, entertain notions of personal responsibility, and proactively help each other thrive. We don't have to vote for or embrace every female simply because we share a chromosomal pairing. But we shouldn't go out of our way to knock each other down, either. We should practice a mindful civility and teach our daughters the same. We should reach out, respect, mentor, and feather a more authentic, inclusive, and collaborative nest. We should curb the nonsense that thwarts the ascent of individuals and, ultimately, the gender as a whole. 
 
It's a mistake, I'm convinced, to gloss over our own blemishes, insist that conditions on the inside are swell for all, or automatically trace the entirety of female hardship back to a single, primary cause of evil. I can point to 3,000 women who will tell you -- with assurances of anonymity, anyway -- that things aren't so black and white. It isn't only men, the media, marketers, and others out there who hurt, demotivate, demoralize, and otherwise hold us back.

We should absolutely celebrate our loveliness and advances and keep knocking down walls; we should absolutely confront the sinister cultural forces that conspire against us. At the same time, let's not be afraid to hold up that mirror. With a more supportive "sisterhood" at our backs, we, the next generation of females, and the greater planet stand only to benefit.