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Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan

Posted: November 17, 2010 03:10 PM

Here we go again. The ancient trope about how women don't play well with other women is upon us again. This time, it is in the form of a book by lawyer Kelly Valen called The Twisted Sisterhood and it's all about the evil things we do to one another.

This isn't news. The novel would never have survived without girl-on-girls contests. Think Jane Austen. Gone with the Wind. Atonement.

I don't for one moment deny that women compete fiercely with other women. Until relatively recently, this was not unreasonable. Denied skills and opportunities to be financially independent, women had to get married; it was, quite literally, a matter of life and death for all but the wealthiest. It's important to remember that competitive behavior, in this context, was primal, a matter of survival.

Of course once we got the opportunities for financial independence, the game changed -- and I'll readily acknowledge behaviors were slow to catch up. I speak almost every week on the subject of women and business, and at every conference there's always one woman who asks why her worst, least supportive boss was female. And I can say exactly the same thing.

But here's the thing. While absolutely acknowledging that this horrible stuff goes on, it is perhaps more useful to emphasize how swiftly the legacy of two thousand years has faded. Everywhere I go, I see women's networks: women helping women, overtly and explicitly. Everywhere I speak, it's in support of female mentoring schemes. None of these was available when I started my career.

The news, for me, is how quickly women have figured out the strength and power they have together. That's why groups like NEW, WPO, PWN, 85 Broads and a gazillion professional women's networks have developed so fast. We've got it! We know we're better together than separately. We can read the numbers and see that the odds are stacked against us, and we've seen that we're better off with friends. And, like Madeleine Albright, we all reserve a circle in hell for those 19th century relics who still think women hurting women is cool.