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Women's worst enemy


By Phyllis Chesler

Thunder's Mouth Press, $22.95, 560 pp

Reviewed by INGRID L. KOHLER

Everyone ought to agree on one thing about Phyllis Chesler's latest work. It's a tough assignment and one not guaranteed to win friends and influence people, particularly women.

Some feminists are bound to view it as a break in their ranks, a diversionary criticism that scatters the focus needed to assault patriarchy. More traditional women may resent Chesler's study as validating the smug bit of cultural lore that women actually can be their own worst enemies.

Add to these ranks some evolutionary biologists, a few non-Freudian psychoanalytical types and the Brothers Grimm (not expected to be the most vocal in the fray), and the author has engaged some formidable opposition.

Yet, occasionally the reader gets the impression Chesler has girded herself for an armageddon in what will prove only an exchange of potshots as the battle of the sexes moves into the 21st century.

Some of the book's blurbs predict strong resistance to Chesler's thesis that women internalize society's sexism, thereby setting themselves up to sabotage themselves and other women. Yet the only stir likely to erupt promises to come from the feminists with whom Chesler has been identified. This book seems less a sociological bombshell than a well-researched, convincing study of a small piece of the human puzzle. Readers without an ax to grind are unlikely to find much friction here.

Chesler's credentials are impeccable, her explanations thorough, her research well documented. Her academic career in psychology and women's studies, numerous books on feminist topics and appearances as a guest commentator on popular radio and TV shows have established her credentials, and she lucidly presents a case based on 21 years of research.

She believes that internalized sexism causes women to develop a double standard toward other women. Because women naturally seem to prefer banding together in dyads or groups (Chesler supports this observation with cross-cultural and anthropological evidence), they suppress overt expressions of competition or aggression, fearing to rupture the closeness of their bond.

But "unacceptable" hostility, instead of disappearing, ends up being expressed indirectly: The woman seeks to manipulate her group and punish targeted women in it through gossip, innuendo and other forms of aggressive behavior that cannot be directly traced to her.

Chesler's inquiry is wide-ranging. She examines the varieties of female interaction through research and anecdotal evidence. Teenage girls, mothers and daughters, sisters, women friends, women in the workplace, women in groups, even an analysis of mythology's depiction of female behavior (mother Demeter clings to her daughter Persephone, never permitting her to tear herself totally from maternal control), all are viewed from an unfamiliar, yet provocative, perspective. Perhaps, under the double pressures of biology and paternalism, women's greatest strengths can devolve to their greatest weaknesses.

Whether or not all of this adds up to "inhumanity" is open to opinion, of course. "I would now like to share some thoughts about what might constitute more ethical, compassionate and radical psychological behaviors among human beings. Such guidelines are not for feminists only," Chesler writes in her closing pages as she suggests changes in behavioral patterns that can eventually end internalized sexism among women.

These suggestions pretty much restate the golden rule. In doing so, Chesler seems to be advocating a return to an idea that inspired many feminists in each of the movement's phases. This is not about men vs. women or women vs. women: It's about people learning to be fair.

Ingrid Kohler is a Times staff writer.