Catfight : women and competition /
Leora Tanenbaum.
New York : Seven Stories Press, c2002.
335 p.
158322520X (cloth)
More Details
New York : Seven Stories Press, c2002.
158322520X (cloth)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

The more complicated a woman's life becomes, the more likely she is to take stock of her life and compare it with that of other women. And women's lives are complicated indeed. Women born and raised in the wake of modern feminism live in a contradictory cultural climate. We have been taught clashing messages about what it means to be a woman. We are caught in a threshold between two paradigms, the old and the new.

⇒ Regarding beauty, we have learned from our parents, magazines, advertising, and other women: It's important to be thin and pretty and wear the latest fashions and always be well groomed. We have also learned (often from the very same sources): Such concerns are frivolous. Inner beauty, not superficial appearance, is what counts.

⇒ When it comes to romance, we've been told: We need to find a good man and get married. We've also been told: We don't need a man to be complete as a person - and with women's rise in the workplace, we don't need his money, either.

⇒ In the workplace: We need to compete like a man to get ahead. And yet: It's important for women to share, to be cooperative, and to be nice - otherwise we are seen as castrating bitches.

⇒ What about our source of identity? Becoming a full-time wife and mother is a woman's finest achievement, we have been taught. But at the same time we know: A woman needs a career to pay the bills and to feel fulfilled, regardless of marital and parental status.

With all these mixed messages, women are caught in perpetual vertigo. We face internal battles about the "right" way to live our lives. No matter which path we choose, we are going against something deeply ingrained in us, against a path that many other women we know are following, against a path our mothers may have followed, even against a path we may have followed ourselves in the past. As a result, we feel defensive. To defend ourselves, we go to great lengths to justify our decisions, to validate ourselves, to prove to ourselves and to others that our chosen path is the right one. Along the way, any ambivalence we might have about our life course hardens into certainty that our path is the only correct and appropriate one.

Of course, no one can live her life by checking off a series of boxes. Many women today strive to achieve a balance between the old rules and the new - by wearing lipstick and mascara but unapologetically eating lasagna and ice cream; by getting married but striving for an egalitarian partnership; by mentoring other women but strategically moving up the corporate ladder; by raising children but continuing to put in full-time hours at the office. If juggling all this sounds easy, you probably think that Linda Tripp tattled on Monica Lewinsky to protect her young friend from an unhealthy relationship. Living as a woman today is difficult, fraught with pressures, with many of us desperate for a sense of control and direction. An easy way to delude ourselves into thinking we've achieved mastery over our lives is to compete with other women. By competing, we place ourselves and others into neat little categories - "I'm a doting stay-at-home mom; she's a workaholic who neglects her kids" or "I work out four times a week; she's let herself get out of shape" - that serve to organize our lives and deliver them from chaos to complacency.

Women also, perversely, compete over who is worst off. We listen to a friend complain about her evil boss, her boyfriend's "commitment problem," and her fat thighs - and then we checkmate her by telling her that we've got all the same problems ourselves, plus our mother has broken her hip and our credit cards are maxed out, so of course our situation is truly worse and we deserve more sympathy. Many of us can't help but strive for the Biggest Martyr award. If we can't get the recognition we crave for our achievements, at the very least let us get some recognition for our burdens and sorrows.

Competition, of whatever form, is caused by feelings of inadequacy. When a person feels threatened, her instinct is often to go on the defensive. But the cause is more than psychological. A sense of inadequacy is fostered by a very real societal situation: women's restrictive roles.

Learning to Compete

Are competitive power struggles inevitable? We live, after all, in a world of finite resources and limited conceptions of status and beauty - don't these circumstances necessitate competition to weed out the losers and reward the victors, to determine how desirable resources will be distributed? A number of different thinkers have grappled with these questions and have come to different conclusions.

First and foremost, writer and former educator Alfie Kohn declares a loud and emphatic no: We don't need competition. In his brilliant critique of competition, No Contest: The Case Against Competition , Kohn skillfully and exhaustively debunks the widely held myth that competition is part of human nature. Competition - or, as Kohn terms it, "mutually exclusive goal attainment" (the concept that my success equals your failure) - is not necessary for evolution. Herbert Spencer's soundbite on Darwin's theory of evolution, "survival of the fittest," conjures up images of the kind of violent struggles between animal species portrayed on public television. But in fact, survival generally requires that individuals work together, not against each other.

Competition is learned behavior. No one is born with an ingrained motivation to compete with others, says Kohn. Drawing on his background in education, he poignantly cites example after example of schoolchildren encouraged by their teachers to compete over who has more gold stars, whose drawings made it to the bulletin board, who got higher grades.


Excerpted from Catfight by Leora Tanenbaum Copyright © 2003 by Leora Tanenbaum
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-10-21:
Tanenbaum's first book (Slut!) examined how social competition causes some female teenagers to attack others for real or imagined sexual behavior. In this follow-up, she branches out, taking on adult women and their struggles to look prettier, land better boyfriends or husbands, be more popular with co-workers and be considered better mothers than other women, sisterhood be damned. Although Tanenbaum provides the latest in academic research, she also includes an entertaining mix of examples from pop culture, newspaper and magazine articles and original fieldwork. She makes the subject personal, sharing her own frustrations with breast feeding, office gossip and living with a body that doesn't match contemporary beauty norms. Although many women feel no choice but to endure constant pressure and self-doubt, Tanenbaum counters that competition is a learned behavior, not human nature, and the consequences are rarely worth the meager rewards. "We can see that competition between women serves only the status quo," she laments. "And the status quo keeps us from gaining more power over our lives, our work, and our relationships." The closing chapter highlights the potential for women to collaboratively strive for success in the arenas of political activism and team athletics, but even there, Tanenbaum says, as in the business world, women must face the prospect of being judged "unfeminine" if they show too aggressive a desire to win. The book's accessible approach to the contradictions between feminist rhetoric and women's real experiences, especially in the still-controversial realm of working mothers, is sure to attract even more attention for this fast-rising social critic. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-11-15:
Why are women vicious to one another? Social critic Tanenbaum, author of Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, traces competitiveness among women to socially mandated dilemmas related to beauty culture (transformative or oppressive?), dating and marriage (marry and settle or remain independently-and frustratedly-single?), work life (be ambitious or be "feminine"?), and motherhood (return to work or stay at home?). While cooperation and respect could ease the difficult decisions, Tanenbaum finds that women tend toward judgment and competitiveness to validate their choices and secure position, possession, or the moral upper hand. Even historical and contemporary exemplars of cooperation-the suffrage movement and women's sports-are fraught with internal struggle and ambivalence. Tanenbaum's inquiry, which focuses (though not exclusively) on young white American women of means, blends well-documented research, interviews, and personal reflection in a lively, accessible style. Recommended for public and undergraduate libraries. (Index not seen.)-Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington P.L., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Booklist, August 2002
Publishers Weekly, October 2002
Library Journal, November 2002
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Main Description
Is the myth of the catfight real? Do women really resort to pettiness and backstabbing when in conflict with each other? Has it always been this way? With a sociologist's eye and a feminist's passion, the author of "Slut!" examines what happens when women compete.
Main Description
From the critically acclaimed, highly influential author of Slut! comes this meticulously researched investigation into the roots of female competitiveness. Showing this unforgiving, destructive behaviour to be an outgrowth of several different forms of historical sexism, Tanenbaum systematically demythologises the age-old catfight, and reveals two major examples from history where women have successfully worked together for social and legal change: suffrage and sports.
Main Description
Catfight: Women and Competition is Leora Tanenbaum's dissection of the gender war waged among women. Tanenbaum meticulously analyzes the roots of destructive competitiveness among women, asserting that "catfights" thrive because, despite women's many gains, American women are conditioned to regard each other as adversaries rather than allies. She investigates the arenas-from diets to dating, from the boardroom to the delivery room- in which American women are apt to compare their lives with the lives of others in a tacit contest over who is the "better" woman, a contest in which no one wins. Throughout Catfight, Leora Tanenbaum puts her own life experiences under the lens of scrutiny. As a writer, a friend, a mother, a wife, and a daughter, she analyzes her own insecurities and background and how these influence her relations with other women. With the sociologist's perspective of a Barbara Ehrenreich and the feminist outrage of a Gloria Steinem, Tanenbaum demythologizes the age-old "catfight."
Table of Contents
Introductionp. 13
The Roots of the Problemp. 37
Learning to Competep. 39
Women Divided by Class and Racep. 49
Women and Resentmentp. 55
Women's "Essential" Naturep. 58
Indirect Aggressionp. 61
Members Onlyp. 64
Healthy Competitionp. 70
Beautyp. 77
The Beauty Bindp. 82
Young, Thin, Whitep. 88
... And Well Dressedp. 94
History of the American Beauty Idealp. 98
Miss Americap. 105
Feminism and Beautyp. 113
Cosmetic Surgeryp. 116
Who's the Thinnest of Them All?p. 119
Eating Disordersp. 126
Dieting Mothers, Dieting Daughtersp. 130
Datingp. 135
The Other Woman in Literaturep. 139
Dollars and Dependencep. 145
The New Singles Culturep. 151
The Other Woman Todayp. 159
When the Other Woman Is Your Friendp. 165
Here Comes the Bridep. 169
Workp. 173
Sex Discrimination: Yes, It Still Existsp. 178
Job Insecurityp. 183
Tough as Nailsp. 192
The Powerful Womanp. 196
The Female Advantagep. 204
Soft as Silkp. 209
Caution: Women At Workp. 218
Motherhoodp. 225
The Isolation of New Mothersp. 228
The Sacrificial Motherp. 236
The Biggest Antagonismp. 249
Working Mothersp. 255
Stay-At-Home Mothersp. 267
When Women Work Togetherp. 275
The Suffrage Movementp. 275
Women in Sports Todayp. 283
The Most Feminine Athlete Winsp. 291
Epiloguep. 303
Notesp. 307
Acknowledgmentsp. 325
Indexp. 327
About the authorp. 336
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

This information is provided by a service that aggregates data from review sources and other sources that are often consulted by libraries, and readers. The University does not edit this information and merely includes it as a convenience for users. It does not warrant that reviews are accurate. As with any review users should approach reviews critically and where deemed necessary should consult multiple review sources. Any concerns or questions about particular reviews should be directed to the reviewer and/or publisher.

  link to old catalogue

Report a problem