I wanted to share and discuss a link to a post by fellow feminist blogger Oh Hells Nah called: “When Women Hate Women: An Abuelita Story.” It’s a very personal story that’s loaded with feminist and cultural flashpoints, and begins;
My maternal grandmother was very cruel to me when I was growing up. To this day, I’m not sure why, but I can only speculate that most of it was due to deep-seated misogyny. She didn’t mistreat any male grandchildren that I know of. In fact, she very obviously favored them. (Thanks, machismo.) There was something about me, however, that she really hated….
Over the years, I’ve tried to forgive her for my own well-being. Though I don’t love her and know I never will, I’ve tried to understand why she was so bitter and why she took it out on me.
Her analysis of the hows and whys of her grandmother’s toxicity ultimately concludes:
I can rationalize and intellectualize the situation all I want— look at it through a socioeconomic lens, see in a feminist context — but it still bothers me more than I’d like to admit.
The post really struck a chord with me, because like Oh Hells Nah, my grandmother liked making cutting observations about my weight, my hair, my clothes, and anything else that occurred to her. To be fair, no one was safe from her criticism, usually delivered with zero regard as to how hurtful it was. Starting early in my childhood, I always regarded Grandma with a certain wariness, unhappily accustomed to bracing myself for the expected caustic remark and then sighing with relief if it didn’t come. The negativity, the criticsm, the totally unnecessary meanness were a form of emotional terrorism, and Grandma knew how and when to deploy them for maximum effect. A few words from her could suck the joy right out of holidays and family gatherings.
Like Oh Hells Nah, the feminist in me realizes that to a certain extent some of Grandma’s behavior was probably an outgrowth of her life experience; she was a beautiful and highly intelligent woman with great aesthetic flair who, had she been born into my generation instead of into a working-class family in 1920s Brooklyn, might have had a brilliant and fulfilling career. Instead she married a handsome, charming man who could never quite succeed in business. They had four children and were frequently short of money, with three generations of her family–eight people in all—living in a small rented house. What happens to a dream deferred? Unhappiness, then alcoholism. Not surprisingly, being a drunk did not make her any kinder to those around her.
In the years since Grandma died, my chief emotion has been relief that she will never say anything hurtful to me (or anyone else) ever again. I refuse to feel guilty for that. I also find that I have no patience for the cowardly custom of not speaking ill of the dead. Being honest about what they did in life is not speaking ill of them—it’s being truthful. And unfortunately, a cruel person’s death doesn’t heal the damage they did during their lives.
Oh Hells Nah and I talked about this briefly when I read her post. She said it was cathartic to write and I told her she’d encouraged me to talk about my own family experience. We both wondered what kind of response we might get for publically exposing the unpleasant truth that our grandmothers were not the sweet, cookie-baking grannies of popular myth. She knew that she’d likely get some nasty backlash from some family members and she did. I figured that I might…and we’ll see. Neither of us blogs under our own name, but our families know who we are. We agreed that regardless, we have the right to tell our truth about our experiences. It’s morally wrong to gloss over or ignore cruelty, although my family was known to do it where Grandma was concerned and I know many other families who do the same.
Oh Hells Nah’s post also hits on a particular phenomenon that stirs up a lot of strong emotions—women being cruel to women, especially their own relatives. Most mean people are equal opportunity attackers, but women make easier targets and are more frequently mistreated, for the simple reason that they are nearly always less empowered and thus less able to fight back. If you’re a woman—espcially if you come from a strongly patriarchial culture—mistreating other women may be your only outlet for your anger, frustration, or just plain meanness. Women who are disempowered by poverty, sexism, or oppression will feel great rage but often can’t really bite the (male) hand that feeds them, and have no tools to attack the social institutions that hurt them. So other women make tempting targets, which only spreads around the rage and suffering.
Unfortunately, because women are also expected to be accepting and pleasant, expressing anger at being mistreated by women in our family is a double betrayal. We’re rebelling against our families’ codes of silence, we’re exposing the unpleasant truth that some women are not sweet and pleasant, and we’re violating the cultural mandate for women to tolerate mistreatment to the point of martyrdom.
So I ask you, readers…Do we respond differently to cruelty by women? Do we expect women to be less cruel? Are women who are cruel to their daughters and granddaughters somehow more reprehensible? Are they merely passing along the generalized unkindness of society toward women? Or are some people just mean people? And does it betray our families when we drag all this mess out into the daylight and give it a thorough airing? Let’s discuss in the comments…