By Sherrin Fitzer
There are many things about working in a women’s prison that bring me joy.
There are also things that hurt my heart. My heart hurts when they miss their children. My heart hurts when they lose a loved one. My heart hurts when I see one of them return.
There is something else that hurts my heart that is not quite as obvious. Over my many years in The Department of Corrections I cannot count the number of women who have sat in my office and said: “I can’t stand these women.” “Women in prison never stick together like the men do.” “I never had any women friends on the outside.” “I hate women.”
This hurts me deeply.
What does it mean to be a woman who says “I hate women?” What does it say about how they feel about themselves, their mothers, their daughters?
This attitude is not exclusive to prison. It is a reflection of the society we live in. Despite the improvement and strides women have made, we do still live in a patriarchy. We are bombarded with images daily that tell us we are not good enough, that suggest we must compete with each other for men, jobs and that our physical appearance is what counts the most.
And this can lead to what Juliette Fretté describes in her article Why Women are Mean to Other Women:
“So when an attractive woman strolls around your workplace, if she is prettier in your eyes than you are—or in someone else’s eyes—she might inspire your jealousy. And if you’re that kind of woman, even if only for the day, you might treat her differently. She might as well be parading a better resume in front of you. Look at me; I can get a better man, a better job, a better wardrobe…a better life.”
Throughout history women have been pitted against each other as rivals. Women have adversarial relationships with other women. Daughters are rivals with mothers. Sisters are rivals with sisters. Friends are rivals with friends. Older women with younger women. Women compete with each other in the work place. Girls bully one another in school and social media.
Anyone remember the film Mean Girls? Or my personal favorite Heathers?
People sometimes say that this is just how women are and I know this is not true. I am a feminist and have wonderful women friends who believe in solidarity among women.
And I know I am not the only one. As long as women are fighting among themselves, we cannot fight against the barriers and obstacles that we as women still need to overcome.
The saying “A house divided cannot stand” comes to mind as well as the strategy of divide and conquer.
That is what is happening when women women fight against each other and see each other as enemies rather than sisters.
A friend of mine reminded me that during the Holocaust it was those who shared who had a better chance of survival, not those who hoarded the crumbs. Instead of fighting over the crumbs the patriarchy leaves us we must fight for what is rightfully ours.
What I have told the women in prison is that they are tearing each other down instead of building each other up. That they are focusing on differences instead of similarities. I remind them that they have all made mistakes. That they are all in prison. They all miss their loved ones and want to get out. They all want different lives for themselves.
They have the same hopes and fears.
If we can remember what the Dalai Lama says—that every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering—then perhaps we can work together toward that happiness.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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