TRASHING: The Dark Side of Sisterhood
(Editors Note: The women's liberation movement was not all bread and
roses. This article explores the destructive phenomenon of "trashing":
personal attacks on other women in the movement. Jo Freeman was the
editor of the Voice of the Women's Liberation Movement, which
was the first national women's liberation periodical. She was also
a member of the Westside Group, one of the first women's liberation
groups in the country.)
This article was written for Ms. magazine and published in
the April 1976 issue, pp. 49-51, 92-98. It evoked more letters from
readers than any article previously published in Ms., all but a few
relating their own experiences of being trashed. Quite a few of these
were published in a subsequent issue of Ms.
been a long time since I was trashed. I was one of the first in the
country, perhaps the first in Chicago, to have my character, my commitment,
and my very self attacked in such a way by Movement women that it
left me torn in little pieces and unable to function. It took me years
to recover, and even today the wounds have not entirely healed. Thus
I hang around the fringes of the Movement, feeding off it because
I need it, but too fearful to plunge once more into its midst. I don't
even know what I am afraid of. I keep telling myself there's no reason
why it should happen again -- if I am cautious -- yet in the back
of my head there is a pervasive, irrational certainty that says if
I stick my neck out, it will once again be a lightning rod for hostility.
I have written this spiel in my head, usually as a speech for a variety
of imaginary Movement audiences. But I have never thought to express
myself on it publicly because I have been a firm believer in not washing
the Movement's dirty linen in public. I am beginning to change my
of all, so much dirty linen is being publicly exposed that I doubt
that what I have to reveal will add much to the pile. To those women
who have been active in the Movement, it is not even a revelation.
Second, I have been watching for years with increasing dismay as the
Movement consciously destroys anyone within it who stands out in any
way. I had long hoped that this self-destructive tendency would wither
away with time and experience. Thus I sympathized with, supported,
but did not speak out about, the many women whose talents have been
lost to the Movement because their attempts to use them had been met
with hostility. Conversations with friends in Boston, Los Angeles,
and Berkeley who have been trashed as recently as 1975 have convinced
me that the Movement has not learned from its unexamined experience
Instead, trashing has reached epidemic proportions. Perhaps taking
it out of the closet will clear the air.
"trashing," this colloquial term that expresses so much,
yet explains so little? It is not disagreement; it is not conflict;
it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which,
when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary
to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is
a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts
to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive.
It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or
covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is
not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done
to disparage and destroy.
vary. Trashing can be done privately or in a group situation; to one's
face or behind one's back; through ostracism or open denunciation.
The trasher may give you false reports of what (horrible things) others
think of you; tell your friends false stories of what you think of
them; interpret whatever you say or do in the most negative light;
project unrealistic expectations on you so that when you fail to meet
them, you become a "legitimate" target for anger; deny your
perceptions of reality; or pretend you don't exist at all. Trashing
may even be thinly veiled by the newest group techniques of criticism/self-criticism,
mediation, and therapy. Whatever methods are used, trashing involves
a violation of one's integrity, a declaration of one's worthlessness,
and an impugning of one's motives In effect, what is attacked is not
one's actions, or one's ideas, but one's self.
is accomplished by making you feel that your very existence is inimical
to the Movement and that nothing can change this short of ceasing
to exist. These feelings are reinforced when you are isolated from
your friends as they become convinced that their association with-you
is similarly inimical to the Movement and to themselves. Any support
of you will taint them. Eventually all your colleagues join in a chorus
of condemnation which cannot be silenced, and you are reduced to a
mere parody of your previous self.
three trashings to convince me to drop out. Finally, at the end of
1969, I felt psychologically mangled to the point where I knew I couldn't
go on. Until then I interpreted my experiences as due to personality
conflicts or political disagreements which I could rectify with time
and effort. But the harder I tried, the worse things got, until I
was finally forced to face the incomprehensible reality that the problem
was not what I did, but what I was.
communicated so subtly that I never could get anyone to talk about
it. There were no big confrontations, just many little slights. Each
by itself was insignificant; but added one to another they were like
a thousand cuts with a whip. Step by step I was ostracized: if a collective
article was written, my attempts to contribute were ignored; if I
wrote an article, no one would read it; when I spoke in meetings,
everyone would listen politely, and then take up the discussion as
though I hadn't said anything; meeting dates were changed without
my being told; when it was my turn to coordinate a work project, no
one would help; when I didn't receive mailings, and discovered that
my name was not on the mailing list, I was told I had just looked
in the wrong place. My group once decided on joint fund-raising efforts
to send people to a conference until I said I wanted to go, and then
it was decided that everyone was on her own (in fairness, one member
did call me afterward to contribute $5 to my fare, provided that I
not tell anyone. She was trashed a few years later).
to this was bewilderment. I felt as though I were wandering blindfolded
in a field I full of sharp objects and deep holes while being reassured
that I could see perfectly and was in a smooth, grassy pasture. It
was is if I had unwittingly entered a new society, one operating by
rules of which I wasn't aware, and couldn't know. When I tried to
get my group(s) to discuss what I thought was happening to me, they
either denied my perception of reality by saying nothing was out of
the ordinary, or dismissed the incidents as trivial (which individually
they were). One woman, in private phone conversations, did admit that
I was being poorly treated. But she never supported me publicly, and
admitted quite frankly that it was because she feared to lose the
group's approval. She too was trashed in another group.
after month the message was pounded in: get out, the Movement was
saying: Get Out, Get Out! One day I found myself confessing to my
roommate that I didn't think I existed; that I was a figment of my
own imagination. That's when I knew it was time to leave. My departure
was very quiet. I told two people, and stopped going to the Women's
Center. The response convinced me that I had read the message correctly.
No one called, no one sent me any mailings, no reaction came back
through the grapevine. Half my life had been voided, and no one was
aware of it but me. Three months later word drifted back that I had
been denounced by the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, founded after
I dropped out of the Movement, for allowing myself to be quoted in
a recent news article without their permission. That was all.
of it was that I really didn't know why I was so deeply affected.
I had survived growing up in a very conservative, conformist, sexist
suburb where my right to my own identity was constantly under assault.
The need to defend my right to be myself made me tougher, not tattered.
My thickening skin was further annealed by my experiences in other
political organizations and movements, where I learned the use of
rhetoric and argument as weapons in political struggle, and how to
spot personality conflicts masquerading as political ones. Such conflicts
were usually articulated impersonally, as attacks on one's ideas,
and while they may not have been productive, they were not as destructive
as those that I later saw in the feminist movement. One can rethink
one's ideas as a result of their being attacked. It's much harder
to rethink one's personality. Character assassination was occasionally
used, but it was not considered legitimate, and thus was limited in
both extent and effectiveness. As people's actions counted more than
their personalities, such attacks would not so readily result in isolation.
When they were employed, they only rarely got under one's skin.
feminist movement got under mine. For the first time in my life, I
found myself believing all the horrible things people said about me.
When I was treated like shit, I interpreted it to mean that I was
shit. My reaction unnerved me as much as my experience. Having survived
so much unscathed, why should I now succumb? The answer took me years
to arrive at. It is a personally painful one because it admits of
a vulnerability I thought I had escaped. I had survived my youth because
I had never given anyone or any group the right to judge me. That
right I had reserved to myself. But the Movement seduced me by its
sweet promise of sisterhood. It claimed to provide a haven from the
ravages of a sexist society; a place where one would be understood.
It was my very need for feminism and feminists that made me vulnerable.
I gave the movement the right to judge me because I trusted it. And
when it judged me worthless, I accepted that judgment.
least six months I lived in a kind of numb despair, completely internalizing
my failure as a personal one. In June, 1970, I found myself in New
York coincidentally with several feminists from four different cities.
We gathered one night for a general discussion on the state of the
Movement, and instead found ourselves discussing what had happened
to us. We had two things in common; all of us had Movement-wide reputations,
and all had been trashed. Anselma Dell'Olio read us a speech on "Divisiveness
and Self-Destruction in the Women's Movement" she had recently
given at the Congress To Unite Women (sic) as a result of her own
... years ago that women had always been divided against one another,
self-destructive and filled with impotent rage. I thought the Movement
would change all that. I never dreamed that I would see the day
when this rage, masquerading as a pseudo-egalitarian radicalism
[would be used within the Movement to strike down sisters singled
out for punishment. . . .
am referring ... to the personal attacks, both overt and insidious,
to which women in the Movement who had painfully managed any degree
of achievement have been subjected. These attacks take different
forms. The most common and pervasive is character assassination:
the attempt to undermine and destroy belief in the integrity of
the individual under attack. Another form is the 'purge.' The ultimate
tactic is to isolate her. . . . "And who do they attack? Generally
two categories. . . Achievement or accomplishment of any kind would
seem to be the worst crime: ... do anything . . . that every other
woman secretly or otherwise feels she could do just as well -- and
... you're in for it. If then ... you are assertive, have what is
generally described as a 'forceful personality/ if ... you do not
fit the conventional stereotype of a 'feminine' woman, ... it's
you are in the first category (an achiever), You are immediately
labeled a thrill-seeking opportunist, a ruthless mercenary, out
to make her fame and fortune over the dead bodies of selfless sisters
who have buried their abilities and sacrificed their ambitions for
the greater glory of Feminism. Productivity seems to be the major
crime -- but if you have the misfortune of being outspoken and articulate,
you are also accused of being power-mad, elitist, fascist, and finally
the worst epithet of all: a male-identifier. Aaaarrrrggg!"
listened to her, a great feeling of relief washed over me. It was
my experience she was describing. If I was crazy, I wasn't the only
one. Our talk continued late into the evening. When we left, we sardonically
dubbed ourselves the "feminist refugees" and agreed to meet
sometime again. We never did. Instead we each slipped back into our
own isolation, and dealt with the problem only on a personal level.
The result was that most of the women at that meeting dropped out
as I had done. Two ended up in the hospital with nervous breakdowns.
Although all remained dedicated feminists, none have really contributed
their talents to the Movement as they might have. Though we never
met again, our numbers grew as the disease of self-destructiveness
slowly engulfed the Movement.
years I have talked with many women who have been trashed. Like a
cancer, the attacks spread from those who had reputations to those
who were merely strong; from those who were active to those who merely
had ideas; from those who stood out as individuals to those who failed
to conform rapidly enough to the twists and turns of the changing
line. With each new story, my conviction grew that trashing was not
an individual problem brought on by individual actions; nor was it
a result of political conflicts between those of differing ideas,
It was a social disease.
has been ignored so long because it is frequently masked under the
rhetoric of sisterhood. In my own case, the ethic of sisterhood prevented
a recognition of my ostracism. The new values of the Movement said
that every woman was a sister, every woman was acceptable. I clearly
was not. Yet no one could admit that I was not acceptable without
admitting that they were not being sisters. It was easier to deny
the reality of my unacceptability. With other trashings, sisterhood
has been used as the knife rather than the cover-up. A vague standard
of sisterly behavior is set up by anonymous judges who then condemn
those who do not meet their standards. As long as the standard is
vague and utopian, it can never be met. But it can be shifted with
circumstances to exclude those not desired as sisters. Thus Ti-Grace
Atkinson's memorable adage that "sisterhood is powerful: it kills
sisters" is reaffirmed again and again.
is not only destructive to the individuals involved, but serves as
a very powerful tool of social control. The qualities and styles which
are attacked become examples other women learn not to follow -- lest
the same fate befall them. This is not a characteristic peculiar to
the Women's Movement, or even to women. The use of social pressures
to induce conformity and intolerance for individuality is endemic
to American society. The relevant question is not why the Movement
exerts such strong pressures to conform to a narrow standard, but
what standard does it pressure women to conform to.
is clothed in the rhetoric of revolution and feminism. But underneath
are some very traditional ideas about women's proper roles. I have
observed that two different types of women are trashed. The first
is the one described by Anselma Dell'Olio -- the achiever and/or the
assertive woman, the one to whom the epithet "male-identified"
is commonly applied. This kind of woman has always been put down by
our society with epithets ranging from "unladylike" to "castrating
bitch." The primary reason there have been so few "great
women ______" is not merely that greatness has been undeveloped
or unrecognized, but that women exhibiting potential for achievement
are punished by both women and men. The "fear of success"
is quite rational when one knows that the consequence of achievement
is hostility and not praise.
has the Movement failed to overcome this traditional socialization,
but some women have taken it to new extremes. To do something significant,
to be recognized, to achieve, is to imply that one is "making
it off other women's oppression" or that one thinks oneself better
than other women. Though few women may think this, too many remain
silent while the others unsheathe their claws. The quest for "leaderlessness"
that the Movement so prizes has more frequently become an attempt
to tear down those women who show leadership qualities, than to develop
such qualities in those who don't. Many women who have tried to share
their skills have been trashed for asserting that they know something
others don't. The Movement's worship of egalitarianism is so strong
that it has become confused with sameness. Women who remind us that
we are not all the same are trashed because their differentness is
interpreted as meaning we are not all equal.
the Movement makes the wrong demands from the achievers within it.
It asks for guilt and atonement rather than acknowledgment and responsibility.
Women who have benefited personally from the Movement's existence
do owe it more than gratitude. But that debt is not called in by trashing.
Trashing only discourages other women from trying to break free of
their traditional shackles.
kind of woman commonly trashed is one I would never have suspected.
The values of the Movement favor women who are very supportive and
self-effacing; those who are constantly attending to others' personal
problems; the women who play the mother role very well. Yet a surprising
number of such women have been trashed. Ironically their very ability
to play this role is resented and creates an image of power which
their associates find threatening. Some older women who consciously
reject the mother role are expected to play it because they "look
the part" -- and are trashed when they refuse. Other women who
willingly play it find they engender expectations which they eventually
cannot meet, No one can be "everything to everybody," so
when these women find themselves having to say no in order to conserve
a little of their own time and energy for themselves or to tend to
the political business of a group, they are perceived as rejecting
and treated with anger. Real mothers of course can afford some anger
from their children because they maintain a high degree of physical
and financial control over them. Even women in the "helping"
professions occupying surrogate mother roles have resources with which
to control their clients' anger. But when one is a "mother"
to one's peers, this is not a possibility. If the demands become unrealistic,
one either retreats, or is trashed.
of both these groups has common roots in traditional roles. Among
women there are two roles perceived as permissible: the "helper"
and the "helped." Most women are trained to act out one
or the other at different times. Despite consciousness-raising and
an intense scrutiny of our own socialization, many of us have not
liberated ourselves from playing these roles, nor from our expectations
that others will do so. Those who deviate from these roles -- the
achievers -- are punished for doing so, as are those who fail to meet
the group's expectations.
only a few women actually engage in trashing, the blame for allowing
it to continue rests with us all. Once under attack, there is little
a woman can do to defend herself because she is by definition always
wrong. But there is a great deal that those who are watching can do
to prevent her from being isolated and ultimately destroyed. Trashing
only works well when its victims are alone, because the essence of
trashing is to isolate a person and attribute a group's problems to
her. Support from others cracks this facade and deprives the trashers
of their audience. It turns a rout into a struggle. Many attacks have
been forestalled by the refusal of associates to let themselves be
intimidated into silence out of fear that they would be next. Other
attackers have been forced to clarify their complaints to the point
where they can be rationally dealt with.
is, of course, a fine line between trashing and political struggle,
between character assassination and legitimate objections to undesirable
behavior. Discerning the difference takes effort. Here are some pointers
to follow. Trashing involves heavy use of the verb "to be"
and only a light use of the verb "to do." It is what one
is and not what one does that is objected to, and these objections
cannot be easily phrased in terms of specific undesirable behaviors.
Trashers also tend to use nouns and adjectives of a vague and general
sort to express their objections to a particular person. These terms
carry a negative connotation, but don't really tell you what's wrong.
That is left to your imagination. Those being trashed can do nothing
right. Because they are bad, their motives are bad, and hence their
actions are always bad. There is no making up for past mistakes, because
these are perceived as symptoms and not mistakes.
test, however, comes when one tries to defend a person under attack,
especially when she's not there, If such a defense is taken seriously,
and some concern expressed for hearing all sides and gathering all
evidence, trashing is probably not occurring. But if your defense
is dismissed with an oft-hand "How can you defend her?";
if you become tainted with suspicion by attempting such a defense;
if she is in fact indefensible, you should take a closer look at those
making the accusations. There is more going on than simple disagreement.
has become more prevalent, I have become more puzzled by the question
of why. What is it about the Women's Movement that supports and even
encourages self-destruction? How can we on the one hand talk about
encouraging women to develop their own individual potential and on
the other smash those among us who do just that? Why do we damn our
sexist society for the damage it does to women, and then damn those
women who do not appear as severely damaged by it? Why has consciousness-raising
not raised our consciousness about trashing?
answer is to root it in our oppression as women, and the group self-hate
which results from our being raised to believe that women are not
worth very much. Yet such an answer is far too facile; it obscures
the fact that trashing does not occur randomly. Not all women or women's
organizations trash, at least not to the same extent. It is much more
prevalent among those who call themselves radical than among those
who don't; among those who stress personal changes than among those
who stress institutional ones; among those who can see no victories
short of revolution than among those who can be satisfied with smaller
successes; and among those in groups with vague goals than those in
groups with concrete ones.
that there is any single explanation to trashing; it is more likely
due to varying combinations of circumstances which are not always
apparent even to those experiencing them. But from the stories I've
heard, and the groups I've watched, what has impressed me most is
how traditional it is. There is nothing new about discouraging women
from stepping out of place by the use of psychological manipulation.
This is one of the things that have kept women down for years; it
is one thing that feminism was supposed to liberate us from. Yet,
instead of an alternative culture with alternative values, we have
created alternative means of enforcing the traditional culture and
values. Only the name has changed; the results are the same.
the tactics are traditional, the virulence is not. I have never seen
women get as angry at other women as they do in the Movement. In part
this is because our expectations of other feminists and the Movement
in general are very high, and thus difficult to meet. We have not
yet learned to be realistic in our demands on our sisters or ourselves.
It is also because other feminists are available as targets for rage.
a logical result of oppression. It demands an outlet. Because most
women are surrounded by men whom they have learned it is not wise
to attack, their rage is often turned inward. The Movement is teaching
women to stop this process, but in many instances it has not provided
alternative targets. While the men are distant, and the "system"
too big and vague, one's "sisters" are close at hand. Attacking
other feminists is easier and the results can be more quickly seen
than by attacking amorphous social institutions. People are hurt;
they leave. One can feel the sense of power that comes from having
"done something." Trying to change an entire society is
a very slow, frustrating process in which gains are incremental, rewards
diffuse, and setbacks frequent. It is not a coincidence that trashing
occurs most often and most viciously by those feminists who see the
least value in small, impersonal changes and thus often find themselves
unable to act against specific institutions.
emphasis on "the personal is political" has made it easier
for trashing to flourish. We began by deriving some of our political
ideas from our analysis of our personal lives. This legitimated for
many the idea that the Movement could tell us what kind of people
we ought to be, and by extension what kind of personalities we ought
to have. As no boundaries were drawn to define the limits of such
demands, it was difficult to preclude abuses. Many groups have sought
to remold the lives and minds of their members, and some have trashed
those who resisted. Trashing is also a way of acting out the competitiveness
that pervades our society, but in a manner that reflects the feelings
of incompetence that trashers exhibit. Instead of trying to prove
one is better than anyone else, one proves someone else is worse.
This can provide the same sense of superiority that traditional competition
does, but without the risks involved. At best the object of one's
ire is put to public shame, at worst one's own position is safe within
the shrouds of righteous indignation, Frankly, if we are going to
have competition in the Movement, I prefer the old-fashioned kind.
Such competitiveness has its costs, but there are also some collective
benefits from the achievements the competitors make while trying to
outdo each other. With trashing there are no beneficiaries. Ultimately
women charged with subverting the Movement or undermining their group
takes courage, as it requires us to stick our necks out. But the collective
cost of allowing trashing to go on as long and as extensively as we
have is enormous. We have already lost some of the most creative minds
and dedicated activists in the Movement. More importantly, we have
discouraged many feminists from stepping out, out of fear that they,
too, would be trashed. We have not provided a supportive environment
for everyone to develop their individual potential, or in which to
gather strength for the battles with the sexist institutions we must
meet each day. A Movement that once burst with energy, enthusiasm,
and creativity has become bogged down in basic survival -- survival
from each other. Isn't it time we stopped looking for enemies within
and began to attack the real enemy without?
The author would like to thank Linda, Maxine, and Beverly for their
helpful suggestions in the revision of this paper.