Cover image for Catfight : women and competition
Catfight : women and competition
Tanenbaum, Leora, 1969-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Seven Stories Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
335 pages : 22 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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HQ1206 .T215 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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."

Author Notes

LEORA TANENBAUM writes about women and girls and the unique problems they face. She is the author of Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, Catfight: Rivalries Among Women--From Diets to Dating, From the Boardroom to the Delivery Room, Bad Shoes and the Women Who Love Them, and Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality. She lives in New York City.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Tanenbaum, author of Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation (2000), turns her attention to the endless and sometimes pernicious ways that women compare themselves to other women and compete with each other. Focusing mostly on women in their 20s and 30s, Tanenbaum explores the image of women as catty adversaries competing for everything from the best fashions to the most successful men to the most successful careers and the smartest children. She also explores how female competitiveness has shifted, based on the sociology and politics of the times, and how feminism and consumerism have influenced the ways in which women compete with one another. Tanenbaum examines the psychology behind competitiveness, the feelings of inadequacy that often play a part, and how competitiveness figures into the image of women as nurturers and supporters. Tanenbaum relates her own experiences and interviews a variety of women and psychologists to explore the seemingly eternal adversarial relationships that exist among women despite many recent feminist gains. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

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

Library Journal Review

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.



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. (Continues...) 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.