Linda Barry can’t remember her fellow female classmates being anything but polite and courteous to her during her years at Syracuse University.
But this was during the mid-1960s.
‘All the women I knew were pleasant to one another even if they were very different,’ Barry, 63, said. ‘In my time, I never heard of women acting mean or lashing out at each other.’
Fast forward 40 years later, and for some, female camaraderie seems rare on the SU campus.
‘I get stared down on a daily basis walking across the Quad,’ said Jodie Manor, a senior psychology major. ‘It’s scary for girls. You feel like you are walking on eggshells.’
This impolite, catty behavior happening can often escalate into physical catfights among women on campus. However, they rarely speak about this recent phenomenon, nor do they contact the authorities over conflict.
Lisa Chipolone, an SU alumna who graduated in 1981, said she never saw or heard or women physically fighting at all, only occasional cattiness.
‘It’s a sign of the times,’ Chipolone said. ‘The campus is a reflection and microcosm of what’s going on in our society.’
According to the United States Justice Department’s Uniform Crime Report, the number of women arrested on assault charges increased by 6.4 percent while these arrests declined 16.4 percent for men from 1993-2003. The study also reported that assault arrests nationwide for women rose 41 percent opposed to a 4.3 percent increase among men.
According to researchers, women do not less fight than men – they fight differently.
While arrests of teenage girls for aggravated assault increased 9 percent and simple assault increased 11 percent from 1980 to 2003 according to national FBI statistics, women tend to employ passive aggressive, underhanded, deceptive tactics before resorting to physical violence, researchers found.
Some women at SU are no different.
‘When women are competitive with one another in sneaky and manipulative ways, it’s not because of hormones or chromosomes,’ said Leora Tanenbaum, author of ‘Catfight: Women and Competition,’ via e-mail. ‘We live in a culture in which competitiveness is valued as essential to rise to the top, yet when women are overtly and unabashedly competitive, we’re trashed for being unwomanly.’
As a result, women opt for indirect methods to express their hostility toward one another, often using passive aggressive behavior instead of direct communication.
‘You can escalate a conflict non-verbally, through body language and tone,’ said Hannah Allerdice, coordinator for Syracuse University’s Conflict Management Center. ‘Often times passive aggressive behavior is the approach used when a person wants to avoid direct conflict.’
She continued, ‘Fighting is communication. It’s the result of something in your environment that you wish were different. Fighting cuts off the chance to gain more information for yourself and for the other person.’
During the two years as a resident adviser on campus, Maggie Gordon witnessed the kind of malicious behavior that female freshmen typically exhibit toward one another.
‘Sometimes there would be screaming and purposeful door slamming,’ said Gordon, a senior newspaper major. ‘People would ruin other people’s possessions.
‘When little things bug them and they hold it all in, one day they can go ka-boom,’ Gordon said. ‘Two roommates who seem like best friends can all of a sudden be at each others’ throats over one using the other’s highlighter.’
Grudges between women can dissolve in a matter of hours or last indefinitely, Gordon said. She witnessed two best friends ignore each other for three weeks without either one exchanging nasty language.
‘They just ignored each other and did not return each other’s phone calls,’ she said. ‘I could see their malicious intent without it being up front.’
While indirect hostility still goes on quietly among some women on campus, some have brought it up a notch onto the Internet in hopes of publicly defaming their peers.
Sgt. Kathy Pabis, a member of the Department of Public Safety for 19 years, reported that in the past two years, female students have been using MySpace and Facebook as places for personal attacks.
Two reports of female-female aggravated assault have been pursued via the Internet since the start of the academic year, Pabis said.
‘Disagreements among women are not always physical and they often take the form of social mutilation,’ Pabis said. ‘Thanks to MySpace and Facebook, they can go on and call each other names and spread gossip.’
Aileen Gallagher, an SU alumna who graduated in 1999, said females also often used anonymous emails to attack one another indirectly.
‘People feel comfortable being anonymous,’ Gallagher said. ‘It’s easy to lash out anonymously, and that’s why they do it, but it seems almost like a stupid luxury.’
Cell phones and instant messenger were scarce then, and many students had their first e-mail accounts while enrolled at SU. Web sites that allowed anonymous e-mails to be sent were a tool for indirectly releasing hostility.
‘I once wrote one and I regret it to this day,’ Gallagher said.
According to Linda Martin Alcoff, director of the women’s studies program at SU, electronic assault often fosters a sense of empowerment.
‘People seem to feel empowered electronically more than confronting each other face to face, even when it’s not anonymous,’ Alcoff said. ‘Our society validates competitiveness with violence, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see violence and narcissism in these forms among women.’
Tanenbaum said the oppression women face in a male-dominated society is to blame for the disrespect.
‘If women were allowed to compete openly and honestly the way men are, we would have the chance to develop straightforward strategies and wouldn’t have to resort to manipulation,’ Tanenbaum said.
Until women face each other directly and listen to one another, conflicts aren’t going to stop.
In addition to gossiping and social exclusion, women may even resort to catfights – screaming, hair-pulling, scratching, slapping and punching – when conflict reaches its peak.
Physical female fights, like indirect acts of aggression, aren’t spoken about openly on campus.
An SU junior, who wished to remain anonymous, recently sustained a jaw injury after a misunderstanding escalated into a threat, followed by a punch from another female student.
‘Girls are not all talk, and they are willing to follow through with threats and throw punches,’ she said. ‘In general, I think the No. 1 goal for a girl is to get into a fight before graduation.’
Barry, Chipolone and Gallagher each hope SU women transform their aggressive energy into positive productivity.
‘These girls must be bored with their lives,’ Barry said. ‘They need to channel their energy into something positive for myself – and for others.’
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