The Sacred Sisterhood and My Elephant Family

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I am a feminist and I try to live my life by the principles of sisterhood, solidarity, peace, and non violence. My work focuses on gender-based violence and the vast majority of my colleagues consider themselves to be feminists as well. To my great surprise and dismay, I was recently a target of trashing by colleagues. And to my even greater dismay, it turns out that this is a common problem in our community. That is absolutely unacceptable.

What is trashing, you ask? Feminist scholar and author Jo Freeman identified it in her 1976 essay:

What is “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….

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…. [emphasis added]

My recent experiences involved two different kinds of trashing behavior: the quiet behind the back bad-mouthing and the in-your-face verbal abuse.

In the first incident, a colleague used quiet undermining and back-biting to cast aspersions on my professional knowledge and abilities while acting supportive, collegial, and even friendly to me directly. This put my reputation at risk in some circles, and was particularly hurtful as people I felt that I knew and trusted stood by silently without defending me. I understand that trashing says more about the trasher’s insecurities than anything about the trashee. Nevertheless, it’s harmful.

The other experience involved several incidents of verbal abuse, yelling, and bullying in work meetings in front of other colleagues. I was frequently the target of this abusive behavior, but I was not the only target. It’s horrifying to experience it or watch it happening regardless of who is the target. It was frightening and appalling, even more so because this individual is in a position of power and is known to be abusive in professional spheres.

To my great joy, both incidents resulted in many of my close colleagues gathering around me and declaring their trust in both me and my capabilities. They reminded me of an elephant family – mature females who surround their vulnerable herd-mate to comfort and defend against the enemy – be it human poacher or hungry lions. My elephant family of sisters surround me, care for me, protect me, and are brave for me in those moments when I can’t find words to defend myself and when I feel afraid that I can’t be brave enough. My elephant family neutralizes any harm that may befall me or my reputation. For that I will be forever grateful.

At the time all this was occurring, I posted a vague declaration of experiencing workplace abuse on my personal Facebook. It was, with my fear of social media’s long and unceasing reach, uncharacteristically personal and vulnerable. I was delighted and overwhelmed with the positive response from my friends and acquaintances. So many messages of support, many messages disclosing similar experiences, and a universal message that trashing happens far too much in the gender and gender-based violence fields of work and we have to stand up against it.

I know that my experiences are far too common in our community. And that’s why I decided to write this. I think that the problem is big enough that rather than just circling the vulnerable to protect them, we need to address this problem out loud and discuss solutions.

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So, what do we do when this trashing happens? Stand helplessly in uncomfortable and powerless silence? How can we stand up against trashing? The elephant family is filled with strong females who bond together to defend against the enemy but they are still vulnerable to the threat from within. As Jo Freeman pointed out, trashing occurs in a variety of ways and can be direct, indirect, and just plain smarmy and insidious. What should one do to counteract it? Do you call out that sneaky undermining gossipy stuff when you hear it – refuse to participate in it even though it may leave you outside of a group in control? Do you speak up in opposition to trashing when it occurs, wherever it occurs, damn the consequences? Do you rush in to surround your vulnerable elephant sister and protect her (literally or figuratively)?

It seems to me that there is room in this work for everyone. We have so much to do if we want real gender equality, and we need all hands and hearts and minds. So what’s the point in trying to push some of our sisters away when we need them so badly?

Just a couple of years ago, Jill Filipovic posed the question, “Is sisterhood sacred or soul-crushing?” Her answer, in part:

Within the feminist movement, the answer is less clear than one might hope. Trashing each other and exclusion have been hallmarks since the movement began, and each generation of feminist activists seems to suffer the same in-fighting. But contrary to simplistic ideas about catty, back-stabbing women, feminists don’t fight each other because women are uniquely competitive or cruel. Though we care about the movement, it happens because we’ve internalized a narrative of scarcity: we act as though we’re fighting for crumbs. [emphasis added]

Is that what this is all about? That we’re fighting each other for crumbs of credibility and respect? That we put others down so that we can feel better in a collectively internalized narrative of scarcity? A race to the bottom where we fight like starving rats over crumbs? If that is the case, then let’s change that narrative right here and right now.

How can we keep our sisterhood sacred? How can we stand shoulder to shoulder against those who wish us harm, especially if they are inside our elephant family?

What can we do as a community to restore sacred sisterhood and stand up to trashing?

Please leave us your thoughts and ideas in the comments sections below or on our FB page, Twitter page or by email at CassandraComplexityBlog@gmail.com.

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2 thoughts on “The Sacred Sisterhood and My Elephant Family

  1. smartipants

    I was so dismayed to read this but not really that surprised as the GBV sector seems to be filled with these types. Why is that? Is it feminism as some of your quotes point out? Or just human nature? Either way, it seems that we all seem to struggle with maintaining cordial and professional relationships. Misunderstandings are common, leading to frustration, anger and inefficiency. Gossip and criticism are the norm, and cliques lead to favoritism and feuding. We need clear and straightforward conversations and stay focused on the goals of preventing and responding to GBV and not promoting our own egos instead. People need to stand up for the bullied and say something when we witness this! I know sometimes I feel afraid because I’m afraid to turn the toxic attention towards me but when I bite my quivering lip and say something, I sleep better at night and feel like I am living by my principles.

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  2. Anonymous

    Thank you for this post. I moved towards related but not GBV work due to some of what you described…not feeling wholly comfortable or counted in the GBV world. I’m not interested in ‘competing’ for who is best at what, sometimes it felt like that. Anyway, do what I can in a different way. Thank you.

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