“OMG! What is she wearing?”
I wasn’t familiar with the term “horizontal oppression” until graduate school, but I had witnessed and experienced its effects as a woman in the world. Oppression theory can be complicated, but for the purposes of this post, I will attempt to simplify.
Horizontal oppression occurs when one subordinate social group (in this case women) marginalizes another/other member(s) of the same social group (in this case women). This continues the cycle of oppression by perpetuating stereotypes, beliefs, and discrimination by the dominate group (in this case men), and social justice and equality are impaired. Basically, it means that we women are bringing each other down.
For many, it begins in elementary school when cliques begin to form and negative comments on the dress, physical appearance, and behaviors of "the other girl(s)"—usually outside of the clique—become a norm. Technology and social media may complicate things further serving as another venue for ridicule before and after school hours. Sadly, oppression does not seem to lesson with age, but it grows and may worsen throughout female identity development.
In high school and college, clubs and social groups like sororities may feed a skin-deep focus. Exchanges with peers about the "perfect" body and image —“Does this make me look fat?” "Does she think that actually looks good on her?" "She is not the type that will fit in our group..."—are not uncommon. Assumptions about the sexuality and dating patterns of others (she is sexually active so she must be ____(fill with a negative judgement); she is not sexually active so she must be____ (fill with negative judgement)) may amplify behaviors like gossip, exclusion, and shaming—think Mean Girls. These unkind acts can erode a young woman's self-esteem, confidence, and overall sense of self.
Passive-aggressive and bullying behaviors can persist in the working world. Women may place higher demands on female co-workers vs. their male counterparts. Witnessing and/or participating in those familiar elementary school critiques (“can you believe she is wearing that to work?") and assumptions internalized along the way (she is probably using her sexuality to get what she wants) might become second nature. If we are strong and assertive, we may fear being labeled as something cold and frigid—yet feminine—like an "ice queen/princess" which may prevent us from using our voices and going for that promotion. Perceiving "the other women" in the office as "catty," "emotional," and "girlie" (more stereotypes) can reinforce a preference to work for/with men and may force us to conceal parts of self with which we may identify. Without realizing it, our participation in horizontal oppression becomes self-sabotage, as it perpetuates the dominate group’s beliefs/stereotypes about women. We may be left frustrated and deflated as the corporate ladder continues to be unevenly male-dominated.
Motherhood may not always be that kumbaya-ish sisterhood we imagined when we joined the Mommy and Me class. The neighborhood parks and schools may feel split with judgments between the stay-at-home moms (“how selfish that she doesn't have time for her own children!"), the working-outside-of-home moms (“what does she do all day while her kids are in school?"), and the part-time-working-outside-of-home moms (“I feel so torn like I can’t do anything well!”). There are many decisions to explore as a parent, so criticisms from "the other mom(s)" about things like birthing plans (epidural vs. no medication), feeding plans (the breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding), and sleeping plans (the Ferber Method vs. The No Cry Sleep Solution) can be overwhelming and just exhausting. We may be left confused as we question our choices as a parents. As a result, feelings of incompetence—including guilt and shame—surface and self-esteem and sense of self are further fractured.
Why do we do it?
There are many reasons for horizontal oppression. We continue to live in a highly male-influenced society in which female stereotypes are internalized by girls who grow to be women. We may fear ridicule if we don't align with beliefs about traditional female roles, but also if we do (known as a "double bind," or damned if you do, damned if you don't), so disparaging others when when we are feeling insecure and confused may make us feel better about our choices. Also, with few women in leadership roles—hopefully, this is beginning to change— competition in the workplace for these posts is not surprising.
What can we do now?
Change begins with awareness. Being mindful of our feelings and our behaviors toward each other can be a place to start. Pausing before acting by asking questions—Why am I feeling this way? Why do I have an urge to act this way?— can be helpful. Children learn from their parents/caregivers, so we must be cognizant of our words and actions by modeling the change we would like to see.
We don't have to participate. Whether it is in the office or at a social gathering with girlfriends, we can choose not to engage in the gossip, judgments, exclusion, and shaming. We can speak up and bring awareness to others who might not realize that they are contributing to marginalization. We can use social media in constructive ways vs. destructive ways. We can encourage and support one another to stop the suffering.
Once we have awareness and understanding, we can spread our knowledge. Starting early with children (all genders) is an ideal introduction point. Providing a safe space for female students to express thoughts and feelings about these issues via process, support, and educational groups (facilitated by professionals) is important. Firm school policies to quell oppressive behaviors promote inclusive, empowering cultures—an example, Seth's Law, was implemented in 2012 to protect California public school students from bullying. Because oppression begins with the dominant social group (in this case men), it is not just the job of women to transcend and mend the divides of marginalization. Working together with our male allies (in politics/government, media, education, the workplace) can help us to address our concerns and precipitate change.
We know that our society does not always seem to cultivate female empowerment, but at times deprives us by reinforcing separation (SEE most reality tv). Connecting with and supporting other women we trust, admire, and with whom we can be our genuine selves is important. Our involvement in groups (support, leadership, parenting, etc.) can help us give a voice(s) to the dilemmas which women continue to face. Paying it forward by sharing our strengths, talents, and connections with others can also promote empowerment. Finally, being authentically you can be the most influential of all.