In her post “Why are women so mean to each other?” Emirate Gate blogger Carolyn Robertson notes that mothers aren’t any less mean-spirited than other women. In fact, they might be worse. “In my own experience, if the school yard is the breeding ground for mean girls, motherhood is the big league,” Robertson writes. “I’ve never felt so judged and criticized as I have among other moms.”
What’s this all about? When we talk about the verbal sniping, snobbery, one-ups-manship, and cruelty of women, we call them “catty” or “bitchy.” This seems totally inappropriate to me. Cats and dogs don’t harass each other in quite that way.
A more fitting zoological metaphor is monkeyish. In particular, I’m thinking of the Old World monkey societies where females live under strict dominance hierarchies. These girls remain in the same group all their lives. Every female has a rank on the social ladder, and whether she is high- or low-ranking matters a great deal.
There are real perks for the ladies at the top of the social ladder—better access to food, water, and sleeping places. In times of famine, it’s the higher-ranking females who are most likely to survive.
And here’s the really intriguing thing: These social ranks are inherited. If you are Queen Monkey, then your daughter is the Princess. If you live in the comfortable middle of the social ladder, your daughters will live there too. And if you are the pathetic monkey girl living at the bottom of the hierarchy, your kids will inherit your lowly status.
How does this happen? Why isn’t there more social mobility? It’s because of the moms. The high-ranking mothers make sure that other, lower-ranking monkeys defer to their daughters. If a lower-ranking female tries to push around a higher-ranking kid, she’s likely to get attacked by the kid’s powerful female relatives.
But if a higher-ranking monkey decides to harass a low-ranking kid, it’s unlikely that anyone will come to the juvenile’s rescue. Over time, the kids learn exactly where they fit into the hierarchy: Whom they can push around, and whom they need to treat respectfully.
These girls learn to be snobs. To form social cliques. To harass their social inferiors and toady to their social betters. And the reason? The driving force behind it all?
It’s because they are—or will become–moms. Moms in a society where social rank is passed from mother to child. By pushing around other monkeys, these females are securing the best possible status (and perks) for their kids.
So when I see human mothers being pushy, snide, judgmental, or otherwise competitive, it doesn’t seem that surprising. Like Old World Monkeys, many human beings live in hierarchical societies. The more status a mother can claim for her family, the more resources her kids might get. As Sarah Blaffer-Hrdy notes, mothers have always wanted to climb the social ladder–one way or another.
It doesn’t mean that sly, ambitious, aggressive women are always more successful. Or that cattiness should be excused. But from the perspective of evolution and ecology, it’s no shock that mothers aren’t all sweetness and light.