The Independent

How public cat fights are undermining sisterhood

In an odd way, feminism has produced this scary new woman, a witch in boardroom and bedroom

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
The Independent
14 October 2002

Why are women quite so beastly to each other in these post-feminist times? First we had the kiss-and-sell book by the egomaniacal Edwina Currie, who didn't spare us any of the sticky details of her romps with John Major. Now, the emotionally incontinent Ulrika Jonsson publishes her version of how badly she has been treated by Sven Goran Eriksson. Apparently he "ruthlessly" pursued her with roses, champagne, good and tender sex, and pleasingly rude references to the woman he is still living with – the Italian lawyer Nancy Dell'Olio. Sven's ice-cool confidence probably melted a little over the weekend as his sexual capers and perfidy were plastered across several pages of excited newspapers. Nancy, her Latin blood boiling, has hit back saying Ulrika has the morals of an alley cat, and is "brazen, little better than a common tart".

A swarm of feminists will rise up to blame Sven for setting up this cat fight; they will be stinging and contemptuous of the man for his weakness and his duplicity. But I am with Nancy. I think she is right to ask: "How can a woman have such callous disregard for another? Sven was treacherous too, but he was stupid and naïve. She massaged his ego."

How would philandering blokes philander without the obliging and calculating Ulrikas of this world? These cads have no problems harvesting illicit sex because there are so many women, sharp on gender iniquities but without qualms about plucking pleasure where they find it. In the Bridget Jones world, where goal-centered women are driven to get it all, a new morality reigns which says that the only obligation a woman has is to herself, her desires and her fulfilment.

In an odd way, feminism, which has brought so many gains, has also produced this scary new woman – a witch in boardroom and bedroom, with a fiery belief that she is entitled to behave as callously as she wishes. A few years ago Geoff Mulgan (now an adviser to Tony Blair) and his erstwhile partner Helen Wilkinson tried to explain this in a pamphlet called Freedom's Children. They concluded that previous constraints on couples had disappeared and they were now taking control "of their own sexuality and commitments ... We are probably more adulterous now than ever before with women catching up with men on the adultery stakes."

Scores of such female predators are now out there in the jungle, sniffing, marking and grabbing men who are all the more attractive because they are attached. In fact, so ubiquitous are these carnivores that it is hard not to live in palpitating fear of them, real or imagined. In fact, just this weekend, I went into an embarrassing wobble over Rowena – a young, brash accountant with a burnt-caramel voice (cigarettes and much red wine I reckon) who is rather a lot in and out of our lives at present. She phones too often; too early in the mornings.

Does she fancy him, does she want him, my sweet and loyal man, whom she praised so extravagantly so much the other night because he was cooking? Will he succumb to this flattery and swim towards the glistening bait? The last one did, which is probably why periodically I am driven mad by my own insecurities. Poor Rowena may in fact mean nothing by this gushing. On the other hand, one cannot be too careful or hysterical; it is a bloody perilous world out there, especially if you are a woman of a certain age.

Nothing new in this you might say – it was ever thus – but something different is happening at the moment. It feels as if mistresses are becoming more pitiless, more ruthlessly efficient and even more self-obsessed than they were previously. It isn't enough that they do what they do, that they get their thrills and excitement, and sometimes the man too – these days they must be validated. They stamp the floor and yell, demanding our sympathy too. This must be why they feel compelled to write weepy and silly books – remember the binned Anthea Turner book on why and how she stole her husband from his former wife? This, and to get vast amounts of money for this self-inflicted woe.

Why must they add public abasement to the private humiliation they have already inflicted on their rivals? When such things happen, it becomes harder to ignore the brutality of women, and to continue casting our aspersions only on men while keeping at bay uncomfortable questions we would rather were not asked. And none of us is immune. I too have been there, in small and big ways, crushing my female competitors without a second thought, my feminism rendered meaningless in the rush to win. I would never allow a man to get away with things I have excused in myself.

Years ago I did a feature for this paper on the Child Support Agency, which at the time was both a mess and a target for unfair accusations from people who had got used to the idea that you had no responsibilities to families you had left behind. The anti-CSA lobbies had a system whereby any journalist writing on the subject was bombarded with chain phone calls. Every three minutes someone would ring to tell you how they were victims of the state and their previous partners.

The second wives, particularly ones who were directly involved in the divorce, were the worst. They were merciless, vindictive towards the first spouses and previous children, interested only in how hard life was for them. They too, like Ulrika and Edwina, tried to requisition all available understanding. If I asked any difficult questions, what tantrums, what scenes would follow.

Some of the most thoughtful women I talked to then were those whose partners had moved on to new women. Having been usurped themselves (and that is how it feels whatever sophistication you try to imprint on these intensely wounding experiences – primeval feelings of loss and rejection are hard to shake off even if the relationship was dreadful for both partners) only then do they begin to understand better what they have done in the past.

Some of them. I often wonder if Mia Farrow or Anne Diamond ever think about the women they hurt and replaced, now that they too have been through the horrible business of losing their partners to younger women? I still have Dory Previn's beautiful and desolate song she wrote when small, pixie-like Farrow walked away with her husband, André. I used to play it a lot years ago, when my former husband departed with his new love: Beware of young girls/ Too often they crave/ To cry/ At a wedding/ And dance on a grave.

Ulrika and Edwina may think they have a right to do, and then say, what they want; they may have become addicted to their own sense of irresistibility and vulnerability; they are richer and more talked about than ever, and today they probably feel victorious and richer. But at what price, all this? The hurt of others, including the offspring of the adults involved, who did them no harm, the grotesque display of their own rapacious self-interest, a revolting vengefulness – all of which can make the prettiest and sexiest woman appear deeply unattractive and soiled.

Would any man, however desperate or captivated, ever feel safe with such women? When, as surely it will, life brings greater disappointments and pain – which they cannot describe and serialise in a tabloid newspaper – how will they cope?

And will we care, even if they are women?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd