All my life, I’ve noticed a tendency among women to condemn each other rather than to reach out, and to criticize rather than support.  There’s this territorialism that very effectively divides us.  It exists among women as a whole (“Did she really wear that?  She’s not 21 anymore.”), among women as mothers (“I can’t believe she didn’t even try to breastfeed!  How selfish.”), and among groups of women who can’t work with other groups of women (“Remember when they didn’t invite us to that thing they had?  Never again.”).

I’ve been that girl.  I’ve been the mean girl.  Not always, but sometimes.  I never knew why; I just did what I learned and what felt like it came naturally. 

We Call it “Cattiness.”

That’s a cute word for an ugly thing.  Cattiness is much deeper and much more powerful than it sounds.

It’s the timeless dance among women that we are in competition with each other, and the like-minded have to stick together in cliques to distinguish themselves from the rest.  The rest: the less attractive ones, the more attractive ones, the smarter ones and the less intelligent ones, the more outgoing ones and the more dutiful ones, the less talented ones and the ones who are more financially successful, the ones whose relationships with their families are too close or not close enough for our tastes.

The ones who are different from us.


(Don’t be jealous of my amazing original artwork.)

It’s a way to divide yourself from others: you would never talk like that, or dress like that, or act like that.  And then you think, “I’m better than her.”  And then you send that message loud and clear right to her, or you talk about it amongst your friends, because it’s how you make yourself feel better than her.

If you thought high school was bad, welcome to motherhood.  The so-called Mommy Wars take this competition to a whole new level.

Let’s call it what it really is…

It’s not cute.  It’s not just “what women do.”  It’s a learned behavior and mindset, and it’s used by people who need to feel strong by making others feel weaker.

It’s Horizontal Violence.

Horizontal violence, simply put, is bullying among peers within an “oppressed” group of a hierarchy.

If you Google it, you’ll find that it’s not easy to find a definition of this broad term that isn’t focused on nursing.  In fact, the entire first page of Google hits are about nursing and one reference to midwifery, two overwhelmingly female fields with histories of your classic setup: lots of responsibility, less appreciation than deserved, and domination by another level of authority.**

In other words, a microcosm of women.



And if you don’t think women as a whole are an oppressed group, consider that we were property in most places for the majority of history, our work has not been as valued as men’s, we weren’t allowed to vote until less than 100 years ago, and we haven’t ever represented ourselves in government nearly as much as we participate in American life.

Those inequalities don’t resolve themselves in a few generations.

So, here we are, still stabbing at each other blindly, largely unaware of how we are hurting ourselves by doing so.

What does this have to do with Improving Birth?

Absolutely everything.

Birth is a human rights issue, but it’s driven by women – women who carry, protect, and give birth to the babies who make up the human race, and women who have an incredible, mostly untapped ability to change maternity care in the U.S. and around the world.

But, in some ways, we can’t get it together.  This group doesn’t agree with that group on tactics, this person was rude to that person and now they don’t speak, these people don’t trust each other because of their history, etc., etc., etc.

Horizontal violence is a really effective way to ensure we as individuals will remain weak and the group as a whole will always be weak.  It’s just a way we push our own weakness onto the people who might otherwise stand with us in collective strength.

Until we get it together, we’re going to be fighting awfully hard in our own little corners.  It’s going to be a never-ending series of tough, long battles with no end to the war in sight.

Because, I’ve got news for you, ladies: we are being encroached upon on all fronts.  In states across the country, and countries across the world, our options and rights are being limited more and more.  Other people are making decisions about how, where, and with whom we give birth.  If you don’t think that’s true, tell me if your insurance policy covers — if your state allows — if your hospital fully supports — your choices in birth.  And if you are respected as the ultimate decision-maker in childbirth. 

Sisterhood is how we win.

We’ve got to come together.  We’ve got to get over petty squabbles – and not-so-petty squabbles – and find the common ground where we can stand together.   We have to remember that we don’t have to agree with each other to support each other.  There is no reason that we can’t work together on our common ground – even if we completely disagree on hot topics like abortion, religion, and politics. 

How do we get there?

 Here are some thoughts on how we do that.  I’d love to hear your ideas, as well.

1.     Identify horizontal violence.  Stop calling it cattiness.  Call it what it is and pause right there.

2.     Disengage!  DIS-EN-GAGE !  Once you’ve identified it, you can choose another response – or no response at all.  You don’t have to be right.  You don’t have to “win.”  You don’t have to have the last word.

3.     Don’t make assumptions.  If I had a nickel for every time I thought I knew what someone was “implying,” only to find out I was way, way off base…  I’d have a pretty big jar of coins to remind me how stupid it is to make assumptions about anyone else’s motives, feelings, and circumstances.

4.     If you’re in a group, you can formalize your commitment.  We have something we use for anybody signing on to the leadership team.  It outlines exactly why we don’t do the “catty” thing and how we avoid it.  We also specify “respect and inclusivity” in our Organizational Principles.

5.     With other groups, “find your overlap” and formalize it.  Where do you agree?  Go there and stay there.   You can even write it down.  Public partnerships with each other is a great way to set the example that we can cross borders to all work together.

6.     Eyes on the prize.  Do you want to spend precious minutes of your life denigrating others, or moving the ball forward?  You have limited time.

What do you think?  What has worked for you?  Comment below!  (And note our Our Comments Policy, please — we don’t have time for cattiness, ha! ) 

The Rally to Improve Birth is a Step Towards Unity

When we gather this Labor Day, Monday, September 2, 2013, we are making a big statement.  We’re asking that we all unite around some pretty basic concepts – evidence-based care and humanity in childbirth – to show the world just how many people feel passionate enough about better birth for moms and babies.

The rallies will include people from all walks of life, perspectives, and political ideologies from over 160 cities in all 50 states, plus Australia, Canada, and Japan.  They will include people who are passionate about specific issues in childbirth – some stances in conflict with each other – who have “found their overlap” and are holding hands in that overlap.

This is how we “win.”  Sisterhood for those of us who fit that category, and unity for all of us who want to make birth better.

We really hope you will join us, too.

* The original title of this article was “‘Catty B****es’ & Why We’re All Losing the Mommy Wars.”

** I’m talking about these groups in the general sense; there are certainly nurses and midwives and groups of nurses and midwives who don’t fit this bill, and are treated with great respect, consideration, and appreciation.

Author Cristen Pascucci is the former Vice President of ImprovingBirth and is the founder of Birth Monopoly, co-creator of the Exposing the Silence Project, and executive producer of Mother May I?, a documentary film on birth trauma and obstetric violence.  She is dedicated to promoting the rights of women in childbirth.

Also by Cristen: “Selfish Women and Their Silly Birth Experiences” and “A Healthy Baby Isn’t All That Matters

Hey!  Want to support’s mission?  Like us on Facebook, and donate to the cause.

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  1. Suzanne K. Weaver says:

    I believe every aren’t should share with their daughters!

  2. Terra says:

    Another way to get there is by taking responsibility for our own feelings.
    Something I’ve noticed a lot of – if a mother is sharing her positive experience – are other mothers, feeling defensive about their own bad experience (or insecure about their own choices) will go into attack mode.

    I’ve all but given up sharing my good birth experience because there is always someone lurking around, ready to remind me that “some women CAN’T give birth vaginally / breastfeed / have a home birth / and so on.” Some of us are not on a high horse, being catty bitches, or judging anyone – but rather just celebrating our positive experience, and hopefully inspire others along the way. How wrong, that people are not allowed to share their joy for fear of offending someone. It is also dangerous, because of women are only exposed to dramatic horror stories, or routinely told they cannot achieve something, they will see this as a baseline for normal.

  3. Jill says:

    I’m currently studying to be a nurse and midwife. Before first placement, the biggest warning we received was “nurses eat their young”. Call it what you like but if this is the attitude of our preceptors, it has to impact on the care provided. As a mother, I can say I’ve definitely come across “horizontal violence” and to be honest, I have been involved in it by making personal judgements on parenting choices.
    But awareness is the key, to put a name to it makes you able to identify that behaviour and I would love to see a more united female front.
    We are often our own worst enemies and I think that is really sad, we can do so much better.

  4. Cristen says:

    It just occurred to me that people might think this title is CALLING people “Catty B****s.” It is not. It is stating a term, and then a related thought; that is all. I couldn’t understand why people thought I was calling them Catty B****s until just now….

  5. Camille says:

    Great points–this is probably one of the top 2 reasons why improving maternity care is so tough. (The other top reason–most of the people who are passionate about issues related to birth are moms of small kids, not the top demographic with the time and energy for volunteer projects!)
    Especially key is fully expecting that we will not agree on everything. If that can really be absolutely fine, then I think we will naturally bring a respectful attitude to the areas where we disagree and be able to still work together toward common goals.
    I do wonder about the term “violence” to describe this kind of verbal and nonverbal behavior (however damaging it may be). Whenever I’ve seen it, I’ve wondered if it trivializes actual physical violence somehow. Maybe it’s just me. I’d be curious how it sits with survivors of physical violence.

    1. Carmen Allan says:

      As a survivor of domestic physical violence, both as a teen child and as a young woman, I have to say: I *personally* have no quarrel with the use of this term.
      We have developed words to describe physical violence, which help us better understand and relate to others’ experiences. Knowing how to describe and quantify it helps us to find the support we need.

      Likewise, we are developing a language to help us look at aspects of psychological violence that can be changed. As a movement, I’d like to see us seriously looking at medical bullying in general, as I believe that the individual culture we enter when we walk into the hospital door has a defining impact on the care we receive. Doctor to nurse, nurse to nurse or woman to woman. How striated is the hierarchy of your organization?
      I wonder if it would be possible to begin collecting statistics on nurse’s work satisfaction as a way to discover hospitals that are less authoritarian and more likely to be baby-friendly.

      Thank you for introducing this topic for discussion. This article has helped illustrate to me that there is an entire culture of psychological violence and control in the medical workplace which goes beyond just controlling birth. The ideas introduced help explain some of the more petty aspects of my own birth experience. When the printout on a monitor is more important than the comfort of a laboring mother; there is a nurse that is deeply afraid of a supervisor’s wrath.

    2. Cristen says:

      Thanks, Camille! “Horizontal violence” isn’t my term; it’s been around for a while. I found it a little jarring, too, when I first heard it. I’m not sure about the origin of the term, but I wonder if it’s a way to make the point that just because something isn’t physical doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly damaging, traumatizing, or aggressive. Just my thought.

      You are sooo right about the “demographic” of people advocating for better birth. Not a ton of money and not a ton of time. It’s a huge barrier!

  6. Jo says:

    Hmmm…. I have to say that this has not been my experience. Friends and strangers alike have been very supportive and inclusive when it comes to all things motherhood — breastfeeding, birth, parenting. It’s an attitude of, this is so hard, I don’t have all the answers so who I am to judge. I certainly go out of my way to honor choices women make, even when they differ from my own. Yes, I know we can all be catty … but this has not extended into the mama realm for me. I guess I have felt a little judgement or let’s say lack of understanding about my choice to have a home birth. And sometimes I’m afraid to give my opinion on birth matters because I don’t want to to offend anyone. So certainly room for improvement. But I’m not sure this catty bitches idea does much to advance the improving birth discussion. However the idea that we must stand together as women and take birth back does resonate with me. I just don’t want to be furthering stereotypes that women are catty bitches, you know?

    1. Cristen says:

      Jo, you have been lucky, I think, to have such an experience! Although, when you say you’ve felt some judgment/lack of understanding and may be afraid to give your opinion, that sounds a little bit oppressive to me. I would hope we can all share our opinions without judgment, and that we can talk freely and have productive discussions. Minus the catty.

      And I wanted to say that I just realized that maybe you (and others) thought I was calling women Catty B****s in the title. I was not! I just shortened a longer title to make it fit better and unintentionally made it look like I was addressing people that way…. Whoops.

  7. Sandra says:

    How is calling anyone “Catty B****s” helpful? Didn’t we recently learn that shaming doesn’t help people make better choices? Can we identify what is supportive behavior and model that, and encourage it? Can we respond with compassion to people whom we might think are being catty? What if those people were responding from their own pain because they don’t know any other way? I believe that’s the root of the wars. Not cattiness, but unacknowledged fear, sorrow, and anger. I imagine a future where all women and health care professionals treat each other with respect and dignity, and where mothers get the support they need to birth their babies, heal from their trauma and grief, feed their babies, and find the best possible balance of work, affordable quality child care, and home. Let’s teach compassion, not more shaming. When we learn better, and feel better, we do better.

    1. Aimsley says:

      Unfortunately without addressing the root issue and beinv brutally honest the future you imagine will not arrive. And unfortunately as long as humans continue to be corporal, flawed beings a world of mutual respect will never exist.

      Unrealistic expectations of human nature will only lead to dissatisfied with life people.

      1. gabrielle says:

        @aimsley totally agree.

    2. Cristen says:

      Yes! Sounds like another blog post!

  8. Ashley says:

    Very well spoken. Womanhood reminds me a lot of the 7th grade, and I am surprised at that. Naive? Maybe, but I just thought that by the time we were adults, we would inherently know how to behave better. Surely none of us would knowingly teach our children to treat others the way that some women treat other women, right? Right?!

  9. Bernadette says:

    I love it. It’s something I have been working on in my personal life. Such a great piece to have read. Thank you!

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