The rapidly approaching midterm elections give us a rare look at a form of competition that has not previously been on public display. Given the historic increase in the number of female candidates, we are witnessing for the first time competition between women who are roughly equally matched. How do they wage war? Do they mimic men? Are there innate differences between men and women in how they tackle these intra-gender conflicts?

The data will soon be available. There are a record-breaking six races that currently feature women as both the Democratic and Republican nominees in states across the country, from New York to Nebraska; from Arizona to Wisconsin. What we know, or think we know, about women and competition comes from research on male-female skirmishes.

Such studies center on conflicts over access to fertile mates and to the care and protection of offspring. A prevalent view is that there are vast differences between the sexes. Females are deferential, they get what they want, not by shows of power or strength, but through wiles, trickery, and innuendo. She is manipulative; he is direct.

Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy of UC Davis, looked closely at data on our closest relatives–the primates–to get answers. In her book, The Woman Who Never Evolved, she rejects that consensus view, describing female primates as “competitive, independent, sexually assertive.” They “have every bit as much at stake in the evolutionary game as their male counterparts do. These females compete among themselves for rank and resources, but will bond together for mutual defense. They risk their lives to protect their young, yet consort with the very males who murdered their offspring when successful reproduction depends upon it. They tolerate other breeding females if food is plentiful, but chase them away when monogamy is the optimal strategy. When ‘promiscuity’ is an advantage, female primates—like their human cousins—exhibit a sexual appetite that ensures a range of breeding partners. From case after case, we are led to the conclusion that the sexually passive, noncompetitive, all-nurturing woman of prevailing myth never could have evolved within the primate order.”

So the female is wily and shrewd; she is no demur wallflower. “Yet males [largely due to their larger size,] are almost universally dominant over females in primate species, and Homo sapiens is no exception.”

In male-female clashes among primates, males often dominate, but females have skills they can use to affect the outcomes. How does this gender dynamic work in an era when the outcome of most encounters depends less on brawn and more on brain? Today’s political wars are waged, not with traditional weapons of warfare, but with words. Language is the main weapon of choice, especially in the political arena.

Whoever said ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,’ got that all wrong! Just ask Marco Rubio (Little Marco), Ted Cruz (Lying Ted), or Jeb Bush (Low-energy Jeb) who came under withering verbal attack from Donald Trump, as did Hillary Clinton (Crooked Hillary) and other women. Trump taught us all that such abuse gets results in the political arena.

Here, too, research on language usage challenges widely held beliefs about massive gender differences. Men are believed to be more verbally assertive, to interrupt more, and to be more talkative. Women are assumed to be more reticent, acquiescent, and deferential. Not so, says University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde, based on her research on gender similarities. “Most of what we understand comes from now-discredited, but wildly popular ideas about difference between men and women. Men are from Mars, women from Venus.”

The Guardian notes that the Mars -Venus notion has been repeated so often that it has become accepted truth. Yet, a research review tells a different, and more complicated, story. “The idea that men and women differ fundamentally in the way they use language to communicate is a myth in the everyday sense: a widespread but false belief. But it is also a myth in the sense of being a story people tell in order to explain who they are, where they have come from, and why they live as they do. Whether or not they are ‘true’ in any historical or scientific sense, such stories have consequences in the real world. They shape our beliefs, and so influence our actions.”

Importantly, most of the focus, whether on primates or humans, has been on gender differences and on inter-gender conflicts; much less attention has been paid to intra-gender clashes, especially female-female encounters. Yet, we all know they exist and they can be bruising. Case in point: ‘Mean girls,’ a term popularized by the popular movie starring Lindsay Lohan and amplified by the 2018 hit movie, Eighth Grade.

Mean girls’ battle for dominance in their peer groups, and can use gossip, outright lies, shaming and online bullying to protect their status. One Ohio girl quoted on girls [] said, “Guys just punch people in the face and/or call them a name and get over it, but girls attack you from the inside. Girls might act sweet in front of adults, so when you try to tell someone, they don’t believe you. They might bully you by spreading rumors or excluding you or any number of things. And they all hurt really badly.”

Does such behavior differ in later years? Not according to some research. “Now, the corporate world is spawning its own ‘adult versions’ of the stereotypical mean girls who thrive at the top of the high-school food chain. Only that the older versions are said to be more calculating,” notes the blog HRD Employment law.

A 2018 study published in the journal Development and Learning in Organisations [], found that 70 percent of female executives report they have been bullied by women in their offices and that it has harmed their careers.

The study’s author, Tech Woman Today founder Cecilia Harvey, calls such behavior the “Queen Bee Syndrome,” and says it is the “biggest hindrance to women advancing in the workplace.”

So, adult women have a quiver full of tools for attacking one another, especially when the ‘other’ is a subordinate. What happens when equal-status women compete? Do they engage in direct verbal assaults? Do they eschew personal attacks and engage one another on policy or practice differences? Do they revert to “mean girls” behavior, insulting and demeaning one another?

At this point, we have only sketchy, anecdotal data to rely on. Nevertheless, early indications are that the 2018 midterm elections, pitting women against women, might be as nasty and personal as anything male-male competition can serve up.

In the Arizona primary to fill the Senate seat of Jeff Flake, the female candidates came out of the gate swinging, noted The Republican Martha McSally, an Air Force Academy graduate, blasted Democrat Kyrsten Sinema: “Like, I’m as impressed as anyone that my opponent brags that she owns over 100 pairs of shoes. I, on the other hand, have over 100 combat missions, serving our country “While we were in harm’s way in uniform, Kyrsten Sinema was protesting us in a pink tutu and denigrating our service.” Sinema was a prime mover in the Arizona Alliance for Peaceful Justice after 911. The Alliance opposed military action as “an inappropriate response to terrorism” and called for using legal means to deal with the terrorist attack.

You would never know from these comments that both women shared many goals. Notably, both are Ironman World Championship finishers. An honor held by very few women and a sign of the dedication and hard work that both have shown. As McSally said, “The training is important, but you can train the human body to do anything …The most important element is the grit, the determination to believe you can do it and not quit.”

Yes, there are many clear difference between these two candidates,  but both loved their country, although they expressed their love differently; both were dedicated to being the best they could be, but in different ways; and both devoted themselves to the goals they set. Despite the divergences, there are also many desirable and strong qualities they share. One can only hope that the campaign will focus on the really important issues, not the headline grabbing, peripheral stuff.

One advantage that women running against each other will have is that neither will have an opponent who gets instant brownie points for trying to gain powerYale researchers Tyler G. Okimoto[] and Victoria L Brescoll[] found that when both men and women saw male politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as assertive and competent. The opposite was true when women candidates were seen as power seeking. Both sexes found such women to be “unsupportive and uncaring” and experienced feelings of “moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust) towards them.” Witness the “Lock her up!” chants directed at Hillary Clinton during Trump rallies.

In Arizona, Democratic candidate Sinema has challenged Republican McSally to two televised debates before the midterms—one of which has taken place. So, stay tuned. It won’t be too long before we see how this woman-to-woman face off plays out.


About the authors: Dr. Rosalind C. Barnett is an award-winning psychologist who has directed major research projects for federal agencies and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, among others. Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. They are the authors of “The New Soft War on Women” (Tarcher/Penguin) as well as six other books on women, men and society.