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Like Lead: A Long History Of Women’s Anger And Internalized Misogyny

flickr/Sergio y Adeline

For centuries, women have been encouraged to turn on each other, rather than the men who wronged them.

In northwest England in 1292, Alexander le Wood cheated on his wife, Almaria, with another woman named Almaria (apparently he had a type). His wife discovered this and, according to legal records, “was enraged.” But instead of lashing out at her husband, she hired two women and a man to kill Almaria #2 in exchange for a gift. The team of killers — colorfully named Ellis of Skelton, Lettice Greathand, and Goda Hurlepot — carried out Almaria #1’s wishes and killed Almaria #2. They put her body in a sack and took her on horseback to a moor, where they buried her. Almaria #1 was arrested, paid a fine, and went free on bail. The legal record does not say what happens to her.

What strikes me about this case — in addition to the love triangle, the fact that both women involved with the same man have identical names, and one woman’s hiring of two female killers to kill another woman — is its emphasis on female jealousy and women’s rage. Almaria #1’s actions are clearly named in the legal record as motivated by fury — “commota” in Latin, related to the English word “commotion” — against Almaria #2.

The case illustrates women’s anger expressed as violence against another woman, showing how women have long directed their fury at one another instead of the men who have wronged them.

I was reminded of the two Almarias when I served as an alternate juror in a criminal trial in Philadelphia. Two defendants, a man and a woman in their twenties whom I’ll call Ellis and Almaria, were on trial for allegedly attacking the woman’s ex-boyfriend Alexander — the father of her two young children — and his new girlfriend, Alice.

On the first day of the trial, the District Attorney for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania drew a diagram of the complicated relationships among everyone involved. He was tanned and handsome and douchey in his well-tailored suit, wearing a Fitbit on one wrist and an expensive watch on the other, a gleaming tie clip holding his pink silk tie in place. He told us that Almaria had two children with Alexander. After they split, he started dating Alice, although he continued to hook up periodically with Almaria. She became pregnant with a third child and told Alexander that he was the father, only to confess that it was actually her co-defendant Ellis’s when the baby was two months old, invoking the stereotype of the sexually transgressive woman who deceives men about her baby’s paternity. In addition to having similar first names that start with the same letter, the two women shared the same last name, although they were not kin. The lawyers mixed up their names repeatedly throughout the trial, reinforcing the connections between them.

The trial centered on a violent incident involving both couples. As Alexander and Alice stood outside one summer evening, a white van with its headlights off circled the block twice. The third time, it stopped, and Almaria and Ellis emerged. Another car pulled up, carrying Almaria’s sister and her two best friends. A group of men also appeared. The four women began to beat Alice, while the men attacked Alexander. Someone allegedly said, “Fuck it, get the gat,” and bullets began to fly. A parked car was shot full of holes. Almaria, Ellis, and their friends fled the scene.

A police officer testified that he stopped them shortly thereafter, Ellis sweating and shirtless, Almaria’s three small children in the backseat. We were shown photos of Alice’s scratched and swollen face, mascara dripping beneath her eyes, a large bruise darkening on her temple. I thought back to the medieval Almarias — women with similar names fighting over the same man, sexual jealousy and infidelity, and an angry woman marshaling other women to attack her sexual rival with violence.

Throughout the trial, both sets of lawyers drew repeatedly upon the trope of the angry, competitive woman whose jealous fury against her sexual rival incites her to violence. This narrative goes back to Medea in Greek mythology, sending a deadly poisoned robe to her husband Jason’s new wife after he abandons her. Each side invoked it for their own purposes: The D.A. wanted us to believe that Almaria’s anger at Alice was so great that she attacked her with brass knuckles and was willing to kill her, while the defense lawyers sought to convince us that Alice’s anger at Almaria prompted her to file false charges after a mutual fight. They repeatedly emphasized the fact that Almaria had two children with Alexander, while Alice had none.

“Do you have any children with Alexander?” asked Ellis’s lawyer when Alice took the stand.

“I lost two babies,” she said.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said, although he did not sound sorry at all.

“And were you angry when Alexander told you he was having another baby with Almaria while you were with him?” he asked.

“I was angry with Almaria for messing with him,” Alice replied, as though Alexander had no role whatsoever in impregnating his ex girlfriend, as though he was utterly helpless when faced by a calculating woman who wanted to sleep with him. The two women glared at each other across the courtroom.

This toxic narrative is pervasive in our language — for example, there is no male equivalent term for “homewrecker” — and in popular culture: After Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck, as well as Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, announced their separations within several weeks of each other, both couples quickly became the focus of a flurry of tabloid stories about Affleck’s and Rossdale’s respective infidelity with their children’s nannies. But rather than focusing on the husbands’ transgressions, the coverage blamed the nannies and focused on the conflict between wife and nanny. Meanwhile, the philandering men were painted as hapless victims, even though data shows that nannies, who are often low-income women and women of color, are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault by their male employers.

“Ben Affleck’s Nannygate Scandal — Is He a Villain or Victim?” asked one headline, accompanied by a photograph of an unshaven, anguished-looking Affleck tenderly cradling a golden retriever puppy in his arms. Similarly, coverage of the Stefani-Rossdale divorce blamed the nanny and created narratives of jealousy and competition between the two women: “Nanny Who Allegedly Broke Up Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale’s Marriage Gives Birth,” proclaimed one headline several months later; another asked, “Gwen Stefani Jealous? Hot Family Nanny Linked to Ex Gavin Rossdale Has Baby, Engagement Ring.”

The cases of the two Almarias, separated by over seven centuries, illustrate how easy it is for women to hate one another in a woman-hating society, where the misogyny is ancient and toxic and pervasive like lead covering our pipes, our walls, our windowsills. We ingest it day by day until it slowly poisons us, until we are so sick that we cannot even identify who or what is responsible for our harm. It coats the quotidian spaces we inhabit, affecting how we think, shaping our behavior, afflicting every system and organ in our bodies, storing itself in our bones.

These cultural fictions of masculine haplessness and feminine culpability, which we absorb like poisonous water and dust left behind by long-dead builders, have tangible results in cases featuring women’s real-life anger and violence directed against other women instead of the men responsible for their harm.

Alexander, the man involved with both women, finally testified, sauntering insolently to the front of the courtroom. The jurors craned our necks in anticipation, eager to see this prize of a man worth fighting over. He had wispy sideburns and a bright red lipstick kiss tattooed on the right side of his neck.

Several grim-faced women of various ages sat in the back row of the courtroom with their arms crossed throughout the trail. Many had tattoos on their chests, and one had very elaborate bangs. All of them swiveled their heads to glare as one, like a many-headed Fury, at Alexander as he took the stand. This group of women challenged the lawyers’ narrative about female antagonism, as they banded together to support Almaria and directed the full force of their wrath at Alexander.

“So were you seeing Alice at the same time you were seeing Almaria?” Almaria’s lawyer asked in a raspy voice.

“I wasn’t seeing anyone. I was talking to Almaria, and I was talking to Alice,” he said defensively. The grim-faced crowd of Furies looked as though they would rend him limb from limb.

After closing arguments ended, the judge dismissed the alternate jurors. We went to the Chili’s next door to drink margaritas from blue plastic tumblers and gossip about the case, our lips flecked with salt. A large group of the courtroom Furies, now smiling and jolly, entered the Chili’s and sat down together, but they did not see us.