It is a truth universally acknowledged that little boys use their fists--and little girls use their words. And when it comes to "social aggression" among children, sociologists and psychologists are increasingly telling us, it's not just the sticks and stones we need to worry about. The term mean girl is now widely-known and used to describe the bitchy ringleaders of high school cliques. But excluding, snubs, relentless teasing, name-calling, and other denigrating, hostile behaviors--these are increasingly the province of not only insecure teen girls but younger ones, too. Numerous psychologists have told the media that they see social aggression in girls as young as kindergarten now. And the damage of social aggression is real.

What's it all about?

At the risk of blaming mothers--a hallowed tradition that begins with Freud and dogs us still--it might be time to have a look at what these little girls are learning about power at home. Is Dad's power clear and direct, easy to surmise and experience? Is Mom's power in the household and the world something else again--more subtle, more indirect, dressed up in cajoling and suggesting, indirect and obscure, a game with unwritten and unspoken rules? Are girls learning to be passive-aggressive at the hearth, and then exporting this transmogrified version of power out into the world?

Virginia Thomas's recent voicemail to Anita Hill, reported by the New York Times as front-page news and as a breaking story by other news outlets across the country, might seem exceptional. But as far as girl-on-girl action goes, it's business as usual. The transcript:

"Good morning Anita Hill, it's Ginni Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will be able to help us understand why you did what you did. O.K., have a good day."

Thomas's voicemail--in reference to the 1991 senate confirmation hearing for her husband, Clarence Thomas during which Hill testified that he had repeatedly made in unwanted sexual remarks to her in their workplace--is a study in gender-specific passive aggression, a masterpiece of hostility dressed up in the frocks of a "reach out." From the "good morning" to the "have a good day," to the use of the "friendly" nickname Ginni, as if the two are chums, Thomas shows herself to be a foe who is not only audaciously hostile, but also disturbingly versed in the art of cloaking her hostility in an open-eyed niceness that renders it more "acceptable"--and remarkably calculating.

When asked, Thomas actually did describe her message as an olive branch and an invitation to meet and talk. Piling on the disingenuousness, she protested (too much) that "certainly no offense was intended." Hill flatly pointed out that "she can't ask for an apology without suggesting that I did something wrong"--lie, under oath and in a spectacularly public forum, about her man.

Virginia Thomas needs to man up. Disavowing her aggression and anger, cloaking it in a "Christian" exhortation that Hill ought to "pray about it"--isn't the same as not having it, and she's not fooling anyone with her faux-friendliness. Clarence Thomas characterized the accusations against him in the senate confirmation hearings as racially motivated, referring to the proceedings as a "high tech lynching." Virginia Thomas's recasting of the event renders it a catfight pretending hard not to be, setting us all back a few decades.

Further reading:

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