A rib-tickler dominated the sweet treats table arriving for a Monday meeting of the Westport Y's Women at the Unitarian Church.

What provoked the chuckles? A "Jane O'Lantern."

Actually it was a pumpkin, adorned for the season with the painted likeness of a Jack O'Lantern -- the sex change was accomplished by topping the pumpkin with a long brown wig.

The feminized version of the Halloween icon helped set the theme for the gathering: "Toxic friends and how to ditch them."

The speaker was Susan Shapiro Barash, a Marymount-Manhattan College professor, who said a "toxic" friend might as well be a witch flying on a broom.

Barash noted that the most toxic of female friends would be "one who steals your husband."

"You need to ice toxic friends to survive such an ordeal," Barash declared, but added that is not easy. "My studies show women find it harder to break up a relationship with a female friend than men find breaking up with a male friend."

Barash has been researching female gender relationships for years. Her research involving different groups of 200 females has been the foundation fro several books that she has written.

The newest, published early this month, is "You're Grounded Forever ... But First Let's Go Shopping." The book focuses on the challenges mothers face with their daughters, from pre-school years to when they are 30 and older.

One mother told Barash she was overwhelmed by her 6-year-old daughter. "My daughter didn't like the sneakers I bought her and held out for a pair that cost three times as much ... I bought them because life is so hard for my daughter," the mother told Barash.

The author was asked, since she specializes in gender studies, why she has not conducted relationship studies on males.

"It would be a conflict," she said. "My research is strictly about female relationships."

Barash also was asked how she develops her groups of 200 women. She told the women that she starts by phoning friends and relatives around the nation. She also advertises in newspapers. When she has a suitable collection of 200, she sends out targeted "research subject appropriate" questionnaires.

She said sometimes she augments her research by listening in on cellphone talk as she rides the bus between Marymount-Manhattan and her Manhattan apartment.

Admitting she hears only one end of the cellphone conversation, she recounted two of the lines that she said she has overheard frequently: "I can't believe she did that!" and "What would I do without my girl friends!"