Whatever happened to sisterhood?

Kristin Aune examines the concept of sisterhood and wonders whether today's young women are missing out.

Kristin Aune, 16 January 2003

The Sugababes are on to something.

For Christmas, I bought my sister the Sugababes album 'Angels with Dirty Faces'. Word-obsessed as I am, I took the insert out and read the song words first. I got to the song 'Round round', and the words 'I don't need no man/ Got my kicks for free.../I don't need nobody but my honeys when I go/ Round baby, round round' etc. These 'honeys' also appear later. 'All my girls are here with me', she says, and advises her (ex-boyfriend?): 'All you need is some friends'. It got me thinking. About friendship, sisterhood, and whether we (young British women) really know what it is.

The week before I was reading an article by the American academic feminists Deborah Rosenfelt and Judith Stacey. It was written in the late 1980s about the demise of the second wave (1970s) feminist movement and the rise of 'postfeminism' (i.e. the paradoxical belief in some of the second wave feminists' goals, yet simultaneous conservative backlash against others). Sisterhood came up again. Why young feminists have lost it, and how we need it.

Sisterhood was crucial to the success of 1970s feminism

Let me explain. Sisterhood was crucial to the success of second wave (1970s) feminism. They had a sense of a common cause. Of course, the second wave disagreed, fought, split off into smaller enclaves and into the 'big three' Liberal, Socialist and Radical subsections anyone who's read a history of the second wave will be familiar with. They didn't all march for abortion rights or set up shelters for battered women. They didn't all take on the government to campaign for equal pay and better childcare provision. Yet enough of them were able to unite a) for it to be possible to talk about sisterhood, and b) for them to achieve some of the victories we, in a democratic society, should be able to take for granted (such as legislation against sex discrimination or, in the first wave of feminism, the right to vote).

The Night Cleaners campaign is an example. By the early 1970s, thousands of women were working through the night cleaning offices. Already one of the most exploited and low-paid groups in the workforce, their situation worsened when contract cleaning was introduced. Contracting companies started competing with each other, cutting costs by lowering women's wages. It seemed a hopeless situation, and the cleaners didn't want to lose what jobs they had by complaining, as they needed the money to support their children. Then in 1970 one of the cleaners, May Hobbs, decided to do something. She approached local feminist and socialist women's groups and asked for their help in handing out leaflets to cleaners across London to persuade them to join a union. They rallied to the challenge and organised a leafleting campaign. But this was harder than it sounds. Women were working in small offices scattered across the city, often with no contact with anyone else, fearing being sacked if they unionised. But eventually, thanks to the women's dedication, they persuaded women to join the TGWU and persuaded the union to accept them (also difficult). The story doesn't exactly have a fairytale ending, but the cleaners did receive a rise in their wages, and alliances were made between the largely middle-class feminist groups and the working class night cleaners. 'Sisterhood is powerful' said radical feminist Robin Morgan in her book of the same name, and in this case, as in many others, it was. Yet, as I'll return to later, as second wave feminism collapsed as a recognisable grassroots movement at the end of the 1970s, with it went sisterhood.

Sisterhood remains as nothing but a passing fad of young womanhood.

Thirty years later, what's left of sisterhood for young women today, for women of the 'postfeminist' generation? A certain kind of sisterhood is lauded in mainstream popular culture. It's visible in the Sugababes song, in the Spice Girls line 'If you wanna be my lover, you've gotta get with my friends,' in lyrics of girl bands like Destiny's Child. But, I fear, it is a temporary one. Some such bands split up, sometimes acrimoniously. Sisterhood remains as nothing but a passing fad of young womanhood. The women grow up, and grow out of, their commitment to their female friends. This happens in our lives, too. We argue with our friends, we move on. What were for a time the defining relationships of our lives dissipate.

And the main reason for the demise of sisterhood is men. What experiences of sisterhood we've had, however powerful and apparently enduring, are ultimately subordinated to heterosexual romance. Sociologists studying girls' friendships have commented on how much time girls spend talking about men - how to find one, keep him, understand him, etc. Of course this can be useful, but it also threatens to downgrade friendship for its own sake. And as women reach their twenties and start to form long-term partnerships, move in together, have children, get married, the loss of sisterhood is exacerbated. Our friends leave us for their partner or their child. Or, worse still (if we are feminists and aware of issues like this), we leave them.

Maybe I'm being too pessimistic? I don't think women have entirely lost the concept of sisterhood. Women still have close relationships with other women, even when they live with a male partner and have children. Most people's closest friends are those of their own sex. Adult women still have 'Girls Nights Out.' Female friendship still grows in female dominated professions such as clerical work, factory work and nursing. Religious groups, because they tend to have mainly female adherents, still retain a strong sense of sisterhood - walk into any Black Pentecostal Christian church and it'll be 80% filled with women. But in all these areas sisterhood is still subordinate to women's relationships with men. Sisters are most certainly not, 'doing it for themselves.' Even in Sex and the City, which is a decidedly more positive presentation of female friendship, you can't help wondering what would happen to Carrie et. al.'s friendships if the women left their singledom.

To return to the article I mentioned. Rosenfelt and Stacey argue that as the 1970s feminist movement disintegrated, so too did women's support networks. For a few years, women had invested much time, energy and passion in the formation of 'woman-centred' relationships. They did so as a counter to the male-focused society they lived in. In these female enclaves the search for a life partner became less urgent. But when this sisterhood disappeared it left in its wake some very lonely women. Without a viable alternative, women turned to the only arena society portrays as promising intimacy and commitment: heterosexual coupledom. This is partly why the search for a mate seems so urgent to so many young women, why Bridget Jones (like many of us, if we're honest) is so lonely. With little in the way of a feminist community in which women put other women first, we must choose between loneliness and imperfect coupledom. There are no real alternatives - unless, of course, we create them. Rosenfelt and Stacey write (it's a long quote, but I think it's worth it):

Feminists must... renew our efforts to develop cultural forms that fill some of the same longings for intimacy, interdependency, and emotional security that most heterosexuals try to satisfy in marriage, however oppressive to women its unequal relations of power. In the women's movements and in the new left we did build a political culture that for a time considerably eased the sense of alienation, of aloneness, many of us now confront. We need to rebuild and renovate that culture. Such efforts might include planning for living cooperatives to anticipate and preclude some of the isolation of old age, working to secure the same benefits and social sanctions for unions of lesbians and gay men as marriage now provides to heterosexuals, and encouraging varying forms of cooperative child-care and babysitting arrangements that cross lines of age and family role. We envisage a pluralist culture, one that consciously nurtures many forms to gratify the need for support, intimacy, community, and one that acknowledges and tries to transcend the painful divide between single feminists and those in couples, between parents and those without children. For if we need to develop family support policies that will make women's and children's lives more tolerable and dignified, we also need to resist the tendency to privatism, to reconstruct the relations of power within families themselves, and to evolve other forms of committed human relations that will help us to survive emotionally in this fragmented and often mean-spirited postindustrial world.

Deborah Rosenfelt and Judith Stacey (1987) 'Second Thoughts on the Second Wave' in Feminist Studies Vol. 13 No. 2 pp. 41-61

We need to learn to put other women first. But, you may argue, isn't this unfair? Surely we should be equally committed to women and men? Well, no, actually. The feminist argument for sisterhood has always been that men are put first in society: they are put first by other men and by women. The only reason feminism, in its various manifestations, has achieved what it has is because women have been willing to put each other, and what shared interests they have, first. Often this is difficult, painful. It involves enduring disagreements and working through them, just as do 'relationships' (a relatively new term used to signify couple relationships because, the implication is, the ultimate/ real relationships can only be couple relationships - friendship is viewed as a poor second).

There are still areas we can learn to unite on.

Of course our claim to solidarity with women of different ethnicity, age, religion, political viewpoint, socio-economic status, marital/partnership status, sexuality is more tenuous. This is part of the postmodern critique of 1970s feminism. Yet there are still areas we can learn to unite on. We need to listen to each others' concerns, each others' oppressions and ask how we can contribute to ending them. This is idealistic, perhaps, but there have been windows in history in which sisterhood has happened and has achieved much. And it could do so again, if we are willing to work at it.

American radical feminist Janice Raymond wrote the most moving and brilliant book on sisterhood I've read, A Passion for Friends. 'Women are taught to fixate on men,' she argues. And as they've done so, men's egos have swollen almost to bursting point (but not quite, ah shucks!). What has become centre stage in our society is the ground men have walked on while women fixed them with adoring gazes. We women need to stop doing this. Instead, Janice Raymond says:

When women turn their eyes toward their Selves and other women, they put the world in perspective. The invisibility of women to each other has been the condition of women in a hetero-relational society [by this she means a society structured around the idea that women's purpose is to live for men] and affects women's total loss of sensation for their Selves and other women. Women can choose their line of vision. Women can choose to see each other.

Female friendship takes our original sight of our Selves and each other seriously. It is always a dual vision that is exercised with tension, but also with thoughtfulness and passion. It gives women a world in which we can be happy.

Janice Raymond (1986) A Passion for Friends: Towards a Philosophy of Female Affection The Women's Press

About the author

Kristin Aune

Kristin Aune knows she could be accused of hypocrisy because she's often a very substandard friend. She wishes she'd lived in the 1970s, but is willing to be persuaded that the third millennium could be more exciting.

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