Women’s friendships – simmering resistance

// 19 April 2012

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This is a guest post by Nicola Stott

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Most women know the value of a good friend. We have long been aware of the psychological benefits of friendship, the importance of a ‘problem shared’ particularly around areas of physical and mental health. What is trivially and derogatorily referred to as ‘gossip’ and ‘girls talk’ can often be a lifeline of support and self affirmation for women. But are friendships amongst women more than this – do they play a vital, even pivotal, role in women’s acceptance or rejection of the gendered status quo?

Within the euphoria and joy of the first wave of feminism in Britain, some feminist writers sought to highlight and demonstrate women’s friendships as places of resistance and struggle. In preceding years this has perhaps been shown to be over-optimistic and wonderfully naive. But who can blame them, it was a period in time where women were coming together in solidarity and demanding personal and institutional freedoms. But it was a also a period that left some feminists of the time disillusioned by the fact that, although struggling side by side with other women, they were not becoming the close friends which they had hoped for. These were our ‘foremothers’ struggling for the hard won gains we feminists are now able to take for granted. Personally, I love the writing of the period which is hopeful yet naive but which bubbles with passion and warmth.

In the years that have followed women’s friendships have not been outright sites of resistance and revolution. Instead studies have shown that women’s friendships can be outwardly conservative and in terms of relationships with men they can be sites of placation and restraint. Yet, despite this, something happens when women get together as friends. We know our female friends are important, we know we can speak to them in a way we cannot speak with men, and we know a good female friendship is invaluable and something to treasure.

Sociolinguistics gives us the foundation blocks for understanding this. We do not need to look to simplistic essentialist ideas of women but rather we look to our unique and proud history and culture as women who have experienced systemic oppression. Our experience as women has led us to experience language and self-expression in ways which mean we are able to be intuitive and gentle in our communicative style when necessary. This means we can communicate on a level with each other which some men find problematic. Feminist historians have demonstrated that women have always had friends, that in periods of history these friendships were central to society. Sociologically, feminist academics have dragged friendship from the shadowy world of the private and domestic sphere into the wider world, where its structural implications and institutional effects can begin to be explored.

Women’s friendships may not often be noisy sites of powerful resistance and revolution, sometimes they are quite the reverse, but they are places of support and understanding. They are places where women can find fulfilment, knowledge and an escape. They are places where gender politics are discussed, wrapped within the context of the everyday issues of children, partners and work. Important issues are simmering; women are asking what is fair and what is just. The gendered status quo is understood, it is critiqued and it is questioned. Quietly, and perhaps at a slower pace than early feminists may have hoped for, women’s friendships seek to readdress the landscape of women’s lives.

Thinking about women’s friendships is therefore not trivial, it is essential. Let us look at our own friendships and let us ask what is special and what is unique about our ability to love our friends and be nurtured by that experience; where this experience leads us; and how our friendships transform us inside and out.

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Nicola Stott is a PhD candidate at the University Of York, Centre for Women’s Studies. Her background is in Social Work.

The image We can do this. We, together. is from Nadiya Mohado’s Flickr photostream and is used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Comments From You

S // Posted 19 April 2012 at 11:53 am

“We know our female friends are important, we know we can speak to them in a way we cannot speak with men”

Different trans people come to realise their true gender in many different ways. For me one of the key things was women’s friendships and romantic relationships with each other. I could see such friendships around me, could see how they tended to be different to those between women and men (I didn’t know any people of any other genders at that point). I knew that was how I (internally) related to other women, though most of them didn’t notice at the time. As I started to know women who actually saw me rather than my designated gender I got to experience these friendships in a way I’d longed to for a long time, and helped me reassure myself that I was who I knew myself to be. So female friendships are something that I treasure, especially as they were a key factor in leading me to come out.

Laurel // Posted 19 April 2012 at 1:29 pm

Really appreciate wheat you have to say, but I did just want to add that it is best to assume that “women” as a whole do not always share the same experiences as ourselves. I probably used to be one of those misogynist women who made a thing out of not liking other women, and talking to feminists (and women, on sites like Miss Bimbo of all places) who are intelligent and funny and have shared experiences to me certainly opened up my eyes a lot and made me lose my issues and I certainly do have female friends I care about.

However, past that initial stage of enlightenment, I still do not identify with “we know we can speak to them in a way we cannot speak with men, and we know a good female friendship is invaluable and something to treasure” at all. I really do tend to find myself valuing my male friendships more, but more importantly, there are NOT things which I find more comfortable talking to women about. At ALL. In fact talking about “women’s issues” with women often just leaves me feeling like I’m “doing it wrong”, because “being a woman” is not something which I find easy, and I very much end up feeling like I am only pretending to be a woman, and I’m being judged on my opinions and experiences and knowledge, and the fact that I still can’t stop my period bleeding through at 22, and still refuse to carry a handbag around with me, and just because I said I liked your top didn’t mean I can carry a conversation about it. I’m not just talking about typically feminine women here, but I have found that my experiences with those women has made me feel very guarded when talking to more similar women to me and feminist women. I often find women who went to working class all-girl’s schools to be easiest because often they had a community where talking about these things was just normal rather than embarrassing.

I have always felt my most intimate details and problems needed to be shared with men. Because they don’t know if it’s normal or not. And they can’t really judge me. And it isn’t as if I’m necessarily actually CLOSER to them. I just find myself relaxed rather than walking on glass. I think I have it in my head that discussing “gross” and “unladylike” lady-things with women, particularly in public or in front of men, will make women thing I’m weird, whereas men tend to affirm the fact that they fart or wank or whatever easily enough, so I find it creates an easier atmosphere, and plus as a heterosexual I tend to find that my most intimate moments are with men. Why not discuss body parts with the people who can actually see what you’re talking about as well as those who can draw on personal comparisons?

I think that women only talking to women about personal things and body things actually contributes to some bigger problems concerning female body shame and how “woman talk” is seen in wider society. A lot of people turn off from a feminist or body chat assuming that they aren’t really welcome, or feeling uncomfortable being around high emotions (that often men don’t learn how to deal with from other men) and women’s bodies in a non-sexual context, or hearing about male partner’s bodies IN a sexual context. A lot of men don’t know how common it is for women to accept minor sexual assaults in their sex lives, or have never heard women talk about feeling pressured into things that they don’t want, and both for those who are shocked that it happens and those who didn’t realise that those things bothered women it is a pretty powerful thing for men to learn, and can really change how they talk to their male peers and educate males who look up to them.

I’m not saying it is always easy. Female-Male hetero friendships tend to come with their own complications, and I don’t like it when a male is more comfortable with my body-issues than I am, especially in public (pointing out in a pub that it was okay to pick up the sanitary item which fell out of my trouser leg, maintaining eye contact and drawing attention to the other guys on the table rather than just shutting up and pretending he didn’t see it… but then me telling him after it was inappropriate meant he learned something) and maybe I just find it easier because I know more feminists, queers and anarchists and socialists who are male identified than female identified. I’m a pretty private person most of the time. Just… sometimes things that we think of as a given can actually make people feel really alienated, especially when it is just little things. Thanks x

Alasdair // Posted 19 April 2012 at 11:39 pm

I don’t want to be one of those guys who talks about how ‘men have it worse!’, because generally we don’t. But I do think it’s interesting how close friendships between (heterosexual) women are considered more socially acceptable than close friendships between (heterosexual) men. Of course, it’s normal for men to have male friends, but we’re not expected to be emotionally open with them in the way that women are with their friends. Growing up, I always felt slightly jealous of female friendship for that reason: it seemed so much more deeper and intimate than what we boys had. Though maybe that just has something to do with girls maturing faster than boys, and so being more emotionally sophisticated at the same age…

Holly Combe // Posted 23 April 2012 at 12:36 am

“In fact talking about “women’s issues” with women often just leaves me feeling like I’m “doing it wrong”, because “being a woman” is not something which I find easy, and I very much end up feeling like I am only pretending to be a woman, and I’m being judged on my opinions and experiences and knowledge…”

“I have always felt my most intimate details and problems needed to be shared with men. Because they don’t know if it’s normal or not. And they can’t really judge me. And it isn’t as if I’m necessarily actually CLOSER to them. I just find myself relaxed rather than walking on glass.”

@Laurel. Just wanted to say I totally hear you there. For me, it’s that presumption of “sameness” that can make interaction with groups of other women so agonising in conventional heterosexist settings. Or, rather, I frequently used to find this. Like you, I’ve become much more woman-identified (if that’s the right term to use) in recent years and I think I have feminism to thank for that. I mean I was always a feminist but I did it alone for a long time and that sadly often meant shying away from other women. It also meant sticking to the easy relaxedness of like-minded men who I didn’t fear would think less of me for not “fitting in” (perhaps also feeling a bit more laissez faire about it, even if they did?).

I often wonder if I’d have experienced the exact equivalent issues with men if I were a man or had been expected to be one at some point in my life. It seems it’s the people who are perceived to be most similar to us who we have most to fear from in terms of social policing. And yet, as this post highlights, friendships between women can be a place of great resistance, regardless of how “noisy” (officially “feminist”?) that resistance might be.

Nicola Stott // Posted 24 April 2012 at 12:24 pm

Hello, thanks for such interesting responses to my article. I really appreciate it. The concept of being a ‘woman’ is so interesting. Certainly we are so diverse but I still like to think there is a common thread which unites us all. I truly believe in the idea of friendships as powerful. Thanks again.

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