I wanted to write about sisterhood, because it is very important to me. When I teach women’s self defense, this subject always comes up. Some of the most dangerous situations for women– emotionally and physically– are social situations. Parties, bars/clubs, work. These are the places where women face harassment and intimidation on a regular basis. In a world where women are bombarded with attacks of many kinds (disrespect, invasion of personal space, objectification, unrealistic body ideals, etc.), sisterhood is one of the most dependable defenses we have.
When I was in college, I was standing outside a party once with some of my girlfriends. We were chatting and sort of dancing to the music we could still hear coming from inside the house. Out of nowhere, this giant drunk creeper stumbled towards me with a creepy look and a “Heeeey…” I was not interested in talking to him and I know how that song and dance goes so I calmly replied, “You know, I’m talking with my girlfriends right now. I’m not interested.” He stepped closer and slurred, “But you were moving your hips…” I put my hand up and stepped back saying, “Yes, I was, and that was not an invitation of any kind.” He looked confused for a moment, then when he realized what had just happened he said, “BITCH,” and turned to walk away. Before I had time to process what he had said, one of my most petite friends busted out of our group to confront him. She tilted her face all the way up to look at him (he was literally 3 times her size) and she full out screamed in his face, “How DARE you speak to her like that?! She was PERFECTLY POLITE to you! You should be ASHAMED of yourself!! GET OUT OF HERE!!!” His eyes just about bugged out of his head and he looked at all of us looking at him and then he took her advice and got out of there. I may have had my physical safety under control, but my sister took care of me emotionally in that moment.
Another wonderful friend of mine moved to New York to teach, and she told me that one of the things she missed most about home were her girlfriends. One night she was out with some of her female coworkers at a bar and she had to brush off a creeper who, on top of the usual creepy stuff, said something really racist to her. Not only did the other women fail to stand up for her, but one of them started flirting with the creeper saying things like, “I don’t know what her problem is.”
What a difference. If my friend had said to me, “Wow, you were kind of bitchy to him,” instead of telling him off, how would I have felt? Unfortunately women still do this to each other. What is stopping us from forming sisterhood?
As I got thinking (and talking with some of my sisters) I realized it can be difficult to put your finger on exactly what sisterhood means. I Googled it, and most of the results had to do with Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. These books (later movies) as well as the HBO series Sex and the City do seem to capture that intangible spirit of sisterhood. But that form of supportive female friendship is what one of my friends called sisterhood “with a little ‘s’.” Sisterhood with a big “S” has to do with Sexism with a big “S”. This has to do with systemic structures of inequality, not individual interactions.
Me with some of my fab soul sisters
So what does Sisterhood mean?
I’ve learned a lot about sisterhood from girlfriends like the ones in the stories above. I turned to some of my oldest friends for advice as I was drafting this post, and as usual they had some brilliant things to say. In particular, my dear friend who taught me not to use the B word questioned making a distinction between the big “S” and little “s”:
To me, they’re absolutely intertwined – the impulse to be kind to a friend or go out to lunch with a group of women IS about solidarity and it does fly in the face of sexist societal structures that tell us we can’t/shouldn’t trust each other, that other women are bitchy and we should turn to our boyfriends for truly fulfilling companionship. I mean, the personal is political, right?
The kind of female friendship represented by Sex and the City or any of those other cultural examples has deep roots in history, and when women carve out a safe physical and emotional sphere together, it leads to systemic change. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were best friends; they spent hours writing letters and discussing strategy while Susan changed Elizabeth’s babies. The consciousness raising circles of the second wave womens’ movement started as bridge clubs and book groups. I talked to a group of 80 year old women from the Dane County League of Women Voters who told me they originally joined the movement because it gave them a chance to talk to adults, to other women, during the day while they stayed home with their kids. So for my money, kinship among women is revolutionary on a systemic level, even more so today when we’re inundated with reality TV depicting “catfighting” and stories of women trying to tear each other down.
The dictionary definition that best describes what I’m after here is:
The solidarity of women based on shared conditions, experiences or concerns.
Now that is interesting. Solidarity. I happen to be located in Madison, WI and working 5 blocks down from the capitol in the middle of probably the largest and most historic protest we’ve seen here since the Vietnam War.
50,000 people protested outside the capitol
It has brought tens of thousands of people to the capitol day and night for the past eight days (today is day nine). My younger sister, actually, has slept in the capitol every night since this thing started. She’s an organizer. Anyway, people are calling this an “ideological war” or a “war on working families.” It is pretty bad out there. Understandably, people are upset, so they have banded together in solidarity to do something about it. I’ve been to the capitol for the protests, and it is truly amazing to see the sheer numbers.
Protestors at the Wisconsin capitol
Meanwhile, many journalists and bloggers are commenting on a “war on women” that is happening at the same time. Even worker’s rights in Wisconsin has been called a “feminist issue.” In other news, the House of Representatives just voted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, which, in addition to family planning services, offers preventative health care to millions of women who would otherwise be unable to afford it. (No federal funding goes towards abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or immediate danger to the mother.) It is in the hands of the Senate now.
Let me just be clear, before continuing, that I am not trying to make any sort of political statement about abortion. Planned Parenthood is an organization that focuses primarily on providing information and resources that prevent unwanted pregnancy. No unwanted pregnancy, no abortion. Yes, some clinics do provide abortion services but that is a very small part of what they do as an organization. They educate people to make informed decisions about their bodies, they provide access to contraception, and they provide check ups and preventative health care like STI and cancer screenings. I don’t think I’m being overly political when I say that Planned Parenthood is an organization that has devoted 90 years to protecting women’s health and safety and, as a woman, I like to know they are here for us.
Are women hitting the streets? Are we even contacting our US senators? Do we recognize that even if we don’t use Planned Parenthood’s services, that we have “shared experiences, conditions or concerns” with women who do, just by the nature of being women? Flying in the face of this kind of Sisterhood, I know of at least one woman who is working to tear Planned Parenthood down. Lila Rose is a 22-year-old anti-abortion activist who has led a smear campaign against the organization. I understand being opposed to abortion. I don’t understand throwing millions of women under the bus to further your own ideology. Especially from another woman.
When I was younger I would have hated that woman. Honestly, I have to fight the instinct now. One thing I have learned about Sisterhood is that part of it means not turning against other women, even when they do things you really don’t agree with or understand. That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree or fight for what you believe in. It just means that it’s important to have compassion for other women, no matter how different they may seem, because at the end of the day you and she face a lot of the exact same experiences. I try to have compassion for women with whom I disagree, like Lila Rose. I only wish she would have more compassion for the women and families who will be left with no back up plan if Planned Parenthood is destroyed.
I guess I have to end this the way I started it– with questions. What would the women who fought for our rights throughout history think of us today? Women came together over one issue after another to fight for the common good. When I look at the shockingly high rates of sexual assault against women in this country, I know the fight is not over. But where is the Sisterhood? Why is “feminism” a dirty word? Why do women disbelieve other women who report rape? Why do women call other women words that are designed to keep women down? I’d like to see women come together again around issues that affect us all. Poverty, racism, homophobia, domestic violence, etc.– If it affects some women, it affects all women. Why? Because we are sisters. So let’s act like it.