Our high school had a big sister/little sister mentoring program, but the camaraderie and comfort it promised was short-lived. In fact, on Big Sister/Little Sister day, it was standard practice to dress your little sister as a baby, complete with bib and pacifier, showering her with gifts of balloons and teddy bears. The next day, the juniors wouldn't give you the time of day. It was, you might say, an early education in female relationships.
Like most high schools I knew, we took cliques for granted. Despite the call to solidarity from movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, we divided up the world into neat categories -- the jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders, the druggies, the sluts. And while I'm sure that our brother school had its own system of classification, it felt like ours was somehow more rigid, more stratified, more well-enforced. For all of its talk about compassion, what I learned in high school is that females can be very cruel to each other, and I left high school mostly hating women (with a few notable exceptions, some of whom read this blog).
Oddly enough, in college, I joined an all-female choir, searching for something I couldn't quite define. I stayed with the group through my senior year, and even became its two-term president, but it never became a place of solace for me. Until late in college, most of my closest friends (again, with a few exceptions) were men; in fact, the "maid" of honor at my wedding was actually a "dude" of honor: my first long-term college boyfriend. In graduate school, the friends I counted among my closest confidantes were male. Even at my first job, there were divisions among the staff, all but one of whom were female. I had returned to the place where I was an undergraduate, and I know that when I first started working, women in my unit were jealous of each other, jockeying for what little power and recognition there was to go around. Back then, perhaps they saw me as an interloper, as a young upstart, as someone too smarty-pants for her own good. Or as something else entirely, I don't know. What I do know is that I didn't make friends there until much later in my career, something I still regret. I told only one person there what was happening during my multiple miscarriages. I wanted, desperately, to be tended to by a woman during those dark days, when I dragged myself to work, day after day, in a sea of blood. But I didn't feel safe asking for compassion or understanding.
After I had my first child, I joined a group of stay at home moms, even though I was working full time; there weren't any other groups available, and I desperately wanted to talk with other women about the struggles of parenting for the first time. For a while I tried to host weekend playdates, and even occasionally take a day off from work to be with my son and attend one of the group's events. Still, I found them exclusive and cliquey: not all of the members of the group were treated with equal respect. Eventually, they said I wasn't participating enough to be part of their group, and they asked me to leave. I started my own group, a working mom's group, which has now been in existence for over five years, though it goes through fits and starts of activity and connection.
The bottom line is this: though I have been lucky to develop friendships with individual women over the years (JeCaThRe, C., R., C., J., and C., I'm looking at you), the first time I really felt like part of a community of women was when I started blogging. So when Keiko and Mel posted about their reactions to Mayim Bialik's comment about wanting female comfort after her car accident, I knew I wanted to respond.
Keiko uses Bialik's comment as a jumping-off point for an incredibly brave and bold post about legitimate rape, abortion, and taking collective action against what some people have called the "War on Women" in American politics:
"At the scene of the accident, I’m certain there were women standing around. For whatever reason, not judging, no woman came up to me to comfort me or console me at the accident site. As a modest woman and a feminist woman, I craved a woman to hold. Just as in labor, I believe women can give women special support and I missed out on that."
"I feel like now more than ever, given our current national discourse on women and women’s rights to their own bodies – I feel like this is when we should band together.While I don't think that women always "get other women," as Keiko says -- I have proof of several all-female environments to suggest otherwise -- I do worry about the current discourse on women in the U.S., and I wonder what it will take to turn the tide. When Senator Akin made his remark about "legitimate rape," I was upset not just because one politician said something stupid (because really, politicans--and many other highly visible people--say stupid things all the time to the national media), but because I know that there are women out there who will still vote for him, who will feel like that comment wasn't about them.
To be the woman that Mayim Bialik so desperately needed and wanted in her moment of crisis. To reach out and console one another. To fight for another and not against each other."
Mel wonders, more generally, why women don't more often step forward to help other women, in real life and in blogging. Is it, she wonders, because as the receivers of help, we don't express our needs clearly enough? Or because as potential helpers, we second guess our ability to be helpful?
"If we want women to succeed, to feel as if there is a benefit to being in a community of women, we need to do more to hold each other up. And the reality is that sometimes that will mean getting messy: jumping into someone else’s emotional world and offering our support and keeping perspective if our efforts are rejected (since we’re all individuals and have unique wants about comfort) and still trying again with the next woman."Both of these women are women who do help other women. Time and time again, they have stopped at the scene of the accident, even when they were suffering themselves. Mel is not only the architect of a far-reaching community of women who support other women through infertility and loss, but has demonstrated her commitment -- through projects like ICLW and the LFCA -- to teaching us how to be more compassionate, involved, engaged bloggers -- not to mention her work mentoring and supporting new women writers. Since her debut video on YouTube, Keiko has become an impassioned advocate for the infertility community, active in RESOLVE, working to catalyze a national conversation about infertility that is free from shame, but also offering resources like eBooks and eClasses to help individuals on their personal journeys.
I don't know what prevents us from abandoning the role of "bystander" and stepping forward to act on behalf of other women: whether it's fear of possible rejection, or worry that perhaps we can't do enough, or feeling like we are too different, or feeling like we can't know what another woman might need, or worry that our offer of assistance will be seen as demeaning to its recipient. But what I do know is that we need to get over our hang-ups. These two posts describe what sisterhood has come to mean for me: not necessarily seeing things the same way, or taking sides on the breastfeeding debate, or judging each other for working or not working, or having the same politics, or wearing the same clothes, or having the same body type, or making the same choices about parenting styles, or being vegan or paleo, but about being here for each other. Connecting with each other. We can be a diaspora and still stop to comfort another woman at the scene of the accident. We can still leave supportive, thoughtful comments on blogs where we disagree with the author. We can disagree about abortion, but protect women's rights over their own bodies. We can write two completely different posts on the same subject, and still end up in the same place.
And maybe it will take courage to do so.
But unlike other things that are in short supply these days, courage is something we have enough of to spare.
Assuming you're female (because most of my readers are), what do you do to support other women? How do you get beyond the divisions we create among ourselves to nurture others in the diaspora?