Saturday, September 1, 2012

Feminisms, and What Sisterhood Means to Me

When my parents announced that I would be attending an all-girls Catholic high school, I thought my life was over before it even got started.  In some respects, it was a relief, because I wasn't exactly the most sought-after female in my elementary school, and I was glad that I wouldn't have to worry about impressing boys on top of surviving adolescence and AP English.  On the other hand, I also knew how cruel girls could be, and I worried what it would be like to be with other females without the distraction of boys to diffuse some of the intensity of emotion.

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.

Bialik writes:

"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."
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:
"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.

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."
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.

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?
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16 comments:

Stinky said...

" what I learned in high school is that females can be very cruel to each other, and I left high school mostly hating women"

Thats really sad, because its probably not that uncommmon. I can relate to the 'male friends' thing - they always seemed much more uncomplicated back when.Asking for compassion and understanding (speaking for myself, most certainly, I'm not sure what my framework was, growing up, to learn this. It seemed that admirable behaviour seemed to by quite masculine traits - to be ok, to suck it up and get on with it. Maybe thats just how I internalised it though?)

I read Mel's post this morning too, its so cool to skip between blogs and see people's different takes on a trending topic.
I didn't comment there, but in relation to the query - why do more women not step forward etc . . . I know I have certainly stepped in with women I don't particularly know when I can see they're going through a rough time, offered coffee, meals, time, whatever. I won't say I do with everyone. More often than not, people decline help, but I think its important to have offered and not be needed than for someone to be silently screaming and not knowing how to articulate asking for help.
Because I have been that person and I don't wish that on anyone.

How do I get beyond the divisions? I don't know, just try and be aware of whats going on around . . . social convention is quite strong I find. You just never know what the person next to you is going through. Certainly loss has opened up a new level of compassion generally, and since going through the last 3 years I'd like to think I'm bit more inclined to reach out rather than presume someone else has their back

loveandchaosreign said...

I commented something similar over at Mel's, but I'll say here that being a woman in a relationship with another woman has really highlighted my own assumptions about women in general. Straight women automatically assume they're partners don't "get" them, and expect to have to explain the emotional intricacies of what they feel and need, but when you're with a woman you assume they should just KNOW because, well, because they have a vagina. The problem is the premise is false, and we do the same thing with our platonic relationships with other women. I think there are so many things at work on this and it's hard to nail down them all, but the biggest for me is that we set ourselves up for disappointment in our relationships with women because we assume they should just KNOW stuff without us asking. But where is our personal responsibility to ask for what we need, regardless of who we are asking? Sure, some women will step in because that's their nature, as will some men. But there's a statement I saw floating about on facebook that says something to the effect of "don't be upset by the results you didn't get from the work you didn't do." If we need something and nobody is providing it, it's on us to ASK, to reach out. If we ask and don't get it, then sure, get mad and be hurt.

Maybe I'm just a cynic because I've been burned so many times in female friendships. Or maybe the almost demise of my marriage due to assuming my wife should have known what to do for me after my first miscarriage changed my perceptions. Whatever it is, I find it sort of disappointing that Bialik wants to cast blame on the strangers who didn't help.

jhl said...

@loveandchaosreign (hoping you come back here to see replies to your comment, because it's an important one): I saw your comment over at Mel's blog, and I couldn't agree more. I don't think we instinctively know what other women need any more than we instinctively know what men need. And you're right; we need to learn how to ask. So what prevents us from doing that, I wonder?

I do, though, think that despite the fact that we're not mind-readers, there is still systematic, cultural, and institutional sexism that we all need to worry about ... and perhaps it's just a matter being aware of looking out for other women? Or making sure that we're not working at cross-purposes?

(Not) Maud said...

The older I get, the more I try to not judge. I seek excuses for the things I've done, the things my children have done, the things others do. Perhaps it's because I have a fundamental belief in the goodness of others, or at least that they're, mostly, trying to be good; or maybe I'm just an optimist. But I know I'd like them to give me the benefit of the doubt for whatever idiotic thing I'm doing, and so I try to do the same for them.

Maybe this is why I can finally let go of high school (girls only) and judge any former classmates I now meet on their merits as adults, not adolescents.

I think what I'm trying to say is that the thing I do for other women is to give them a break and try to encourage others to do the same. Gossip is fun, but I don't want to be on the other end of it.

(Not) Maud said...

"Judge" was a bad choice of verb in that second paragraph, wasn't it? Let's say "approach" instead.

Emma said...

High school made me hate the female gener as a whole. To the point that I wanted to have only boys.

And ohmygoodness to the little sister/big sister deal at your school! That reminded me of hazing that was done in sororities. But in *high school*!

I think the loss of my little girl and the experiences of my pregnancy after have made me more comfortable reaching out towards others who may be in need of help. I'm one of those "suffer in silence" types, so I'm more willing to reach out to others more. Even if they decline, I'd hope they know they can at least seek me for comfort later if they need it.

Lavender Luz said...

I can't imagine anyone asking you to leave their group. And the perfect next action was to start your own. Brava!

I really like Maud's comment, "The older I get, the more I try to not judge" -- because I feel this way, too. The more I experience, the more I "get" that living rightly is a challenge, and the less I have room to judge others.

But I don't know how to answer your questions. I'm not sure I have a distinction between men and women when I think of supporting others. I'll be thinking about this all day.

Lollipop Goldstein said...

That is exactly it. The women around me; I don't always agree with them or see the world in the same way. We've made different choices and have very different lives. And yet I support all of them in their endeavours simply because I believe that this world needs more support and less division.

Lollipop Goldstein said...

And thank you for the kind words about ICLW and LFCA and such. They made me blush.

Kristin said...

Like Lori said, I can't imagine anyone asking you to leave a group but, I have to tell you that I've had that happen to me to. It stunned and amazed me that grown women can still be so exclusionary and cruel.

I try really hard not to judge and do my best to reach out and offer support whenever I can. I also do things like throw my best friend a baby shower (on Tuesday) when I desperately wish I was in her shoes. She deserves to be recognized and celebrated and, despite this being her 4th baby, she has a sucky family and has never had a baby shower.

Mali said...

I don't know if it is because I am from New Zealand, or some other reason, but I feel I've had a very different experience of women. School wasn't really full of cliques - there was no real hierarchy, there were just different groups of friends. Work was similar - I've worked with women, and also in a very male-dominated company. Not much difference to be honest, except that I found women were often more open and honest than the men, and actually less cowed by peer pressure.

Since infertility, I have seen enormous friendship and support and love and nurturing women give to other women, first on a messageboard for ectopic pregnancie, and now in the ALI blogging community. Yes, there are women who don't support and nurture others. There are those who would actively work against what we assume are the wider interests of women as a whole. And feminism is little understood or recognised I think by younger women these days, and that threatens its very successes that were so hard won. (Don't get me started on that).

I've spent years volunteering for an organisation that benefits women, and I know I've made a difference in many womens lives, in a very personal and direct way. I'm very proud of that. It's been an outlet for my nurturing instincts, a way to make sense of my losses.

Divisions are inevitable - I mean we are half the human population, and we can't expect us all to have the same views, lifestyles, etc. I like to take each person as they come - but I do expect respect. Respect from them for me, and vice versa. And so if I see women who don't respect other women, I will be annoyed, and angry. But I don't know that there's anything that can be done about it. Interesting post - you (and the earlier posts) are making me think.

Mali said...

I don't know if it is because I am from New Zealand, or some other reason, but I feel I've had a very different experience of women. School wasn't really full of cliques - there was no real hierarchy, there were just different groups of friends. Work was similar - I've worked with women, and also in a very male-dominated company. Not much difference to be honest, except that I found women were often more open and honest than the men, and actually less cowed by peer pressure.

Since infertility, I have seen enormous friendship and support and love and nurturing women give to other women, first on a messageboard for ectopic pregnancie, and now in the ALI blogging community. Yes, there are women who don't support and nurture others. There are those who would actively work against what we assume are the wider interests of women as a whole. And feminism is little understood or recognised I think by younger women these days, and that threatens its very successes that were so hard won. (Don't get me started on that).

I've spent years volunteering for an organisation that benefits women, and I know I've made a difference in many womens lives, in a very personal and direct way. I'm very proud of that. It's been an outlet for my nurturing instincts, a way to make sense of my losses.

Divisions are inevitable - I mean we are half the human population, and we can't expect us all to have the same views, lifestyles, etc. I like to take each person as they come - but I do expect respect. Respect from them for me, and vice versa. And so if I see women who don't respect other women, I will be annoyed, and angry. But I don't know that there's anything that can be done about it. Interesting post - you (and the earlier posts) are making me think.

Dana said...

This is a beautiful post...I feel like when you find a *good* girlfriend, you are given the best gift in the world. Like you - I went to an all female high school and had a similar type of day. I also was in a sorority, which had some similar events...AND, I was also kicked out of a playgroup. When I skipped an event (because I was going to be with my mom on the day of her mastectomy, but instead shared that I was working because she didn't want anyone to know), I was told that I should put my child before work.

I have seen the cruelness of women, but honestly, I just don't care. I am going to continue to try to be a positive role model for my daughter - a woman who has her priorities and sticks to them, and is as supportive as possible to others. I do like to think that blogging has made me be MORE supportive...not only do I read people who have different opinions from mine, but I love that I can learn more about what their background is, and why they think the way they do...

Thanks again for a great post.

Kristin Hackman said...

Lovely and well said - as always ! The dynamic between women and their circles baffles me. We all live in corners of jealousy, comparison, insecurity and selfish desires ... And for some reason, these already ugly traits become even more vivid & disgusting in women friendships! Why!!?? I think the best thing I *try* to do for my girlfriends is to be present & really listen & SEE them...not waiting to interject with what the story means to me, or cram advice , but to let them be heard. This will show my cheese factor ... But Oprah used to always say "People just want to be seen- to be validated." This is simple & yet, sometimes I have to actually remind myself to ask the ladies in my life "How are YOU?" & just let them be heard.

PS, wow- so sad to ask someone to leave a playgroup...kids are learning things honest aren't they??

Serenity said...

My experience with female friendship in middle and high school left such a bitter taste in my mouth that I didn't have ANY girlfriends until less than a decade ago. And it's because of blogging that I've forged such strong bonds with them, I think. So I totally agree with you on this.

This next statement is a generalization, but I can't shake it. I look at the divisiveness of issues between women; this idea that it's us versus them. The fertiles versus the infertiles. The stay at home versus the working moms.

And, just like in middle and high school, our judgment of other women is rooted in our own feelings of inadequacy. We go on the offense so that we can feel better about ourselves.

With respect to our infertility, I am very open about how we built our family, so whenever there's a HINT of someone having trouble I offer up my experience, an ear, and a shoulder.

It's been hard - a drain on my energy - while we've been cycling. I've seen three of my best friends, Charlie's cousin, and a couple of bloggers whom I consider friends, become pregnant. And I'm not. And even though every one of these women have been sweet, and kind, and supportive, and encouraging of ME, it's still really hard for me to reach out to yet another person because of my fear that I'll be left behind again.

And also? I just sometimes don't have the energy to support another woman going through treatments. I'm busy, and tired, and stressed, and working through my own emotional issues.

So the issue is murky. If it were ME in that car accident, it's probable I would have craved a woman's embrace as well. But the difference is I wouldn't have questioned why no one stepped up to give me a hug; I would have thought, well, maybe they're not in a place where they have that kind of energy.

I don't know. It's such a fine balance. I support other women in this community by blogging and disagreeing respectfully and offering my virtual love as much as possible. My girlfriends get my love and support whenever they need it. My family gets my energy and support.

It just seems like a lot for Bialik to tacitly expect me to offer up whatever of my energy that is left just because she's a woman and she wanted a connection.

But maybe it's because I'm working on such an energy deficit right now.

Either way, this is a very thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing.

xoxo

Jennifer Arlin said...

I think this is an important post, and I have shared it on my blog's FB page. (Sorry - I am still a little behind on my reading, but I am catching up.) Thank you for writing this - I identify with each and every word. xo Jennie

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