It is a chilly, blustery, very gray day in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Early afternoon finds me in a local coffeeshop. It is a work- and school-day, so the other patrons are a different crowd than on the weekends: the few men here are solitary individuals, grabbing a quick lunch or working on their computers, while the rest of the tables are filled with pairs of women, deep in conversation. My computer allows me the luxury of eavesdropping without appearing to do so. At one table, the women are reliving last weekend’s tailgate at the Hawkeye game. In the comfy chairs by the electric fire are two older women discussing art history and their recent book tour. Another pair prays over their soup bowls, while yet another is going over an astrological natal chart. What these pairs have in common with one another is not immediately apparent. However, as I watch their interactions what I see is a certain intensity of communication – they lean toward one another, they nod, their faces are animated whether they are speaking or listening.
When I first began my recent ruminations on the idea of sisterhood, I was thinking about sisterhood from the perspective of women supporting other women in the great movements for social justice: equal rights, ending domestic violence, working to address the unfairly high percentage of women/single mothers among the ranks of the poor and hungry. I was thinking about women like Wangari Maathi, Zainab Salbi, or Catherine McAuley. And because I couldn’t think about the concept of sisterhood without considering the reality of it, in part one I wrote about my sisters and my relationships with them. In part two, I intended to speak more abstractly.
And then I started hearing from my women friends. They made it clear that in part two, they expected to read about themselves. To them, it naturally followed that once I spoke about my biological sisters, I would write about the “sisters of my heart”. How can I, whose life has been immeasurably enriched by these women, deny them? So I will attempt, on this autumn afternoon, to write about the women who have become my sisters through shared conversation, shared philosophies, shared history and experience. But how do I begin this task?
The women friends who have taken up residence in my heart range in age from their 70s to 11 months. They are professionals, mothers, athletes, writers, beautiful children, wives, straight and lesbian. They have challenged my intellect (through education, book clubs, their writing, provocative conversation). They have nurtured my heart (seeing past my flaws, allowing me to see theirs, holding me when I have cried and celebrating when I have laughed). We have shared an energy that became synergy, and talked until we’ve entered the true definition of dialog. I can’t name you all by name, but you may recognize yourself if you’ve ever: eaten an entire pan of brownies with me; helped me learn to craft something beautiful in words or other material; invited me into your family when mine was far away; or (God love you for this) plucked stray hairs from my chin. If you’ve allowed me to mentor you, or if you’ve mentored me. If you have been there, and been there, and been there for years of being stuck – then been there cheering when I got unstuck. If you quietly continued to offer me love and support while I took you for granted.
Biology may teach us our first lessons about sisterhood, but true friendship teaches us how to spread that idea beyond our own gene-pool. Whether we are talking about our circle of friends or we’re talking about the great social movements, women reaching out to other women are powerful beyond all expectations.
(True story: the music-track playing in the coffeeshop as I write this is Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings”).
I work with young women, and I have been dismayed by the oft-discussed concept of “mean girls”. At first, I fought the idea as a media-generated concept designed to sensationalize and sell magazines. In recent years I’ve seen this phenomenon grow among my students, and it troubles me. I wonder if it isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy – as we talk more and more about girl-on-girl violence and bullying and present it in the news as the new norm, aren’t we teaching our daughters (and young friends) that this is how it should be? I grew up in the 1970s, when the women’s movement led to the portrayal of women’s friendships as life-saving. Either my women friends are counter-cultural holdouts from the 70s (which as a description would insult over half of them!) or there is something MORE TRUE than the mean girl phenomenon. I believe we have a moral imperative to teach this truth to the generations behind us: that women loving and supporting one another is the real phenomenon. “Mean girls” are not natural – this trend is one sign of an unhealthy culture.
Finally, as I think of the amazing women who are my sisters – in every definition and nuance of that word – I feel like a fertile delta, where the generous river has deposited its gift of rich soil. My sisters have helped to make my life truly generative. Whether I ever change the world in a big way, like a Wangari Maathi, it will be enough to know that together we have sewn the seeds of a powerful vision of strong women loving strongly – a vision that our young friends and daughters will want to emulate as they see how deeply nourishing it is.