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Why Sisterhood is both Powerful and Difficult: notes on female friendship

 

At the core of our movement is a commitment to women by women. If taken seriously, this means that feminists recognize that all women are subjugated through patriarchy, even the ones we don’t like, and that a movement to liberate women must include all women, especially the ones we don’t like. Female friendship is in many cases the olive branch through which women find themselves introduced to feminism, and beyond that, our relationships to each other lay the foundations for our analyses and strategies. A mass-movement of rebel women and girls relies on an awareness of the political nature of female friendship in a world which consciously works to pit women against each other, encouraging distrust and competition.

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Female friendship promises a revolution amongst feminists, but this ignores the very real events of betrayal, heartbreak and conflict between women. Any woman who has been active in the women’s movement will recognize that sisterhood is not effortless. The expectations we place on our own female friendships, particularly amongst feminists, can result in painful consequences and rifts within the movement.

Female friendship as both a site for revolution and injury did not go unnoticed by secondwave feminists. Janice Raymond – a name, when uttered, that sparks reaction in everyone’s mind, known best for her fearless critique of the liberal left and her ability to foresee mainstream adaptation of gender ideology – wrote extensively on the subject of female friendship and affection.

Raymond borrows the term Gyn/affection to describe female friendship, a term first coined by Mary Daly, someone whose work and vision Raymond describes as “enspiriting and encouraging for many years,”[1] a clear indication of the friendship felt between the two cerebral feminists. Raymond uses the term Gyn/affection[2] to distinguish female friendship from ancient Greek traditions of friendship, a concept originally referring to male philosophers holding the civic state together.

Gyn/affection contextualizes female friendship within a feminist framework by eluding to the personal and political movement of women toward each other: “Women who affect women stimulate response and action; bring about a change in living, stir and arouse emotions, ideas, and activities that defy dichotomies between the personal and political aspects of affection.”[3] In other words, the potential of female friendship lies in affecting, moving, stirring and arousing each other to full power, beyond the personal nature of these bonds, and towards a fuller understanding of the social and political powers we embody through our wommon friendships. 

When we come understand the political significance of female friendship, and for whatever reason these friendships then disintegrate or splinter, the ensuing distress felt by feminists is ten-fold that of the pain felt when we are betrayed by men. Feminists expect hetero-relations to go awry (both platonic, familial and romantic), and indeed any feminist framework recognizes the historical conflict of interest between men’s socio-political advantages and a feminist worldview. The cracks and fissures within female friendships, and most pertinently between feminists, challenge our core beliefs and experiences of the sisterhood we all seek to envision. Groups split, sides are taken, communications are cut, and women retreat. 

While there is much to be said about the transformative potential of female friendships, feminists must not romanticize the subject by neglecting to confront the very real obstacles we face in relating to each other.


 

Janice Raymond identifies three major obstacles standing in the way of Gyn/affection:[4]

  1. Disassociation from the World through:

    a) Therapism: while there are instances in which women justifiably seek help in a therapeutic setting, therapism here refers to the mechanistic model of self-disclosure, as if the self is an external object in need of repair. The result, as Raymond argues, is “a therapeutic society where self-exposure ranks as one of the highest virtues. Women must show and tell all. Little about body or mind can be mysterious. Thus, women engage in massive psychological strip-teases that fragment and exploit the inner life.”[5] 

    b) Relationism: this term identifies the reduction of friendship to the definition of woman as always being “in reference to” someone else. Both hetero-relations as well as lesbian separatists relations risk adopting the profession of “professional relating,”[6] in which the self is surrendered in favour of a relationship-centeredness.

    c) Perversions of “the personal is political”: this well-known feminist rallying cry crucially observed that the personal domain of a woman’s life is not exempt from the public, in fact, it is a domain of political consequence. Raymond observes that this idea has undergone reduction and misinterpretation to mean “the personal is public knowledge.”[7] Such an interpretation then leads to the constant public disclosure of anything intimate, private or personal. However, as Raymond argues, “privacy fosters involvement in the world because it adds a quality of reflection to life and to the selection of friends – what Alice Walker has called the ‘rigors of discernment.’”[8]

  2. Assimilation to the World through:

    a) Sexual liberation: assimilation takes place here through the construction of the “new woman” who is liberated through male-directed sexual practices under the banner of (neo)liberalism.

    b) The tyranny of tolerance: the assertion that there should be no value judgments made about anything: “using the rhetoric of not imposing values on others, women buy into a dangerous philosophy in which they strip themselves of the capacity for moral judgment.”[9] This results in a loss of feminist will, “the will to shape history in a value-defined way.”[10]

    c) The assimilation of silence: the historical loving relationships between women is purposefully undermined and ignored, and this kind of silence “erases the fact that women have been each other’s best friends, supportive kin, devoted lovers, and constant companions.”[11] The potential for women’s direct encounter with Gyn/affection is thus mediated and prevented by men’s rendition of it.

  3. Victimization in the world through:

    a) Mothers and Daughters: what Raymond names “victimism” here refers to the victimization of the mother by a hetero-relational life as well as the victimization of the daughter by mothers who pass on to daughters a tradition of dissociation from women.[12] A lack of mother-daughter mentoring can persist through the passing-on of survival tactics which “give women the capacity to suffer and to endure and/or to manipulate their way safely and skilfully through the world that men have given them,”[13] but such survival skills engender guilt and neglect that threaten the possibility of Gyn/affection.

    b) The politics of guilt and guilt-tripping: this can often lead to an uncritical acceptance of certain individuals and groups because they are members of an oppressed class.[14] A pattern of women placating others by deprecating themselves emerges, in which women find it easier to bond with each other in misery, out of a shared weakness of spirit, and as victims. This concept has close bearings to contemporary “identity politics,” used to invoke a kind of insider status: “Feminists cannot be guilty or guilt-tripped for creating the range of oppressive conditions under which many women live. We must instead act out of responsibility, not out of guilt.”[15]

    c) Women’s alienation from personal and political power: based on women’s historical subjugation, our learned behaviour discourages us from taking or asserting our own power (or potential). This breeds mistrust against any woman who is able to manifest individuality and directiveness, sometimes even outrightly berated by other women. Ambition and achievement can be frowned upon from within a “noncompetitive” framework: “Women’s alienation from personal and political power endows the collective group or the community with false power.”[16] When a group devalues the possibility of women’s direct personal and political power, the encouraged ethic becomes a (false) sense of group equality: “the qualities that distinguish a woman are not called forth, and her distinctive power is rendered invisible.”[17]

    d) Woman as the ultimate victimizer of women: as Raymond points out, “there have been real betrayals of women by other women - by women who supposedly shared a similar feminist spirit and vision and by women whom one once called friends.”[18] Many women who join the feminist movement do not share a common world beyond the struggle, meaning that automatic sisterhood is not a given, and perhaps unrealistic expectations are at play in the betrayal we feel coming from women who have wronged us. Raymond describes how trashing and infighting occurred during the secondwave, and because women were not prepared to confronting disloyalty from women, the conclusion was often that “women are no better than men.” This then easily leads to what Mary Daly calls a “crisis of feminist faith,” which leads women to believe that the “‘illusion’ is feminism itself.”[19]

 

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Female alienation is produced when we are unable to foresee the horizontal animosity and hostility coming from other women themselves. When we are too wounded to be wounded again, it is enticing to surrender oneself to a nihilistic view about the movement, one which turns away from women in general. But, as Raymond argues: “the best that women can make of this is to know precisely that this behaviour will occur, face this knowledge head-on (but perhaps more importantly “heart-on”), and act in a more Gyn/affective way because of and in spite of this knowledge of the mind and heart.”[20] Perhaps most pertinently, she reminds us that friendship is an ongoing process of “repeated acts” – a habit which reoccurs “despite betrayals, ruptures, and disaffection from women.”[21]

Rather than accepting the negation of the values of feminism and of female friendship in the face of rupture, Raymond urges us to confront the disillusionment and make up our own minds and hearts to once more choose women. Without sentimentalizing female friendships, or placing categorical uncritical trust in other feminists, the gifts of Gyn/affection are clear, even in the grip of failure: “It has given us a history in which we learn that women have always loved other women. It has given us an understanding that a life of mere survival is insufficient for the spirit. It has given us that which is most seriously forbidden to us.”[22] The fact that female friendship does not gift us with these characteristics forever, or that we often lose sisters to conflict along the way, does not nullify the possibility of it ever-recurring.


 

Raymond leaves us with the following conditions necessary for radical female friendship:

  1. Thoughtfulness: this is a necessary condition of female friendship. One the one hand it includes the ability to reason, and on the other consideration and empathy: “the word thoughtfulness conveys the meaning of a thinking considerateness and a considerate thinking.”[23]

  2. Passion: a passionate friendship upholds the integrity between thought and passion, between self-development and collective progress: “friendship that is characterized by thoughtful passion ensures that a friend does not lose her Self in the heightened awareness of and attachment to another woman.”[24]

  3. Worldiness: this refers to not only the creation of a feminist world on the boundaries of a man-made world, “but the construction of the world as women imagine it can be.”[25]  Set in the impossible constraints of patriarchy, our worldliness is dependent on our feminist vision, while our feminist vision is actualized in our worldly location.

  4. Happiness: while feminism is primarily a politics of risk and resistance, it must also hold out to women some promise of happiness. Raymond defines happiness as being “life-glad,” a term summarized in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s translation of the Russian word zhizneradostny. In this context, happiness refers to the “striving for the full use of one’s powers, attained in fulfilling certain ends or purposes.”[26] 

 

And so we hope. We hope for a vision of female friendship, not one based on any essence of natural female vitality or nurturing, but a vision grounded in the “historical, cultural, and material bonds that women have created for our Selves in spite of the ‘State of Atrocity.’”[27] Shallow sentimentalism about female friendships is both unrealistic if we are to mobilize women from all walks of life, as well as being the condition for disappointment: “to ground Gyn/affection in a natural capability of women to bond with each other is a false optimism that will betray itself.”[28] To appreciate the obstacles we face in cultivating Gyn/affection is to recognize the profound transformative and political strength of female friendship with scrutiny and discipline. Perhaps this is the way forward in embodying strength across difference.


 

You can buy A Passion for Friends : Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection by Janice Raymond from the feminist publisher Spinifex here, or order it through your local library or bookstore!

 


References

[1] Janice G. Raymond, A Passion for Friends : Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986). ix.``
[2] “Gyn” comes from the oblique stem (γυναικ-) of Greek γυνή (gyne), meaning "woman."
[3] Raymond, A Passion for Friends : Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection. 8.
[4] For a full, in-depth analysis of these obstacles, please consult Janice Raymond’s original manuscript “A Passion for Friends” as it is far more nuanced than bullet points can do her justice.
[5] Raymond, A Passion for Friends : Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection. 156.
[6] Raymond. 161.
[7] Raymond. 163.
[8] Raymond. 164.
[9] Raymond. 169.
[10] Raymond. 169.
[11] Raymond. 173.
[12] Raymond. 185.
[13] Raymond. 188.
[14] Raymond. 188.
[15] Raymond. 192.
[16] Raymond. 195.
[17] Raymond. 196.
[18] Raymond. 197.
[19] Mary Daly, Pure Lust : Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984). 112.
[20] Raymond, A Passion for Friends : Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection. 198.
[21] Raymond. 199.
[22] Raymond. 200.
[23] Raymond. 221.
[24] Raymond. 225.
[25] Raymond. 232.
[26] Raymond. 238.
[27] Raymond. 211.
[28] Raymond. 211.

 
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