“SISTERHOOD” IS MEANINGFUL
RIVALRY AND COMPETITION
The class of women learn to compete with other women; to see each other as rivals while constantly vying for male attention. From birth through to girlhood and into adulthood, male attention is something we are taught to aspire to. We should be prettier, thinner, more docile and appealing than the next girl/woman. We are also taught to disbelieve each other when we speak out and to protect men from other women by blaming those women for what men do. Some of the loudest rape apologists are women (1 of the women panellists on #bbcqt last night, for example, vociferously agreed with rape myths spouted by a male misogynist speaker).
This is not an unhappy coincidence. It is part of the social construction of compulsory heterosexuality where women are emotionally, financially and physically bound to men. That dependence is deeply tied to self-esteem, self-worth and our very sense of self. I actually remember, pre-feminist days, saying, and thinking, that I didn’t “get on with” other women much. How many (heterosexual) women say “I prefer men’s company“? That’s because other women are only good for confidences when talking about men and problems with men. Everything about compulsory heterosexuality is centred on the needs of men – including relationships between women. Other women sustain us in our relationships with men through their emotional support; they encourage us to see “the good” in him; they are there for us when we cry in frustration and despair. And we do the same for them. We have learned from a very young age that this is how our relationships with each other should go.
Only male supremacy benefits from this. We lose out. As part of compulsory heterosexuality, other women serve as cheerleaders for men and are our conditioning’s echo-chamber versus our lived experiences. The role of other women helps to tie us to compulsory heterosexuality rather than break free of it.
A lesbian friend of mine once observed how heterosexual women behaved in the showers at her local gym. “They scrub themselves in places I would only do at home. They do it because I am invisible. All other women are invisible. Only men are seen and matter to them.” This seems to me to be a microcosm of how relationships between women are played out under hetero-patriarchy.
Whether it‘s too deeply entrenched for women to acknowledge it or not, we do know when heterosexual friends will always put men first. This teaches us how unimportant we are to other women. When we do find women we can relate to, in different ways, all kinds of possibilities open up. This includes the possibilities that we can love this woman in all ways, including romantically, spiritually and sexually. It is one of the reasons why so many heterosexual women flirt with, or fall for, lesbians. They have never been treated as if they matter to other women. Many of us fall in love with our friends but. Compulsory heterosexuality! Only men are important. There’s lots of denial, selective memory loss and explaining this away instead of exploring the possibilities of love for women.
SEXUAL/ROMANTIC AND OTHER INTIMACY WITH WOMEN: DOOR UNLOCKED
When we realise we have been separated from each other by male supremacist ideas of competition and rivalry, it can be a significant shift in our feminist consciousness. It opens up a new world. It is the start of the possibilities of romantic and sexual love for other women. For many feminists, the political realisation that they can be pro-woman and counter their conditioning is a pivotal moment. Through feminist consciousness-raising, we realise that each individual woman we meet has something unique to value in and of itself. Chances are, she has not encountered that kind of full acceptance outside feminist circles. I certainly had not until I met lesbian feminists who showed me a new way of finding intimacy and care between women.
LINKING “SISTERHOOD” WITH SURVIVING MALE SEXUAL VIOLENCE
For many of us, our CR (consciousness-raising) involves coming to terms with ourselves as survivors of male sexual violence. And that almost every woman we meet is a survivor. We come to terms with the fact that our reality does not match the myths borne of male supremacy. As survivors, we are dismissed, disbelieved and not listened to. We know that it is the protection of men which is at the heart of society’s concerns and that we will be punished, blamed and ostracised if we dare to name our abuse and abusers. As feminists, we can ensure that women we meet know we believe them, that we listen to their truths and empathise and understand them. Our personal stories, and struggles, are rooted in submission, torture and abuse, as a subjugated class. If other feminists cannot hear us, who can?
WHAT “SISTERHOOD” IS NOT
All of this is what I call “sisterhood”. It is not a cult. It is not a way of saying “you must be in my group”. Far from it. In fact, meaningful “sisterhood” results in taking responsibility for our actions and behaviour towards other women, in keeping with our feminist ideology.
“SISTERHOOD” IS NOT “IDENTITY POLITICS”
In a recent article (I give the link below), about “sisterhood”, the concept is referred to as an “identity”. An important part of the CR process where women move towards (radical) feminism, is dismissed through labelling that process “identity politics” by a small minority of those involved with online radical feminism. There is nothing wrong with describing the ways in which feminism has impacted on our own individual lives and/or labelling it. In fact, it’s helpful to do so because it shows how the CR process interacts with feminist theory. Some write as though radical feminism has not changed them at all. They see it as an intellectual pursuit of no consequence to their daily lives or a rhetoric they spout which bears no relationship to how they behave. If this is the case, I question just how far radical feminism has truly reached them. We learn that the world is dominated by male supremacy, that our class has soaked up, and internalised, that domination, – and yet that has not affected us and the way we live our own lives? Wow. Incredible.
Online “sisterhood” is believing other women about their own experiences under patriarchy, understanding other women when they are in trauma, yes, holding women accountable for what they do, but also understanding why women may lash out in trauma and distress at each other. In order to understand, we do need to be able to communicate with each other, to articulate where things have gone wrong, and where we have made mistakes.
The online climate of being able to move on far more easily than IRL (a simple click of a block or defriend button on Facebook and poof! the problem has disappeared), without even attempting to resolve conflict, is all too easy. The impermanent, spontaneous way of communicating over the internet does impact heavily on the concept of “sisterhood” because there is often not the opportunities to communicate differently. Text communications are easily misunderstood and misinterpreted and that adds to our challenges (I wrote a more detailed blog post about this subject https://sisterhoodispowerful.wordpress.com/2012/11/03/making-the-internet-work-for-radical-feminism/ )
We all make mistakes, mis-communicate or misunderstand each other. “Feminist ethics” means that we hold ourselves to account so that we can learn how to do better in our attempts to collectively sustain a movement. That has always been an ongoing challenge for feminism.
CHALLENGES TO “SISTERHOOD”
However, we face another challenge which is distinctly contemporary. The whole phenomenon of online blog posts, of immediate interaction with hundreds, if not thousands, of others, simultaneously, encourages egos, egotism and allows narcissists and psychopaths to come to the fore and take centre stage. Some of those women use the rhetoric of “sisterhood” in order to control, influence and manipulate. Observations over time may make it clear who is doing this. Similar patterns enact themselves in all spheres of online spaces (I’ve been around and watched the same phenomenon develop over and over in a variety of spaces. A friend watched one person being scapegoated and hounded out of a seemingly innocuous online forum about classical music!).
After a while of observation, it may be clear who is in the online (radical) feminist space for the thrills of non-stop conflict and trolling and ego-massaging and who is there because of commitment to the fight against injustice towards women, as a class, and individually. We should take our observations seriously, act accordingly, and not be afraid to face up to abusive behaviour even though it runs counter to the concept of “sisterhood”. “sisterhood” should not cloud our judgement to such an extent that we ignore unethical behaviour. I have recently experienced appalling behaviour with some elaborate cover-ups – my bottom line is this: If specific behaviour would not be tolerated within patriarchy, then I am fucked if I’ll put up with it in the name of “sisterhood” activism.
THE LONG TERM GOAL OF DESTROYING PATRIARCHY
I am arguing that the political notion of “sisterhood” is very far removed from a “cult” or an empty, sickly promise of love and care forever more. It is a political strategy within the fight to end male supremacy. We cannot even begin to tackle male entitlement if we have not freed ourselves of the condition which sets up other women for our ridicule, contempt, rivalry, hatred and competition.
Destroying patriarchy is a long-term goal. It probably won’t happen in our life times. In the meantime, we have to sustain our political activism if we are to start building the “bricks of resistance” (I think that’s a mis(?)quote from Lierre Keith). We start with undoing the conditioning which has kept us from each other. By teaching ourselves, and each other, that it is possible to value, love and care for other women. We cannot fight patriarchy if we are kept apart. No class at war goes into the fray divided and separated.
Only by learning how to provide sustainable alternatives to patriarchy can we truly build on top of “sisterhood”. “Sisterhood”, like lesbian feminist communities for radical lesbian feminists, sustains us when we ride into battle with patriarchy. If we don’t have alternatives where we can breathe freely, all we have is war without end and we burn out and our activism dies.
For a completely alternative view to the concept of “sisterhood” read this: http://witchwind.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/sisterhood-sisterhood-thoughts-on-identity-and-what-it-does-to-radical-feminism/