FEMALE SOLIDARITY, sisterhood, sibling-hood, womanhood, women who have each other’s backs, is at the core of feminism. It is our source of power, our inspiration, but how are we to achieve it when we are taught to prioritise men? Whether it is boyfriends, husbands, fathers, sons, men we are yet to meet, men we will not meet. We women are trained to secure first and foremost, their approval.
Trained to accept prioritising male interests before our own, other women and womanhood, is what makes women, women. We are taught to commit all we have, and compromise all we might be for a male presence in our lives.
I offer here four scenarios that indicate our interest with men is more important than our interest with women.
ONE: IS A MOTHER’S LOVE ANYTHING TO SING ABOUT?
In 2019, I scored a ticket to see the Kansas City born funk and very cool Janelle Monáe in concert, a queer Black woman who seems to authentically enjoy working with women. Overall, a beautiful example of the tremendous success and joy achievable outside the male orbit. Her opening act though, 22-year-old British singer and songwriter Grace Carter perhaps highlighted our teaching to seek male approval starts early.
As it was the first time some us in the audience had heard of Carter, she introduced herself; raised by her mother whom she briefly praised for her love and encouragement in pursuing her dreams. However, her songs as she introduced them, were mainly about her absent father growing up. A man she said had abandoned her and had gone on to create a new family.
Altogether, a seemingly conventional story. While parental abandonment is understandably painful, the story seemed imbalanced in that her mother who she said to have always been there for her got a few pleasant words while the man who was not in her life, got her songs, her artistic energy.
The choice to place the absent male figure centre stage seems to undermine the very real female figure in her life. A friend remarked this could also be about marketing; are we more likely to buy a song about an absent father or a present and loving mother? Which story are we more likely to connect with? Is it the one that taps into our need for a male figure?
TWO: ARE WOMEN EACH OTHER’S COMPETITION?
Women competing against each other for male attention is a story retold over and over again in the media. Take the very white, hetero, middle-class and 90s/2000s Sex and the City. In Seasons two our heartbroken female protagonist Carrie Bradshaw finds out her commitment phobic ex-boyfriend, Mr Big, of two years has not only moved on after 6 months, he is engaged.
Mr. Big as a character is left vague, the audience is told little about him except that he is white, wealthy and emotionally detached. As his absent name suggests, he symbolically represents the prize that awaits women who work to bag themselves a man.
When Carrie learns about his engagement, she works to move past her anger, to forgive Mr Big. She reasons the mature response is to keep him as a friend rather than cutting all ties. Thus, deciding it is better to have him in any capacity he allows than none at all.
His new fiancé on the other hand gets no sympathy, and this is where Carrie targets her anger.
Carrie takes to mocking her, using her age and size to dismiss her as: “The idiot stick figure with no soul”. Going as far as to tearfully say it is not Mr. Big she is upset with but “HER, HER, HER…”. Carrie’s friends, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda join in the mockery and help her go up against the younger woman because; “these bitches need to be put in their places”.
This is what we have been taught female solidarity is about, taking our friend’s side against other women. It is from this perspective that when Carrie and Mr Big resume a sexual relationship, unbeknown to the new wife, it is claimed as a win for Carrie over the wife.
Such attitude protects male bad behaviour. It is no surprise perhaps that a TV show that wedded femininity to consumerism (Jimmy choo and Manolo Blahnik), also promoted competition and animosity between women. It is likely these aspects are why TV executives, made up of white men, allowed the show on our screens in the first place. A show that does not question male behavior men. 22 years on, this show is considered “revolutionary”, so these lessons still have a firm place in feminisms.
THREE: ARE ‘BAD’ WOMEN RESPONSIBLE FOR ‘GOOD’ WOMEN’S HAPPINESS?
A friend once alluded to a difficult period in her relationship. Having agreed with her then boyfriend to take a break, the boyfriend may or may not have almost formed a new connection with a woman. It seemed from the way she was telling it, and without full knowledge of the details, my friend had reconstructed this sore moment in her life with the new woman as the enemy. Describing her as the “Bitch” who tried to wreck a long and committed relationship.
The 2017 BBC documentary; Britain’s Relationship Secrets with Anne Robinson, which offered a middle-class, white and heterosexual view to relationships illustrated this good woman verses bad woman storyline. In it, Robinson interviewed one couple who had “survived an affair” with the wife taking a conventional approach to it. She seemingly accepted her husband’s invalid rationale that the woman he had sexual relations with was to blame because she knew he was married and seduced him.
This appeared to work because while the wife said to have forgiven her husband, although they agreed he was not to go anywhere without her, she confessed to hating the woman she had never met.
FOUR: DOESN’T PRIORITISING MALE APPROVAL MAKE ALL WOMEN DESPERATE?
A few years ago, on a night out with some girlfriends we saw a girl at the bar who seemed tipsy, wearing a short dress and openly flirting with men. We turned to each other and said something along the lines, how desperate is she?!
This scenario seemed familiar yet entirely unnatural. It is like we, looking on, had taken on the patriarchal role in policing this other woman, looking at her as though she was less than us. After all, we were not as drunk, dressed more revealingly nor chatting easily with men. What this sad scenario revealed to me was what we had come to believe about women. That what we wear, how much we drink and act explains men’s violent behaviour towards us.
We believe that if we appear different from those other women, we deserve to be treated like human beings. Exposing that we believe humanity for women is earned. In that scenario at the bar we attempted to dodge our imagined inferiority by making another woman carry our fears. We took solace in the narrative of desperate women because we believed there shame in being a female.
FEMALE SOLIDARITY THAT DOES NOT CONFRONT BAD MALE BEHAVIOUR IS MEANINGLESS
In almost all these scenarios, it is another woman who is blamed for the hurt and fear women experience caused by male bad behaviour. I do not think we can accept this as a coincidence.
We can see female characterisations like Carrie do not confront the sources of their pain, they go around it by forging a more suitable enemy. An enemy falsified by men, for whose sake we have been taught to forgive, while simultaneously discouraged to forgive other women. Hating another woman is given as a risk free alternative because that connection is not essential to our fundamental interest, male approval.
We target our hurt, fears and anger towards women to protect this ambition. If we were to target our anger towards men when and how we feel it, it would be to say we are not willing to have them in any capacity they allow. It would express women do not exist through men, and our success and joy stems not from our relations with men, but from our relation to womanhood. It is then that the language of female solidarity would take on real meaning.