The Company she keeps

The company she chooses / Female friendship


There can be little doubt that men and women have qualitatively different kinds of friendships. Men will discuss the state of the world, their work, their pockets, anything but their emotions. Women, on the contrary, rapidly move to personal matters. Historically, it seems, women have always wanted to be intimate. We share our lives with close schoolfriends, colleagues and neighbours. We look for women with similar experiences, and women formed a primitive therapeutic community long before therapy was ever thought of. No surprise, then, that both women and men find women’s friendships far more supportive.

In prefeminist days, it was all too easy for men to belittle female friendships. Women were derided as trivial, bitchy, idling away the hours until men re-entered the emotional stratosphere. Some men still indulge such fantasies, but not so easily. These days, two women together are more likely to generate male unease for his imminent redundancy or inadequacy about his own emotional life.

The changed perception is due at least in part to feminism’s insistence that women very often do give each other the greatest constancy and depth of emotional involvement. But if we’ve learnt to value our friendships, it’s also true that women’s friendships remain a curiously uncharted and complicated terrain.

Even in the earliest days of feminism, women’s relationships were considered complex in a way unimaginable in male politics. ‘Sisterhood’ derived from the communist ideal of fraternity but comrades were meant to love each other, like Christians, as servants of a higher good. Sisterhood was different. More difficult and more passionate, it was a political aim in itself. To become sisters would be to redefine friendships and reject competitive hostility between women. Women’s sexual commitment to men was seen as undermining and a waste of energy since who in their right mind would bank on the heterosexual bond as a good investment for companionable old age.

Here feminism was only articulating what many women already instinctively knew; we neglect female friendship at our peril. But the criticism soon went further. In the seventies political lesbianism mounted a full scale attack on heterosexuality itself. Interestingly it never managed to persuade the whole movement that this was the only way to ‘put women first. ‘ Not because the sex wasn’t good and not because many women wouldn’t abandon their emotional ties with men. More interestingly, many women experienced the move as reproducing many of the problems of heterosexuality. Again it was friends who lost out whether the new lover was a man or a woman. Again sex was set up as the main place to express intensity and deep emotional ties.

Feminism in the Eighties doesn’t appear to make that mistake. In the contemporary feminist novelists like Lisa Alther and Marge Piercy, it’s the everyday female friendship which endures like a rock while sex and politics may disappoint or betray.

Such public confidence in female friendship may be what early feminism dreamed of, but it’s not without its problems. For one thing, the celebration of friendship seems to be confined to feminism. The problem is not just that women don’t see the centrality they have for each other reflected anywhere, it’s also that feminism has leapt in to fill the gap with a somewhat idealised notion of friendship. Female friendship in the ‘Eighties has an extremely elevated status. It is ‘nourishing,’ ‘supportive,’ ‘open,’ ‘caring,’ everything which is meant to be womanly and unlike men.

In fact, in Janice Raymond’s A Passion for Friends, Towards a Philosophy of Female Affection, there’s a suggestion that women’s love for each other could have almost spiritual qualities. Nuns, she suggests, had a deep affection for each other, which could be seen as a prototype for our new female friendships.

I am sceptical of this not just because I am resistant to the joys of the cloisters but mainly because I detect in Janice Raymond’s book an extreme version of an idealisation more generally at work. She has a programme; we must learn to love ourselves then we will love the female-ness in other women.

‘As women re-member and re-create the culture of gyn/affection in our lives we become first born to each other. ‘

The American Radfemspeak is not so current here, but it wouldn’t be impossible to hear that ‘you can tell a woman centred woman by her friendship network. ‘ Here, too, female friendship is in danger of becoming an ideal which is in fact a moral imperative, a sign of being someone who genuinely ‘priorities’ women.

The idealisation of female friendship as being somehow outside the intensity and conflict characteristic of sexual relations, actually glosses over the most interesting aspect of female friendships. Far more than men, women bring emotions to friendship very like those in sexual relations. Men are often puzzled by women’s intense connections by women’s anxieties about friends’ behaviour, by the love and jealousy which women display.

But the fact is, as well as being far more supportive, female friendships are also more explosive. Not everyone was convinced by the argument in Lilian Federman’s book Love Surpassing the Love of Men that many well-known women’s friendships in the past were lesbian affairs. But there could be no denying that the friendships she looked at contained all the elements of need, dependency, jealousy and possessiveness which men would only express in a relationship where genital sex was established.

There is clearly a whole world to explore about why women do connect in this more emotional or erotic way. But the questions about general characteristics of women’s friendships shouldn’t blind us to the fact that there are also dramatic differences in the kinds of relationships which individual women make. Our own individual histories, the particular quality of our relationships with parents and siblings is likely to be crucial in determining exactly what we do bring to bear in a friendship, just as these factors are crucial in sexual relationships. If we have had difficult, competitive and rejecting experiences in the family, for example, our female friendships are likely to be more stormy than for those women whose families were more accepting.

I want to see far more about female friendships in our culture, not just theoretical inquiries, but more general images which can reflect back to women the importance we have in each other’s lives. But I also want these images to reflect the complexities of female friendships, images which explore the character and dynamic of different friendships in a way that recognises how women’s non sexual friendships nevertheless trace some of the patterns of our erotic connections.

If we take seriously this female openness to patterns of need and dependency then probably the least interesting thing to be said about female friendships at the moment is how ideal, how supportive and cosy, they would all be if we could get in touch with our true womanliness.

A Passion for Friends by Janice Raymond is published on May 29, by the Women’s Press, price pounds 5.95.

Janice Raymond is visiting Britain and Ireland from May 22 to June 16: she will be: Thursday, May 22, 8 pm, Lavender Menace Bookshop, Edinburgh; Friday, May 23, 7 pm, University of Sheffield, Sheffield; Wednesday, May 28, 6 30 pm (women only) Silver Moon Bookshop, London; Thursday, May 29, 2 pm, Bradford University, Bradford; Thursday, June 5, 11 am, University of Kent, Kent; Friday, June 13-16, Women in Learning Conference, Dublin.



LOAD-DATE: June 13, 2000



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