Friendships are the basis of feminist progress. When a woman is bullied at work, mistreated by friends, or unsupported at home, a woman turns to her friends. They listen, have compassion, and criticize injustice. Simone Biles and her teammates were strong together. Girlfriends all over the world encourage each other – by celebrating mutual victories, impaling rape myths and collectively affirming the equal competence of women.
But how many pictures pass the Bechdel test? Friendship between women is almost absent in art; Models are more likely to strip than argue.
This underrepresentation reflects patriarchal fear. In early modern England, women’s conversations were denigrated as “gossip”. It also reflects reality. Throughout world history, women typically associated with relatives and neighbors, while men continued to roam and congregate more freely.
Two men look at the moon. Public domain.
Women dominate low-skilled, disorganized, and often home-based jobs like spinning. Before birth control, infant formula, electricity, and washing machines, mothers’ lives were mercilessly disrupted. Sixty percent of their prime years were spent either pregnant or breastfeeding. This undermined women’s ability to exercise a craft occupation, gain economic autonomy, and expand their social networks. Without a support network of their own, the women struggled to protect themselves and were often persecuted as witches or imprisoned in asylums.
Men’s networks were bigger and more lucrative. Some traveled as merchants while others honed their craft. European men consolidated their advantage by forming guilds that monopolized profitable enterprises and thwarted women’s economic independence. Male dominance was anchored in strong fraternal orders – in government, in courts, in religion, in medicine, and in universities.
The four philosophers: Justus Lipsius, Hugo Grotius, Peter Paul Rubens and Philip Rubens. Public domain.
Clubs and societies flourished in eighteenth-century Europe and North America around science, medicine, philanthropy, art, literature, and political debate. Inventors, entrepreneurs and craftsmen came together to hear the latest discoveries. While colleagues praised innovation, others eagerly experimented and gained prestige. Networks celebrated and promoted their achievements. Sedans spawned collaborative creativity and even patents. The members received enormous insider advantages: Freemasons collected knowledge, seriousness and elitist patronage. Clubs also went to court to protect the reputation of their members, allowing them to take far greater risks in public.
Coffee houses are melting pots of civil society in India and Latin America. Men of all political backgrounds and beliefs gather to deliberate, debate, and build disagreements.
If this rich sphere of association catalyzed collaborative creativity, women were certainly disadvantaged by their forced exclusion. Ninety-five percent of the reconnaissance societies in England were male. Ingenious women toiled in solitude while the men’s advances were reinforced by megaphones.
In South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, women’s friendships are still limited. Only 12 percent of young married women in Jaunpur (Uttar Pradesh) are allowed to visit friends or relatives alone; 36 percent have no close colleagues with whom they can discuss personal issues.
The seclusion of women remains largely due to slow economic development. To alleviate precariousness, Arabs and Indians continue to rely on kinship for crisis credit and job opportunities. In order to maintain strong kinships, women’s mobility is tightly controlled, which thwarts their ability to take advantage of economic opportunities. In addition, industrialization was not labor intensive. The job queues are long and men come first.
Street harassment in Delhi and Cairo increases female isolation. Gangs admonish women who dare to venture to betray their behavior and sully their reputation. Although female graduates in Mumbai pursue careers in IT, telecommunications and finance, women loitering remains prohibited. As long as women remain separate and secluded, they struggle to form alliances.
The most powerful engine for closing this gender gap in friendships is rapid economic growth. As the income from skilled work increases, parents are increasingly investing in their children’s education. Technological advances (electrification and tap water) made time-saving household appliances possible. The rapid economic growth meant that employers ran out of suitably qualified men, so that they increasingly hired and promoted women. Now American women can finally devote themselves to their careers and benefit from tightening labor markets.
The rapid industrialization of East Asia also made it possible for women to free themselves from parental control. Daughters migrated to the cities, where they made friends, complained about unfair practices, and discovered more egalitarian alternatives. They gained “face” (respect and social standing) by paying off their income, supporting their families and, like sons, showing filial piety.
Cambodia is also industrializing. Women’s networking has historically been hampered by tireless housework. It used to be said: “Women are short-legged, men are long-legged”, “Women can only move in the kitchen”. But rural patriarchy was destroyed by the economic boom and rapid urbanization. Women flock to factory work and college education. As they hang out in bubble tea cafes and watch so many women thrive in historically male-dominated areas, friends collectively affirm that “women can do what men can do”.
In the USA, too, women have made careers and demonstrated their equal competence. Attitudes are catching up: Men are no longer stereotyped as being more intelligent. Friendship groups are critical to this social change. Only those who speak up, share ideas and thereby achieve broad support for social change can meet better expectations and demands. Female MBA students who are randomly divided into sections with more female colleagues are much more likely to later become senior executives. Why? Because female MBA networks imagine women-friendly companies where they thrive. In the state of Georgia, black women have built on their strong community networks to secure labor, criminal justice, and electoral rights.
Democracy is a basic requirement for feminist awareness. Public disagreements allow ideas to be disseminated through peer groups. Inspired by media advocates, teenagers text their friends. Together they explore radical alternatives. More French women are leaving high-risk jobs after thousands of non-tolerant sexual harassment requests and voted in favor of #MeToo. In South Korea, sustained activism has similarly raised feminist awareness and increased accountability at the highest levels – older men have been forced to resign.
But in countries with weak protection of civil and political freedoms, #MeToo passed without a whimper. Although China’s rapid development has allowed women to rise in the ranks, concerted raids are increasing self-censorship. In the absence of open debate, female friendship groups remain blinders to a broader debate. Because they rarely hear dissenting opinions or find support, many Chinese women see sexual harassment as inevitable.
Feminist activism is thriving in Latin America. Development, democratization, and simply the freedom to move around have enabled a rapid increase in female employment. Through relentless mobilization and huge rallies, women have successfully achieved gender quotas and reproductive rights and broken the silence about sexist violence.
Nevertheless, the patriarchy remains. Men still shirk housework, governments don’t fund childcare enough, student associations protect rapists, and male-dominated firms promote less competent men.
But thanks to the development and increasing employment of women, women now have more allies at work. Women’s friendships grow stronger and encourage one another to face patriarchy.
In the winter. Public domain.