The Power of Female Friendship

A truly excellent piece over at The Rumpus about female friends:

I was reminded of the Wrinklies, of my friends, of the ways in which they carry me, when I read A Train in Winter by Caroline Morehead, a remarkable book that tells the story of women French resistance fighters who were sent to Auschwitz and who survived by doing what women do: supporting, finding a way to love and nurture in situations marked by the absence of love, tenderness, sense, sanity, or even humanity. In a concentration camp they managed to make Christmas gifts out of string and sticks; they put on plays in their barracks; they supported the weaker women, often hiding them for roll call. They were “a team.”

Not a gaggle of bitches then, but women who survived against literally unthinkable odds, in a place where all the rules about how to be a human were disregarded, turned on their heads. When it was all over, the few that had lived returned home, but the connections they had with others weren’t as fierce, weren’t as strong. The ache of missing was intense: “Even when they were not able to meet, the survivors continued to feel bound to each other in ways that did not weaken with time. There remained a familiarity between them, a sense of openness and ease that they shared with no one else.” The book brought to mind movies that celebrate female friendship: Beaches, when a woman sits with her friend until she dies; Iris, when the novelist Iris Murdoch has been transformed by Alzheimer’s, her friends love her through it; Julia, when a distraught Jane Fonda tries to locate the child of her friend who was murdered during WW2. She wants to care for the child but she also wants part of the woman she loved. These are often called “chick flicks,” as if they had no truth or wisdom to offer to anyone but the silly, fickle women who shell out money to see them or rent them on Netflix.

Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends, what the Irish call anam cara. It’s what the Wrinklies did for one another, what the French resistance fighters in Auschwitz did for one another, what women do for one another in real relationships with real consequences in real time, every day, what my friends do for me. We help one another other live and sometimes, we watch – and help – one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life – now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.

I’ve also been blessed with a handful of truly deep and transformative relationships with women — friendships that have carried on for the majority of my life; friendships that have evolved into family; friendships that have kept me afloat when sinking felt inevitable. And it’s a shame that the value of female friendship isn’t recognized beyond films that are assumed to be silly.

11 comments for “The Power of Female Friendship

  1. MC
    January 26, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    When I was younger, my friendships with women were greatly influenced by the crappy frienemies that are the friendship tropes for women, so I think it is a powerful negative force in the lives of young women.

    I have moved on from that, but the lack of respect for friendships of women is another way women are infantalized and dismissed in media.

    On the other hand, I’ve read many “chick lit” books, and despite their stupid label, almost all of the books I’ve read are based around good friendships with women (sorry, no references, I have a bad memory and haven’t been reading them lately).

  2. Donna L
    January 26, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    A very nice piece, although I truly wish she hadn’t raised the Auschwitz book and cited it as one of her examples of female friendship, together with movies like Beaches. I’m willing to accept that those women’s friendship — and/or solidarity — was greatly beneficial to them in many ways, but I strongly suspect that the 20% or so who survived did so not because of their friendship but, like most survivors, because of luck — and, in their case, the fact that most of them were political prisoners and weren’t Jewish (in which case 95% or more would have ended up in the gas chambers upon arrival, or later if they didn’t die first from other causes, like all of my own family members who were deported to the death camps from France). All the friendship, strength, and fortitude they may have had (which the author has no evidence was greater than that of any other group of people sent to Auschwitz) would have done them no good whatsoever.

  3. January 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    This is the reason I still love Fried Green Tomatoes.

  4. roro80
    January 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    What a great article — made me cry. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. WestEndGirl
    January 26, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    As usual, Donna L, exactly what I wanted to say but in a calmer, more coherent manner. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not instrumental for others to play out their stories and ideas on – it was hell on earth.

  6. WitchWolf
    January 26, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    I never had close female friends growing up, my mother, a Narcissists, always broke my friendships up, even as a child. I wasn’t even allowed to be close to my brothers, because she would always make sure that there were barriers, which still exist today.

    I have female friends but none are very – very -very close —

  7. January 26, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful article.

  8. rain
    January 27, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    I wonder how much of what makes female friendship a topic for discussion is attributable to the perception that a woman’s caring and nurturing is misdirected when it’s aimed at another woman instead of children and men.

    We need to take into consideration the vastly different lives men and women lead and how invisible women’s caring work becomes when it conforms to stereotype. Or as Chaz Bono said (sure, he said a lot of stupid shit about biology and hormones, but that doesn’t invalidate his observations), “I’m constantly shocked by how friendly and cool straight men are to each other.”

    So men are not only nice to each other, they also get a lot of pretty-much-invisible nurturing and support from the women around them, who are, of course, hard-wired to nurture them (insert roll-eyes here). What do women get? Their reality is a world of generally hostile men who provide no free support and nurturing. Nobody has their back, and when women turn to each other for support, it’s like they’re decloaking. Suddenly, everyone notices them and their nurturing. But that doesn’t mean that women are being more caring to each other than they are towards men, or that these relationships are more “powerful”. It’s just that when women nurture men, it’s invisible; when women nurture other women, it’s notable. And that’s what I think is behind the “power of female friendship” narrative.

  9. January 27, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    I don’t know what to say…I feel it inappropriate to write what I feel on the author’s page but I just have to say it. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m married to a doctor, but how in this day and age does a well educated Jewish woman go through a pregnancy and not have the test for Tay sachs disease? It’s wonderful that your friends are there for you when you are in the pits of hell with your child near death and your life falling in around you; but where were these friends when she was going through her pregnancy? Why didn’t she know to be tested? And who the hell was her doctor? If I read one more comment about how beautiful her writing was I was going to scream. I’m sorry I am just so angry, friendship and art aside. This suffering could have been prevented and no amount of friendship or pain transformed into art can make that go away.

  10. January 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    never mind my post…I just found out she is not Jewish…so why would she have the test?…I jumped to a very silly conclusion.

  11. A Guy
    February 6, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Just wanted to say that comment 8 is really insightful and well put. As a guy I never really noticed this invisible caring that women do and how much it makes up their existence. Interesting stuff.

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