Sisterhood is . . . (Well) Complicated by Carol P. Christ


When I wasCarol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 2 a girl, the women in the neighborhood looked out for each other, and my mother had a wide circle of women friends. My grandmother lived nearby, and she and my mother spoke on the telephone nearly every day. My mother and I had a close relationship cemented by caring together for my baby brother.

In graduate school when I was one of a few women in a male-dominated field in a hostile environment, I discovered that “sisterhood is powerful” when I joined a group of women who came together to share experiences and change our lives. Having grown up in a community in which women supported each other, I found it relatively easy to support and seek support from women in a feminist environment.

At the same time, my newfound feminist identity deepened a rift that had opened in my relationship with my mother when I decided to go to graduate school. Though she was proud of my accomplishments, my mother feared that if I pursued a career, I would never get married. Through feminism, I gained a language I used to criticize the compromises my mother made in her relationship with my father. She responded that she had no interest in exploring questions that might lead her to leave him.

I began to learn that the idea of the sisterhood of women has its limitations.

Just last week a Greek woman friend and I were discussing the break-up of three marriages in our village between foreign women and Greek men. I commented that I had been shocked that the men—who had been left by their wives—told their sons that their mothers were “putanas” (whores) and encouraged their sons to cut off all communication with their mothers.

I was even more shocked when my friend responded that these women (who had waited until their sons finished high school before they left their marriages) never should have abandoned their families. My attempts to suggest that these women must have had good reasons to leave their marriages fell on deaf ears.

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente’s recent blog “Feministing Sarah and Hagar” caused me to think again about the ways women’s bonds with each other are distorted by patriarchy. Vanessa tells us that the story of Sarah and Hagar epitomizes the relationships of women under patriarchy, showing:

. . .how their lives  intertwine in accordance with the wishes of male authority, the way which their identities, potential and agencies are put in trail against each other to meet a man’s need–is the depiction of the universal and original performance of women in the history of patriarchal domination over us.

Reflecting on Vanessa’s blog I noted that:

Sarah was given (for sex) by her husband to a more powerful man, and then she was the one who gave (for sex) Hagar to her husband. Sadly, under the conditions of patriarchy women who have been abused “normally” participate in the system: rather than identifying with abused women (including themselves), they all too often jump at the opportunity to abuse another woman. In Greece and India, where marriages are arranged, the new bride is often abused by her mother-in-law, who herself was abused by her mother-in law, and the system continues.

Women can bond with each other under the conditions of patriarchy as my mother’s experience demonstrates. Indeed the world would probably not have survived if women had not listened to each other’s stories and bound up each other’s wounds. Nonetheless, women’s bonding under the conditions of patriarchy is distorted when it is based on deception and self-deception, abuse and self-abuse. Moreover, traditional women’s bonding does not usually extend to women who challenge patriarchal norms and only rarely crosses class and race lines.

My Greek friend, like my mother, assumes that women should always put their husbands and families first. This means that certain questions cannot be asked. And as my conversation with her revealed, women who ask them will receive no support or sympathy from women who are unwilling to do so.

Muriel Rukeyser wrote:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.

Rukeyser forgot to add that for the world to split open women must also listen. In order to listen, women must be willing to ask questions about their own lives. Until and unless women as a group take this risk, we will continue to pit ourselves and allow ourselves to be pitted against each other.

I sometimes ask myself why I often feel isolated (despite being for the most part a kind and interesting person). Perhaps I have my answer. I ask questions and speak truths that make other people feel uncomfortable. And that is so.

Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Sign up now for the fall tour and save $150. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ.  Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the GoddessGoddess and God in the World final cover design will be published by Far Press in 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in August 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.

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Categories: Activism, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General

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32 replies

  1. So … interesting read, Carol, thank you.

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  2. A most interesting and thought-provoking post. I’ve always known there are women who are complicit in oppression but your post sets it out so clearly it’s stimulating my thoughts this morning.

    This is possibly off-topic, for which I apologize, but I’ve noticed for the past year on television that the women presenters on local TV (Washington, DC) are indistinguishable from each other. All have shoulder-length bleached blonde hair, all wear skin-tight clothes, and a few have had their eyes “lifted” which gives them the look of panthers, leopards, and so on. Is that how they have to dress to hold their jobs?They’re almost impossible to tell apart. Isn’t this a form of oppression?

    I must ponder this post at length. I have a daughter, two daughters-in-law, and granddaughters. Thank you, Carol.

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  3. Enjoyed the title for this piece, thanks Carol, and thanks for FAR. The term “sisterhood” isn’t the right term in my opinion for female bonding in any case. We don’t have to be family in order to love one another, or in order to work together in solidarity. And then again sisterhood is … (well) complicated.

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  4. Thank you for exploring this complicated and painful reality, Carol. I resonate with it very much. It takes me back to getting kicked out the coaches’ wives Bible study while I was in a PhD program in Religious Studies. My husband was coaching in the NFL at the time. The proposed book topic for the Bible study was about how to be a submissive wife. I asked if we might consider exploring some other perspectives as well. I was asked not to return. I think also of my mother in law who has reiterated very traditional gender roles in her marriage. It is difficult for her to be supportive of me; sometimes it seems easy for her to assume any problem in my family’s life must be a direct correlation to the work I do. She has told me that my work makes her very uncomfortable. And I realize that if she gives it space, her whole world could come crashing down. Even with this framework of understanding, it can still feel sad and isolating to me. Being a feminist can be lonely. Thanks for giving language to some of the layers of this reality. Peace to you, Marcia.

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  5. Excellent post, Carol. I also ask questions and speak truths that can make others feel uncomfortable. It’s not my intention to cause discomfort, but I think it’s essential to do so in order to retain my integrity and push the conversation forward.

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  6. My mother was just as threatened by my interest in higher education as she was my sexual orientation – in fact, perhaps more so, as she had deep shame about her academic limitations. She cut off contact with me for good when I was in my 20s. In my professional life, I’ve had far more problems with female co-workers than with men (although the two best supervisors I’ve had were female). I am now wary of women professional peers, which makes me sad. There’s no escaping patriarchal culture, it seems; we’ve all been damaged by it.

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  7. Thanks for writing this blog. All though grade school and high school and college, my best (and only) friends were other girls. My high school Latin teacher (Miss Doyle) called us “intellectual snobs,” but she also encouraged us to do well. This was back in the days before there was anything like the kind of sisterhood you write about. We were just girls the boys didn’t like, so we stuck together. More or less. I used to joke that the boys didn’t like us because we were “revolting.” Looking back now, I see that that’s fairly accurate, even though we had no idea we were trying to find ways out of the patriarchal patterns. Today I cherish my sisters.

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  8. So much to think about. Thank you Carol.

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  9. I have to be honest here.

    Usually I delete posts by Carol when they arrive in my mail box.

    I just don’t relate to her perspective.

    Not today.

    I also shared this blog with my followers on Twitter.

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  10. I am finding that I am more liberal than my sister, my daughter, and my best friend. So many women are afraid to challenge the staus quo because they fear the loss of the only security they have. How can we become brave enough to make the deep changes that need to happen in order to move out of the destructive patriarchal world we live in? We need new paradigms, a different social structures (family, education, political, etc.), before it is too late (global warming may make our efforts futile if we don’t make haste).

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    • Sad isn’t it. And the Dem election is even driving wedges among feminists and progressives. This weekend besides debating Hillary-Bernie with some American friends, our conversation broke down when someone else stated that the reason Mt Athos (the Holy Mountain of Greek Orthodoxy) doesn’t allow women or female animals is because women are viewed as temptresses. This is feminist theology 101 but my one of my friends found it offensive that we would criticize men’s right to their own spaces. No matter that I said men’s and women’s spaces are fine, but when the space where women cannot set foot is considered the most holy space in a religion where women are not allowed into the priesthood or the hierarchy, then there is something wrong. “Oh come off it Carol, don’t take these things so seriously or so personally.”

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      • I am often criticized by my adult son for taking things so personally when I know (and can feel) that his underlying agenda privileges hurting me. His forever criticism of me is “that I do whatever I want to” like it’s a crime of some kind.

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  11. Great post, Carol. Even sisterhood among feminists can be complicated, especially when it’s institutional feminism, i.e. Women’s Studies or Gender Studies. Then it gets complicated by the economic competition of very few jobs as well as the competition of academia, which is the most pernicious competition I’ve found. My husband (a scientist) used to ask, “Do you think the competition you experience [in the German Department] is because there’s so little money in the humanities?” I think it was competition for status, since there was almost no money. What it felt like was adolescence, so I left, because I wanted to grow up.

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    • I left too and as I write in my forthcoming book, the last nails in the coffin came from other feminists in religion who as the years progressed found it more comfortable to converse primarily with other Christians.

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    • And yes with disputes among feminists, a lot of the time it has to do with not wanting to offend the big boys who rule the field(s), whether it is the Marxists who view feminist spirituality as another opiate of the people or the Christians who view it as heretical or all the others who think it just goes too far, is too emotional, too woman-oriented, or whatever.

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  12. Great post, Carol! I am very lucky that I have an excellent relationship with my mother and she is also a feminist. She went back to college in the 70s and she was just one semester ahead of me. We both took women’s studies courses. I bring my feminism in when I lead Bible study. At first this was difficult because most of the elderly women were traditional, but after I moved my mom here and she joined Bible study it got better and now we have some newly retired members who are also feminists. They’ve forced me to do more research and it has been great! Tomorrow I’m going to talk about Jezebel and help them see how patriarchy has used her to keep women in their place and given her a bum rap. I’m utilizing info. from Barbara J. Essex’s book, Bad Girls of the Bible, as well as from the Women’s Bible Commentary. Although there are more feminists in Bible study, I still feel overwhelmed sometimes by the way the women support patriarchy. This despite the fact that our minister is a gay man and a feminist and we’ve also had many female ministers. That is why I’m so grateful for my women’s singing circle.

    Unfortunately I also have had problems with feminists who don’t want to offend the big boys, as you put it, or who just aren’t supportive of any woman who isn’t exactly like them. I found that particularly among women’s studies students who were much younger than me.

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  13. Two of the worst bosses I ever had were women. They both called themselves feminists but they set out to prove to the (male) hierarchy that they deserved the promotion more than I did by criticizing my work and productivity. I understood that, and understood their ambition, but engaged n sisterhood they weren’t.

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  14. Thank you Carol. So sad that one of the primary coping strategies adopted by trauma survivors is to identify with the abuser/oppressor in an attempt to feel powerful. I’ve spent my career in women’s organizations and seen betrayal of women by women carrying unresolved trauma over and again. In my view, women’s (and other liberation groups) organizations must provide regular and ongoing education and process regarding these issues. Unfortunately this costs and most don’t have budget or will for it.

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  15. All so true and so sad. Think of the women who perform the female genital mutilations…. that’s a strange sisterhood.

    Your last paragraph resonates with me deeply. When we walk to a different path we often find ourselves alone. But always remember that many, many people love you – they just might not be joining you for dinner tonight as they live on the other side of the world.

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  16. As always a thoughtful and wise post, thank you once again! I guess, as you point out, it can’t really be otherwise……individuals and groups need what we used to call “consciousness raising” and courage to face these deeply embeded behaviors that arise from the oppression of patriarchy. I have painfully found some of these kinds of problems within sophisticated circles as well, the lonely experience of masculine competitive behavior…….and also sometimes the unconscious tyranny that discourages excellence and leadership in women’s groups in favor of a “non-threatening” common denominator. Few people talk about this, and it can indeed be lonely.

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  17. Very powerful post, Carol. Thank you for writing this.

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  18. Thanks Carol for mentioning me. I feel myself explained totally in this paragraph: “I sometimes ask myself why I often feel isolated (despite being for the most part a kind and interesting person). Perhaps I have my answer. I ask questions and speak truths that make other people feel uncomfortable. And that is so.” Also I have a temper.

    Regards

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  19. Women’s consciousness raising which began in the sixties did not reach all parts of the globe (very few in fact) and new generations arose who missed it and saw it as something of the past. The isolation felt by women bound socially and economically into patriarchal patrilineal households has never been broken in many cultures and has only been cracked in others.

    Here in California, one of the more liberated cultures, girls have continued over the years to feel the need to conform to heterosexual norms that are grounded in patriarchy. I have seen many go from liberated young girls into adolescents acting and speaking in defense of patriarchy, all the while submersing their intelligence and their inner wolves and wasting their resources on expensive clothes and traditional makeup meant to attract boys and prove their feminine worth. The more recent and rapid acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender identities among these youth could be a blessing for sisterhood; maybe this greater openness to non-traditional sexual identity will increase acceptance of non-traditional heterosexual relationships resulting in women being allowed to be who and what they want.

    As cultures continue to diffuse across the world, we are seeing more acceptance of anti-feminist practices like the ones you mention, which appears as a move toward more conservative beliefs. But I have hope that within these cultures, with their ever increasing movement into shared space, are seeds which will sprout and become sources of acceptance and support among diverse sisters. It is up to all of us to make that happen. There are many conservative forces at work, and if we keep silent in the confrontation, we allow the ongoing suppression of the sacred wild within ourselves and our sisters.

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  20. This essay clarifies why women have such difficulty with friendships in a particularly poignant way. We are all struggling with the patriarchal structure in one way or the other. I do ask difficult and challenging questions – I ask them of myself as well as others. I also speak uncomfortable truths. It has taken me a lifetime to understand that women and men find emotional truth threatening and by choosing this way of being in the world I create my own isolation.

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  21. Great article. Thanks!

    I understand why it is just too hard for many women to take a stand against patriarchy. I did, and over the last ten years have lost my tribe, church, faith, marriage and previous closeness with my adult children. Because of this, some of my sisterhood who have honoured my journey and travelling through their own, have dared to reveal to me that they can’t claim their rights because they “don’t want to risk ending up losing as much as I have’. Risking alienation from tribes is a powerful force to stay where you are!

    Yes I am deeply grieving my losses, however my growth and transformation has been profound and I have never before experienced such deep peace and joy.

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    • Thanks for sharing Janine. I have often wondered how many women took a look at my career or life and decided not to “risk” speaking unwelcome truths. I am glad you are experiencing peace and joy. It is deeply satisfying to live truthfully.

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      • Thanks for responding, Carol. You wondered how many women chose not to take the risk to speak unwelcome truths. I wondered the opposite question! How many women chose to be empowered by reading your blog? I am one of those women. Because women like you have dared to speak unwelcome truths, women like me realised that this path was possible. And survivable.

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    • Welcome to the FAR tribe, Janine. We celebrate your stand against patriarchy!!

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      • Thanks Nancy, I love that concept!

        I think Rumi spoke of the Far Tribe!

        Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
        When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
        Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

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      • Janine —

        I love that Rumi poem, too.

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