When I was 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:
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: Mysteries of the Goddess 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.