Author’s Note: I write this in honor and celebration of my sister, Jeannie, who is turning 80 today, this third day of September, 2022. My thanks to the editors of FAR for letting me post this on her day.
I was born into sisterhood. My sister, Jeannie, who is ten years older than I am, loves to tell the story of how, in the days before prenatal testing, she told her 4th grade teacher that she was going to have a sister. She already had two brothers, and was convinced that the baby our mother was carrying – me – would be a girl. She welcomed my presence on this earth even before I was born. Jeannie has shown me the best of sisterhood – affirming and supporting me in all of my endeavors, giving me a trusted confidante with whom I could share the truths of my life, showing up when I have needed her emotional and physical care and support, celebrating the moments of triumph and joy, and understanding me in a way that few have. So, when I came into feminism in my twenties, I was deeply drawn to the feminist ideal of sisterhood.
I first found nascent notions of the feminist concept of sisterhood when studying early nineteenth century feminists. For Sarah Grimké[i], who closed each of her “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes” with, “Thine in the bonds of sisterhood,” those bonds were primarily of shared oppression. She regarded men’s oppression of women to be universal, knowing no boundaries of race, class, or culture, and wrote at length of the oppressed condition of women in the U.S., Asia, Africa, and Europe. In her abolitionist work she condemned the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of enslaved females and called on white women to act in solidarity with their enslaved sisters, and refuse their complicity in such abuse.
Grimké’s contemporary, Margaret Fuller[ii], emphasized the positive bonding of women. Rejecting the notion that women should mistrust and compete with one another, she asserted instead that women may indeed love one another. She urged women to respect themselves, to trust in their own intellects and impulses, to believe in the capacity of their own souls. She sought to develop communities of support among women in their common search for the essence of womanhood, as well as in the daily activities of life, suggesting communal kitchen, laundries, and childcare to free up women’s time for other pursuits. “I believe that, at present, women are the best helpers of one another.”[iii]
“Sisterhood is powerful” became the rallying cry of Second Wave feminism — a sisterhood of “the shared primary oppression of being female in a patriarchal world,”[iv] as well as mutual love and support often discovered in consciousness-raising groups. However, this notion of sisterhood came under two critiques: first, that women often oppress other women, and second, that white middle-class feminists narrowly conceived the notion of ‘sisterhood’ around their own issues in ways exclusive of other women. In her essay, “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Among Women,” bell hooks highlighted racism, classism, and sexism toward other women (in the forms of trashing, disregard, and professional and competitive violence) as ways women continue to oppress other women. She also questioned the idea of a “fundamentally common female experience,”[v] as did Audre Lorde, who saw “sisterhood” used as a pretense of a homogeneity of experience that was actually only white women’s. Building on the wisdom of Lorde who wrote, “it is not our differences which separate women but our reluctance to recognize those differences,”[vi] feminists envisioned a different idea of sisterhood that values a solidarity built on the strengths of difference and plurality. Womanist theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher has referred to this revised notion of “sisterhood” as sisterist — womanist yet in solidarity with diverse types of women. As hooks wrote, “We can be sisters united by shared interests and beliefs, united in our appreciation for diversity, united in our struggle to end sexist oppression, united in political solidarity.”[vii]
As part of a study of feminist organizations in my community, I interviewed two women who had been part of a consciousness-raising group run by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. Here they found dignity, empowerment, and a sisterhood that resonated with my own experience of relationship with my sister. One recalled how her ex-husband showed up at the group, pounding on the window demanding she come out, but the women surrounded her and kept her safe till he went away. “That was the beautiful thing back then,” said the other, “we were actually sisters.” In the group they learned about horizontal hostility among women — women fighting with each other, often over men — and learned instead that other women were their sisters. Each of them had “a piece of the truth no matter what.” “It felt like a jewel inside of us that we didn’t even know we had. . . We were so upheld.” One who had come to the group after coming out of an abusive relationship said, “I didn’t even know I was a human being I was so dehumanized . . . . And to have someone treat me like that . . . and to discover that women are my sisters. . . . It was not just words. We felt that. We were believed. We were valued. We had wisdom. We had a piece of the truth. We were carrying around a gem. People were interested in us. And we had sisters.”[viii]
This is the best of feminist sisterhood. As Baker-Fletcher noted, sisterhood is not always perfect, but “sistering and sisterist allow for open-ended but committed relationships, in which there is plenty of room for learning, growth, and the love that develops from ongoing talk, listening, work, and play with one another.”[ix] I have been fortunate to experience this sistering of uplifting the dignity and truths of each other, of learning and growing together in building a Women’s Studies program, in Women’s Studies classrooms, in consciousness-raising groups, in the local feminist community, and especially in friendships. It all began with my sister, my friend.
Happy 80th birthday, beloved sister, with gratitude for seventy years of sisterhood.
Baker-Fletcher, Karen. Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.
Bartlett, Elizabeth Ann. Liberty, Equality, Sorority: The Origins and Interpretation of American Feminist Thought: Frances Wright, Sarah Grimké, and Margaret Fuller. New York: Carlson Publishing, 1994.
______. Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016.
______. Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Davis, Marvella and Babette Sandman. Personal Interview. December 11, 2014.
Grimké, Sarah. Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and Others Essays. Ed. and with an Introduction by Elizabeth Ann Bartlett. New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1988.
Hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984.
______. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press, 1989.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984.
Morgan, Robin, Ed., Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York: Random House, 1970.
Ossoli, Margaret Fuller. Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition and Duties of Woman. Ed. Arthur B. Fuller, Boston: John P. Jewett, 1855.
[i] Sarah Grimké (1792-1873) was an abolitionist speaker and feminist who wrote a series of letters on the condition of women to Mary Parker, president of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society in the New England Spectator in 1838, initially begun in response to a Pastoral Letter from the Council of Congregationalist Ministers of Massachusetts who denounced her and her sister’s behavior of speaking in public as unwomanly and unchristian. William Lloyd Garrison printed the letters in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and Grimké eventually published them in a single tract, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes.
[ii] Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was a journalist and editor of the Transcendentalist publication, The Dial. Her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (p. 1845) was considered one of the major feminist works of her time. She died tragically in a shipwreck off of Fire Island, New York, at the age of 40.
[iii] Woman in theNineteenth Century, 205.
[iv]Morgan, Sisterhood Is Powerful, xxxv.
[v] Hooks, Talking Back, 23.
[vi] Lorde, Sister Outsider, 122.
[vii] Hooks, Feminist Theory, 65.
[viii] Sandman, Personal Interview.
[ix] Baker-Fletcher, Sisters of Dust, 9.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.