I asked my mother and my sister what the word sisterhood meant to them today. The short answer: “Not a lot”. My sister said it reminded her of hippies and my mother said it conjured up images of nuns. ‘Sisterhood’ has always been one of those terms that I’ve regarded with suspicion. Even before I understood the concept of cis privilege (the benefits afforded those whose gender identity is the same as that which they were assigned at birth), it seemed like a special club from which I felt excluded. I don’t identify as trans, but like many people who may on the surface appear cis (and access related privilege) my gender journey has been far from linear.
My concern is that ‘sisterhood’ excludes people of non-binary gender from perceived ‘women-only’ spaces. As a child, I picked up on both the pressure to be stereotypically girly as well as the devaluation of traits that are seen as feminine in much of UK culture. My father always wanted ‘one of each’; to him this meant a girl and a boy and instead he was blessed with two daughters. As the second-born, I felt that his cravings for a son were projected onto me. I was always called a ‘tomboy’, hated pink and wearing dresses, and even now my dad frequently refers to me as ‘Charlie’ or ‘Herbert’. My mum wanted me to be happy, to socialise with girls my age and encouraged me to go along to parties. I’m not criticising their parenting, just the impossible gender socialisation standards that they were attempting to navigate.
One would think that growing up with a sister would instil some sense of sisterhood in me. Instead, I feel like in addition to the typical sibling rivalry, we also had to contend with a society that encourages women to compete rather than to bond. In my early twenties, I began exploring the typically feminine elements of my culture which I had rejected at a young age. Only once I had reached adulthood did I feel secure enough in myself to open up to what I saw as something potentially shameful. Femininity had not just been mocked; in my experience it was also alien and I felt myself stepping into a strange new world.
Despite being romantically involved with women on and off since my late teens, until recently I had never experienced what some might call ‘sisterhood’. I currently struggle with mental illness, and I realised a creative project might lend me the feeling of achievement that I was missing out on by not having a paid job. Since then my love for knitting has spread to other crafts including making my own clothes and hand-quilting. Crafting not only gives me a sense of productivity but I also find the process of sitting quietly and working with my hands to be a therapeutic one.
Historically, needlecrafts have been dominated by women. That is not to say that other genders haven’t played their part in developing the art; I have particularly liked reading about the sock-knitting that allied soldiers did in WWII*. In general, though, the tradition of women and needlecraft dating back generations gives me a feeling that may be termed ‘sisterhood’. The thought of women teaching their daughters crafts to pass on to their daughters makes me feel as though I belong to something bigger than me, as though my creations can mean more than the uses I put them to. When I sit down to knit, I echo the actions of my mother, and her mother before that.
Why does this mean more than simply being part of a crafting tradition to which everyone can belong? I think I have been overwhelmed by a version of history consumed with the achievements of men and lacking in comparable stories about women. Discovering this melting pot of innovation which has mainly been constructed by women gives me vicarious pride and something akin to a feeling of coming home.
Now I’m living in a house with two other women, and we all enjoy crafts. I like to think of our crafting circle as recreating a sort of consciousness-raising group. Just like an X-only space, however, I worry about the exclusion this could cause for those of other genders who would like to take part but experience the same feeling of ‘otherness’ that I have always felt in all-women groups. Perhaps sisterhood to me just means a coming to terms with my own current gender, when this has always previously been more in flux. I had always understood my gender in such fluid terms that the idea of it being more fixed is bound to be frightening.
When I started writing this post I wanted to explore a term that I was uncomfortable with. I would still say I do not favour it, but now I would divide my feeling into two separate camps: Firstly, rare pride at finding a history that I can relate to, and secondly, a comfort with my gender identity that I had not previously reached.