Most women know the value of a good friend. We have long been aware of the psychological benefits of friendship, the importance of a ‘problem shared’ particularly around areas of physical and mental health. What is trivially and derogatorily referred to as ‘gossip’ and ‘girls talk’ can often be a lifeline of support and self affirmation for women. But are friendships amongst women more than this – do they play a vital, even pivotal, role in women’s acceptance or rejection of the gendered status quo?
Within the euphoria and joy of the first wave of feminism in Britain, some feminist writers sought to highlight and demonstrate women’s friendships as places of resistance and struggle. In preceding years this has perhaps been shown to be over-optimistic and wonderfully naive. But who can blame them, it was a period in time where women were coming together in solidarity and demanding personal and institutional freedoms. But it was a also a period that left some feminists of the time disillusioned by the fact that, although struggling side by side with other women, they were not becoming the close friends which they had hoped for. These were our ‘foremothers’ struggling for the hard won gains we feminists are now able to take for granted. Personally, I love the writing of the period which is hopeful yet naive but which bubbles with passion and warmth.
In the years that have followed women’s friendships have not been outright sites of resistance and revolution. Instead studies have shown that women’s friendships can be outwardly conservative and in terms of relationships with men they can be sites of placation and restraint. Yet, despite this, something happens when women get together as friends. We know our female friends are important, we know we can speak to them in a way we cannot speak with men, and we know a good female friendship is invaluable and something to treasure.
Sociolinguistics gives us the foundation blocks for understanding this. We do not need to look to simplistic essentialist ideas of women but rather we look to our unique and proud history and culture as women who have experienced systemic oppression. Our experience as women has led us to experience language and self-expression in ways which mean we are able to be intuitive and gentle in our communicative style when necessary. This means we can communicate on a level with each other which some men find problematic. Feminist historians have demonstrated that women have always had friends, that in periods of history these friendships were central to society. Sociologically, feminist academics have dragged friendship from the shadowy world of the private and domestic sphere into the wider world, where its structural implications and institutional effects can begin to be explored.
Women’s friendships may not often be noisy sites of powerful resistance and revolution, sometimes they are quite the reverse, but they are places of support and understanding. They are places where women can find fulfilment, knowledge and an escape. They are places where gender politics are discussed, wrapped within the context of the everyday issues of children, partners and work. Important issues are simmering; women are asking what is fair and what is just. The gendered status quo is understood, it is critiqued and it is questioned. Quietly, and perhaps at a slower pace than early feminists may have hoped for, women’s friendships seek to readdress the landscape of women’s lives.
Thinking about women’s friendships is therefore not trivial, it is essential. Let us look at our own friendships and let us ask what is special and what is unique about our ability to love our friends and be nurtured by that experience; where this experience leads us; and how our friendships transform us inside and out.
Nicola Stott is a PhD candidate at the University Of York, Centre for Women’s Studies. Her background is in Social Work.