Do we need a sisterhood?

Is the conception of ‘sisterhood’ doing anything for intersectional feminism? Astha Rajvanshi interrogates the pros and cons of this ‘universalising’ concept.

Image via Eva the Weaver, Flickr.
Image via Eva the Weaver, Flickr.
Image via Eva the Weaver, Flickr.

The first time I ever bonded in solidarity with other women was when I began attending an all-girls high school. I remember my first day, sitting in a classroom full of only girls and glancing at the door during roll call, as if I was expecting the boys to enter any minute to have their names marked off. Of course, they were never going to come.

And there was something more – it was a kind of sisterhood, a connection formed in coming together to support each other simply because we were all women. Of course, it was never so simple, nor peaceful; women are much too passionate and diverse to simply bundle together.

Sisterhood, as an all-encompassing term for the collective experience, struggles, activism and feminism of women, presented a realm of doubts and complexities at the same time.

In 1970, Robin Morgan penned an anthology titled Sisterhood is Powerful. It was one of the earliest works to mark the women’s liberation movement, still standing as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Morgan, amongst others, sought to remind us of this natural affiliation to power – it was the power of personal relations, between women and women, and men and women, that was to bear against the politics of the patriarchy. The sisterhood is powerful because the personal is political.

Since the ‘70s, the notion of sisterhood has evolved and come to mean many things. Whilst some have lambasted it for being an ally to white, middle-class feminists at the cost of intersectional identities, others have made it their go-to term, because whilst they do not want to take on feminism they still maintain an affiliation to the experience of being a woman.

At the core of sisterhood lies a camaraderie and commonality in the affirmation of being women. In this sense, to believe in a sisterhood is to be, on some level, a feminist. It exists as a consciousness-raising notion, a psychological space within the minds of women to come to know themselves through knowing one another.

However, rising female individualism and opportunity have given with one hand, only to take away from the other. In the past, sisterhood recognised that our strengths as women lay in what was similar amongst our differences. Embodying the premise that women, like men, can be discussed in the abstract, it has drawn much of its force from the assumption that womanhood is a universal condition – an assumption that is very far from the reality of women’s lives. In a world divided by class, race and sexuality, sisterhood has not always provided for women of colour, migrants, queer or trans* women that exist outside the confines of a traditional, white middle-class society. Their oppression reminds us that feminism still fails to defend social and economic changes to ensure decent lives for all women. Sisters are still divided by a narrow margin between commitment to social transformation and unintended benefactors of implicit social systems.

If women are wise to reject a false sisterhood based on shallow notions of bonding, what is to be said of the solidarity and support that, at the core of it, is provided by being a woman? For one, sustained woman bonding can occur
only when these divisions are confronted.

At the same time, women are also taught that our relationships with one another diminish, rather than enrich our experience. We are taught that women are enemies and that solidarity will never exist between us. There exists, also, a women’s legacy of woman-hating, of vicious, brutal, verbal tearing apart of one another because of our differences. Even Mean Girls served to remind us that the win or lose competitiveness, often associated with male interactions, is demonstrated by women in dialogue.

Equally within discussions of sisterhood, men are overlooked easily. After all, sisterhood began as a counter to the male-focused society that women lived in. Too many sociology studies analysing women’s interactions have commented on how much time women spend talking about men – on how to understand them or how to refuse them. But womanhood is vacuous when it forgets that in society, men are put first in society by other men and by other women. Feminism has achieved so much because women have been willing to put each other, and their shared experiences, first.

Women do not need to eliminate difference to feel solidarity, or even share common oppression to fight it for that matter. We do not need anti-male sentiment to bond together. We can come together for a sisterhood in the diversity of our ideas and experiences.

I’ve since come to realize that on that first day of high school, somewhere in that classroom, was an invisibility of women that I had ignored because I was waiting for the men to arrive.