As I participate in more feminist discourse and communities, I find myself challenged to describe what sisterhood means.
Making actual change is difficult. Talking big within your safe in group is easy. Those risk willing people weren’t interested in taking purposeful risks. Plenty of people hack. Few people protest. (Aria Plus Cat)
I know that sisterhood means a real active change that challenges institutional power, but also I know that it means loving women as we grow and fail too.
But how do we motivate each other to do better without stagnating? While moving beyond seeing one another as only valuable as productive laborers? How do we stand with our younger learning sisters when they do wrong? Without condoning their bad behavior? What sort of relationship does sisterhood convey between lesbians and heterosexual women, black and white women? How can we have a relationship when we have participated in our dividedness? How do we recognize the differences while claiming same-ness?
Certainly, I don’t have an answer to this question. I doubt that there’s one right answer to this question. I pose it to challenge myself to try to answer it and to hope that maybe this internal conversation can be an opening to active discussion.
First let’s look at a patriarchal definition of sisterhood, how the patriarchy has created a dark reversal of a gynocentric relationship between women.
Part of this active discussion is going to be criticism. I am always amazed at the women who claim to be political, but cannot take criticism of their actions. Being honest – pointing out an error – is seen as cruelty. We have to recognize how we have been sensitized as women, to believe in our incompetent fragility and also our need to be perfect to deserve even the smallest degree of respect. We are going to look hard at our community, even at how we feel about ourselves and each other.
To insist that women challenge their own fear of effectiveness and their own guilt for behaving effectively, to insist that we both behave honestly and responsibly and risk hurting others’ feelings (which is hardly the worst thing in the world) is emphatically to disobey the Feminine Imperative. It’s selfish. It isn’t sisterly. It isn’t “nice.”
But it is, I’m beginning to suspect, the feminist act. (Power and Helplessness via Feminist Reprise)
Sisterhood seems to be here defined as a patriarchal sisterhood. The patriarchal sister is weak, forgiving, cringing. She lets people take advantage of her. She feels guilt. She’s fearful of her crippled strength and others who are stronger than her. “Daddy’s Girl, always tense and fearful, uncool, unanalytical, lacking objectivity, appraises Daddy, and thereafter, other men, against a background of fear (`respect’) and is not only unable to see the empty shell behind the facade, but accepts the male definition of himself as superior, as a female, and of herself, as inferior, as a male, which, thanks to Daddy, she really is.” Perhaps patriarchal sisterhood is a bit like matrophobia:
Consider, for example, the instilled fear of becoming like one’s mother (matrophobia). Repeatedly we find daughters who repudiate the particular kind of victimization they see in their mothers’ lives, only to live and die out an apparently opposite but really only slightly variant form of the same dis-ease (for example, the life of a Cosmo Girl as opposed to that of a staid suburban housewife). (Daly, Gyn/ecology)
The patriarchal sisterphobia would be the pitting of Cosmo girl against her older sister housewife, the city sisters against each other in the workplace, the working sister her younger dependent sister. “A vivid and accurate image of the way in which women have been coerced into “participating” in the phallocratic processions” can include the way sisters have competed against each other to be more hobbled. Daly focuses on the mother who mutilates her daughter’s feet, but patriarchal sisters participate in this process too.
In the old stories of Cinderella, the mother mutilates both her daughters but at the same time, the daughters compete against each other for both her attention and the male attention of the Prince. This sister against sister portion of the story is revived in the production of Into the Woods. This intra-sister violence may also be shown again in the Disney production of Cinderella.
The prince tried the slipper on the eldest stepsister. The sister was advised by her mother to cut off her toes in order to fit the slipper. While riding with the stepsister, the two doves from Heaven told the Prince that blood dripped from her foot. Appalled by her treachery, he went back again and tried the slipper on the other stepsister. She cut off part of her heel in order to get her foot in the slipper, and again the prince was fooled. While riding with her to the king’s castle, the doves alerted him again about the blood on her foot. He came back to inquire about another girl. As Cinderella was walking down the aisle with her stepsisters as her bridesmaids, (they had hoped to worm their way into her favour), the doves from Heaven flew down and struck the two stepsisters’ eyes, striking the remaining eyes of the two evil sisters blind, a punishment they had to endure for the rest of their lives. (via Wikipedia)
In the story we see the inter generational violence: Mother to daughter. We also see the intra generational violence: Sister to sister, back and forth.
The story recognizes that the violence occurs as the women fight for the Prince’s attention and the privileges that come with it. The scrambling conniving step sisters are a conveyed as clear evil force. But the step sisters could be portrayed as victims too. Cinderella and the step sisters have been abused and hurt by the step mother, but that is totally erased. The sisters cannot work together or bond over their shared experience.
Nor can the women, sisters and mothers, work together to escape the (patriarchal) cycle of abuse: Cinderella strikes the sisters blind. Cinderella is a good patriarchal daughter in that she remains an order removed from the doves of heaven, but her distorted wish for violence that drives the retribution. In other stories, Cinderella’s husband binds the stepmother in hot iron shoes as a wedding gift to his new wife. Cinderella’s marriage begins with the mother “dancing” to death as the hot metal burns her feet. Cinderella remains dependent, now on the prince, rather than her step mother or father.
This same sisterly relationship as competitive and dependent can be continued in feminist spaces, between feminist women. Systems of dominance and relationships of dominance abound in patriarchal societies, even between women.
Since the middle-class friends […] were never explicit that what made them uncomfortable with me was not what I said but that I could say it, what I got in return was abuse. Just as my long-ago class-privileged friend had explained to me, when people are forbidden a right to honest anger and the apology that could be demanded from one who has injured them, all that is left to express is cruelty; all that is left to reach for from the other person is a reaction—any reaction—but preferably one that hurts as much as the wounded party now feels hurt. ( The Lesbian Revolution and the 50 Minute hour)
The same issues are used to keep out lesbian feminists from mainstream feminist spaces:
There is a disgusting history of women shutting out the (lesbian) hysteric woman from feminist discourse. The woman who talks a little too loudly about hating men is never welcome. The woman who is honest about her anger at rape in her politics is worse still. The lavender menace is at once named, othered, and shut out. (Aria Plus Cat)
Womyn’s centers (and bookstores and restaurants and buildings) were effectively closed to separatist and other radical lesbians by their switch from revolutionary forums to social reform, and later still to a focus on personal growth. Relationships between lesbians were similarly undermined [by] privileged womyn ( The Lesbian Revolution and the 50 Minute hour)
But what is feminist sisterhood?
Those who live in the tradition of the Furies refuse to be tricked into setting aside our anger at this primordial mutilation, which is the ontological separation of mother from daughter, of daughter from mother, of sister from sister. Women choosing Hag-ocracy refuse to teach divine science to the kings of the earth, to initiate them into our mysteries. Hag-ocracy is the time/space of those who maintain a growing creative fury at this primal injustice (Mary Daly, Gyn/ecology)
I’ll try to tackle the question in more depth. But we’re going to have to unweave the patriarchal reversal.