Female Friendships: More Than Just Mean Girls & Girls’ Nights Out

Friendship_2We’ve all heard the phrase, “Behind every successful man is a great woman.” Maybe the quote should actually be, “Behind every successful woman is another strong woman.”

As part of Women’s History Month, we highlight the accomplishments of women have contributed in many areas throughout history.  But what about the intense personal bonds of friendship that made this greatness possible?

We all know from Oprah herself that there would be no Oprah without Gayle.   Hillary Clinton is quick to point to her relationships with other women, such as best friend and Democratic donor, Susie Tompkins Buell, as important to her professional success and personal resilience.

Without the powerful connection between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — whose friendship was the subject of a PBS film by Ken Burns — there may have been no suffrage movement, or the beginnings of the women’s movement as we now know it.

As Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself said, “I am the better writer, she the better critic… and together we have made arguments that have stood unshaken by the storms of thirty long years; arguments that no man has answered.”

Female friendships are notoriously intense.  They can be both sweet and brutally savage.  They are as passionate as the most all-consuming love affair, as close as a family bond, as supportive as the best therapist, but as toxic as the worst poison.

Katie Couric’s talk show this week featured an episode on the life-sustaining power of female friends.  Ask a typical woman — even Katie Couric herself — about her current best friend, her childhood friend turned adversary, or the friend that she lost touch with long ago, and you will stir up obvious and deep emotions.  And, yes, you may even quickly get some tears.   (Go on, ask Oprah about Gayle and see what happens.)

As part of the talk show episode, Katie’s featured friendship expert, Shasta Nelson described the five types of friendship that all women need to create a circle of meaningful friends: contact, common , confirmed, community, and committed friends.  The relationships exist on a continuum for women from the most casual friends to the deepest, most committed bonds.

In order to allow women to talk about these bonds, my friend Stephanie and I have started a blogging project called HerStories:  Tales of Friendship.  We’ve been asking women to share with us their stories about a friend who has shaped their lives.  When we tell women, either in person or through e-mail, they have responded passionately, even if they didn’t want to express their stories in writing.  They can tell you in vivid detail about all the friendships that have changed their lives.  And they don’t need much coaxing.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think men would have quite the same visceral response to expressing themselves about the power of a good girlfriend.

Women’s friendships are not always positive.  Journalist Kelly Valen conducted a survey of more than thousand women about their friendships with other women for her book “The Twisted Sisterhood:  Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships” and found a disturbing portrait of female bonds.  Her research describes the unique scars that female friendship can leave, lingering even decades later.  While over three-quarters of women in her survey described their female friendships as “sacred,” “essential,” “authentic” and “life-sustaining,” more than 60% of the women stated that their past relationships had caused them to be “anxious,” “cautious” or “wary” of other women.  Nearly 85% of the women stated that they had suffered “terribly” because of their relationships with other women.

Maybe Valen is right, and we do need a new dialogue for how to talk about and manage the rivalries, jealousies, and emotional manipulation that are a part of many female relationships.  There are too many “mean girls” who are ruining other women’s lives.  But at the same time, we should acknowledge and highlight the power and potential of friendships to support and inspire women during all parts of their lives, from the uncertainty of adolescence, to the professional experimentation of many women’s twenties, to the confusion and exhaustion of new motherhood, to the changes during mid-life and beyond.

Jessica Smock is a doctoral candidate in educational policy who will be defending her dissertation this spring.  When she is not reading educational policy and blogging at School of Smock about parenting, she is collecting stories of female friendship with her pal, Stephanie.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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