A personal and sociological examination--and ultimately a celebration--of the evolution of female friendship in pop culture and modern society
"Text me when you get home." After joyful nights out together, female friends say this to one another as a way of cementing their love. It's about safety; but more than that, it's about solidarity.
From Broad City to Big Little Lies to what women say about their own best friends, the stories we're telling about female friendship have changed. What used to be written off as infighting between mean girls or disposable relationships that would be tossed as soon as a guy came along are no longer described like that. Now, we're lifting up our female friendships to the same level as our other important relationships, saying they matter just as much as the bonds we have with our romantic partners, children, parents, or siblings.
Journalist Kayleen Schaefer relays her journey of modern female friendship: from being a competitive teenager to trying to be one of the guys in the workplace to ultimately awakening to the power of female friendship and the soulmates, girl squads, and chosen families that come with it.
Schaefer has put together a completely new sociological perspective on the way we see our friends today, one that includes interviews with dozens of other women across the country: historians, creators of the most iconic films and television shows about female friendship (and Galentine's Day!), celebrities, authors, and other experts. The end result is a validation of female friendship that's never existed before.
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The Friendships That Shaped Our Own
As I've gotten older, I've understood more the importance of friendships, and so, I really make an effort to reach out and make play dates, not let too much time go by.
-Jane Fonda, actress, writer, political activist
In 1969, a year and a half after my parents married, my dad, who was a civil engineer in the Air Force, was sent to the war in Vietnam. My mom stayed by herself in an apartment near the military base in Omaha, Nebraska. She had a job teaching Spanish to high school students, so during the day she went to work and at night she came home and wrote my dad a letter. "I made a promise that I would write every night," she says. A couple she and my dad had been friendly with looked after her, taking her to the movies or out to dinner, but "not weekly," she is quick to add.
She didn't have any other friends, or want any, which is inconceivable to me. It's not that I know my mom as someone who surrounded herself with girlfriends. I don't. But I assumed that at this point in her life, in her mid-twenties, by herself, states away from her parents and siblings, she'd at least have looked to other women for companionship and commiseration. Weren't there other women on the base whose husbands were in Vietnam? But she didn't.
"I never even thought of it," she says. "I didn't desire it. I concentrated on my teaching and wrote your dad letters. This was my way to support the effort in Vietnam. I had to be tough, and withstand anything; I couldn't be sad, or unhappy. I was just busy."
This is partly just my mom's personality. Being introspective, especially if that might turn into feeling depressed, is as unnatural to her as texting with her thumbs instead of her index fingers.
But her view on female friendships isn't unique among women of her generation. She's in her seventies now, and no longer feels like she has to soldier on being devoted only to her family. When she was a young wife and mother, she thought of friendships as an indulgence. They were nice, but not essential. What she was responsible for was taking care of her family, so she restrained herself from being interested in anything that would get in the way of that.
This was the contemporary view of how to live, at least if you were white and in the professional class, according to Judith E. Smith, a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "Heterosexual romance and the focus on the heterosexual couple is one of the hallmarks of being modern," she says. Men and women who had once looked for support from their friendships and extended families, even after they were married, now turned inward toward each other. My parents, who are white and upper-middle class, did exactly this. They believed the family unit superseded other relationships, and my early thinking that female friendships were superfluous came directly from their example and that of other families like ours in my hometown.
Some women, though, have always moved through the world together. In the mid-twentieth century, the professional class focused on their immediate families, but poorer, working-class women, who were white and non-white, continued to depend on larger networks, including relatives and female friends. They leaned on each other for help with childcare and finding jobs, and for companionship needs not met by sexual relationships. "People who were living from hand to mouth totally needed those additional relationships," Smith says.
At least in part because they couldn't afford not to, these women raised their friendships to the same level as other relationships in their lives. They took care of each other because it was necessary for survival.
My mom says she never felt lonely when she was a new wife, even though she didnÕt have any girlfriends. It never quite made sense to me because she had friends before she got married, in childhood and college, and in her early twenties she shared a two-bedroom apartment in West Covina, California, with three other women who were also teachers. They became a foursome; everyone at school knew their group. ÒI think they noticed us because we were young, attractive, and single,Ó my mom says. My mom and one of her roommates carpooled together in the mornings. There was only one bathroom and never enough time, so every night before they went to sleep, the roommate yelled at my mom, ÒAre you shaving your legs tomorrow?Ó They went out to bars (my mom drank vodka gimlets) and on trips together, to San Francisco, Bear Mountain, and Honolulu, where they always shared one hotel room for the four of them, partly because they didnÕt have much money and partly because it was more fun. ÒWe were always talking late into the night,Ó she says. After three years, they all moved out. At first they sent a few letters back and forth, but eventually their only communication was through annual Christmas cards.
The writer Judy Blume, who is in her seventies, also moved away from her friends when she married, at twenty-one. She and her new husband lived on a cul-de-sac in New Jersey, where she "made this new life, at least that's what I thought we were doing, a life centered around my husband," she says. "That's what we did then. It may not have been true for everyone, but it was true for me."
But unlike my mom, Blume reports, "I was very lonely. I missed my girlfriends terribly, my women friends." She soon had two children to take care of, and her female neighbors were raising their own kids, which they did inside their own homes. Today when she's at her apartment in New York, she sees moms together, pushing strollers in the park or eating together at the kinds of lunch places that specialize in jam. "I think, Wow, that's so different from anything we did," she says. "Because we didn't go out."
One of the friends she missed was her best friend, Mary, whom she met in seventh grade, when they were twelve. In ninth grade, they dated the same guy. "We were both mad about this boy," Blume says. Instead of ruining their friendship, it gave them more in common. "We'd talk on the phone, like after she was out with him, after I was out with him," she says. "It was like, 'How many times did he kiss you?'"
When Blume lived in New Jersey with her husband, Mary lived in New York with hers, and the couples didn't socialize. "We'd married such different guys," Blume says. "Our husbands were never going to be friends."
She desperately wanted to find a friend like Mary in New Jersey. Whenever she saw a moving truck on the cul-de-sac, she'd think, This is going to be the one. I'm going to make a friend. She never did. "It just didn't turn out to be, and I can't tell you how lonely I was without my female friendships," Blume says.
Instead, she started to write fiction. Her first book, The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, was published in 1969, and Blume went on to write many beloved children's and young adult books, including Blubber, Deenie, and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. "Writing saved my life," she says.
But her new career made it even harder for her to make friends with her neighbors. "I think it was more of the times than the women themselves," she says, "but there was something there in that neighborhood that, you know, there was a lot of, 'Who does she think she is, writing? What makes her think she can do this?' There was a lack of support that I had to get back in my life."
Throughout history, women have seen their bonds dismissed, picked apart, or outright mocked. Men from classical philosophers to religious leaders told women they had weak morals, which made it impossible for them to engage in friendship. Because of this, women may have been close, but they didnÕt dare call themselves friends. ÒIn the texts we have, you donÕt find the word ÔfriendÕ connected to women,Ó says Marilyn Sandidge, who coedited Friendship in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age with Albrecht Classen. ÒThere arenÕt any women saying Ômy friend so and so.ÕÓ
Only men used the word "friend" and only to talk about other men. Critics have said this means that women didn't rely on each other during this time, but "that's just absurd," according to Sandidge. Women were friends, but it's hard to find proof for two reasons, both having to do with how marginalized women were. First, they never wrote about themselves-men did the writing-so the documentation of their private lives was paltry. Men wrote what they thought about women or translated their thoughts. Catherine M. Mooney writes in Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters that women's words "almost invariably reach us only after having passed through the filters of their male confessors, patrons, and scribes." But Sandidge says when you look closely at how the men writing these books and documents describe what women are saying and doing, you can see that they do have close relationships with each other.
The second reason it's hard to point to these ties is that even if women suspected they were friends, men told them that was impossible. Women were too deceitful to relate to one another in the pure, selfless way men did.
Men believed their friendships helped them grow spiritually-they were based on being good to one another, behavior they assumed would bring them closer to God. Women, on the other hand, could never be so virtuous. "Only men were strong enough to maintain a serene, mostly rational, idealistic friendship with another person," Sandidge says.
All women could do, according to men, was mess up men's lives. Ever since Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, which got Adam and her kicked out, women have been cast as sex-crazed, evil-seeking troublemakers. If it weren't for us, men would never be tempted with sex, fight each other, or do anything else regrettable. Aristotle's breakdown of the elements in the human body, from about 330 BCE, continued this demonization of women. He saw females as cold and wet, categorizations that meant women were unstable and sexually threatening (males were the opposite, warm and dry). This thinking continued to resonate through the Middle Ages. "We have a lot of liquids coming out of us," Sandidge says. "Men thought that was gross. That is the heart of this misogyny and the reason we were seen as so sexual and dangerous."
In the Middle Ages, the single way it was acceptable for women to be friends was if they were cloistered in a monastery. "There they would be trained by the church and have their sex drive contained," Sandidge says. Those women could then maybe have the same kind of wholesome friendships men did.
As time went on, most men still didn't accept the concept of female friendship. In the seventeenth century, Katherine Philips, a poet who was known by the pseudonym Orinda, formed what she called "the Society of Friendship" anyway. Historians debate whether the group ever had formal meetings, but they did share poems, and most of what Philips wrote about was friendship between women.
One of her poems, "To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship," read in part:
But never had Orinda found
A soul till she found thine;
Which now inspires, cures and supplies,
And guides my darkened breast:
For thou art all that I can prize,
My joy, my life, my rest.
Some scholars have said Philips's work was about lesbianism, but others, like Sandidge, see platonic affection. In 1657, Philips wanted to clear up her confusion about why she seemed to have achieved these deep friendships even though men told her she couldn't. She wrote Jeremy Taylor, a religious leader, asking if he could help her understand what was going on. She felt like a true friend. Could she be one?
Taylor wrote back and published his response: "A Discourse of the Nature, Offices, and Measures of Friendship, with Rules of Conducting It, in a Letter to the Most Ingenious and Excellent Mrs. Katharine [sic] Philips."
His answer, summarized, was that unlike many other men, he was okay with women having friends. He writes, "Madam, you may see how much I differ from the morosity of those cynics, who would not admit your sex into the communities of a noble friendship." He goes on to talk about how devoted women can be. "A woman can love as passionately, and converse as pleasantly, and retain a secret as faithfully, and be useful in her proper ministries, and she can die for her friend as well as the bravest Roman knight," he writes.
Still, despite this, he concludes that Philips and all other women aren't as skilled at friendships as men are, simply because they're women. "I cannot say that women are capable of all of those excellences, by which men can oblige the world; and therefore a female friend in some cases is not so good a counsellor as a wise man," he writes.
This history helps explain how the idea that women can't trust each other, that we're better off forgoing friendship because eventually we're going to fail at it, became so intractable. Men told us not to rely on our own sex-and turn to them instead.
In my grandmotherÕs and motherÕs generations, female friends met mostly through their husbands and children. What time they spent together was usually alongside a family member, if they joined a couplesÕ group or dragged a toddler to afternoon tea. If they had a hobby in common, they might get together for it. In the 1950s in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, when my grandmother, Christine (my momÕs mother) was in her forties, she played the card game canasta with three other women every month. Other than that my mom doesnÕt remember her having many friends. She had a husband and four children and was busy caring for them, cooking-every day, she made breakfast, lunch, and dinner-and doing laundry. On Mondays, she washed the clothes and then spent the rest of the week ironing them. ÒThere was no such thing as not ironing then,Ó my mom says. ÒWhenever I came home from school, I usually found her ironing.Ó The women whom she talked with most regularly were other relatives, like her nephewÕs wife, Betty, who would come by once in a while, or her sister-in-law Elaine, who called sometimes. On canasta nights, though, sheÕd have dinner with the family and then leave to join her friends, in a nice dress and heels. ÒI liked seeing my mom go out by herself,Ó my mom recalls. When the women came over to her house, my mom remembers them talking and laughing around a card table set up in the living room. ÒShe seemed relaxed,Ó my mom says.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Why Women Tell Each Other, "Text Me When You Get Home" 1
Chapter 1 The Friendships That Shaped Our Own 13
Chapter 2 Mean Girls and Nice Girls 47
Chapter 3 All about the Boys 72
Chapter 4 A New Focus on Friendships 112
Chapter 5 Our BFFs, People, and Soulmates 150
Chapter 6 Strength in Numbers 177
Conclusion: How our Friendships end, Change, and Endure 213
Selected Bibliography 269