Covens. Girl Bands. Ballet troupes. Convents. In all times and places, girls and women have come together in communities of vocation, of necessity, of support.
In Witches, Sam George-Allen explores how wherever women gather, magic happens. Female farmers change the way we grow our food. Online beauty communities democratize skin-care rituals. And more than any other demographic, it's teen girls that shape our culture.
Patriarchal societies have long been content to champion boys' clubs, while viewing groups that exclude men as sites of rivalry and suspicion. This deeply personal investigation takes us from our workplaces to our social circles, surveying our heroes, our outcasts, and ourselves, in order to dismantle the persistent and pernicious cultural myth of female isolation and competition . . . once and for all.
|Publisher:||Melville House Publishing|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I started pulling tarot cards while writing this book. The writing was hard and I was filled with self-doubt, so I turned to the cards in the way I have always turned to the magical in times of crisis. I trusted them because I can’t control them. Even when they told me bad news—failure on the horizon, friends to be lost, the Wheel of Fortune in reverse—they helped.
The germ of this book got into me in another time of turmoil. A few years ago, I found myself suddenly and furiously envious of another woman’s success. It was like having an uncontrollable crush. I couldn’t stop thinking about her: comparing myself to her, finding reasons to resent and dismiss her. It was very upsetting. Wasn’t I supposed to be a feminist, the good kind, one who builds her sisters up rather than tearing them down? Why was my basest nature choosing this moment, as I was carving out a career writing about gender and women’s work, to make itself known? I went to the cards again, and I pulled one for me, which I immediately forgot, and one for her: Justice, reversed.
It was an injustice, what I was doing, and what was happening to me. It felt unnatural to begrudge this person her happiness. It was making me miserable. I did not think I was born with thesefeelings in me, and when I took hold of that thread and pulled, the whole wicked tapestry started to come apart. I wasn’t born with these feelings, but I had been feeling them, in one way or another, for a long time—since I was a teenager, at least. I’m still part of a society that neither likes nor trusts women, particularly when they’re working together. Even though they may have changed, learned to disguise themselves, those seeds of loathing were still there.
I hate admitting it now, because it’s other women who make my life what it is today: meaningful, complicated, challenging and rewarding. I have surrounded myself, by luck and by design, with women who ask a lot of me, who give a lot to me, who are willing to sit at my kitchen table and argue with me for hours until we both have straightened out how we see the world, how we think the world should be. I owe women a lot, just for the pleasure of being in their company.
In the first episode of the second season of the excellent Netflix series GLOW, a show that is, in many ways, about the things that women do together (and also about a bunch of female amateur wrestlers making a low-budget TV show called Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), there’s a moment that made me reach for my pen. The women have just returned from filming a title sequence at the mall, where they’d hammed it up in character, Welfare Queen and Liberty Belle taking swipes at each other with bunches of shopping bags, Britannica and Beirut chasing each other around stands of sunglasses. They are standing in a group, laughing with one another, relaxed and excited about what they’ve just made. The director, Sam (played by Marc Maron at his neurotic, curmudgeonly best), approaches."Hey," he says. "I don’t like when you’re in a clump, whispering." He gestures dismissively. "Spread out so I can see you."
I wrote it down. Spread out so I can see you. It’s almost a joke—but not quite. Maron’s character doesn’t like it when women are doing stuff he doesn’t know about. He finds it unnerving. A lot of people do.
For those invested in maintaining the status quo, there’s a lot to be gained from preventing women from getting together. A population that is divided, distracted and economically depressed is unable to demand to be released from oppression. Isolated women are easier to sell things to, easier to control, more easily compressed into the very few ways to acceptably be a woman. All this is made even easier if that woman is inculcated into a tradition of mistrusting others like her. For a long time, we’ve lived in a culture that tries to spread us out so it can see us—and so we can’t see each other, except from the corners of our eyes.
We’re taught to enjoy female rivalry. We look for and expect it. Celebrity feuds fuel the whole tabloid industry. The ongoing success of the many iterations of Real Housewives is predicated on the same principle. Films, books and magazines aimed at women all sell the same, sorry story of women competing with one another, often for the attention of men. And we buy it. In 2016, a study by several sociologists on feminine rivalry found that their young, female subjects ‘constructed comparisons and competition among women as never-ending and seemingly natural’. The narrative has become so ingrained as to appear spontaneous, immutable and as naturally occurring as the weather. It is simply the way things are.
So when women choose to align with one another, it takes us by surprise. We look at it sideways; like GLOW’s director, we are suspicious. Suspicion often goes hand in hand with derision, because if you strip a group of their credibility, you strip them of their perceived threat, too. Consider the mockery of women-only spaces on university campuses, the dismissal of teenage fangirls, the smirking devaluation of all-girl music groups, the sneering contempt of writers and readers of romance fiction. Mothers and daughters are pitted against one another, persuaded to be jealous, to compete for the love and attention of the father/husband; sisters, similarly; friends are always kept at arm’s length in case they should prove smarter, prettier, more successful; organisations of women are frumpy or frivolous, not to be associated with; artistic efforts by women are gimmicks. To be taken seriously one must be alone among men.
What is the threat that women in groups pose? There are shades in Sam’s anxiety of Margaret Atwood’s eternal observation—men are afraid that women will laugh at them, while women are afraid that men will kill them—but the truth is that women together are a fundamental force for change. The change has already begun; we are seeing it happen before our eyes. Beyoncé’s all-woman touring band; Taylor Swift’s famous girl squad; Parris Goebel’s jaw-dropping dance troupe; and, of course, the many women, visible and invisible, who have become a part of the #MeToo movement, which has begun the hard—and previously impossible—work of toppling a crooked pyramid of corrupt and predatory men, a movement that repre-sents probably the greatest and most conspicuous collaboration of women since the suffragettes. In the wake of #MeToo, it becomes clear why those who benefit from the patriarchy have been so invested in keeping women isolated from one another. And these are just some of the feminine collaborations rising in the public consciousness. When I look at them, I feel my heart leap in an unfamiliar way. I see glimpses of how the world could be.