I’ve been thinking quite a lot about relational deprivation between women in Western countries recently, and even more so since I’ve been spending some time with two feminist friends from a non-Western* country who were here for a few months (and left a few days ago).
Seeing their photos with their friends, how physically close they are together, and seeing how tactile they could be with me too, in ways that would be interpreted as lesbian (sexual) here without ambiguity, when apparently it’s acceptable female friendly touch there, and hearing about how much time they spend with their friends and how casually they can reserve entire days for each other, made me realise that I wasn’t hallucinating about feeling isolated and deprived of contact with women in this part of the world, even from radical feminist friends. To see that women could relate differently elsewhere really opened my eyes to my own situation, and to the effects this deprivation has on women in general, and on feminism.
I’ve been noticing more and more clearly the divide between how I organise my life, travel destinations and work time according to friendships and how this is rarely if ever reciprocated in the same way, and how it always feels like going against the tide when trying to catch up with my local friends. I completely understand now what various female immigrant friends were talking about when they’d say how depressed they were because of being isolated here.
As usual when I strongly need to get my head around a pattern of violence that affects me personally, the things I’ll share about myself with women I know and trust will tend to revolve around it, in the hope that they might have some helpful answers or perspectives. Even just formulating it verbally or in writing helps a great deal. And the insights these discussions lead to are always surprising and incredibly enlightening.
After these friends got back home, I mentioned to one of them (I’ll call her A) how fascinated I was by her relations to her friends and how it contrasted so much with norms of acceptable closeness to women in Western countries. Here much of what we consider friendship often barely exceeds acquaintance relationships. I never thought that differences between countries could be so strong, or that it could even be possible to be so close to women as adults. I thought it was impossible, that it’s something we only experience as a child if we were lucky enough, and everything stops as we become adults and have to give up our friends for men and work. It was really interesting to talk about this with her, to compare social organisation in our respective regions and how it affects women.
Another one of these exchanges was with my mum. Mentioning a close friend of mine who had moved to another town for work reasons a few years ago, she mused about how enthusiastic this friend was in doing things with me, even in sharing mundane chores, which is very unusual. And yes, it’s true, she was the only friend like that, it’s one of the reasons why particularly I miss her since she’s gone. This made us think of how little we do things with our female friends. Our friendships are mostly restricted to fixed appointments for a cup of tea, sometimes booked weeks in advance, which rarely exceeds 2 hours and it’s you tell me your life and I tell you my life and we analyse it a bit and then bye-bye, until the next appointment.
Yet going through common experiences and discovering, learning things together, committing to each other for projects, music bands, repairing our bicycles on a sunday afternoon or sleeping over at each other’s places, gives depth to friendship and teaches things about each other that a once-a-month discussion on its own, sitting in front of each other in a square room or in a noisy cafe without moving doesn’t. It’s like we’re not allowed to commit to each other more than being therapeutical social workers.
By the time I talked to Friend A, I had already given some thought as to why women’s isolation in the past century in Western countries has worsened:
- The first factor being, I think, the capitalist nuclear family model becoming much more the single primary unit of socialisation for women, where we are left completely on our own to deal with children and domestic slavery, with much less access to support, community or regular female presence from the “outside world”. Western individualism has reduced some amount of control/surveillance on women by the surrounding group (control by neighbours, relatives outside of the nuclear family (brothers, male cousins, aunts etc), which is the downside for women in less individualist countries), but has increased our emotional dependency on our male-owner and reduced our possibilities of creating sustainable bonds with other women.
- The second thing is the ongoing disappearance of sex-segregation in all our major places of socialisation such as schools and workplaces, which means nowadays entire generations of women in Western capitalist countries have never experienced interaction that wasn’t physically monitored by boys and men, where surviving and adapting to their sexually abusive behaviours takes up all or most of our social efforts, where we are kept in all ways possible from bonding to women. Almost two generations of women have been conditioned to despise and fear women-only spaces, to view them as a threat to our social existence, as something backwards, revolting, from a dark distant patriarchal time. This has immensely contributed to destroying our capacity to socialise with and to identify to women early on in childhood and to increasing our trauma-bonding to men / idealisation of maleness, and self-hatred.
Going through our comparisons with friend A, she added a factor I hadn’t quite seen: that Western women tend to be more absorbed by their professional work. She said women she knew from Western countries were always busy, always working, and had very little life outside of work.
Well that was an interesting finding to me, as I had always assumed that because the level of women’s occupation by work was similar in all places, it had similar effects. But it’s very obvious that the kind of work women are expected to do differs from place to place (and social class) and this affects our social relations too. It’s true that here, our outside work and “career” has taken a similar function or status as that of marriage / coupling with men, as we are also expected to sacrifice our lives for it, including our local networks which are essential to our social survival and take many years to build, especially as a woman.
What’s even more interesting is that as I began to write this post shortly after my discussion with friend A (excited about sharing all these new insights), and halted at precisely this stage because I didn’t know how to formulate it — another friend (which I’ll call B) responded to one of my emails with the most amazing analysis of how busyness and work divides women in Western capitalist societies. Answering her question of how I spent christmas, I said (in part) this: “I was a bit frustrated that my friends from my town weren’t available (or even responding) as this time of the year is usually when I have most time, and I was hoping to catch up with them. It’s been a bit frustrating lately that many of my friends are so busy and taken, and not to be able to spend more time with them. I realise how in Western countries adult women aren’t supposed to prioritise friendships at all, and how difficult it generally is to become close to women.” to which she responded this (forgive the long quote, but I thought everything was worth sharing! with her permission of course):
“I can totally relate to what you are saying about your friends. […] I find that other radfems tend to prioritize their friendships more, but I have found it very hard since [..] I have a lot more time on my hands than other women so I am wanting to be in touch more but they are often too busy.
I think a lot about busyness vs not. I know this guy who is happy to work weekends on top of the week because he wants the extra money, and he lives in this incredibly cheap place and doesn’t do a whole lot – I wonder what the hell he spends it on. And him and this other guy I know – both of them struggle to use up their holiday! Can you imagine? I mean why on earth would you want to spend all that time working? I think about the SCUM manifesto, what Solanas says about men not being able to be alone with themselves, and it’s true.
There are two things to think about this. One is that for all this talk about capitalism being alienating, it seems like men like it that way. The world is like this because they built it that way and it suits them. I mean, whenever I’m out in mensworld, I need a lot of down time to recover, it’s always been that way and it was that way too for some of my other women I used to know, nonfeminist ones. Men don’t need to recover from it because it’s their homeworld, it nourishes them, in fact they feel empty without it. In fact married men often work more to avoid their families too.
The other thing to think is how entering into the capitalist workforce was supposed to make women less dependent on men, but in some ways it has increased the dependence and has worked very effectively to divide women further from each other. Firstly, women are overburdened in both the workplace and the home – they do more work for less pay, shittier work, and they work a double shift of domestic labour if they are living with a man or children. So they have less time. I am currently reading The Women’s Room by Marilyn Frye and her account of suburban housewives, it really struck me how much more emotional support and friendship the women had among each other than they could ever hope to have if they were working. The housewives’ community was a women-only space – something which working women rarely have. The mensworld was like a foreign country to them. Today it feels more like women’s world is a foreign country because entering into the male workforce means being around men all the time and it means having to absorb their ideologies to get ahead.
In the home, the women were left largely to their own devices and were in charge, at least of the children. They had a sphere of influence. Even though the man ruled over them, he wasn’t there for a large quantity of the time and also didn’t care about many of the decisions women had to make. Now, women don’t have time to create a local community of women since they are working and child-rearing at the same time. So in both spheres they are isolated from women and alone.
On top of this, since women always have to try harder to get ahead in the workforce, they have to do all this extra training and always feel like they have to be doing some kind of self-improvement activity, endless accumulation of ‘human capital’. Men have to do this too, to some extent, but they can bond with men in the workplace while women can’t bond with women, because if they bond too much with women and stand with women the men will reject them so they will never get ahead. You have to be male-identified to get ahead. Additionally, capitalism says we should move with our jobs, which hinders building a local community of women. And we are indoctrinated into this ideology early on – and it’s not just ideological, it’s legal too. I mean, you might expect your family or your partner to move with you, but to prioritize your friends over your job when deciding where to be? It’s basically unthinkable.
I know probably most of your friends do not have men or kids, but we absorb this mentality early on. I remember living in the US and how hard it was to make friends, everything was so superficial. It seemed like there would be no more friends, only acquaintances to have dinner parties or drinks with, now and again. I thought, is this it? Is this what adulthood is supposed to be? It was horribly empty. But everyone was so busy, all the time, all the time accumulating internships or volunteer work. Not that I really liked those people, but still.
Anyway the point is that while women were largely shut out from mensworld, they had much more opportunity to bond with other women. A lot of that has been destroyed by women’s entry into the workforce, and it has resulted in women becoming much more male-identified. In the book the main character gets divorced and goes to graduate school, and she talks about the contrast between being a housewife, where at least in some sense she was in charge for large swathes of time, and the way she gets treated like a child and an idiot by male professors.
It’s so obvious how relational deprivation, isolation from one another and more generally, the promotion of individualist ideologies are a very deliberate repressive strategy against women: to prevent any form of bonding which is the precondition for concerted rebellion against men’s control. Since the 90s and even more so in the last few years, with the global, massive taking over of neoliberal capitalist politics, it has become harder than ever to mobilise anyone even for non political activities, as the oppressed have so integrated that we have to compete with others and focus on ourselves in order to defend our own interests, and that our interests and life conditions can be separated from those of our class. Yet only members of the dominant class can further their interests (as oppressors) purely through individualist pursuits, because their egocentrism is congruent with their actual dominance.
Men define long-term social isolation and relational deprivation (when used against men in “real” political repression with “official” prison cells of course), as a method of political torture. It is recognised as affecting victims in most durable ways, destroying their ability to socialise even long after their liberation, causing them to lose their jobs and ties with family…
Indeed, destroying our relationship to ourselves and to women is probably the worst, most deeply traumatic effect of men’s oppression. Intentional male violence is essentially relational, as in, their actions deliberately annihilate our bond to the world and to ourselves, which, when it doesn’t kill us, is an act of spiritual killing — as they need us emptied of our selves in order to be useful for them for very large amounts of time.
In the same way, an essential part of healing from trauma caused by male torture is through reconnecting to women and to ourselves. My own healing largely progressed along with my ability to form stable friendships with feminists, as well as reconnecting to my body, my soul and making cognitive connections about men’s necrophilic system.
It’s more and more obvious to me that there is no such thing as individual freedom and identity outside of social context, social relations and even natural environment. It’s illusionary and absurd to think that our lives and pursuits for improvement can be done entirely on our own, abstracted from social interaction and change.
Our raised consciousness, our leaps, our movements of liberation and solidarity networks are inherently relational. Feminism is entirely dependent on the bonds we create with women, on our continued interactions, and nothing of this would exist if we didn’t meet and spend time together, away from male surveillance. The more we do this (and learn how to do it in healthy, respectful conditions obviously), the stronger our feminism.
This is also why I eventually chose to structure my post according to the genesis of its creation, to show how each new connection and feminist understanding was very directly stimulated by all these spiralling exchanges with women, as well as by my own thoughts, readings and analyses of my social experiences with women. To quote friend B again:
“Isn’t it funny how these things are happening at the same time? i think this is like, the wormholes Sonia Johnson talks about. Because I feel you have been working on these issues a lot longer than me, so you can help me shortcut to where you are, and then I can add to that too, and you can add to that, so we all advance more quickly. I’m sure the same is happening with your other friends too, and then I benefit from that too even though i don’t know them because it works through you”
The constant stimulation and discussions I have with other feminists are my life force. Creating an alternative world can’t be done in isolation, it can only develop and evolve in relation to other women.
* I use Western vs. non-Western here as I can’t be more specific about location, but I’m obviously not making generalisations about ALL Western vs non-Western countries. What i’m referring seems to be pretty specific to some places.