The Untold History of Female Friendship

To get an honest picture of female friendship, we must look beyond the familiar whitewashed stories in Western history and literature.

Photo by Chippix / Shutterstock.

I have long been fascinated by female friendship. My favorite authors are those who embrace the subject in all its unwieldy, precious complexity: Charlotte Brontë, Audre Lorde, Elena Ferrante. But—perhaps as a means of self-preservation—I am chronically slow to understand how my passions are fundamentally self-interested. Loving women, I realize, has never merely been for me a natural inclination, but rather an urge tied up in life-sustaining necessity. I define myself through my love of women, and yet I’ve never been capable of grasping why this is the case.

And so I have turned to books in hopes that I would locate my impulses within them. Why have I always needed not just to cultivate relationships with other women but to actively love them, to seek the deep intimacy that I do? When I learned of The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship, I was hopeful that the book might serve up the answers to these self-involved inquiries. But as I read, I found myself less and less invested in this question.

It is true that authors Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown deliver precisely the narrative of female intimacy that I should, as a middle-class white woman, find comfortably relatable. The book provides a Western-focused survey of familiar plot points from history and literature: the Bible and the Greeks (i.e., honorary white people) and then a warm amble through cozy tales of middle- and upper-class feminine comradeship, with a long linger in the 19th century. The circumstances surrounding the friendships Yalom and Brown explore often called to mind my own, historical differences notwithstanding. Even the book’s cover—four comely white ladies, bobbed and well-dressed—beamed at me with welcoming sameness. My blinkered expectations were confirmed; I had found a narrative mirror. But I was not satiated so much as unsettled.

About a year ago, I began an essay series exploring different fictional female friendships, ones that have lingered in the cultural consciousness or are especially popular now. And each time I contemplate the subjects of the next installment, I am struck, though not necessarily surprised, by the overwhelming white heteronormativity of our most cherished fictional companions: Anne Shirley and Diana Barry from Anne of Green Gables; Angela Chase and Rayanne Graff from My So-Called Life; Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane from MTV’s Daria. For the sake of page views, I have more than once chosen to write my column on white cis women like the ones I have mentioned (indeed, I launched my column with an essay about Daria and Jane). It is not so much that I assume my readership is white and middle class—indeed, I hope not—but I am making a dangerous and biased assumption that people would rather read essays about more widely known fictional female friends regardless of their skin color. Though I may sigh, hem, and haw, my resignation nonetheless signals complicity.

Yalom and Brown yield similarly in the face of a white-dominant archive. The book’s most glaring issue, as other reviewers have noted, is the near-erasure of nonwhite experience from its study. I have no room to condemn them, and indeed I do not. But the expansiveness of their study casts in sharp relief the injustice committed by those of us who write about female friendship when we seek only to understand ourselves as echoes of a white, middle-class past.

In our current sociopolitical climate, is it productive to focus on white women’s sameness across history?

Throughout the book, Yalom and Brown implicitly yearn for coherence in female relationships and, through demonstrating that coherence, seek to posit female friendship as an institution of its own. But it does so at the expense of women who lacked the privilege to make themselves heard. “Look at the many ways we have always been the same,” they seem to remind us throughout the text. And so it’s true: Women have loved one another, held one another for thousands of years. But in 2016, and in our current sociopolitical climate, is it productive to focus on white women’s sameness across history? I argue no. We have tarried too long on this path, and the impact has been pernicious.

Of course there is comfort in understanding one’s tendencies as knit into a long historical or literary tapestry. As a girl, my mentors in female companionship were authors Lucy Maud Montgomery and Charlotte Brontë. I relished the way Montgomery’s Anne Shirley and Diana Barry created a world of their own through the passionate fusion of their imaginations. I longed to love and be loved like Jane Eyre and Helen Burns and was inconsolable when death wedged itself between them.

Yalom and Brown seek to conjure a kinship of this sort between their readers and the women whose stories they chronicle and, as both a reader and writer, I understand that desire. After all, literature offers the wondrous palliative capacity to soothe; of course we should avail ourselves of its emotional sustenance. After all, I began reading and writing about female intimacy as a means of exploring my own drive for closeness with women. Launching an essay series on the subject seemed to me a way not only to scratch this itch but also to engage other women in this conversation—for all of us, together, to contemplate what it means to be friends by examining relationships similar to our own. I remain committed to this endeavor, but I want to push myself beyond this urge for relatability. What I—we—must not do is cower in familiar corners, appeased by the reflection that so much of Western history and literature provides to privileged white American women.

Indeed, there are so many histories of female intimacy that demand visibility in America alone. I think not only of Audre Lorde’s biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, but also of other women writers of color whose stories were suppressed until archival research made it possible for us to learn about them. “Just like the rest of us,” we might be inclined to say—and here is where we must pause. To seek commonalities with others can be a productive exercise in empathy, but empathy can also function as the mask of fear and self-centeredness. I wish Yalom and Brown had challenged us more to dwell in differences, had placated us less with antiseptic comparisons. I wish they had written about women whose lives and cultures are not respected and celebrated within a Western context.

Let’s seek out the narratives that make us squirm without revising them to be more palatable.

For in a globe half-populated by women, we must be willing to encounter interpersonal relationships that are not immediately legible to us—that, in my case, will not necessarily draw nods of recognition from my readers. Even the history of the Western world offers far more opportunities for engagement with difference than we are typically willing to pursue. Yalom and Brown might have undertaken a more intersectional approach: writing about the relationships of slave women, say, rather than casually making reference to them. American Indians are only referenced as eroticized (male) threats who appeared unannounced in pioneer women’s kitchens. To so bluntly whitewash a history when we are every day confronted with heterogeneity suggests to me something desperate and fearful, a yearning for tidiness where there can and should be none.

Instead, let’s seek out the narratives that make us squirm without revising them to be more palatable. Let’s honor the so-frequent frustrations of history: its incoherence, its multitude of bodies that still do not understand how to share a planet. Histories of the Western world tell us nothing if they serve only to reassure us of imaginary homogeneity and the joys found in mutuality.

So then, what sorts of histories of female friendship do we need? To some degree, the answer is simple: histories far more self-aware of their dark underbellies and willing to lay them bare. If we are to continue writing Western histories, we must forgo the desire for pleasurable, predictable narratives. Indeed, better we cease writing them altogether and rigorously revise the ones that have skewed our vision for too long.