“All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.”
It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
I wept over this page. It is a truth beyond so many others the way our world is structured and which is hardly ever spoken or written. I have known so many girls and women who have thrown aside their friendships, their deep love, with other girls and women, for a boy or a man. That romantic relationships with men are considered the pinnacle of affinity and intimacy for women is a mark of the insidiousness of and damage wreaked by patriarchal notions of relationality and womanhood. A monogamous, possessive, heterosexual relationship is a marker of success for a woman’s life, often, indeed, the reason for her being, the completion of her Self.
Simone de Beauvoir said in 1949 something that I see every day in 2014:
“She is waiting for Man.”
“Whether wishing to realise herself as a woman or overcome the limits of her femininity, [she] has awaited the male for accomplishment and escape; he has the dazzling face of Perseus or St George; he is the liberator; he is also rich and powerful, he holds the keys to happiness, he is Prince Charming. She anticipates that in his caress she will feel carried away by the great current of life as when she rested in her mother’s bosom.”
Or Ryan Gosling, or whoever is the Prince Charming today, I don’t keep up. But note it is no longer her mother. She has lost the centrality of intimacy between women.
This is crucial for feminism because “In her eyes, man embodies the Other, as she does for man; but for her this Other appears in the essential mode and she grasps herself as the inessential opposite him.”
Beauvoir anticipates ideas of institutionalised heterosexuality, heteronormativity and the binary gender system. Woman is to Man as Body is to Mind. The opposite of the binary, and inferior. Dependent upon the other for meaning. Not a true Self without the other.
If women are to embrace the feminist ethic, if they want to move beyond a restrictive, self-negating, self-denying patriarchy and institutionalised heterosexuality they must shatter this hierarchy of relationality. They must scorn the recourse to jealousy which is rooted in misogyny and the patriarchy’s tactic of “divide and conquer.” I know women and girls who claim they “get along better with guys” as if it is something to be proud of. I have listened to girls and women worry and complain endlessly that another girl is talking to their boyfriend, whether the girl is a friend of theirs or someone they have never met.
This jealousy is rooted in the idea that a woman’s aim in life is to “secure” a man, to maintain a “successful” heterosexual relationship, and therefore they must be on their guard at all times. It is rooted in the assumption that other women and girls are “out to get” a man at all costs, so hold tight to yours. Similarly, it assumes all men are hopelessly vulnerable to the wiles of femininity. Leaving that aside, though it feeds into the patriarchal strategy of ascribing men an “instinct” of polygamy and women an “instinct” for monogamy which is similarly damaging to relationships between women, it sets up women and girls against women and girls. The success patriarchy has had with this strategy has been accomplished through internalised misogyny. Women split themselves off from other women. Yes, it is a highly effective tactic of the patriarchy, but its internalisation means women and girls themselves effect it.
A girl calling another girl a “slut” or a “bitch” is a hideous example of this yet it happens as if it is nothing. Every time you do this, you are showing your internalised misogyny. You are reiterating the age-old patriarchal strategy of divide and conquer, of trivialising and shaming women for not fitting into a standard of “woman” and “femininity” defined by the patriarchy. These are ways of policing women and are used by women as well as men. Be critical of these tactcs. Support, uplift – don’t knock down. We are all held to that sexist standard and we need women to help us break out of it, not constrict us further.
I have heard women and girls talk for hours on the need to “make it work” with a man, expound on the efforts they will go to “rescue the relationship,” with no corresponding anxiety when a friendship with a woman is in dire straits. They have turned into wrecks at the slightest sign of conflict in their heterosexual romantic relationships while thinking nothing of abandoning a seriously ill woman friend. Until this stops, patriarchal strategies will continue to disempower women, and internalised misogyny will dictate the terms of every bond between women and girls.
Every time you think of your monogamous male partner as more significant than your women friends and family – indeed as your “significant other” – every time you cut off a woman friend in the throes of a new romantic relationship, every time you devote 90% of a hangout session with your woman friend to fretting about the state of your romantic relationship, to whether he really does look twice at that mutual friend, you are denigrating your Self, you are saying, “I only have space in my head and my life for a man,” you are rejecting the transcendent power of relationships between women.
When Nel comes to the realisation that “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude” it is stunning, it is an epiphany. Because it overturns the hierarchy enforced by the patriarchy – that relationships with men, which are always possessive: boyfriend, husband, significant other, are the ideal to which women should aspire. She realises that her friendship with Sula was not trivial. It was deeper than anything she had felt with Jude. This is the feminist power of Morrison’s work. She never falls into the trap of heteronormativity, where relationships are economic, possessive, one-way – as they are in, for example, Austen, Bronte, and many other writers who are considered feminist or proto-feminist.
It was Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” which made me see the necessity and radical power of smashing the hierarchy of intimacy and valuing the huge range of relationships between women. This, to me, is the most important objective of feminism.
Rich points out the numerous forms of male power in patriarchal societies which combine to make women “convinced that marriage and sexual orientation toward men are inevitable – even if unsatisfying or oppressive – components of their lives.”
This has resulted in “an incalculable loss to the power of all women to change the social relations of the sexes, to liberate ourselves and each other.”
Yes, feminism means sisterhood. “Women who make life endurable for each other, give physical affection without causing pain, share, advise, and stick by each other.”
And so by accepting the all-importance of heterosexual monogamous relationships women are “internalising the values of the coloniser and actively participating in carrying out the colonisation of one’s self and one’s sex” – Kathleen Barry.
In other words, girl hate and isolation within a monogamous heterosexual romantic relationship.
It was this which made me realise I needed to alter the direction and purpose of my own writing. To go beyond the minimal requirements of the Bechdel Test – to write the range, importance and richness of kinship between women in all its strength and conflict.
However, my vision of this objective is not structured around Rich’s essentialist notions of femininity and womanhood – that women are by nature more caring, for instance. This is possibly a minor point if we work from the understanding of the social construction of the binary gender system, and masculinity and femininity. In this way we can break down the ways in which women and femininity are explained in relation to men and masculinity – that is, as dependent on the “superior” term in the binary.
Instead, women are here for ourselves, transcendent, subjective, not aiming to “find a man” to complete us, supporting each other where we have put each other down, where men put us down, where patriarchal trivialisations of femininity and friendship between women put us down.
“Woman identification is a source of energy, a political springhead of female power, curtailed and contained under the institution of heterosexuality.”
Breaking the hierarchy of intimacy is crucial to my feminism because as Rich says without it “women will remain dependent upon the chance or luck of particular relationships and will have no collective power to determine the meaning and place of sexuality in their lives.”
It’s intersectional, global and radical.
girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.