4 reasons America is afraid of women with friends

Wendy Davis is just the beginning -- women who band together with other women threaten the status quo

Published January 29, 2014 8:12PM (EST)

Wendy Davis               (AP/Eric Gay)
Wendy Davis (AP/Eric Gay)

Erick Erickson is back in the news announcing how proud he is of the moniker “Abortion Barbie,” which he slapped on Wendy Davis earlier this year.  As Jessica Luther eloquently explained, this is the ultimate example of “bad mother” narratives, tacked onto “lying bitch” and “gold-digger” stereotypes. Davis is, however, a particularly unpalatable package to her foes. It’s not only that sexist media outlets are fixated on her mothering in ways that fathering is not an issue for her male peers. No, what’s really challenging about Davis is that she is a public single woman with friends.

What conservatives would like everyone to forget as quickly as possible is moments like this: during Davis’ famous filibuster, state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, surrounded by orange t-shirt clad supporters, asked, "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?” It was a rare public display of gender-based solidarity.  How incredibly pushy. And dangerous to the status quo, which is dedicated to policies that undermine efforts of women to act together and challenge systems intent on depriving them of their autonomy.

It’s not true that conservatives don’t like single women.  They love single women and, of course, mothers – if they are vulnerable, dependent, and ashamed, and if they know their place in the “natural” order.  If they are, in other words, isolated and dependent. The role of female friendship is even more important when you consider that single women, single mothers in particular, are often surrounded by other women who support them.   What conservatives cannot confront head on is that Davis is a single mother and visibly not isolated by that fact.  And she’s a public figure. Now, to make matters even worse, it is clear that she’s produced daughters who are like her.  Last night, Dru and Amber Davis publicly wrote letters refuting claims made in the most recent spate of  “bad mother” attacks on their mother.  Is there no end to the Davis women’s shamelessness?

Our brains are bombarded from birth by images and stories of male fraternity and solidarity. Whether it’s school hallways plastered with photos of past presidents, legions of elves and dwarves making their way through Middle Earth, every major animated film made by Pixar, or sports teams that represent their cities, most of our images of collective effort and fellow-feeling are male.

From the time our children can listen to stories, watch movies or pick up a tablet or turn on a radio we ply them with stories that suppress representations of women as friends, as united, and as supportive of one another’s efforts or as heroic.  There are some exceptions, of course, but there is no getting around the avalanche of facts attesting to the marginalization of images of female friendship. A few representative examples:

Liz Wallace and Alison Bechdel’s Test, Katha Pollitt’s Smurfette Principle and Ariel Levy’s “loophole women” are all ways of talking about the same phenomenon: the isolation of women in male-dominated spaces.  From ensemble casts in filmsgaming, and animated movies to television talk shows and sports coverage, the invisibility of girls and women engaged in the world is deplorable -- we typically see one woman, maybe two, and their opportunities for actually engaging with each other and their worlds are correspondingly curtailed. The only place this is not true, graphically and visually, is in celebrity culture, where the prevalence of visible women, often open to dissection and criticism, masks the comparative paucity of women in behind the scenes in the fashion and entertainment industries.

• The principles above demonstrate how persistently we continue to tell stories of fraternity but rarely of sorority. Women are loyal friends and we regularly work and rely on one another, yet it’s a rare treat to see women publicly portrayed as working together for the common good and embraced for doing so – in movies or in news.  Despite obvious everyday acts of female cooperation and friendship, the bulk of our cultural production continues to render us invisible and inaccessible to one another.  One of the only times we are portrayed together with relish is as witches – which groups women in covens and categorizes us immediately as dangerous (ie.American Horror Story: Coven)  But how many band of brothers, father-son movies can we make? Apparently an infinite number. This is as true of children’s media as it is of blockbuster adult entertainment.

The past several years have seen notable exceptions in films: "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Brave" and "Frozen" were compelling quest stories involving daughters, sisters, mothers and friends that made a dent in mainstream public consciousness. And to great success.  If anything should worry those invested in patriarchy, it's this shift in story-telling.

• The isolation we see on screen extends almost uniformly to women in power anywhere: boardroom after boardroomstate house after state houseproduction company after production companynews room after news roomconference after conferencelist after list – the higher up the ladder you go, the more outnumbered women become.  While this is changing, the rise of women into leadership positions seems to have plateaued and women’s investments in education, where they excel, have not translated into workplace or political penetration at senior levels.  Women have hit a thick wall.  For every headline like this week’s, “Women Led Just 3 Percent Of Companies That Went Public Over The Last 17 Years,” (and that’s the good news), there’s another like this: "Republicans Don't Have a Single Woman Running a Battleground Senate Campaign."  For every “Glass Sunroof Shatered (sic): GM Hires it First Female CEO,” you can bet on plenty more cars full of men, with a woman or two whose been “let in” for the ride, that is, until the road hits the glass cliff. In either case, it’s never even remotely close to the necessary-for-change 40%threshold. 100% boys clubs are alive and well.

• We also cultivate one-on-one “cat fight” narratives that undermine the very idea that women can be allies. It doesn’t matter whether we’re CEOs or Olympic Skierspop stars or politicians – dominant media persistently uses this language and framing when more than one woman at a time is in the limelight.   When it’s not one-on-one, it’s “mean girls” – because the entire (patriarchal) planet would cease to exist if women were seen to be cooperative and united.

Lastly, when women do come together, we often erase and bury their work and legacies.  The histories of Saratoga Springs and the Declaration of Sentiments, of the contributions of African American sororities and women in the Civil Rights movement, of anti-domestic violence activism, of secret networks for safe abortions, are things American children rarely learn in school.

What’s the benefit of telling children than powerful women can’t work together (despite the obvious untruth of this), that women don’t help one another (when they clearly do) and that they are destined to be dependent and peripheral (when they are so clearly struggling not to be)?

The clearest and simplest explanation is that it perpetuates institutionalized male domination of families, politics, media and the economy.  I know, people laugh at expressions like “institutionalized male dominance” because of the alleged “boy crisis.” I laugh, too, when I hear “male dominated” used as a descriptor, because, what, pray tell, isn’t male dominated? Work? The female domination of teaching, administrative work and the care industries remains unchanged in 40 years. These are undercompensated and, for most men, considered, even still, “women’s work.” Religion? Puhleez [LINK?].  Politics? Get back to me when all-female congressional panels decide if men over 35 should or should not procreate.  The End of Men, The Richer Sex, The Dead Patriarchy and the Boy Crisis will get my full attention when their effects translate into parity in politics and gender, the end to lifetime wealth and wage gaps, the equalizing of confidence and ambition across socioecononomic, racial and gender groups and an end to the relentless realities of domestic violence and sexual assault, from which children and women remain the most likely to suffer.

Our widespread lack of cultural representations of women as friends, single or not, mothers or not, work hand in hand with social policies that reward and enrich certain families, while penalizing and impoverishing others.  Single women, especially those with children, are the most viable challenge to the subaltern status of women overall. Wendy Davis is this week’s focus for anti-feminist vitriol, but she’s not alone. And that’s something we can’t stop talking about.

That’s why teaching little girls to value on another, play on teams, and understand relational aggression in age appropriate ways is important.  That’s why Ann Friedman’s Shine Theory is just the best.  That’s why Erick Erickson may regret his nifty nickname: Barbie’s playhouse was always filled with friends.

By Soraya Chemaly

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Female Friendship Friends Sexism Wendy Davis