Back when my friends, whose religious practices involve sacrificing something for Lent, were making their picks, I quipped that I would give up picking fights within the Sisterhood* for Lent. It became a little less quip and a little more aspiration, over time, and “for Lent” gradually became a provocative question of what life would look like if I (we) never picked fights within the Sisterhood. I’m not going to pretend that I’m doing that now, or that I will ever get there, but that provocative question gradually became a mission. When I take on missions – I don’t take them on lightly. I don’t know who coined the word impossible, but I bet it wasn’t a Sister.
Sisterhood** is a powerful thing. A powerful thing in my life – whether it was Gloria Steinem, or Jane Austen, or Charlotte Bronte, or so many other Sisters of the Revolution, who spoke to me as a Sister, and helped me find my own Sister’s voice inside me, or so many Sisters in my life yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It breaks down barriers. It allows me to talk with, to advocate alongside, women who are different from me in so many ways – our skin color, our socioeconomic status, our politics, our life experiences, our education, our queerness or straightness – and I have seen, so many times, we are instantly Sisters, and although all these other things remain, Sisterhood is more fundamental and more immutable. Of all the things worth preserving to me, as a woman, Sisterhood is the greatest***. And my choice is predicated on my treasuring of this most precious thing, on this day that belongs to us, and to me.
I wrote last year, and spoke at last year’s V to Shining V, about the idea that fights both within and among marginalized communities inevitably stand to benefit our oppressors, and oppression itself as a force, and to fail to help any of us. I stand by that claim. This does not mean that Sisters should not continue learning to cultivate spaces in which inclusive and earnest dialogue occurs over our differences, because we will have differences – because of our experiences, because of our perspectives, because of which part of the Struggle in which we have embedded ourselves most passionately. We would do well as Sisters, also, to include people who are not Sisters in that dialog, because the truth is that there’s a lot of oppression in the world, and it isn’t all directed at people “like us.” And we would do well, as Sisters, to embed ourselves, when welcomed, within dialogs where we ourselves are the outsiders and allies.
I want to be careful here, because telling other people not to pick fights is, frequently, itself picking a fight. Or making some kind of subtle or not-so-subtle assertion that a certain narrative – usually a dominant narrative, like, inside the Sisterhood, the middle-class, white, straight feminist narrative – is more important than other narratives – like, inside the Sisterhood, the narrative of multiply marginalized Sisters. We know as feminists that this is precisely what is done to women – we’ve spent generations and millennia under patriarchy changing the world and then giving credit to our husbands (and even, often, having the gall to say that, with them is where the credit belongs). And, sometimes, we’re angry about it, and we probably do go about voicing our anger in ways that are counterproductive as measured by our own outcome desires (for instance****, in comparing the role of Suffragists in Abolition to the point our sister Patricia Arquette tried to make and the way in which she made it, at the Oscars). Anger is okay. And if my Sisters choose to direct it at me, or at each other, I am not going to judge them (or pretend to be better than them). I am just going to learn not to participate. And I am not going to conflate the Sister with her anger.
I am writing also, a little, and processing still a little, in response to the claims that feminism in Social Media is a toxic thing. I think most Sisters have seen the Sisterhood get toxic. I don’t want to deny this can happen, because it would sound absurd, even to me. But, aside from the ideological analysis of this kind of attack, how it is levied, on whom it is levied, and what its likely function in a system of oppression is (hint, it probably isn’t reducing marginalization), I think I, like many Sisters, reacted to this instinctively in a negative way, because the cloud of women we know in social media (and more generally in the Sisterhood) had done, are doing, will do so much to support us, lift us up so many times, be a cheering voice in our triumphs and a commiserating cry when we fell short. When we think of the Sisterhood, we know this is what we do. Whether modern feminism is toxic (it must not be allowed to be or become so) or whether some of these behaviors are toxic (they are) is just not a fight worth picking. That would allow the toxicity to define us, and it simply does not. Rather, it is reminding ourselves, focusing ourselves on, aligning ourselves with, each other as Sisters, on which we must focus. That defines Sisterhood, and that defines us and makes us who we are. So how am I going to give up picking fights? Without gagging and binding myself? This is what I am learning to do, and what I am pledging to do.
- When there are opportunities to do good, to make progress, to change the world, I am going to focus my efforts on doing just that. This is probably the biggest thing I’m going to continue doing. My behaviorists talk about replacement behaviors (although there are limits to this philosophy, as we know), and I think this is really the Sister’s ultimate replacement behavior, because alongside connecting with and empowering each other, this is what we do best. So try and stop me.
- I will continue to tell my own story. Because it’s the only one that’s truly mine to tell. And because there is no point in feminism if it creates a world in which Sisters matter conceptually, but not in practice, as individuals. We would then replace the patriarchy with some internal censer who places our narratives in a hierarchy and uses semaphores to direct us when to speak and when to be silent, and at that phase, the Sisterhood would cease to be revolutionary.
- I will continue to listen to other Sister’s stories, and to all stories of oppression. I will never own stories other than my own. But having learned to know when our voices were missing, and to call the bluff on histories that pretend to be complete without us, I will continue to listen for the voices that do not get heard, because this is perhaps the most revolutionary act of radical feminism.
- Whenever I can collaborate with you, I will. Not because I owe it to you, but because I believe in Us, because I owe it to me, and because although we are strong as individuals, Sisterhood makes us far stronger together.
- If and while you choose to be a fight-picker, you may find yourself on my ignore list. Sisters don’t have to be suckers. If you are the person who wants to constantly ask why I don’t stop telling my own story or changing the world in the way that I’m changing the world, to tell someone else’s story or do what you think needs to be done, or if you want to nitpick or establish yourself as my critic, I’m just not going to respond to you, and please allow me to re-refer you, in advance, to the first bullet point. This also means there are a whole bunch of fights I’m not going to weigh in on, because they seem, to me, just opportunities to argue, and I have decided to be too busy changing the world to argue.
- When I get angry at a Sister, I will ask why I am really angry. Solidarity in the Sisterhood doesn’t mean man hating (or masculinity hating). But I will remember my own claim, that this infighting is a tool of our oppression, and whenever I am angry at a Sister, I will ask myself what the patriarchy’s game in this is, and I will direct my anger back at oppression, where it belongs.
If you’re somebody who loves me, and you see me get off track with this pledge, please tell me. Preferably, in private, and definitely, in love. I will try to listen to you. And if you’re somebody who loves me, I hope that you will know that I will fail – will fail repeatedly – in my way to achieving this goal, and you will keep loving me anyways, not because I deserve it (I don’t), but because it’s who you are (it is).
It’s International Women’s Day. And women should celebrate by doing whatever they want to do. Because, well, that’s rather the whole point. What this Sister wants to do… is change the world, and she is paring down all the stuff that gets in the way of that.
* By Sisterhood, I really mean radical feminist women (I do embrace that term), but… well, see the next footnote. This raises a whole bunch of red flags to certain people, I’m sure, already. I’m going to talk about “us girls,” and in so doing, I’m talking about and with girls and women who make a choice to co-advocate alongside other girls and women for the good of girls and women. This isn’t really a blog post about whether men can be feminists (of course they can, my mister is a feminist). It isn’t really a blog post about whether or not other gender minority groups belong inside the big tent of women, either as guests or as members (I think they do). But I celebrate the right of women to talk about themselves and not only spend all their time talking about someone or something else.
** I chose Sisterhood as a term because it’s the one that means something to me. In some ways, Sisterhood is the movement wing of what we do in feminism (as opposed to the theoretical wing of what we do). On another layer, there is something sort of else about it. I think all the Sisters know what I am talking about. Probably, if I look at it really carefully, there are people who are women who make nuanced choices not to be Sisters, or who make thoughtless choices not to be Sisters, or who just find themselves not experiencing the connection of Sisterhood. I don’t judge any of them, but I do recognize that, probably, I like any other Sister, can only partially understand what that’s like. Not all women are highly relational, and of course, many men are highly relational. But there’s something special about being a Sister. It is also, admittedly, as much a not mythical thing as it is a mythical thing. It can go awry, which is the whole point of writing this blog and of taking this stand. Still, within the prism of my own experience as a woman, to me, Sisterhood is the best thing about being a woman.
*** And I’m an only child, saying this.
**** In fact, even trying to provide some gentle, inclusion-focused, non-shaming retrospective analysis of a situation, itself, becomes very quickly fight-picking.