The other day on Twitter, someone posted about “that knowing look” that women exchange when a man is talking down to them. This is the mild end of a spectrum of actions that women take out of solidarity with each other, from looks through accompanying each other to the bathroom, through friendship to full-on man-hating separatism.
Added February 7: In a speech endorsing Hillary Clinton for President yesterday, Madeleine Albright said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” According to Maureen O’Connor she has been saying this since at least 2004. It’s a striking example of the kind of problematic solidarity I’m talking about.
In contrast, Erica Violet Lee gives examples of situations where solidarity may well have been the best available course of action – in part because of solidarity among men.
The problems they are responding to are a hundred percent real. From disrespect to discrimination to harassment and rape and murder, women are systematically oppressed in our society. This is a matter of social structure, not agency, but the structure exerts its oppression on women in large part by enabling and encouraging people to take action against them, and the vast majority of those actors are men. It is thus not surprising that in many circumstances women trust each other more than men.
It is also not specific to gender: members of oppressed groups have always tried to show each other solidarity. Black people share knowing looks, gay men walk each other home, Deaf people form friendships, Jews form separatist communities. Sometimes these measures work, sometimes they don’t.
When solidarity fails, it’s because people fail to realize that it’s a kludge, a statistical bet on the effects of these social structures. It’s because they mistake the structures that encourage people to dehumanize others and behave like assholes with the prevalence of actual psychopaths and assholes. They forget that God (or Odin or Krishna or whoever) has carefully sprinkled assholes and psychopaths throughout the population, so that they are represented among Black people and gay men and Deaf people and Jews and trans people and yes, even women.
Solidarity also fails when people fail to realize that the structure does not affect everyone equally. Of course, many people are smart enough to adjust their solidarity to take into account edge cases and intersectionalities. One well-known example is when women include gay men among their “girlfriends” – but absolutism fails here too, as many people have observed that there are gay men who are just as misogynist as any straight man.
Like any kludge, gender solidarity can be incredibly useful. But like any kludge, it works best when we know its limitations, use it sparingly, and try not to think of it as a stable long-term solution to our problems. See also: segregated bathrooms and gender roles.