At a rally for Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright declared, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” A fierce debate about gender, the generational divide, and feminism in presidential politics ensued. There’s a fundamental psychological dynamic at play as well: the idealization of female solidarity and the corollary difficulties women often experience when differences emerge.
Women are celebrated for their emotional intimacy. Statements like, “We get one another completely”; the sharing of secrets, clothes, and gossip; even jokes about women going en masse to the bathroom make clear how much women prize connection. This “urge to merge” can be viewed as an aspect of female identity formation and the longed-for return to the blissful state of maternal-infant union. Nothing is quite as delicious.
But it’s also a set up. When women are not supposed to feel, let alone talk, about their differences, there’s no room for conflict, and no vocabulary or practice for resolving it. Difficulties go underground, leaking out in ways that often lead to rupture. Thus differentiation is experienced as betrayal, and standing apart from the group risks social suicide. My daughter discovered this in college when, tired of looking for housing with eight (!) other women, she considered leaving the group. The anger and accusations of disloyalty quickly convinced her otherwise. It turned out that none of the women really wanted to live in such a large household, but no one knew how to say so without hurting anyone’s feelings or being seen as a traitor.
This loyalty/betrayal split is now being played out in presidential politics. Albright’s remarks typify idealized notions of female connection that make no room for difference. She reminds us of the dangers women face if they stray from the fold. (Never mind that the halcyon days of blissful union have never really existed: the very women’s movement Albright exalts was itself torn apart by conflict.)
Predictably, when Albright consigned to hell women who disagree with her, all hell broke loose. As long as those who differ are seen as traitors, with only a narrow range of women’s emotions and choices deemed acceptable, all hell will continue to break loose.
But perhaps there’s hope. As younger women reap the benefits of their foremothers and are able to speak up, speak their minds, and stand apart, strong feelings and disagreements won’t be quite so likely to go underground, then erupt. Instead, polarization might give way to dealing directly and respectfully with the differences that enrich women’s complex and very human experiences.
What have your experiences been with female solidarity and its discontents?