Political Rupture

woman burning in hell (2)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?



8 thoughts on “Political Rupture

  1. Thanks for this thoughtfully written post.

    I’ve long felt like I’ve missed out on female solidarity and the benefits of having women friends. Maybe it’s because I’ve been around the “wrong” kind of people. Hard to say. My experiences have been that many women in my life have been quick to betray and backstab. I’ve had an easier time getting along with men. Fortunately, I have found many great woman friends who are genuine and not catty but, because of painful past experiences, I still feel like I can’t let my guard down.

    I wish I had sisters :-) I also have hope that things can change as in the past few years I’ve found some super supportive women friends.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, MG. I think a lot of women have had similar experiences. I don’t have sisters either. I’ve often wondered if women with sisters are better at negotiating the ups and downs of female friendships because they could more directly negotiate those dynamics with their sisters.

  2. I was surprised by the negative coverage Madeline Albright’s comment received. I don’t think she meant it as a support Hilary or else as much as how women, like Hilary, need our support because they are targeted for being assertive and are punished for certain behaviors and standards that men are not. While I agree with you that group think can lead to a dangerous situation, if we don’t stand up and support women who are banging their heads against the glass ceiling who will?

    I also think the constant urge to merge is a hunger most humans have for real and authentic connections –now more than ever. It may come from the original relationship we all have with our mothers, but I don’t think it is infantile to want to continue to create connections as we get older. From my perspective it is a mark of maturity to desire connecting with others, even those with whom we disagree.

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