Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Enduring Friendship: Women's Intimacies and the Erotics of Survival

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Enduring Friendship: Women's Intimacies and the Erotics of Survival

Article excerpt

Stories of women's friendship gone awry pervade feminist memoirs produced over the last thirty-five years. Whether in fiction or photography, literary reportage or political treatise, feminists have taken pains to describe the suffering they've endured at the hands of female friends. They also write elaborate prescriptions for how to be a good friend. I read these memoirs against Adrienne Rich's essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," arguably one of the most formidable contemporary treatises on women's relationships with one another. (1) Viewing Rich as the "call" and the archive of memoirs as "response," I frame the two as a dialogue through which to understand and make more visible feminist attention to women's relationships. Rich argues that women engage in "survival relationships" with one another. Regardless of how central or peripheral men are in their lives, "it is the women who make life endurable for each other, give physical affection without causing pain, share, advise, and stick by each other." (2) Calling for a reconceptualization of women's intimacy, Rich asks feminists to render what she term the lesbian continuum more apparent by amplifying the myriad types of sustaining relationships women have with one another.

While Rich's essay has canonical status, feminists in the main have not obliged her request, adopting neither Rich's understanding of lesbianism nor her vision of women's friendship. This should come as little surprise. Lesbian writers such as Joan Nestle found Rich's essay insulting, pedantic, and antierotic when it was first published.' Rich's essay likely achieved its notoriety more for the concept of compulsory heterosexuality it popularized, than for the concept of lesbian continuum or lesbian existence. Compulsory heterosexuality as a concept enabled feminists to understand heterosexuality as a political institution operating insidiously and coercively, while lesbian continuum and existence were what Rich thought of as invisible social realities and political tactics that presaged a more woman-centered life for women. While the latter are less popular, feminists have in practice constructed an archive very related to (if not exactly like) that which Rich envisioned, which deserves analytic attention.

This archive comprises feminist meditations on the cruelty with which women engage one another. I came to identify it by reading, teaching with, and writing about feminist memoir primarily in the United States over the past decade. Such texts reveal that within contemporary feminist thought in North America there exists a persistent effort to make the creation of a new ethic of social relations among women a central goal of feminist movements. This is significant as a counterbalance to more widespread conceptions that feminism is principally about changing relations between women and men. The dramas recounted in these narratives are about women's experiences with and expectations of one another and appear to take up significant emotional and intellectual space in the narrators' minds and lives. These accounts do fulfill Rich's request to think and write more about intimacy among women friends, but the picture they paint is neither as affectionate nor as valiant as she may have envisaged.

As I iteratively compiled this archive, I looked to include a diversity of voices, paying particular attention to questions of political community, race and ethnicity, and age. Of the twenty-five projects I have drawn from, women of color produced nine, white women produced sixteen, women with a "third-wave" feminist orientation accounted for four, and twenty-one spoke to different feminist politics emerging primarily in the 1970s and 1980s. (4) In the course of my search I decided to include stories within and outside of social movement contexts. Doing so crucially illustrates that cruelty among women is part of a broader feminist concern not limited to cultures of activism. …

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