It’s amazing, given their different physiology and complement of hormones, how much alike men and women are in most ways. Still it seems to be the fact that women on the whole have less direct competitive drive and desire to dominate; and therefore, paradoxically, have less need to bond with one another in ranked, exclusive groups.
The power of male group solidarity must come from the control and channeling of male rivalry, the repression and concentration of the hormone-driven will to dominate that so often dominates men themselves. It is a remarkable reversal. The destructive, anarchic energy of individual rivalry and competitive ambition is diverted into loyalty to group and leader and directed to more or less constructive social enterprise.
Such groups are closed, positing “the other” as outsider. They exclude, first, women; then, men of a different age, or kind, or caste, or nation, or level of achievement, etc. — exclusions that reinforce the solidarity and power of the excluders. Perceiving any threat, the “band of brothers” joins together to present an impermeable front.
Male solidarity appears to me to have been the prime shaper of most of the great ancient institutions of society — Government, Army, Priesthood, University, and the new one that may be devouring all the others, Corporation. The existence and dominance of these hierarchic, organized, coherent, durable institutions goes back so far and has been so nearly universal that it’s mostly just called “how things are,” “the world,” “the division of labor,” “history,” “God’s will,” etc.
As for female solidarity, without it human society, I think, would not exist. But it remains all but invisible to men, history, and God
Female solidarity might better be called fluidity — a stream or river rather than a structure. The only institutions I am fairly sure it has played some part in shaping are the tribe and that very amorphous thing, the family. Wherever the male arrangement of society permits the fellowship of women on their own terms, it tends to be casual, unformalised, unhierarchical; to be ad hoc rather than fixed, flexible rather than rigid, and more collaborative than competitive. That it has mostly operated in the private rather than the public sphere is a function of the male control of society, the male definition and separation of “public” and “private.” It’s hard to know if women’s groups would ever gather into great centers, because the relentless pressure from male institutions against such aggregation has prevented it. It might not happen, anyhow. Instead of rising from the rigorous control of aggression in the pursuit of power, the energy of female solidarity comes from the wish and need for mutual aid and, often, the search for freedom from oppression. Elusiveness is the essence of fluidity.
So, when the interdependence of women is perceived as a threat to the dependence of women on men and the child-bearing, child-rearing, family-serving, man-serving role assigned to women, it’s easy to declare that it simply doesn’t exist. Women have no loyalty, do not understand what friendship is, etc. Denial is an effective weapon in the hands of fear. The idea of female independence and interdependence is met with scoffing hatred by both men and women who see themselves as benefiting from male dominance. Misogyny is by no means limited to men. Living in “a man’s world,” plenty of women distrust and fear themselves as much or more than men do.
In so far as the feminism of the nineteen-seventies played on fear, exalting the independence and interdependence of women, it was playing with fire. We cried “Sisterhood is powerful!” — and they believed us. Terrified misogynists of both sexes were howling that the house was burning down before most feminists found out where the matches were.
The nature of sisterhood is so utterly different from the power of brotherhood that it’s hard to predict how it might change society. In any case, we’ve seen only a glimpse of what its effects might be.
The great ancient male institutions have been increasingly infiltrated by women for the last two centuries, and this is a very great change. But when women manage to join the institutions that excluded them, they mostly end up being co-opted by them, serving male ends, enforcing male values.
Which is why I have a problem with women in combat in the armed services, and why I watch the rise of women in the “great” universities and the corporations — even the government — with an anxious eye.
Can women operate as women in a male institution without becoming imitation men?
If so, will they change the institution so radically that the men are likely to label it second-class, lower the pay, and abandon it? This has happened to some extent in several fields, such as the practice of teaching and medicine, increasingly in the hands of women. But the management of those fields, the power, and the definition of their aims, still belongs to men. The question remains open.
As I look back on the feminism of the late twentieth century I see it as typical of feminine solidarity — all Indians, no chiefs. It was an attempt to create an unhierarchical, inclusive, flexible, collaborative, unstructured, ad hoc body of people to bring the genders together in a better balance.
Women who want to work toward that end, need, I think, to recognise and respect their own elusive, invaluable, indestructible kind of solidarity — as do men. And they need to recognise both the great value of male solidarity, and the inferiority of gender solidarity to human solidarity — as do men.
I think feminism continues and will continue to exist wherever women work in their own way with one another and with men, and wherever women and men go on questioning male definitions of value, refusing gender exclusivity, affirming interdependence, distrusting aggression, seeking freedom always.
2 December 2010
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.