A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt











I have come to see male group solidarity as an immensely powerful force in human affairs, more powerful, perhaps, than the feminism of the late 20th century took into account.

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


Breaking WavesUrsula 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.



A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters — 21 Comments

  1. Meet my daughter, and you will believe it. Even in her early teens, she passed the time on the school bus by armwrestling the boys — and winning. In vain did I point out that being crushingly dominated by a pretty girl would warp their fragile male sexual development, and doom them to years of costly psychotherapy. Her idea was that if they could be ground into the dust, they should be — preferably as soon as possible.

  2. ~sigh~

    i’m so sad that we’re still telling each other that men are inherently aggressive and dominant.

    haven’t we fairly well settled this as a nuture issue?

  3. It’s traditional to think that girls and women who show dominance/aggression/competitiveness are “trying to be (or be like) men”–that this is copycatting, rather than innate potential–but biology suggests otherwise. Females in primates, as well as in other species (horses and cattle, for instance) do have social dominance hierarchies in the absence of the male; girls and women in all-female groups do exhibit dominance hierarchies and competitiveness, as well as rejection of the “other.” Women react to success (whether it’s gaining a new skill or winning against a computer in a simple game) with a burst of the same hormone as men do–testosterone.

    And the feminist movement of the Sixties/Seventies was (and in _some_ of its later survivals still is) as rigid and repressive as patriarchal religious fundamentalism…just in a different direction. (Have just been re-reading some works from the early 80s that make clear how one rigidity was changed for another.) The cliques of girls that dominated my schooldays (50s and early 60s)–the competition for status, the exclusion of the “unfit”, etc.–seemed different from the boys’ groups only because of the methods: girls weren’t allowed physical conflict, so they went, as the oppressed always do, to clandestine methods–gossip, secret cabals, etc. The losers were cast out of the group and attacked if they tried to re-enter. We saw this too in women’s behavior in the local women’s groups (from church groups to the Junior Service League.)

    Girls born with a high level of competitiveness were harshly restricted by society in how they could express it–if they came from the right families, dressed the right way, were mannerly to adults, and did not continue tomboy behavior past a certain age, they could be channeled into becoming tomorrow’s cheerleader, sorority president, banker/lawyer/doctor’s wife, and the future head of the Junior League. The others continued to get heavy social disapproval, and were excluded from girl groups. There was no cooperation–no awareness of the value of cooperation–between the outcasts and the dominant cliques (and this behavior was still evident at the time when I was working with teenage groups back in the 1980s. Girls did not stand up for other girls–for instance, in a gang-rape situation–if the girl-victims weren’t in their own group.)

    This is not to say that women cannot form “natural” cooperative groups–they can and have–but the structure of those groups is still a structure–there are still leaders who arise not out of imitation of men, but out of the innate qualities that also produce leaders among men. The style may look different (being influenced by the whole social milieu that sets the limits to how both men and women are allowed to show dominance/aggression/competition) but the fundamentals are the same.

  4. It is extremely hard to tell what women’s groups would be like, since all humans operate in a heavily male-oriented, male-dominated context. Interestingly enough, humans are the only primates in which 1) the male alliances are not fluid and transient but solidify in persistent structures and 2) the female alliance and hierarchies have been almost entirely obliterated by patrilineality, patrilocality, etc.

    Whether it is possible to change “the master’s house using the master’s tools” (to quote Audre Lord) is a perennial question. Virginia Woolf discussed it in her unjustly neglected last work, Three Guineas. Bottom line — we will never know, because the experiment cannot be conducted in the present circumstances.

  5. I suspect that we have some time to go before we can figure out what a society that is truly egalitarian in terms of gender would look like. Here in the US, women have only had the right to vote for 90 years, and the integration of women into formerly male-dominated workplaces is much younger than that. We’re still trying to figure out how all this fits. Anna Fels addresses this point among others in her superb book Necessary Dreams. (I did a review of it several years ago here, and I keep recommending it to everyone.)

    So while I think Ursula’s characterization of male power groups is dead on — especially their fear of girl cooties — I think all that is starting to change.

    I’m also reading several books on the differences in the male and female brain, all of which point out that the differences are pretty damn small. I rather doubt there are any significant innate differences between the genders, outside of the obvious differences in the reproductive organs. But our culture is still trying to divide us up, and I suspect those efforts will continue for some time to come.

    Me, I want to know what kind of solidarity a mixed gender group can develop. I think we will see good examples of that as time goes on.

  6. You mean snachismo? Did you read the entire article? *smile*

    As for Ebert, there’s one incorrect fact in his otherwise excellent article. Not all primates are patriarchal. Among our two closest cousins, bonobos are egalitarian and solve conflict with group sex. But in both bonobos and chimpanzees, status flows from the mother, because paternity is uncertain, and hence female networks are vital. So arguing from biology does not dictate or vindicate patriarchy, let alone that culture has overtaken biology in our case.

  7. I’m currently living in a matriarchal community — the women of the matriarchy were the ones to inform me of this, almost immediately upon my arrival among them.

    Either this is a new experience for me or else it is the first time I’ve lived within the martriarchy as one of the so-called ‘elite’ members. As one never can pass up the opportunity for anthropology, I’ve been trying to pay as close attention to all this as I can. I’m still puzzled, as all my life experience has been to be excluded from every ‘girl’ group going, why, this one, immediately took me in upon my arrival. There are more than one branch of this matriarchy, and so far at least, I appear to be accepted by all of them enthusiastically, as a matter of course.

    Alas, I’m deeply suspicious the reasons are embedded in the position via which I arrived in this community, which includes the status of my husband.

    Love, C.

  8. Well, after reading the natures in the comments so far, I must think that the most important word in your essay this time is ‘elusive’, Ursula.

    What you are after, have so often been after, and that is so appreciated, is just plain elusive in human society, I think. Yet, it is there, can be there, can be in each person male or female who wants to recognize a few things.

    It becomes possibly more obvious that we never get there through argumentation; but by care in experience. Your art has given great opportunity of that experience, and has grown and grown in its dimensions over the years in this way, at least as I see it. Not that I don’t continue to entirely enjoy its earliest faces — and re-read to know them better.

    How to reflect back when you have done this seems to be a problem often enough. This does not take anything away from what you have accomplished, or what you have given.

    Very appreciated here.

  9. My personal experience regarding male group “solidarity” is that it is made by women!

    Just currently – and this is an experience that has been repeated over and over again in my life – I started working in a new company. This company has just been founded, so everyone here is new, not just me. The past few months, we have all been trying to make friends and find the people that we like. What I have noticed, is that most of the men are easygoing, open, and apporach each other and the women openly. A large proportion of the women on the other hand, while friendly and open to each other, keeps their distance from the men and prefers female company. The result of this is that there is a group that consists of all the men and some of the women, and a number of separate groups of women only that don’t interact with the “male” group or with each other much. So what you see, if you look at the current state of affairs, is a large “male” group and many small female groups, and what you have, of course, is male dominance, because this large group, simply due to is size, easily decides and leads, while the many female groups don’t develop this “gravity”.

    But if you look back in the “history” of this group structure, you will have seen (if you looked) that it was not the men who grouped together and excluded the women from “power”, but the women who grouped together and excluded the men and each other from being friends with them, and thereby created the male power.

    As I said, I have observed this many times in my life – at youth camps, university, school, wherever people come together for the first time and have to find friends – and while I don’t want to go too far and say the whole of society is built on this principle of female un-sociability, I must certainly say that on my level of observation and in my social context (Germany) it seems rather universal.

  10. Findings from social psychologists:

    Beginning in their earliest childhoods, girls tend to contract close friendships, cooperate with others and turn their attention on social relationships, while for boys the group tends to be more central.
    (a) Cross, S.E., & Madson, L. (1997). Models of the self: Self-construals and gender. Psychological Bulletin, 122, 5-37.

    These differences remain until adulthood: Women set great store by intimity and cooperation with a small number of close confidants. Men focus more on social groups.
    (b) Caldwell, M., & Peplau, L.A. (1982). Sex differences in same-sex friendship. Sex Roles, 8, 721-732.
    (c) Davidson, L., & Duberman, L. (1982). Friendship: Communication and interaction patterns in same-sex dyads. Sex Roles, 8, 809-822.

  11. I have to disagree a bit. I remember what it was like in middle school dealing with cliques, and while there weren’t any official titles there might as well have been. They were rigidly structured. Queen Bees and Wannabes dissects this phenomenon pretty well.

    Also, Someone- are you really trying to argue that because in your workplace women prefer to hang out with other women, that this tendency is the reason women were actively excluded and discouraged from pursuing positions of power in society for thousands of years? Because that’s a rather large leap to make.

  12. In my down-under world, girls who chatted with guys as teens took a risk of being classed as slutty and or “molls”. As in “Moll Flanders” I suppose.
    “Getting on well with men” can get you snubbed by women.

  13. Roger Ebert chose today to link to this old blog entry. As a former engineer that now works as a nurse, the original post rings true to me. Furthermore I by chance just wrote the following to someone concerning eating meat making a man seem more “manly”:
    “The aggressive tribes killed the peaceful tribes. Being a “man” meant being good at killing while the women whom were relatively peaceful and had better social skills kept the men from destroying their own tribe. Specialization of tasks.”

    Additional thoughts: in this society if you’re a married man who is friends with some woman other than your wife, people wonder just what really is going on…. Heaven forbid you’re ever seen out alone with said woman! And for that matter if you’re close friends with a guy, they wonder if you’re gay. Multiple other men in a larger group is OK, but if it’s just one other man….
    It’s almost as if only women are even allowed to have real friendships. To the extent men may be friends with other men, or married men with other women, the talking better be about relatively superficial subjects. No discussion of emotions!

  14. Too much stereotyping. I’m a very male man who has never had any interest in male-specific groups or male-specific bonding, and I’m not at all alone.

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