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Sisterhood Through History: From White Bourgeois Privilege to Solidarity Among All Women

Tilly explores the historical roots of sisterhood, and how it has shaped our understanding of sisterhood today

The history of sisterhood is complex and not quite as feminist as I thought it would be, to be honest. No, historically, sisterhood hasn’t always been like the sisterhood we see in Greta Gerwig’s recent Barbie movie (sorry for any spoilers). But that doesn’t mean that sisterhood has not improved over time, nor that we, as a community, cannot continue to make sisterhood more inclusive.

So, let’s begin with the etymology of sisterhood as described by the Online Etymology Dictionary and how it developed over the late 14th – 16th centuries. In the late 14th century, the word sisterhood derived from the word “susterhede”, meaning “the state of being or having a sister; sisterly relationship.” In the mid-15th century, it meant a “society of sisters” (usually in a religious order- which is kind of unsurprising) and by the 16th century, sisterhood formed the “sense of "women having some common characteristic or calling."”

Scholars at Rochester University have also researched sisterhood as a theory. In a journal article, ‘Sisterhood & Feminism: Engaging Gender and Women’s Studies Students in the Community’, the scholars write that sisterhood theory “[e]ncourages women to support each other in order to end sexism. Sisterhood recognizes that women (not just men) can be sexist when they are competitive and try to bring each other down. Instead, sisterhood encourages women to reach out to each other and end their own sexist behavior by being nicer to other women.” This description is exactly what I believe sisterhood to be and a good theory, I’d say.

As per the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “sisterhood” can be defined in three ways:

  1. the state of being a sister.

  2. a community or society of sisters.

  3. the solidarity of women based on shared conditions, experiences, or concerns.

Therefore, from my research, it seems that, universally, sisterhood refers to women collectively advocating against sexism and gender inequality . But writing for Her Campus, Alexandra Kallfelz writes that “Sisterhood has a different meaning to every person, but in general, sisterhood as a concept and as a practice has been crucial in the history of women’s rights and feminism and to this day as well.” So how has the history of sisterhood impacted how sisterhood works today?

Sisterhood fighting for women’s rights

While, through my research, I have not been able to pinpoint exactly when sisterhood began or how it came about, it is of no surprise to me that sisterhood has roots in the women’s liberation movements that helped advocate for the various rights and equalities that women have today, including the right to vote and the right to work etc. An archive by the British Library named Sisterhood and After gives lots of information on the Woman’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s; it’s really interesting, so I’d definitely recommend taking a look.

An article by the ‘Sisterhood and After’ Research Team explains that the Women’s Liberation Movement consisted of women from the UK, US, Canada, and France coming together to support women’s rights; a true example of sisterhood, I would say. It reveals that between 1970 and 1978, the Women’s Liberation Movement held eight conferences across the UK. The first conference in Oxford in 1970 discussed the proposal of four demands to help improve women’s rights. At the second conference in Skegness in 1971, these demands were passed. The demands were as follows:

  1. Equal pay

  2. Equal educational and job opportunities

  3. Free contraception and abortion on demand

  4. Free 24-hour nurseries

Three further demands were proposed during the later conferences:

  1. Legal and financial independence for all women (Edinburgh, 1974)

  2. The right to a self-defined sexuality. An end to discrimination against lesbians (Edinburgh, 1974)

  3. Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression toward women (Birmingham, 1978)

The article writes that “[a]t the Birmingham conference, amid some controversy, ‘the right to a self-defined sexuality’ was split off and added as a preface to all seven demands.” However, sisterhood wasn’t always this positive.

Sisterhood as a white bourgeois privilege

I have already discussed how, historically, sisterhood aimed to create a universal identity among women. However, this excluded women of colour, working-class women, lesbians, and trans women, being an act of solidarity among white bourgeois women, and created women as in opposition to men. This is not what sisterhood should be, nor how we view sisterhood at Matriarch. For us, sisterhood is about supporting all women regardless of their race, class, gender identification, and sexuality, recognises intersectional oppressions, and advocates for gender equality rather than seeing men and women as opposites.

In a journal article, bell hooks explains that “[t]he vision of Sisterhood evoked by women's liberationists was based on the idea of common oppression. Needless to say, it was primarily bourgeois white women, both liberal and radical in perspective, who professed belief in the notion of common oppression. The idea of 'common oppression' was a false and corrupt platform disguising and mystifying the true nature of women's varied and complex social reality. Women are divided by sexist attitudes, racism, class privilege, and a host of other prejudices. The shift away from an emphasis on Sisterhood has occurred because many women, angered by the insistence on 'common oppression', shared identity, sameness, criticized or dismissed feminist movement altogether. The emphasis on Sisterhood was often seen as the emotional appeal masking the opportunism of manipulative bourgeois white women. It was seen as a cover-up hiding the fact that many women exploit and oppress other women.” This, for me, is the opposite of what sisterhood should be.

I was shocked when doing my research to find a story about a black woman in the early 1900s not being able to accept a scholarship to study in France because two white women from Alabama refused to travel with her. This right here, is why we need sisterhood; historically, across racial lines, sisterhood was absent, and women can be the biggest critics of other women. Instead of being jealous of other women’s achievements, we must support the achievements of other women and take inspiration from them.

How has the history of sisterhood impacted our perceptions of sisterhood today?

With the world focusing more on diversity and inclusion today, the unsisterly history of sisterhood and growing knowledge of intersectionality has impacted our perceptions of current sisterhood. Today, sisterhood is about creating solidarity among all women and noticing the different oppressions that non-white, straight, bourgeois women experience and supporting them through it. For example, the ‘Sisterhood and After’ article explains that feminists/ sisterhoods today tend to focus on “violence against women, pornography, sex workers, media representation of women, poverty, education and equality.” Such a pivot in focus reveals that sisterhood is becoming more inclusive to the oppressions of all women as, statistically, women of colour experience violence more than white women, sex workers have traditionally been dehumanised and ignored by other women, and the needs of women living in poverty have been ignored. The arts and media are also focusing more on the beautiful importance of sisterhood for women of colour, as explained by Yasmine Jameelah in an article for Black Love. Furthermore, scholarship for black studies and women’s studies are becoming more and more prevalent today. Such scholarship both recognises and accepts the achievements of women of colour and proves that women’s causes cross political, geographical, racial, and economic lines, consequently highlighting how sisterhood should include ALL women.

Another prime example is the #MeTooMovement, which was founded by Black American activist, Tarana Burke, and provides a space for any and all women to come together and support each other through experiences of sexual violence. In her article, Kallfelz highlights how through the movement, women have felt more comfortable speaking about their experiences, knowing that many other women are doing the same. Another example would be the #SayHerName movement, which seeks to raise awareness for Black women victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence and more recently, to raise awareness of the names and stories of all women of colour who have experienced violence following a history of the media ignoring non-white victims of violence and idolising white victims.

Moreover, despite having achieved various equalities in politics, the workplace, sexual health, and domestic duties, women are still not equal to men, and there’s still so much to fight for. So, the Women’s Liberation Movement has proven to us today that through inclusive sisterhood, we can and should keep fighting for gender equality. Writing for The Sisters, Paula Escobar Chavarría explains that “sisterhood is essential to find a way to accelerate the path of social change”, and she believes that “the time is now” to use sisterhood to create such change. She writes: “it’s the era of sisterhood. The power of collaboration, generosity, admiration, and support between women is infinite. Let’s find it and expand it. Because every woman’s experiences, especially those that are unfair and sad, are not individual experiences, but collective. More than ever, personal issues are political ones when we think about gender challenges. A spirit of sisterhood will lead us to succeed and more important than that, to experience shared and collective success.”

However, for this to work, we must stop the competitiveness between women and stop judging each other. Instead, we should support each other’s achievements and learn from them.

Image source: Barbie, (movie by Greta Gerwig for Warner Bros., 2023)


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