For me, sisterhood means salvation. It means looking at yourself through the eyes of the woman standing next to you and realizing that you are enough. Realizing that every curve, crooked smile, tear, rebellious thought is enough. You are enough. It means passing on blessings and healing when womanhood is spat on again and again. It means fighting for the ones who came before you and the ones who will come after; for the moments when women will break and contort themselves, only to realize that their mothers were right, they were enough. You are enough.
Sisterhood should have been salvation, unity, realization and comfort. It should have been ours. But today, it looks like false hope and exclusion. It looks like Madeleine Albright telling young women that there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women whilst ignoring that womanhood cannot be divorced from race and socioeconomic status. It looks like broken lines and neglected histories. It looks like some white feminists depicting black women’s concerns as divisive, or dismissing their contributions and anger entirely at their own convenience. It looks white and negligent. It looks like walking into feminist spaces on campus and counting the number of women of color on one hand. It looks like one demographic of women thriving at the expense of another, and years of unrectified appropriation and injustice all sidelined and overlooked in order to propagate a sisterhood that does not exist—a sisterhood that is not ours.
According to feminist scholar Oyeronke Oyewumi, the term “sister” was originally used amongst African Americans in tandem with “brother” to emphasize a sense of racial communion that transcended gender exclusivity in the midst of slavery, segregation, and even now in this new civil rights era. The term “sisterhood” was then appropriated by second wave feminism in the 1970s and was intended to unite all women against the all-pervasive patriarchy. However, the sisterhood of the 70s adhered to a type of sisterhood based on shared social class, sexuality, and even generation. They erected barriers around themselves that made the movement inaccessible to anyone who was not white, heterosexual, cisgendered, or middle class. This forced anyone who did not fit that mold to choose between her oppressions—woman or black, racism or sexism. They took and did not give back—and left us grappling with what sisterhood meant. It left us wondering whether we could still be part of the stories we began as women fighting for equality.
In deciphering the meaning and the origins of this exploited term “sisterhood,” it becomes clear why mainstream feminism has often appeared inclusive to only white, middle class, heterosexual women. One simply needs to look towards women like Patricia Arquette, who urged her female peers to focus on attaining equal pay because “we have fought for everybody’s equal rights,” or Lena Dunham, creator of a supposedly feminist yet undiverse show Girls, to understand that white feminist politics are not engineered to confront the intersectionality inherent in sisterhood. They instead propagate the erasure, or at the very least, the neglect of oppressions that do not implicate them directly. Yes, white women have felt the burden that comes with femininity in a patriarchal world, but the erasure of other realities in order to ameliorate their own struggle, is selfish and exclusionary, and mostly rife with hypocrisy and expediency.
It therefore becomes pertinent to attempt to understand the root of this exclusion. White, straight, able, middle class women have largely experienced the same manifestation of the patriarchy, one devoid of race politics or homophobia. Their patriarchy is clearly defined as the one that has denied them opportunities in the classroom and in the workplace, as the one that has policed their sexual and reproductive freedoms solely on the basis of their gender.
Therefore, the struggle is less messy, less complex because this enemy is discernable. It is not stuck between dark skin, socioeconomic exclusion, queer sexuality and femininity—places society consistently fails to navigate correctly. It is not stuck between victimization and demonization. It is not a place where the holder of power is both male and female, a place where race transcends gender.
Often, on these interwebs, various voices attribute feminism’s slow progression to the lack of sisterhood that was present during second wave feminism. And even more frequently, I find myself on the periphery of this movement, wondering if the black matriarchs that came before me felt this exclusion. I often stare at my screen, listening to the reverberations of Gloria Steinem’s voice and wonder whether Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Wangari Maathai ever felt like they were stretching themselves for a movement they knew they could never wholly be a part of. And I know I am not the only one because sisterhood still exists in the likeness and image of its creators. It looks like campaigns that ignore the question of accessibility for minority women, and even demean blackness and Islam to strengthen their own campaigns. It still leaves us, the owners of darker skin, queer sexualities, lower socioeconomic statuses on the outskirts of this supposedly diverse movement.
To me this sisterhood is elusive. It has turned into a tool used to distract from and invalidate the plights of many non-conforming women. The very term sisterhood has become a symbol of everything that feminism lacks. But at the same time I wonder: can we reclaim it to mean solidarity just as much as it has meant unity? As women of color continue to make strides in telling their own stories, in declaring their sovereignty, there is power in choosing to learn rather than take up space and listen to words that do not belong to your own story. Perhaps this is the sisterhood that we need to look towards. Because sisterhood in the more romantic and conventional sense – the sisterhood that I took to mean salvation, unity, realization and comfort–will only materialize slowly. It is a relationship that requires deep reflection, debate, conversation and honesty, and perhaps in the meantime we need to look towards solidarity. That is not to say that sisterhood and intersectionality dictate passivity, but they do imply solidarity and building up, rather than taking and borrowing without any sort of affirmation. There is value in passing on platforms and voices to women who have systematically been denied the chance to own a womanhood that is nuanced by erasure and exploitation.
Allow us to grow; permit us to fight. Ain’t we sisters too?