Some forms of sisterhood are voluntary. Intentionally or not, we find each other. Voluntary sisters are those women across from you in the yoga studio who become fast friends, or the women to whom you tell your secrets late at night — the ones you call crying about the recent heartbreak. She’s the woman whose doorstep you show up on with a bottle of wine when she’s entered her dark night of the soul. They are the women we turn to for healing, to lift each other up and to be the mirrors for one another when we forget our own greatness.
Over the last ten years of running young women’s leadership programs, the truth is that, even when they/we come for the certificate that says we are leaders, what we want most, is to bond — to have a space where we can let down our hair, literally and figuratively. A space where we can be surrounded by love, be cherished for who we truly are, to be fully in our wild selves with no judgement or pretense. There is a magic that happens when women come together. Somehow we stop posturing or vying for power in little ways. We begin to open up, sharing our vulnerabilities and then finding our own pathways for strength. Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, reminds us, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” And, just like truth, while all that sisterhood sounds great, it has its pitfalls or some might say, shadows, as well.
Here’s the thing. Women have not and do not always treat each other well. Heck, we women don’t always treat ourselves well (which is probably the root of the problem…). When we perceive that there is only a small slice of the pie left, we will rip each other’s hair out to get it. Studies show that women prefer male bosses over female ones (that link is to the fantastic Atlantic article by Olga Khazan) even when we perceive women as being better managers.
So, how do we nurture healing sisterhood within the power dynamics that continue to hold us back (e.g. in 2017, the average woman working full-time in the U.S. made 80.5% of what her male counterpart made, according to the U.S. Census — and of course, the gap increases when looking at factors like race/ethnicity)? If we can’t reach parity, doesn’t that mean that some women are going to make it and others, just well, aren’t? Are we genetically coded to take each other down because of the limited resources available?
Maybe. And, maybe it’s not all that grim. Perhaps we can find healing within ourselves such that we can strengthen our bonds with others. If we can build trust within ourselves and each other, we might just find ourselves in a new version of leadership altogether. Something not based on fear or rooted in ‘othering.’ A type of leadership that is about finding the unifying factors rather than the differences between each other.
While we’re all looking for data and real facts to back up our version of the truth, here are some anecdotes to illustrate. I grew up as an only child to a single mom (an amazing single mom) forty years older than me. My mother spoke to me (almost) as if I was an adult, treating me with the respect she would give a peer. She told me stories about what was going on in words I was able to understand but always in the fullness of her own truth (like when our car got stolen, or we went into debt etc).
While I had that bond with my mom, as a young person and into adulthood, that’s not a common reality. The bond between women and their mothers (and sisters) are often strained, and generational gaps, particularly between women is stark. Young people start to orient around their peers (peer orientation, a term coined by Gordon Neufeld) and begin to lose their relationships with adults. It occurs particularly when adults stop knowing how to talk to young people, often when they can no longer sugar coat the truth they may have kept hidden in the guise of ‘protecting the children.’
We lose touch with each other by creating these gaps across generations. We stop knowing how to talk to each other, and more importantly, how to listen. We put up walls, that look something like rose bushes, beautiful spots, flowers where we have brief moments like lunches or career interviews, but the rest a thorny patch we’d rather avoid, moments of subtle disrespect. So, how do we learn and move forward?
Recently I had the great honor of interviewing Gloria Steinem at a live event on stage. It was a fascinating and thrilling experience. She is dynamite. At one point someone stood up with tears in her eyes and asked Gloria something along the lines of, ‘I know what it is to appreciate your work but how do we teach the younger generation if they haven’t read the books or lived through what we lived through?’ Gloria responded with her pearls of wisdom saying, “Knowing history is helpful… but I don’t think our job is to make young women grateful, in fact we need them to be ungrateful so that they have something to fight for. We need all of us. I’m old — I remember when it worse, so I have hope. They see how bad it is, they’re mad as hell, we need that anger. We each have something to bring to the table. if we value living in the moment, which happens to be the only time we can live — that’s actually kind of more important than knowing about the past.” One of the things that I see ALL THE TIME, especially with older women who want to work with younger women, is that older women want younger women to learn from them, immediately placing the idea that the very nature of their age implies a power dynamic and natural hierarchy. Gloria went on to say, “Sometimes we, as mothers… we don’t get enough gratitude, so we exact it from our children.”
I venture to say that young women know way more than they think or for which we give them credit.
Here’s another anecdote. Years ago I started running these meditation moments. I would start with a body scan, move to connecting to the inner child and then connect with the future self. As I prepared for the Gloria Steinem interview I leafed through her book, Revolution From Within. Right around the time I learned how to read, Gloria had written a meditation guide for getting more in touch with our inner voice of wisdom. She started with a body scan, moved to connecting to the inner child and then connecting with the future self. It was almost as if I was reading word for word knowledge that I didn’t know had already been written but had somehow picked up from the air around me.
Young women are picking up on all the cues. Each generation is building on the collective knowledge built in the generation before. Yes, each generation needs the guide posts from prior lifetimes but we also need to let go of the pieces that didn’t work and step fully into the new.
Intergenerational sisterhood is necessary now more than ever. No one generation (or person) can or will lead us alone. And here are the reminders I tell myself when it gets hard:
It will be messy and imperfect. It requires us each to show up as our whole selves — not just the glossy social media images, the polite mannered women or the plastered selfie smile film. When we share our challenges with each other, a new space of possibility opens up. It doesn’t mean we need to jump right on in with some new bit of advice (please don’t tell me you have the solution for my problem). It means we deeply listen — and sit with each other. When one of us has a moment of self doubt, we don’t just say, ‘oh yea, you’re totally incapable.’ We remind them of their greatness, and we take that pep-talk to the mirror too. My favorite: talk to yourself as if you were talking to your best friend.
Intergenerational sisterhood requires building the muscle of trust. Older women, it’s an invitation to trust that younger women will make mistakes and that those mistakes are necessary for their learning and growth. They’re ok, they’ll be ok and they have a lot to say. And young women, it’s an invitation to trust and step into the fullness of your own voice and vision — to step into the fullness of who you are and as you move forward with confidence, acknowledge and respect the elders, past, present and emerging. Our sisterhood is built in this life, guided by the ones who come before and carried by the ones who live on beyond us. Let’s each be the bridge.