Culture Watch Review By Joan L. Cannon: The Social Sex, A History of Female Friendship
Two Women Asleep in a Punt Under the Willows by John Singer Sargent; 1887. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon
The Social Sex, A History of Female Friendship
By Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown
Published by Harper Perennial, 2015
Paperback, 348 pp. plus notes
Marilyn Yalom has written many studies of subjects discussed for and from the perspective of women. This lively, engaging history is a worthy addition to her list. If a reader remembers school friends and considers those women who enriched her maturity, she will recognize both here, along with the astute descriptions of subtle differences most of us never think of.
There is a distinct academic flavor to the book, but it reads easily and without pretentiousness, lightened with a sense of how sympathetic these historians are to their long-gone sisters.
Marilyn Yalom by Reid Yalom
Opening with references to western European foundations of social and ethical discourse derived from Aristotle et al., feminine experience in friendship unfold through the Middle Ages, the ascendance of the Church, the Enlightenment, the Victorian era, to our much more complicated modern times, with numerous examples drawn from primary sources, that will be new to most readers.
There are no surprises regarding the economic and social positions of females that forced them into relationships essential to both physical and emotional survival. Those pressures are much fewer today, since recent advances in the social and economic status of females vs. males has undergone so many changes.
The final chapter of the study was most interesting of all, and suggests more discussion than most of what precedes it. Still unresolved is the question of friendships between women and men. The difficulty of engaging in this fashion is emphasized by the need repeatedly to declare to doubters that sex is not a component of such a relationship.
With regard to a relationship between two women, "Social media is (sic.) more important to women in part because it can accommodate the expression of affection and self-revelation that often characterizes female friendships." After numerous quotations from (to modern eyes) extravagant declarations of love from letters written by earlier generations, this statement rings true.
The Twentieth, and now the Twenty-first centuries have seen a rapid change in the status of women, especially in access to educational opportunities. This book reminds us how far we have come when there are more highly educated women everywhere than at any other time in history. This, along with legal factors such as Title IX requiring fewer obstacles to women’s ambitions in all fields, even the military, seem to assure an ongoing change in the actual practice of friendship among women.
Theresa Donovan Brown
It would be difficult to avoid making personal comparisons between the women who wrote the letters quoted at length in times when self-expression was so different to what we are accustomed to today with our personal histories and our own friends. This assurance that a reader will find instant resonances is doubtless also assurance of the book’s success. How men might react would be interesting to find out.
The Social Sex is worth reading, especially for women, in order to appreciate yet again how much today’s females owe to the courage and tenacity of their sex over millennia.
Consider it a worthy gift for this season.
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