Lasser, Carol. 1988. "'Let Us Be Sisters Forever': The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship" in Signs vol. 14, no. 1 158-181.
I have tried to organize this cluster of articles on friendship in a natural progression, but that wasn't always possible for logistical reasons. But it is very useful to read them as different takes on a central theme. The authors don't always agree and they always emphasize different aspects of the topic. I have plans to do a podcast essay that brings together the different threads of women's friendships--especially in the 18-19th centuries at the height of the Romantic Friendship era--and explores both the realities and the myths. Women's friendship was never just one thing. It operated on several continuums. It is neither accurate to say that friendship never had an erotic componant or that it always did. The one doens't negate the other. Even when considering the effusive language of romantic love that was "just the way women addressed each other" it is not accurate to claim it is always purely conventional, nor always reflecting what we would understand as a romantic bond, nor always something between where genuine emotional bonds are envisioned with the symbols of heterosexual romanctic love.
In this present article, it is important not to let the language of blood-family relations call up a spectre of incest taboos. The language of kinship is regularly used between (heterosexual) spouses, especially in contexts where brother/sister were used to identify fellow members of a religious or social group. (Though I've recently identified an article on the topic of erotic "romantic friendships" between genetic sisters that does cross the line into incest. It'll be a while before I get to it, though.)
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Among the various models for how close female friendships were viewed in the 19th century, that of sisterhood plays a regular role. The concept of sisterhood represented a close supportive bond between equals in age and status. Sororal relationships were expected to include a component of physical affection, as well as emotional closeness. In addition to echoing bonds of blood family, the language of sisterhood was common within religious communities and charitable organizations. Thus it was a natural option for intimate friends to use with each other. In some cases, pseudo-sororal bonds might achieve legal status by means of one member of the pair marrying the other’s brother or by both friends marrying a pair of brothers.
Such fictive sisterhood existed within a culture of sex-segregated social networks and gendered social roles. (See Smith-Rosenberg 1975, once it's posted, for far more detail on this point.) Various scholars have hotly debated whether intimate friendships of this type should be understood as containing an erotic element or whether they should be understood as entirely non-sexual, following familial bonds such as mother-daughter or “natal” sisters. These debates tend to polarize the topic in a way that distracts from a consideration of just why sisterhood appears so commonly as a framing for intimate friends.
One motivation is an emphasis on the specifically female nature of women’s same-sex friendships, often combined with an idealization of the relationship of natal sisters. But what were the expectations for such family bonds that made them attractive as a model? And does the use of sisterhood as a model contradict the homoerotic possibilities of female friends who use that language? Or might the use of sororal language be a means of negotiating the erotic potential of intimate friendships?
Natal sisterhood in the 19th century came with expectations of mutual emotional and financial support, embedded within larger familial networks, with a lifelong obligation to maintain those networks. The expectation was that sisters would provide mutual care and intense love. The use of sister terminology among religious and activist communities drew on these same expectations. None of these expectations erase the simultaneous reality that not all families were free of conflict, but even within those conflicts was an expectation of continued relations.
All of these features were invoked when women used the model of sisterhood for intimate friendships. It was an intensely emotional model that contrasted with the “cool and rational” relations expected by male friendships. [Note: But is it true that men's friendships were expected to be "cool and rational" at this era? Or is true that they were in fact, regardless of the social model? It's outside the scope of my study, but given how much I see a contrast between the supposed non-erotic nature of women's friendships and their frequent reality, I wonder how much the myth and reality of men's friendships could also differ. But certainly the pubic archetype of women's friendships as intensely emotional provided scope for them to be erotic as well.]
Sisterhood models might be enhanced by paralleling other attributes of natal families: naming children after the friend, co-residence, sharing beds while visiting, and integrating other members of the natal family into the friendship relationship, the ultimate example of which would be marriage to a brother or other family member.
Kinship networks were essential for a successful and happy life, and those from the natal family could be supplemented (or even replaced) by fictive ones. Even heterosexual marriage could be made unnecessary with sufficiently supportive networks. As one woman wrote to her adopted sister, she didn’t have a particular problem with men, but found the institution of marriage to be a barrier to her goals. She felt no inclination to marry as she could never expect to find a man who would sympathize with her plans and support them in the way that a sister would. (Other women expressed a more focused disinclination for marriage if it would interfere with their intimate friendships.) Even if heterosexual marriage were accepted, a fictive sisterhood might remain the most important relationship in a woman’s life.
Although much of the documentary evidence for fictive sisterhood comes from the white middle class, the phenomenon was also important to working class women and in the African American community..
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