In college, I had a pack of women who were enough to make anyone jealous. They’re some of the most kind, thoughtful women I’ve ever known, and they can talk about Beverly Smith and Chandra Mohanty as easily as they can talk about lipstick and handbags. They read the news. They’re all community organizers or activists. They talk a mile-a-minute, and they mainline both coffee and sweet tea.
They are, in a phrase, my tribe.
But upon graduation, we all moved so far away from each other that to look at it on a map was to look at the set-up to a punchline: not only were we spread across the West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, but we were also spread across four separate continents: the U.S., Australia, Asia, and Africa.
And we’ve never come back together or moved any closer; we keep in touch over Skype, phone calls, and completely erratic visits.
In the six years I’ve lived in Cincinnati, they’ve been my major support system. And I’m thankful for that, but somehow, I managed to use them as an excuse to keep local women at arm’s length, hovering somewhere more than acquaintance but less than comrade.
I met my husband the same year I moved halfway across the country, from Texas to the Midwest. Luke and I got engaged six weeks after we met, and married a year later to the day. It was fast, but he came with a whole crew of men that I adored, who made the transition an easy one.
So for years, I was able to limp along. I had a posse of male friends who filled a lot of my conversational and emotional needs. I joined Junior League, which put me together with hundreds of other women who were also interested in working with non-profit causes that affected women and children. I had one-off coffee or lunch dates with women from work that just never got repeated.
I joined a book club, where I went to exactly one all-white meeting that managed to devolve Kathryn Stockett’s "The Help" into a discussion on how good maids are really hard to find. (Bewildered at the audacity, I called my husband on the way home, crying “I don’t belong here!”)
Taking a cue from my college activism, I emailed the local branch of a well-known national women’s organization, explaining that I was new to the area and attaching my resume to help them plug me into areas that were meaningful. I got a one-line email response back, void of either salutation or valediction: “I’m not sure what you’re looking for here; we don’t have meetings or anything.”
I pined, and I rationalized.
What about us makes it necessary that we desire close female friends?
I had coalitions, but no sisterhood. I had women I could smile politely at over lunch or who I could probably call in an emergency. I had male friends who could talk the academic talk, but somehow, gender still played a role: shared experiences between men and women only go so far.
And I hated that.
For all my lofty ideals, I was still trapped in a decidedly female body, and none of my male friends were ever going to truly understand my fears about pregnancy, my breast cancer scare, my experiences with sexual assault, my struggle to navigate what the word “wife” meant to me -- all that baggage and more.
I’d been waiting on the universe to present me with a carton of perfect female friends, like a milkman dropping off the morning delivery, all tied up in a charming wireframe basket. I’ve never been passive or fatalistic about anything in my life -- save this one area where I just felt entitled to a pack of women who fit my needs. I deserved it, every woman deserves it, and if I just waited patiently, they’d finally arrive.
But when the calendar finally rolled over to 2013, marking six years since I’ve been in Cincinnati, I decided to stand up and do something about it.
So I threw a tea.
To be fair, “tea” is an excessive little three-letter word.
I capitalized on its inherent “ladies only” vibe and its thrift; throwing a tea is infinitely cheaper than a brunch, dinner party, or cocktail party, because there’s less food and no alcohol. I wanted to have it in our home, because it was less intrusive than at a public place, and it didn’t require others to pony up $15 for lunch or cocktails.
And besides, I like taking traditionally “feminine” activities and co-opting them for feminist means.
I didn’t know exactly how it would go, so I Facebooked a bunch of diverse women who had been hovering in the grey “acquaintance-but-not-comrade” area.
“I’m desperately seeking more meaningful female interaction in my life. I’m thinking of having a get-together to rectify this. We can discuss impolite things like money, politics, and sex. Would any of you be interested?”
Not only was there interest, but many of them emailed me directly to say “Thank god, I’m also feeling short of women-friends these days. I feel like I don’t really have anyone to talk to.”
Which made me feel like an idiot.
How many of us had just been standing around, waiting for the universe to deliver?
How many of us were just batting our eyes coquettishly and waiting for the other to make the first move, like teenagers at a high school dance?
How many of us were just using that ugly rationalization -- “Oh, I just have trouble making female friends; men like me better than women do” -- to justify an existence against our own self-interest?
A lot of us, apparently.
So I created a Facebook event. In less than 24 hours, we were sharing articles we wanted to talk about -- how to invest money, how age and poverty affect motherhood, books for our nieces to read.
I bought a bunch of different local teas and empty teabags. I made sandwiches and desserts. I set up a buffet, where women could make their own tea, and sit in small groups and talk.
I made name tags like “Virginia Snow, Patron Saint of Community Activism” and “Rebecca James, Fundraising Magician.”
As favors, I had every women bring a book that had been meaningful to them, and then had them fill out cards with their name and contact information to slap on the front of their book so that everyone could take a surprise, new-to-them book on their way out -- and have a new buddy with which to go get coffee, as well as the first shared ice-breaker between them.
In short, I took some small and informal steps to creating the space where the vague magic and mysticism of “female friends” could be fleshed out and distilled into something coherent.
And lo and behold: it worked. Not only did it work, but no one wanted to leave at 4:00; they dallied around long past tea, into early evening coffee, making dates with new friends, exchanging phone numbers, swapping resources and ideas.
I’m writing this to you a mere hour after clearing away the cups and saucers, and I’m reliving the snatches of conversation I caught throughout the afternoon.
“I heard once that your first year of marriage sets the pattern for the entire rest of your marriage. Do you think there’s any truth to that?”
“A woman came to me at the bank the other day and her husband had divorced her, and she was panicked because she’d always been relying on his retirement to cover them both...”
“Speaking of Andrea Dworkin, I have a funny Dworkin story.” “Who on earth has a funny Andrea Dworkin story?!” [laughter]
“I don’t know; sexual torture in horror movies really bothers me, it stays with me a long time, but when I try to talk to people about it, they look at me like they don’t get it.”
“Oh, yes, when I tried to file a restraining order against my ex-boyfriend, the police just laughed at me.”
“It was tough trying to change Lily’s name when we got married, because we were both women. Everyone just looked at us like we’d lost our minds.”
I’m not sure the same conversations would have happened in a restaurant with a waitstaff and other patrons hovering nearby. I don’t think it would have been the same in a standard mixed-gender cocktail party format, or even at an all-women book club where we were there to discuss one singular text.
I’ve come to the conclusion that creating the space is the most important thing. Maybe the only important thing.
And we forget that, because most of us already spend plenty of time in the company of other women: in business meetings, in new mother’s groups, in book clubs, on fundraising committees, in church gatherings.
But these are almost always crafted around an external purpose; seldom do we bring people together in an old-fashioned salon format, where the only goal is to share experiences and resources of all kinds.
In essence, to acknowledge our own Whitman: if we contradict ourselves, it is because we are large, and we contain multitudes.