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Chapter Six Conclusion: Friendship and Community
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Toward a More Inclusive Study of Women's Friendships

There is much more we need to know about friendships before we can evaluate them as community. My interviews with married women suggest that close friendships tend to buttress marriages and women's commitments to them. My few interviews with divorced women suggest that close friends labored to shore up their marriages until the divorce decision; then friends provided the emotional support and material aid (mostly child care) that helped them sustain lives outside marriage. Further study will have to examine whether and how married friends help women live through and work through divorce. What kinds of community do close friends provide divorced women, who now include the vastly increasing numbers of divorced women rearing children? How do friendships respond to the economic and emotional setbacks of divorce and to the asymmetries that such change introduces into friendship?

Future studies should also consider the friendships of single women, as the rate of single households among women increases and as more women defer marriage. Single women also balance


commitments between close women friends and romantic attachments. Do their "rules of relevance" differ from married women's? Do they effect the same harmony between the two spheres of attachment? Do they exchange different kinds of support? My interviews with women not married and with wives talking about their single days suggest that single close friends have more rights to request a friend's time, shelter, and money and to criticize boyfriends and advise conflictive struggle. They also suggest more competition and bad feeling between the two spheres of commitment.

Interviews with single lesbians and women in lesbian couples would add a dimension absent from this research. Some intentional lesbian communities place strong moral emphasis on friendship.[13] Among these intentional, self-conscious communities of friends or among groups of feminists who have revived romantic friendship, we might learn how the cultural recognition of friendship's community affects that community. Studying lesbian friends would also let us separate issues of gender power and conflict from other issues of power and conflict in personal life. Thus, it would be an important viewpoint on gender stratification, as men's friendships would be.

Close friendships are only one kind of friendship. Sociable friendships, co-participation in organizations, and workplace collegiality all have benefits worth examining. I mention them here to evoke a wider picture of community and to remind the reader that the relations I have been describing are not women's friendships in general, but relations with best friends and others to whom women feel closest. Yet intimacy may be an overemphasized element of community. Intimacy creates burdens as well as blessings. The stresses that accompany emotional dependence and support may fray the looser bounds of modern community.[14] Other kinds of friendship may be more stabilizing or more satisfying in certain ways. The more distanced relations of sociability and civility may play more important roles in individual well-being and communal evolution than most modern conceptions of community suggest.[15]

Further studies of friendship and community should look more closely at the effects of the social roles women are increasingly undertaking, such as full-time jobs and careers, and political participation. Immersion in a career may inhibit the exchanges charac-


teristic of the female friendships I identified. Such structures may affect patterns of friendship regardless of women's felt needs for intimacy and attachment. Lucrative and absorbing careers of the sort that still occupy few women today may shift resources in marriage and emphases in friendship. (Professional women who read this study commented that their close friendships are not as accommodation-oriented as those of the less occupationally privileged women I interviewed.) Political participation might introduce more civil issues into the conversation of friends. It might also expand, diversify, and loosen networks in ways that influence friendship practices. I interviewed a number of employed women (most of them in jobs rather than careers); but I mention them in this call for further research to remind the reader once again that hypotheses generated in exploratory research must be subjected to more conclusive methods. Such scholarship may contribute to an increasing recognition among women of the meaning of their close friendships. And this recognition may itself strengthen community among friends.

I have not answered two questions about friendship and marriage that people take great interest in: do differences in friendship and intimacy between men and women derive from gender differences in personality? can husbands and wives become each other's best friends? Although my study cannot answer whether or not gender differences in intimacy reflect deep differences in personality, I have found it worth exploring structural sources of differences that appear to be rooted in personality. Position in society and family may provide clues as to why certain intimacies like attentiveness and empathy, for example, may be preferred and practiced by some more than others—why they may be structured preferences rather than differential capacities. Nonetheless, my findings on women's friendships, and others on men's friendships, leave plenty of room for proposing deep gender personality differences that shape intimacy.

On the question of whether men and women can become each other's best friends, I am certain that some readers have already drawn pessimistic conclusions. And some may have taken this study as evidence that best friendships impede women's efforts to establish marital intimacy. Must we dim widespread hopes that men and women can struggle toward emotional intimacy and mu-


tuality? My research offers no such implication. The women I interviewed often seemed to use intimate friendship to avoid the effort, disappointment, or risk involved in struggle in this area; nothing in my interviews indicates that a more direct strategy could not work. The women I interviewed generally did not see their limited marital intimacy as a major problem. Their reliance on best friends for certain kinds of intimacy tells us little about the chances of success for those women who do consider increased intimacy in marriage worth struggling for. Of those women who had tried to deepen marital intimacy or who had considered doing so, most believed their friends had helped them. Their belief does suggest that women's best friendships may further rather than impede such an effort; but nothing in my data indicates whether the effort can work. If there are reasons for pessimism over achieving contemporary companionate ideals of marriage, they will have to be drawn from a study of people who have actively pursued these ideals.[16] Good structural analyses should clarify patterns of accommodation without prescribing hopelessness.

I conclude that close friendship deserves recognition as a vital institution of private life. Women's close friendships are mutualistic, intimate, durable, and committed. They enmesh women in significant relations of individuation and community. They provide distinctive sources of interdependent individual identity and support for family commitment. If it is true that women have developed a form of community that men have not, then women may have accumulated resources to use with men in their struggles toward dignity, mutuality, and equality in marriage.

And yet sources of personal strength do not translate into significant social change without material or ideological means of organization. Mary Ryan, analyzing how nineteenth-century women translated sisterhood into public influence, commented on the paradoxical impact of effort that cemented women's domesticity as it manifested women's public power. Acting on their perceived interests as mothers, women organized to shape family values and public practices in ways that enforced the division between men's public roles and women's private ones. For Ryan, nineteenth-century sorority raises questions as to "whether women's cultural and female networks, which continue to be rooted largely in the relations


of housewives and mothers, can generate much more than reflexive and defensive, rather than critical, responses to social and familial change.TM My work appears to raise the same issue: autonomous networks of best friendships also seem to enforce marital accommodation. However, I believe our answer to this issue does not depend on whether the bonds among women exist in public or private networks. Feminists are realizing that they can and must organize women as wives and mothers, and they are reaching for a politics that bridges the gulf between private and public structures. How women use their networks depends not so much on their content per se as on the correspondence between women's public and private experience, and on the political, economic, and ideological resources available to women. It is from among them that women can gather resources and visions of change. Women's networks foster accommodation, survival, and resistance—the balance is struck in negotiations involving public experience as well as private life.


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