I love working and playing in groups of women. I was never in a college sorority, so my first experience was in the feminist consciousness-raising group that I joined in the late 1960s. And what an eye-opening, empowering experience it was.
We were a very diverse group brought together by our Bohemian, politically radicalized lifestyle. Our backgrounds could not have been different: the Detroit ghetto, patrician Manhattan, an Israeli kibbutz, the suburbs of the Midwest. We were artists, academics, shop girls, political activists. We were married, single, mothers, lesbians. And the more we talked, the more we shared, the more we realized that our upbringing and current status as women was virtually the same.
Our group stayed together for well over a decade. We shared each other’s struggles, sorrows and victories. We helped each other overcome obstacles and achieve goals. We saw each other through advanced degrees, first books, childbirth, divorce, love affairs, coming out, mental breakdowns, addiction, abuse, illness and death. These women have a very special place in my heart.
In the mid 70s I served on the Heresies magazine collective that published the groundbreaking issue on The Great Goddess. A group of us who first met working on that amazing seminal issue still meet monthly for wine and sushi, continuing Goddess research and mutual cheerleading.
In the late 70s I joined DISBAND, a group of women artists who couldn’t play instruments. Our collaboration, fun, argumentative and mutually respectful, produced many clever, ironic, prescient and powerful performances of social commentary and feminist pride. Today, 30 years later, we are still invited to perform.
I also belong to two long lasting groups of women who came together through our work, one a non-profit arts education organization where I used to teach and the other the cemetery where I am still the ritualist. Each of these groups of women meet quarterly to share fabulous dinners and revel in each other’s company.
In 1971 I hitch hiked through Europe with my best friend, Donna Manganello. We were video taping interviews with women in the nascent Women’s Liberation movement in Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy. In addition to all of the pamphlets we collected, my reading material was The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, the perfect accompaniment to our project.
I have not reread it in all these decades, so my memory may be cloudy, but the theme that has stuck with me most over these past four decades was her portrayal of women’s friendships. It was the friendship between her women characters that provided the continuity of support for each other through the ups and downs of their studies, careers, love affairs, marriages and divorces.
You know, whenever women make imaginary female kingdoms in literature, they are always very permissive, to use the jargon word, and easy and generous and self-indulgent, like the relationships between women when there are no men around. They make each other presents, and they have little feasts, and nobody punishes anyone else. This is the female way of going along when there are no men about or when men are not in the ascendant.
- Doris Lessing
Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City agreed when she speculated,
“Maybe our girlfriends are our soul mates, and guys are just people to have fun with.”
New research bears this out. A study just published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reports a considerable connection between the number of friends and the psychological wellbeing for both men and women in midlife. However, the impact of a dependable support system of friends was much greater for women.
The study authors surveyed 6,500 Brits born in 1958 when they were 42, 45 and 50 years old. When they first entered the study, the participants self-reported on their psychological wellbeing, whether they were married, the age they left school and whether they currently held a job. Most people said they were pretty content with their life and happily married.
When they turned 45, the researchers asked the same people how many times per month they met up with friends or family. Around 40 percent of men and 33 percent of women said they had six or more friends they met up with regularly. Sadly, about 10 percent said they had no friends.
When the researchers assessed their subjects’ happiness and friendship statuses again at the age of 50, the results showed a significant association between an active network of friends and psychological wellbeing, especially for women. These findings held up regardless of whether a person was married, had a job or had mental health issues in the past.
The British study isn’t the first to emphasize the importance of adult friendships. An Australian study even found that a thriving social life can lengthen a person’s lifespan, after studying seniors living in community and residential care facilities.
But oh! the blessing it is to have a friend to whom one can speak fearlessly on any subject; with whom one’s deepest as well as one’s most foolish thoughts come out simply and safely. Oh, the comfort – the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.
- Dinah Maria Mulock Craik
Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™
The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to email@example.com.