It wasn’t until I was older that I truly understood the force, the institution that is Female Friendship. Growing up as a child in the segregation of Irish schooling, I was only friends with other girls. We were forbidden from interacting with ‘the boys’ during school hours, and friendship in my eyes was a sacrament that only existed between members of the same sex. At lunchtime we would peek out the back window and those that hit puberty long before I did would point out they boys they had kissed at the weekend, or ‘scored’ as we used to call it back then. Before we even had time to know one another as friends, boys quickly came to hold the position of sexual objects: to be kissed, fawned over, or held at arms length. In my little world, friendship was female.
While I still believe growing up that way that it still did more damage than good, it created a space for The Female Friendship to grow in utter purity. Only in adulthood, which has allowed me to experience the contrast, has its gloriousness revealed itself to me. As females we congregate together, usually over tea or wine, and spend hours discussing our lives, cleansing ourselves until the brittle problems of life have been softened and shrunk and can be dealt with more easily. Over empty bottles of wine we pry open our chests, let our problems spill out and swap with one another, talking down the beast till it is soothed and returned to its owner.
This desire to take on our friends’ problems as our own is a powerful thing, an endeavour to understand each other as wholly and as deeply as one human can another. So many of a woman’s problems are shared we see our reflections in each other. When I read about the struggles of women, past or in the present, I cannot separate myself from them. I see myself in their pain because I know it could have just been me. And sometimes it has been me.
Our store of shared experiences allows us to feel our problems viscerally, to experience them, to re-experience them in a way that most men simply can’t because their position in society protects them. Try as you may, it is hard to understand what it is like to inherit the fully developed female form and all that it brings with it: being touched, grabbed and groped till it becomes normalised until one day, a horrific revelation, you realise you have been taught to get used to being an object for strangers. Or how to navigate and burgeoning friendship with someone of the opposite sex, when you suspect they might want more. A problem with a gender-neutral form but twisted in a world where the kindness of women can automatically be taken as an expression of romantic interest, creating a trap where you are either way you’re perceived as cold.
The problems of being female in a man’s world are so nuanced and convoluted and embedded in daily life, it would take centuries of diary entrances and female accounts for a man to fully grasp what it means. Even as women it is hard to understand because we have never known any different. They are so bound in our world experience that they have crawled beneath our skin we need to remind ourselves they don’t belong.
So even if a man allows himself to try, he won’t quite get there. Some men do try. They try to overcome their physical limitations and see the world as a woman does. A male friend of mine came close. He told me about a time he went to a gay club and felt the heavy male stares saturate him throughout the night. He felt the male indignation when a friendly interaction turned sour upon advances being rejected. He told me the experience helped him understand what women go through on a daily basis, how it shapes our experience, leaving us wary and cautious.
However length and breadth of The Female Friendship is not defined by our problems as women, or our rejection of misogyny. Each friendship has its own rich identity. Within the confines of many female friendships is the wall-less space where we can reveal ourselves as vulnerable, where we can give and receive gentleness. We do not have to hide between hard words or be brave and emotionless at all times. Being a man comes at a price, and even though I live in a man’s world I would still rather be a woman.