Friendships are the foundations of feminist progress. When bullied at work, mistreated by boyfriends, or unsupported at home, a woman turns to her friends. They listen, empathize, and lambast unfairness. Simone Biles and her teammates came out strong, together. Female friends embolden each other the world over—by celebrating shared victories, skewering rape myths, and collectively affirming women’s equal competence.
But how many paintings pass the Bechdel test? Female friendships are almost absent in art; models are more typically undressing than debating. This under-representation partly reflects patriarchal anxiety. In early modern England, women’s talk was disparaged as “gossip”. It also mirrors reality. Throughout world history, women typically socialized with kin and neighbors, while men roamed more widely and gathered more freely.
Women have predominated in low-skilled, unorganized, and often home-based work like spinning. Before contraception, infant formula, electricity, and washing machines, mothers’ lives were relentlessly interrupted. Sixty percent of their prime-age years were spent either pregnant or nursing. This undercut women’s ability to pursue skilled trades, gain economic autonomy, and expand their social networks. Without a support network of their own, women struggled to protect themselves and were often persecuted as witches or jailed in the madhouse.
Men’s networks were larger and more lucrative.
Some traveled as merchants, while others honed their craft. European men consolidated their advantage by establishing guilds that monopolized profitable ventures and thwarted women’s economic independence. Men’s dominance was entrenched by strong fraternal orders—in government, law courts, religion, medicine, and universities.
Clubs and societies flourished in 18th century Europe and North America around science, medicine, philanthropy, arts, literature, and political debate. Inventors, entrepreneurs, and artisans gathered to hear the latest discoveries. As peers praised innovation, others eagerly experimented and gained prestige. Networks celebrated and promoted their accomplishments. Saloons spawned collaborative creativity and even patents. Members gained tremendous insider benefits: freemasons amassed knowledge, respectability, and elite patronage. Clubs also went to court to protect members’ reputations, enabling them to take far greater risks in the public sphere.
Coffee houses have been crucibles of civil society in India, Latin America, and Europe. Men of all political stripes and persuasions gather to deliberate, debate, and build dissent.
If this rich associational sphere catalyzed collaborative creativity, surely women were disadvantaged through their forced exclusion. Ninety-five percent of Enlightenment associations in England were male. Brilliant women toiled in solitude, while men’s advances were amplified on megaphones.
Female friendships remain restricted in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Only 12 percent of young married women in Jaunpur (Uttar Pradesh) are allowed to visit friends or relatives by themselves; 36 percent have no close peers with whom they could discuss personal issues.
Female seclusion persists largely due to the slow pace of economic development. To mitigate precarity, Arabs and Indians continue to rely on kin for credit in a crisis and job opportunities. To maintain strong kinship, women’s mobility is tightly policed, thwarting their capacity to seize economic opportunities. Moreover, industrialization has not been labor-intensive. Job queues are long, and men are first in line.
Street harassment in Delhi and Cairo compounds female seclusion. Gangs admonish women who dare to venture out, snitch on their behavior, and sully their reputations. Though female graduates in Mumbai are pursuing careers in IT, telecoms, and finance, female loitering remains forbidden. As long as women remain separated and secluded, they struggle to build alliances.
The most powerful engine for closing this gender gap in friendships is rapid economic growth.
With growing returns to skilled work, parents increasingly invest in their children’s education. Technological advances (electrification and piped water) enabled time-saving domestic appliances. Rapid economic growth led employers to run out of suitably qualified men, so they increasingly hired and promoted women. Now, at last, American women can commit to their careers and capitalize on tightening labor markets.
East Asia’s rapid industrialization likewise enabled women to liberate themselves from parental control. Daughters migrated to cities, where they made friends, bemoaned unfair practices, and discovered more egalitarian alternatives. They gained “face” (respect and social standing) by remitting earnings, supporting their families, and showing filial piety just like sons.
Cambodia is also industrializing. Women’s networking was historically hobbled by relentless housework. People used to say: “women are short-legged, men are long-legged,” “women can only move around the kitchen.” But rural patriarchy has been disrupted by economic booms and rapid urbanization. Women flock to factory work and college education. Gathering in bubble tea cafes, observing so many women thriving in historically male-dominated domains, friends jointly affirm that “women can do what men can do”.
So too in the U.S., women have pursued careers and demonstrated their equal competence. Attitudes are catching up: men are no longer stereotyped as more intelligent. Friendship groups are crucial to this process of social change. Only by speaking out, sharing ideas, and thereby realizing broad support for social change do people come to expect and demand better. Female MBA students randomly allocated into sections with more female peers are much more likely to subsequently become senior managers. Why? Because female MBA networks introduce each other to female-friendly firms, where they thrive. In the state of Georgia, Black women have built on their strong community networks to secure labor, criminal justice, and voting rights.
Democracy is a fundamental prerequisite for feminist consciousness
Public dissent enables ideas to spread across peer groups. Inspired by advocates in the media, teenagers message their friends. Together, they explore radical alternatives. After thousands demanded zero tolerance of sexual harassment and came out in support of #MeToo, more French women quit risky workplaces. In South Korea, sustained activism has similarly nurtured feminist consciousness and improved accountability at the highest levels—senior men have been compelled to step down.
But in countries with weak protections for civil and political liberties, #MeToo passed without a whimper. Though China’s rapid development has enabled professional women to rise in the ranks, concerted crackdowns compound self-censorship. In the absence of open debates, female friendship groups remain blinkered to wider contestation. Seldom hearing dissent or finding support, many Chinese women see sexual harassment as inevitable.
Feminist activism is thriving in Latin America. Development, democratization, and simply the freedom to move around have enabled soaring female employment. Through relentless mobilization and huge rallies, women have successfully secured gender quotas, reproductive rights, and broken the silence around sexist violence.
But thanks to development and rising female employment, women now have more allies at work. Female friendships are gaining strength, emboldening each other to take on the patriarchy.
This post was originally published at Brookings.