I believe strongly that while a woman in the West can get along fine in life without a man, she can't get along without getting along with other women.
This belief will be greeted by cries of woe from those female readers who don't feel comfortable in groups of women. They will say, "But I never know what to talk about with women" and "Girls were mean to me in school" and "I'm a tomboy at heart." Frankly, I think these internalized messages are damaging.
As a child, I believed firmly in the tomboy concept. Tomboys were girls who climbed trees and wanted to solve mysteries and looked down on girls who cried when they skinned their knees and were interested in clothes. The tomboy was, in short, someone who had internalized sexist messages about women, rightly rejected them, but wrongly sneered at girls who seemed to fit girly stereotypes. Personally, I found the idea of the Superior Tomboy comforting because I was not popular at all with the girls in elementary school, girls who seemed to fit the girly stereotypes, girls who sneered at my clothes. High school, where I found girls who shared my intellectual interests, was a relief.
When I got my B.A. and a gap-year job as a receptionist, I was horrified by female life in the office. Women in the office talked about babies, husbands, childbirth and recipes. I turned up my nose at this low-brow chat and longed for my M.A. year and intellectual conversation.
But years later, when I was working at another receptionist job, and found myself "down among the women" again, something in me had changed, melted, disappeared. In the file room, floors away from the manager, we laboured away, talking of babies, husbands, childbirth, recipes, diets, horoscopes, and celebrities.
My co-workers had not been to university, but they had very rich emotional lives. Most were also good at their jobs; one was a genius at getting mentally ill people off their meds in the reception room to calm down. The recipes were delicious, and the horoscopes were good for a laugh. I had a tedious job, and it would have been a lot more tedious were it not for these women.
The only woman who was really out of things was a doleful woman from India who talked only of the servants she used to have and who refused, categorically, to carry boxes. She obviously thought she was too good to carry boxes, and from an Indian point of view, as I explained to my co-workers, she was, but this cut no ice with them. They thought she was a snob, and that was that. If I had bored on about my university career, I would have been labelled a snob, and very rightly, too.
I learned a lot from these women that came in very useful when I began my M.Div. Hitherto, I had always gotten along with "girls like me" (i.e. brainy, ambitious and roughly my age). But a year spent with older, less educated women made me appreciate other kinds of women and their gifts. At theology school, I met elderly nuns who could barely spell but had lived lives of so much spiritual richness and adventure, they made my jaw drop. I met nurses who confessed their awe of theological study, even as they nailed sophisticated concepts with startling flashes of insight. I made friends with younger women, too, and admired the ones who were pastoral geniuses as much as the ones who were prize-winning scholars.
When I began my Ph.D. at a place where pastoral studies were firmly divorced from the rest of theology, I missed the pastoral geniuses with my whole heart. I was one of a group of hardworking, steely-minded, intellectual, unmarried, (very probably) frightened women, and it was a year before I made a single female friend. And, believe me, I tried.*
Women breaking into male-dominated fields, like Catholic theology and physics or the academy at all, are often terrified of looking like airheads. We often shut off and reject our softer side, the fun things, the frilly things we don't want our male colleagues to know we care about. I once joked about reading Cosmopolitan in the student lounge; I never dared. And for all I know, this is wise. Career counsellors warn women not to bring baking to the office, not to be the "mom". But I think it can hurt a woman to be too dismissive of those things that most women I have met find interesting: the baby chat, the men chat, the recipes, the fashion mags, the celebrity gossip. These things may not be very important in themselves--the flotsam and jetsam of cultural life--but they create a social glue between women.
What does it afford a woman, if she should have a stellar education, if she cannot look down at a crowded cocktail party and say to the stranger before her, "You know, I really love your shoes"?
*Some points I am duty-bound to make:
1. My classmates were all very nice.
2. Other foreigners did very well there and seemed to fit right in.
3. I may have frightened them with the vehemence of my classroom arguments; I am certain I unnerved some professors.
4. I may have annoyed some by presuming that Catholic PhD students don't regularly commit sins as serious as premarital sexual intercourse or, if they do, that they are sorry. I have a very funny story about that. Well, it's funny NOW.
5. It was the wrong place at the wrong time.