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What about the sisterhood?

Whenever a disagreement occurs among feminists, in both the virtual and the corporeal communities, a familiar refrain is often heard: "What about the sisterhood?" I usually reply: "What about it?" The relationship I have with my biological sister is among the most complicated in my life; why should the sisterhood of feminists be any different?

When my sister and I disagree, we experience much more than a difference of opinion; we relive every bump in our relationship since our parents brought her to meet me in the summer of 1974. If she finds my new jeans unflattering, it must mean that she still resents me for sneaking cherry Zotz from her Halloween candy stash. If I react slowly to news about her job, it means that I don't take her any more seriously than I did when she was the annoying toddler gnawing on my Fisher Price Little People sets.

Sisters can be thinner-skinned than other peers. Everything matters. Unlike friends, sisters demand - often forcefully - to be heard, respected and understood. Though the word "sister" implies similarity, the fact remains that sisters can be as different from each other as any two people on earth.

My sister and I look so much alike that often people can't tell who's younger and who's older. They assume that my elegant and fashionable sister, who looks like she stepped out of InStyle magazine, must be more mature than the woman who's wearing scuffed Doc Martens well into her 40s. As a born introvert, I find that the idea of joining a group called Women in Networking makes me break out in a rash, but my gregarious sister has built a thriving real estate business on the connections she's made there. Growing up in the same house didn't guarantee we were simpatico.

At one time in my life I assumed that because a person identified as feminist, it meant that we shared the same goals. We were all part of a sisterhood, right? If my sister and I shared a house, my feminist sisters and I shared a high-rise that gave us all the same shelter. Didn't it?

My liberal-arts college was where I first met feminists - sisters with whom I disagreed, often vehemently. I could have run off to my room and slammed the door, of course (my standard response to my biological sister's provocations). Instead, I sharpened my wits, unpacked my beliefs and, most important, started listening to the lived experienced of people who lived in different corners of our feminist house. As a freshman, I might have insisted that every sexual assault be immediately reported to campus and local police, as any crime ought to be, but I didn't feel the same once I graduated. Some of my new sisters were survivors themselves, and many shared that our deeply flawed criminal justice system had traumatized them as much or more than the assault itself.

I'm a better feminist and sister for opening my heart and mind.

Today, members of the sisterhood on social media challenge me daily, even to examine what is meant when we use the word "sisterhood" to define a group of people who may or may not identify as female! To me, that's more than OK - that's adding rooms onto a larger, more stable house.

When I realized how different my sister and I really were, I had to relax many of my expectations about our relationship, but I didn't love her any less. I learned that sisterhood is strengthened when it has the opportunity to prove its resilience.

So what about the sisterhood? It's doing just fine. Really.

Shannon Drury's political memoir, "The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century," will be published this fall by Medusa's Muse Press. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.


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