A Conversation with Diane Rosenfeld: What is the Bonobo Sisterhood?

“The Bonobo Sisterhood: Revolution Through Female Alliance”

in the words of author Diane Rosenfeld

We have been in this infinite loop that I described in chapter four — what I call the good girl trap of patriarchal democracy. First, notice that the term patriarchal democracy is an oxymoron: democracy is not possible in a patriarchy, which by definition is based on male supremacy. Second, we are taught to be good girls; to politely challenge the patriarchy.

Imagine a board game with an infinity loop marked into spaces. Your starting point is an injury from gender-based violence. The injured person might form a small group, and go to the legislature, and there are meetings and hearings and meetings and hearings, and then maybe legislation will get passed. But often by the time it does, it is a shadow of its former self, or has some giant hole through which you could drive a truck. If it is passed, it is challenged, not because we hate women, but “because women already have those rights,” or “they don’t really need them,” for some reason. Then it is struck down and the player is back at square one, but too exhausted to do anything about it.

I refer to this game as the good girl trap because we are taught to ask quietly for change instead of demanding it in a system that is designed to give us just enough crumbs to make us go away quietly.

So that’s all behind the theory of patriarchal violence.

Our system is not set up to provide rights for women, or for women to challenge male sexual violence. We keep going through this infinite loop of patriarchal democracy.

Or, we can get out of it and say: “They’re not coming to help us. The system’s not coming to help us, law enforcement is really not coming to help us. And if we’re Black or brown or indigenous, they won’t even answer our call.”

So, we have to come for one another, like bonobos — whether we know each other, like each other, hate each other, or are related to each other.

Bonobos, our closest evolutionary cousins, have eliminated male sexual coercion by coming to one another’s aid. If a females is aggressed upon, she lets out a special cry and all other females within earshot come immediately to her defense, fending off the male. Women and our allies have to do the same, acting on The Bonobo Principle: “Nobody pimps my sister. Everybody is my sister.”

A new concept of equality

In chapters seven and eight I talk about a new vision for equality. We always think about equality in terms of women’s equality to men, where we use men as the standard. What happens when we shift the lens and think about equality among and between women, as a starting point — that all women are created equal? That we can share our resources among ourselves?

That is a radical way of looking at equality — and untapped, because patriarchy depends on the division of women against each other. Let’s get over artificial divisions between women and realize that what unites us is so much more important than what divides us. I am eager to see what will transpire from this different lens on equality.

Magical things will happen when women realize the power of defining resources on their own terms and sharing them amongst others.

How does the law and legislation play a role?

Although I teach at Harvard Law School, I have very little faith in the law, especially in its enforcement, to protect women from sexual violence. I’m more hopeful about the power of coalitions among women — even informal, quick coalitions to protect women and put pressure on the system to enforce laws that we already have, that are unenforced.

In terms of law, I would require that every law enforcement community has a high-risk case management team — mandatory danger assessments — and a way to identify and track high-risk cases to prevent domestic violence homicide. In my opinion, it has to be a two-track effort: 1) demand enforcement of laws on the books and 2) create new frameworks on equality enacted through unprecedented female coalitions.

Thanks to Tanya Korpi, owner of Northern Minnesota Valvoline franchises, for underwriting our gender-based violence content

The Bonobo Sisterhood Alliance

Diane Rosenfeld

A pastor in Baltimore contacted me because she was concerned about one of her congregants and asked if I could help. She was in danger and no one was listening to her. I’ve been working closely with this woman, whose estranged husband is actively threatening to kill her. Nobody’s paying attention. I wrote to the police commissioner, and instead of calling it “domestic violence” in the regard line, I called it “active terrorist threat.”

Then I was in Chicago visiting my mom. The front page of the paper carried a story about a murder/suicide in Buffalo Grove, where the man killed his two young daughter, wife, and his mother. I wrote an op-ed that was published in the Chicago Tribune. It offers a glimpse of how the Bonobo Sisterhood Alliance concept is crystallizing.

In both these cases, the system treats domestic violence as an everyday occurrence about which nothing much can be done. But what happens if we treat it as the terrorist threat that it is?

In the book, I question a system set up on the premise that “she” will leave. “Why doesn’t she leave?” we ask, because our response to domestic violence is to let law enforcement off the hook and to expect her to go into hiding at a battered women’s shelter.

I want us to think about the injustice of this situation. And to use the power of groups of citizens/allies to compel law enforcement to hold abusers accountable and support victims by keeping them safe.

In 1994 I said this kind of violence is so predictable as to be preventable. And 25 years later, I’m still saying the same thing.

In terms of legislative changes I would like to see: first, that we treat all domestic violence cases as potentially lethal. Separate the ones that are. Have a coordinated community response around those cases. Hold the offenders accountable. Let the women stay safely in their homes. Rocket science? Not at all.

The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport, Massachusetts, created a High Risk Team Model that is highly effective at preventing intimate partner violence from escalating into homicide. I was part of the Greater Newburyport High Risk Case Management Team when it started in 2004.

A former student of mine, Maclen Stanley and his wife Ashley Ruggles Stanley, did an amazing Tik-Tok about the book. At the end of it, Ashley asks: “What if, when she goes to the police station, instead of going alone, she has five allies with her. Would the police take her more seriously? Would they have saved her daughters?” This was in reference to Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales, a Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled that a woman has no right to enforcement of her order of protection, even in a state that had a law mandating enforcement.

Law won’t protect women; we have to protect one another.

That’s the Bonobo Sisterhood. It is very easy. Just show up.

Find book excerpts here