My friend told me a story last week. A woman had shared a photo of her daughter on her birthday. In that picture, her daughter was wearing a beautiful, intricate dress. Some women then stole the picture, uploaded it on their social media pages, and falsely claimed to be the maker of the dress. This woman called them out, tagged the original designer and stated how pained she was that some women were trying to steal another woman’s work. So much for “women supporting women”.
My friend was grossly irritated that this woman had to end on that clause. It was a simple story of theft, a simple story of creatives stealing another creative’s work and trying to pass it off as theirs. “What does this have to do with women?” she asked me. “They didn’t even know the designer at all, let alone knowing the designer was a woman.” She hissed. “So, what would she have said if the designer was a man?”
This conversation with my friend — whom I totally agree with — triggered the release of all the misgivings I have about the phrase “women supporting women.” While I agree that this phrase means well and that whoever voiced it first had the noblest of intentions, I cannot deny the obvious damage it has wreaked on female relationships.
The first problem I have with people who constantly chant “women should support women” is the fact that this statement is premised on a belief that women haven’t always supported women. Women Supporting Women (WSW) chanters, by constantly calling attention to themselves, make it look like having the support of other women is novel and extraordinary, a rare 21st century phenomenon. This falsehood can be easily debunked as history is laden with proof that women have always been able to show up for themselves. In 1789, 7ooo Parisian women marched on the palace to demand food and the moving of the royal court to Paris. In 1913, the largest ever demonstration in British history at that time was led by women. In 1955, the boycott of segregated buses by African-American women sparked the civil rights movement. Not to go too far, in Nigeria, we had the Aba women’s rebellion in 1929 and the Abeokuta women’s revolt in 1946. Women turning up for themselves is nothing new and should not be applauded or treated as such.
Emboldened by their belief that women just learned how to get along with each other, WSW chanters are known to praise women for the littlest of things. While I understand the logic behind wanting women to always be seen complimenting and celebrating each other, going on and on about how powerful we are when we come together, is just unnecessarily repetitious. Groups, whether they consist of women or men or aliens, are more powerful and more likely to create greater impact when compared to singular individuals. Women, of course, will not be an exception.
Also, it is important to mention that the belief that women rarely get along is sexist. It is sexism, however unconscious, that fans the belief that women should be angelic and gentle all the time; always smiling, always supportive. By always trying to prevent, shroud and shame female disagreements. WSW chanters deny women the full range of their emotions and humanity. If not, why should women fighting each other be considered such an extraordinary thing? When men fight, we say they are arrogant or bloodthirsty or engaged in healthy competition. Nobody says, “What a shame!” or “Men not supporting men!” or “Men are always trying to bring each other down!” But when women do the same, they trend on Twitter. In fact, a study found that in workplace conflict between two women co-workers, most people expected the women to want revenge and the consequences to be negative and eternal.
Human beings sometimes refuse to support each other. The fact that we are the only gender making it to Twitter trends and gossip blogs is because the constant parading of WSW has created unreasonable behavioural expectations that women have to meet. A woman can no longer deny another woman something she wants. A woman can no longer call another woman out. A woman can no longer tell another woman that she has failed to deliver at her job. To show support for the female species and the women’s movement in general, women have to indulge the whims of other women. When a woman is asked to jump by another woman, she has to ask “how high?”. It is as if because we are fighting for equality, we cannot be seen disagreeing with each other.
Madeleine Albright, a former US Secretary of State, once famously said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” while campaigning for Hillary Clinton when she ran for President. Even though Albright apologized for the statement and tried to explain what she really meant, the damage had already been done. While I wished Hillary had won, Albright’s statement was injurious. It was as if the only reason why Hillary deserved support from women was because she was a woman herself. That Hillary is a “fellow woman” is not a good reason to vote for her. If we insist that “because I am a woman…” is not a reason why society should harm or hinder women, then “because I am a woman…” should also not be a reason to always expect unquestionable support.
While it is important to encourage female friendships and collaborations in our fight for gender equality and a fairer society, the constant reference to WSW has made us view women-to-women interactions through the prism of gender and gender only. By always saying “This is not WSW”, we shift from thinking about the kind of person we ought to be, to thinking about gender. In the story my friend shared with me, the woman’s problem wasn’t with theft. Her problem was that women had engineered those actions. What if she had instead chosen to focus on the fact that people should never pass off another person’s work as their own?
Chimamanda Adichie said in an interview that the entire problem with gender is about our experiences, how the world treats us. I believe this is what Women Supporting Women should be about: those experiences. Because we know what it is like to be a woman in this world, we understand and are sensitive to the gendered barriers that other women face. This heightened awareness should consequently help us support each other. While we support each other (which is something we have always done), it is important that we are allowed to fight and disagree and redefine our own feminism. It is important that a woman can decide, to the best of her knowledge, that a male candidate is better without being shamed for it. It is important that we patronize who we want to patronize and talk to who we want to talk to without being bullied for it. Yes, women should support women but we should be full human beings while at it.
Arekpitan Ikhenaode is a Nigerian writer. She participated in Crater’s 2021 Remote Internship for Writers.