There’s a passage in Jean Shinoda Bolen’s excellent book Gather the Women, Save the World in which she talks about the little-known bonobo ape.
Like chimpanzees, bonobos share 98% of their DNA with us humans, but unlike the male-dominated, warlike chimpanzee, bonobos would rather make love than war and are female-dominated, although this domination is lightly held.
De Waal [an expert on primates] describes female bonobos as forming “constructed sisterhoods” which gives them an edge over males because they stick up for one another. If a male acts aggressively toward a female, other females will come to her aid. He speculates that it could be that female alliances arose to prevent infanticide by males, which is common among chimpanzees and other species, but has never been observed among the bonobos. Females form strong alliances with other unrelated females. Bonobo adolescent females disperse, which prevents incest. In effect, they leave home, move to a new community, make new friends and become part of a sisterhood.
Ah, sisterhood! Many of you reading this will remember the heady days of second-wave feminism in the early ’70s, forming consciousness-raising groups, reinventing the definition of friendship.
Of course a lot of that optimism and radical spirit has faded. For many of us, feminism became more about equal rights with men (and the opportunity to work ourselves to death alongside them) than about fundamental change in society. And to some extent the movement disintegrated in political disagreement.
A word about men
When I was first thinking about setting up this site, I considered briefly whether I should design it to appeal to everyone on the aging journey. I decided not to because I don’t know the male experience. I believe there are, at this point in our evolution, enough gender differences that men have to speak of their own experience. (Richard Rohr does this brilliantly, I’m told, in his Men as Elders and Learners program.)
Of course the biological accident of being female doesn’t automatically make us understand each other. And there are those for whom being female is choice, not biology.
Women are different as much as we’re the same, and my work with the Enneagram system of personal and spiritual growth has shown me we see the world through very different lenses. And we’re not all naturally nurturing earth mothers.
Nonetheless I do think that on the deepest levels, there’s a fundamental current of understanding that runs between us.
So I want your help. I’m interested in the ways women gather together today. Obviously we have this blessed option of sharing across boundaries in online groups, but what about our physical worlds?
For example, I’m a member of a women’s interfaith group and a women’s reading group. What groups do you belong to if any? How can we make like the bonobos and form strong bonds of sisterhood today, in a world which so badly needs the advantage of the elderwoman’s wisdom?
“Constructed sisterhood”: please share ideas in the comments.