Women growing older with grace and gusto

We go bonobo

photo credit: greg hume

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.)

Sisterhood revisited

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.

“Consciousness-raising” updated

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.

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14 Responses to We go bonobo

  1. I believe strongly in the Virginia Woolf imperative, “women need rooms of their own.” I am preaching to the converted here…but what I have found really odd is that a lot of women of Generation Y do not understand the choice to make my movement studio a “women’s space for passionate play and fearless fitness.” I have to explain it to them — the idea that women moving freely in their bodies might not be so freely if they were feeling watched at all.

    Anyway, that is one way I create sisterhood, as you call it. My space is all about that. We had a day of the dead celebration of female ancestresses that was rockin’ amazing. Helped many women to process grief. Just last month, we started a monthly Red Tent Circle and I know that will grow and grow.

    For every Gen Y woman who doesn’t get why boys are not included, I have a dozen women thank me for making this choice about this space.
    Christine (Girl on Fire) Reed recently posted..Fears Erased Here or How to Drown Your MonstersMy Profile

    • Couldn’t agree more on the room of one’s own! I’d forgotten about your Red Tent Circles. That’s an idea…
      My experience in various workplaces has made me a little pessimistic when it comes to young women today (“young women today” oh my God how does that make me sound???:-)). There seems to be a resurgence of neediness around men. And of course eating disorders are more rife than ever.

  2. My groups tend to be those that anyone can join but few men choose to do so. The local knitting group is one and we do all take care of each other and offer support too. The art fibre group also tends to be female and does fill a need as well but on a different level. It works for us 🙂

    viv in nz
    knutty knitter recently posted..Sunday 8th January 2012 Back at NEV!My Profile

  3. I have recently read ‘Conundrum’ by Jan Morris which is about her journey from an awareness of being female in a male body to one where she had surgery and has now lived half her life as a woman. It’s beautifully written and very interesting for its reflections on gender and sex. For her being a woman is a spiritual thing, about who, essentially, she IS. There is also a broadcast of her’s on ‘Desert Island Discs’ available on the BBC archives.
    I am doing a creative non-fiction writing course that is open to all but the one man who came the first week hasn’t returned. The tutor is a man. We have raised the question a number of times about whether men write differently to women. I think they do but of course that may be nothing more than very different circumstances and lives lived by men and women. I’d be hard pressed to articulate what the differences are at the moment and would be interested in other people’s thoughts about this.

  4. Thanks for the introduction to Jan Morris’s book, Lynne, I’ve put it on my wish list.
    Yes, this question of writing styles is a really interesting one. There was some controversy a while back when a male writer (I can’t recall who) was dissing female writers for being too soft in their style.
    I am very interested in this question of personality and gender, and the extent to which they are interlinked.
    If a genie gave me three wishes, the first would be the ability to fly, and the second would be to live as a man for a month. (The third? Would have to think about that.)

  5. I love this post. And I’ve loved Jean Shinoda Bolen since the mid 80’S. Her book Goddesses In Everywoman changed my life.

    Another lifechanger was the women’s group I was in after my divorce, from ’95 to ’99. Incredible sisterhood and mutual support. It’s one of the reasons I’m now a healthy person in a healthy marriage — and would still be whole and happy if I were single.

    Currently I’m in a writers’ group that is 70% women. Beautiful atmosphere of creativity and support in traveling outside of the culture’s boxes. And I’m leaving shortly for church — a wonderful, small neighborhood church that practices gentle personalism. 70% women, some mornings 80%.

    Finally . . . the bonobos’ culture sounds really good. If our culture was more community-oriented and less individualistic, women would be in a better position to circle up and protect each other from male assaults. The statistics on male violence against women — especially their wives and girlfriends — are staggering. We should emulate the bonobos more in this regard.

    Love your choice of topics, Tess. Sorry I haven’t been visiting more often. Finishing the novel is a grind.

  6. I like the idea of “constructed sisterhood!” And your comment about the enneagram is a wise one, too. I’m a Five and (DNA aside) probably more like a giant panda than a primate. A solitude by nature – happy ambling along in my own little corner of the forest, not naturally given to seeking out groups. Knowing that helps me recognize when I’ve gotten a little too isolated and reminds me to reach out and connect.

    My favorite sorts of groups tend to be centered around a common purpose, like knitting or writing, where the conversation can ebb and flow as it likes. With a wide range of ages represented. I think those intergenerational relationships are so valuable! Although I’ve come to suspect that that isn’t something we realize until we get a little older ourselves.

    • Jane, I rather like this giant panda image. A Five friend identifies strongly with the Owl. You display such wisdom in knowing when you need to reach out and connect (which is one of the reasons I find the Enneagram so helpful).
      I’m a Three (achievement-oriented), which is perhaps why like you I also like groups with a common purpose. It makes me think of the fellow feeling I always had growing up with three generations of women working in the kitchen together.

  7. I am a little late joining this discussion on Tuesday eve, but I feel passionately about sisterhood, so I have to say something! I have spent over a decade now sharing with women on the theme of sisterhood…co-leading new and full moon circles, talking about the sacred blood mysteries, mentoring new and breast-feeding mothers. You know, smiling encouragement into the eyes of a woman in the down and dirty, rude and raw act of childbirth takes the concept of sisterhood from the academic to the very real. Jean Shinoda Bolen talks about women becoming empowered when we are given language to express what we are feeling and experiencing.. it is then that it becomes believable and we can communicate it and share it….and THE TIME IS NOW! More women menopausing together on the planet than ever before in her history (her-story), all that wisdom and insight…yes, sisters, the time is now to recognise all that unites us as women and speak out. How else will the young women learn and become empowered?
    I could say so much more on this! Someone else needs to use my computer….xx

  8. I was blessed to grow up surrounded by women. Dad had 5 sisters and Mom had 10 sisters. From Mom’s side of the family I am 1 of about 100 cousins, more girls than boys. From my aunts I learned how important it was to stick together. Even though it was a time when men were considered the head of the house, we all knew they were the ones that made things happen, in their own way. I’ve passed on all they taught me to my daughters and now to my young granddaughters.

    At the moment I belong to a group of knitters that meet on Friday mornings to knit and chat over coffee.

    I started a fiber arts guild 4 years ago and we rarely have men come except to family or community events.

    I’m the facilitator for a study group that meets once a week at the nearby monastery… and although it is open to anyone.. guess what? Again.. women.

    As you mentioned, the women in each of these groups are not all alike, but somehow we understand each other.
    Eve recently posted..Let It Be…My Profile

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