Foregrounding Friendship: Feminist Pasts, Feminist Futures

Sasha Roseneil. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

Friendship is an understudied yet vitally important topic for gender and women’s studies. Looking back over the history of feminist writings on women’s same-sex friendships, the first section of the chapter explores the importance placed on friendship by earlier generations of feminists across the twentieth century. Focusing on polemical, theoretical and empirical considerations of friendship, I suggest that friendship has been fundamental to feminist politics, identities and communities. The second part of the chapter then sets out an argument for the centrality of friendship—same-sex, male and female, and cross-sex—to feminist research agendas, now and in the future. The lens of friendship facilitates a radical challenge to the heteronormativity of the social sciences, and draws our attention to the ways in which intimate life is being reconfigured at the start of the twenty-first century.


Personal and political, private and public, a source of pleasure and sometimes pain, friendship is indubitably a feminist issue. Without powerful, chosen bonds of affection and care between women, feminism would be unthinkable, women’s movements impossible, everyday life in inhospitable environments lonely. Yet, in relation to its importance in feminist lives and politics, friendship has received little attention within the field of gender and women’s studies. Unlike most of the topics addressed in this volume, it rarely has whole courses dedicated to its study, and there are few feminist scholars for whom friendship is a primary field of research. It is not just gender and women’s studies which have neglected friendship; right across the disciplines—philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology—as a non-institutionalized, particularistic, affective relationship, friendship has been marginal to dominant themes and perspectives. This is starting to change. With the widespread cultural revaluing of the sphere of the personal in the wake of the women’s liberation movement, there is emerging a corpus of research and writing about friendship.

Friendship offers feminism a focus on the agentic, non-institutional, emotional, and pleasurable aspects of social life. It suggests a different theoretical worldview from one which attends primarily to the structures of gender oppression, to the institutional arenas through which domination and subordination are reproduced. While friendship is never outside the relations of power which shape the social world, neither is it is ever fundamentally contained or defined by the core social institutions of family, work, and nation. Friendship may arise in families and in workplaces, and discourses of friendship and enmity between men, of men’s homorelational affiliation and preference, have historically grounded nation-states, but friendship is characteristically and distinctively interstitial, unregulated, voluntary and driven by the pursuit of pleasure. It contrasts, therefore, with formal, legally regulated, and institutionalized personal relations between husband and wife, parent and child, citizen and state, which are more usually the subject of academic study.

Part retrospective review, part manifesto for future feminist agendas, this chapter stakes a claim for the centrality of friendship to gender and women’s studies, arguing that foregrounding friendship is a radical move for feminism, in multiple meanings of the word ‘radical.’ The first section—the retrospective review—focuses on key twentieth-century feminist writings on women’s same-sex friendships, encompassing polemical, theoretical, and empirical engagements with the topic. It takes feminism back to its roots historically, back to the importance placed on friendship by earlier generations of feminists, to friendship as the root or base of feminism, as an inherent, fundamental part of feminism. The second section argues for the importance of friendship more broadly—same-sex, men and women, and cross-sex—in feminist research. I suggest that the lens of friendship is an important one for feminist futures because it enables a challenge to the heteronormativity of the social sciences and facilitates attention to some of the radical transformations in the organization of intimate life which characterize the early twenty-first century.

Feminism on Women’s Friendships

At the heart of twentieth-century Western feminist writing about women’s same-sex friendships is a shared belief in the necessity of ties of affection between women as part of the project of transforming gender relations. Woven through this body of work, more or less explicitly, are two understandings of friendship, which explain why feminism values women’s friendship: friendship is seen as political solidarity, as constitutive of feminist movements and the basis of collective identity, and it is seen as a mode of personal support, intimacy and care, and, as such, productive of self-identity. I will approach the literature in terms of four distinct, but interrelated, moves which are made within it: identifying the importance of women’s friendships; writing histories of women’s friendships; debating the meanings of women’s friendships; and revaluing women’s friendships. The discussion is necessarily highly selective, but offers an overview of key writers, issues, and moments in the development of feminist engagements with friendship.

Identifying the Importance of Women’s Friendships

One of the first disquisitions on the importance of women’s friendships was Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own (1993). Originally delivered as a lecture at Girton, a women’s college of Cambridge University, in 1928, the year equal suffrage was finally extended to women in Britain, it is one of a number of polemical pieces of non-fiction in which Woolf explores the disadvantages suffered by women as a result of their exclusion from men’s homosocial worlds of public school and Oxbridge. In the course of an extended consideration of the material and social conditions which constrain women’s creativity, particularly in relation to writing, she discusses the disruptive, thought-provoking impact a novel by Mary Carmichael had on her:

Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these — ‘Chloe liked Olivia…’: Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women like women.

‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered has she done so! As it is, I thought, letting my mind wander a little from Life’s Adventure, the whole thing is simplified, conventionalized, if one dared say it, absurdly. Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more. But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. (1993: 74-75)

In the literary classics, Woolf notes, ‘almost without exception’ women ‘are shown in their relation to men,’ with the effect that only a very limited part of women’s lives are represented. She goes on to ponder how it would be if ‘men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer!’ It is important, she suggests, in Carmichael’s novel, that Chloe and Olivia ‘shared a laboratory,’ that their friendship existed outside the confines of the domestic sphere ‘which will of itself make their friendship more varied and lasting because it will be less personal.’ Here she is identifying the importance of women’s friendships as relationships not just of the private sphere, but as part of their presence in the public world, from which they had for so long been excluded. Once women’s relationships with each other become representable, ‘something of great importance has happened’:

For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been. It is all half lights and profound shadows like those serpentine caves where one goes with a candle peering up and down, not knowing where one is stepping. (1993: 76)

Women’s experience, in all its complexity and diversity, becomes explorable, because women are no longer seen just in relation to men. And from the moment when Chloe’s affection for Olivia is written, it also becomes possible, Woolf suggests, to write more truthfully—more critically—about men.

As Michèle Barrett (1993) points out, Woolf had a great capacity to anticipate concerns which would preoccupy feminists in the future. While very much of its time, and reflecting Woolf’s class position and her preoccupations as ‘the daughter of an educated man,’ A Room of One’s Own is suggestive of important issues in later feminist work on women’s friendships. First and foremost, it identifies the cultural neglect of women’s friendships and links this neglect to the limited roles and representations of women that have been culturally available. Presaging much later feminist analyses of ‘heteroreality’ (Raymond, 1986), and queer usage of the concept of heteronormativity, it identifies, without naming it as such, the heterorelational worldview which can only see women in relation to men, and which thereby obscures women in relation to other women. It also points to the impact of this heterorelationality on the representation of women as individuals—to the way in which this restricts vastly the conceptualization of what women can do, be, and feel.

The possibility of friendship between women, particularly outside the private sphere, opens up vistas of creativity and experience that are otherwise unimaginable when women are only seen in relation to men. In addition, a debate can be seen to begin, which comes to characterize feminist writing on women’s friendship, about the meaning of Woolf’s ‘woman-oriented’ position in this essay. ‘“Chloe liked Olivia…”: Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women like women can certainly be read as suggestive of lesbianism as much as of feminism. Barrett (1993: xxiii) points to Woolf’s own prediction, with reference to the publication of A Room of One’s Own, that I shall be attacked for a feminist and hinted at for a Sapphist,’ and to the fact that she wrote it during the period of her intense relationship with Vita Sackville-West, and around the time of the publication of Orlando, her tribute to their relationship.

Writing Histories of Women’s Friendships

In the context of the women’s liberation movement, with its emphasis on the importance of women working and creating communities together, and as part of the political project of revaluing women’s friendships, a body of research emerged from the mid-1970s onwards which sought to document the history of women’s friendships, networks, and communities. Largely relying on personal letters and diaries, feminist historians engaged with the challenge of writing the history of intimate relationships which by their very nature lack public documentation. Much of this work focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when industrialization and the separation of work and home which accompanied it had established in the Western middle and upper classes a structure and ideology of separate spheres for men and women.

Caroll Smith Rosenberg’s groundbreaking essay (1975) explores the ‘female world of love and ritual’ which existed in the intense homosocial networks of women between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. She was concerned with the passionate emotional and often erotic ties between married women within which they offered each other psychological support, and which were entirely culturally acceptable. This women’s culture is further explored by Nancy Cott (1977), whose study of New England between 1780 and 1835 researched the development of a shared gender identity among women through common experiences of life and work. Cott emphasizes that models of women’s friendship were consciously developed, and argues that the feminist political movement of the nineteenth century emerged out of women’s shared experiences under the doctrine of separate spheres. A few years later Lillian Faderman (1985) published what was to become a much debated book on ‘romantic friendship and love between women’ from the Renaissance onwards. Her research suggests that ‘it was virtually impossible to study the correspondence of any nineteenth century woman, not only of America but also of England, France, and Germany, and not uncover a passionate commitment to another woman at some time in her life’ (p. 16). ‘Romantic friendships’ between women were considered noble and virtuous in the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century several terms to describe love relationships between women were in common usage- ‘sentimental friends,’ ‘Boston marriages,’ and ‘the love of kindred spirits.’

Taken together, this body of work suggests that close, primary friendships between women were widespread in this period, and that these existed within a culture which was broadly supportive of such relationships. These friendships were characterized by high degrees of self-revelation and intimacy and extensive participation in shared activities, such as charitable, religious, moral, and educational associations. They offered emotional support and companionship, and there are many examples of how, for particular women, they underpinned and facilitated movement into the world of feminist public work and/or political activism. Carol Lasser’s (1988) discussion of Antoinette Brown and Lucy Stone’s forty-seven-year-long intimate friendship, for instance, emphasizes how the mutual supportiveness of their ‘elective sisterhood’ sustained them in their respective work, Brown in the women’s suffrage movement and Stone in developing a feminist engagement with Protestant theology. Phillipa Levine’s (1990) study of friendship among nineteenth-century English feminists identifies passionate friendships between many women and holds that these relationships were the basis for feminist political activism. She describes the role that women’s clubs, which were established in most major cities, played in the formation of such friendships, and then the way in which friendships served to support women in their political work. Heloise Brown and Krista Cowman (1999), in their essay on friendships within the British suffrage movement, argue that friendship became an important part of suffrage discourse, and that it differed from the notion of comradeship which served as a mobilizing discourse in the male-dominated socialist movement. They cite Ethel Smyth’s suffrage anthem, ‘The March of the Women,’ which was regularly sung at gatherings of activists, as highlighting the political nature of friendship within the movement:

Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance (Laugh in hope for sure is the end) March, march, many as one Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend (Smyth and Hamilton, 1911, in Brown and Cowman, 1999: 122).

Faderman (1985) seeks to explain why the positive cultural value attributed to the intense relationships between women in the eighteenth and nineteenth century changed in the early years of the twentieth century. She argues that such friendships came to be pathologized, particularly by psychoanalysis and sexology, which labelled formerly unclassified behaviour as erotic, so that passionate love for a friend of the same sex came to signal a deviant sexual identity. She links this ‘morbidification,’ the shift in attitudes to women’s same-sex relationships, to the increased possibility of their economic independence from men, and identifies a patriarchal impetus to rein women into heterosexual bonds. With the decline in the separateness of the worlds of men and women, as women entered education and paid work, companionable and intimate heterosexual bonds emerged as the desired arena of intimacy. By the mid-twentieth century, there had developed a new culture emphasizing mutual disclosure between husband and wife, and valuing the importance to the marriage of socializing as a couple and participating in joint leisure activities. While intimate friendships persisted between women, they had far less cultural recognition and validation than a century earlier.

Debating the Meaning of Women’s Friendships

As we have seen, already in the 1920s Virginia Woolf was well aware of the possibility that her discussion of Chloe and Olivia’s mutual affection could be read as ‘Sapphic.’ It is not surprising, then, that in the context of the emergence of lesbian feminism as a powerful intellectual current and political force within the women’s liberation movement, a vigorous debate developed about the extent to which women’s friendships of earlier times should be understood as sexual. Smith Rosenberg’s (1975) article draws attention to the homoerotic dimensions of the relationships she was studying, and Blanche Wiesen Cook’s (1977) study of the female support networks of women activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Lillian Wald, Chrystal Eastman, Emma Goldman) explored the possibility of sexual relationships among her subjects. Wiesen Cook argues women’s networks of this era included relationships which ranged from acquaintanceship to long-term sexual relationships. Both Smith Rosenberg and Wiesen Cook suggest that there was a continuum of women’s same-sex relationships, and grant a place to the sexual in their analyses. However, Faderman differs in her construal of nineteenth-century romantic friendships from Smith Rosenberg and Wiesen Cook. Regarding them as ‘love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital,’ she argues that prior to the twentieth century women ‘internalized the view of females as having little sexual passion.’ So, ‘they might kiss, fondle each other, sleep together, utter expressions of overwhelming love and promises of eternal faithfulness, and yet see their passions as nothing more than effusions of the spirit’ (1985: 16). While not denying the possibility of any sexual contact between romantic friends, she downplays the importance of the sexual, explaining it in terms of dominant cultural constructions of femininity. Nonetheless, she is prepared to call these intense, sex-free passions between women ‘lesbian’ (p. 19).

Faderman has been widely criticized, by, for instance, Martha Vicinus (1992), Liz Stanley (1992), and Judith Halberstam (1998), for assuming the asexual nature of women’s same-sex relations in the past, and for at the same time being prepared to call them ‘lesbian.’ Indeed, the publication of the extensive and highly explicit diaries of a nineteenth-century English landowner, Anne Lister, in which she describes her sexual relationships with, and conquests of, other women, underlines the problems with Faderman’s analysis (Whitbread, 1988; 1992). But this does not necessarily mean that it is useful to use the term ‘lesbian’ to describe relationships between women which might have been sexual. As Halberstam points out, from a Foucauldian history of sexuality perspective, ‘lesbian’ refers to same-sex desire between women in the mid- to late twentieth century, in the context of the rise of feminism and a politics of homosexual ‘reverse discourse’; it does not work as a transhistor-ical term for all same-sex activity between women (Halberstam, 1998: 51). There are problems, therefore, both with labelling such connections ‘lesbian’ and with denying the possibility of sexual dimensions. Ultimately, the sexual nature of particular close relationships between women in the past is a matter for empirical investigation and creative speculation, and often, given the nature of the sources available, the question will remain open. The lens of friendship, if combined with a willingness to acknowledge same-sex desire and sexuality, should, as Stanley (1992) argues, enable the full range of relations between women to be investigated, and their meanings for the women themselves, and for present day readers, to be explored.

Revaluing Women’s Friendship

Central to the theory and practice of second-wave feminism was a belief that solidarity between women was vital. Writing in the late 1940s, in her groundbreaking treatise The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir clearly articulated the cultural problems feminism faced in this regard, demonstrating the necessity of a consciously pro-woman politics:

Young girls quickly tire of one another. They do not band together…for their mutual benefit; and this is one of the reasons why the company of boys is necessary to them. (1968: 335)

Women’s fellow feeling rarely rises to genuine friendship, however. Women feel their solidarity more spontaneously than men; but within this solidarity the transcendence of each does not go out towards the others… each is against the others. (1968: 544)

In fact, the theme of woman betrayed by her best friend is not a mere literary convention; the more friendly two women are, the more dangerous their duality becomes. (1968: 545)

Whether de Beauvoir was empirically correct or not in her observations, it is clear that she was articulating a widely held view about the impossibility of true friendship between women, a notion which survives in popular ideas that women together are inclined to ‘bitchiness’ or ‘cattiness.’

In second-wave feminism, it was radical feminists—Mary Daly (1978), Adrienne Rich (1980), and Janice Raymond (1986), in particular—who initially took up the challenge of shifting such attitudes, developing an explicit agenda that sought to revalue women’s friendships. In Mary Daly’s Gynecology, ‘woman-loving Spinsters/Lesbians’ are held to be the true carriers of feminist politics, for whom friendship is at the core of politics and life, and all love relationships are based on friendship. She emphasizes that feminist friendship must be between whole, independent selves, as opposed to ‘bonding out of weakness’ (1978: 342). Poet and essayist Rich sets out both to challenge the historical denial of lesbian existence and to valorize all forms of female relationality in her polemical essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.’ There, she coined the controversial concept of the ‘lesbian continuum,’ which she explains thus:

I mean the term to include a range—through each woman’s life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women … we begin to grasp the breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited almost clinical definitions of lesbianism. (Rich, 1980: 51-52)

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the extensive debate which ensued about Rich’s essay, because it takes us away from our central concern with friendship. Suffice it to say that there are clear parallels between the controversy about whether Rich’s expansive definition of lesbian existence served to erase sexuality as the core of lesbian identity, and to deny the specificity of the lesbian lives and history, including the costs and dangers of lesbian identity, and the controversy about whether some of the friendships of women in the past should be understood as lesbian.

Raymond’s A Passion for Friends carries forward Daly’s project of centring friendship in feminism and is one of the few book-length feminist engagements with friendship. She traces genealogies of women’s friendship (‘gyn/ affection’) across the centuries and explores how it has been both the source of great pleasure and strength for women and the subject of philosophical and literary neglect, social and cultural disapprobation, and sanctions. Raymond argues that ‘heteroreality,’ the worldview that woman exists always in relation to man (‘heterorelations’), can be challenged by women’s friendships with each other, which (in Aristotelian tradition) in turn depend on women’s affinity with their own ‘vital Self. She offers a philosophical engagement with the question of the cultural value attached to women’s friendships, the values, ethics, and political implications of friendship, and the micro and macro gender politics within which women’s friendships are lived. Her work also highlights the ontological question of relationship between the self and the friend.’

It was in the day-to-day practice of second-wave feminism that the project of revaluing women’s friendships really took hold and began to effect social change. Activists in the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s initially adopted a discourse of sisterhood to express solidarity between women—‘sisterhood is powerful’—but it was elective bonds of friendship between women which proved to be vital in sustaining feminist communities, collectives, households, projects, and political groups. For instance, my research (Roseneil, 1995; 2000a) on the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and the wider women’s peace movement in Britain in the 1980s suggests that through involvement in women’s movement activism, women came to revalue friendship with other women. Women involved in the movement formed intense and close relationships with each other, which were very different from friendships they had experienced with women before. They realized that they had learnt not to value other women’s company and that their social orientations had been constructed as heterorelational:

I found out what it was like to be really close to women and to be really friends with women, and how good women are together. All that was new to me. (Barbara Rawson)

I’d never really had friendships with women on their own. When you’re married, you have friendships with another couple…When we first formed the group in Derby it just opened my eyes. I’d never seen anything like it. It was amazing…It was the way that women could be together and be friends and talk about things and do things together. It was something I hadn’t encountered. I’d been brought up to think that anything that you did with women was really secondary, your marriage was the thing and your husband, and the things you did with your husband. If you went and had coffee with another woman that was just a bit of frivolity. It wasn’t your real life. (Leah Thalmann)

And, reminiscent of de Beauvoir’s position:

So many women said to me, ‘it’s so nice living with women. I never thought it would be.’ And it was clear that they had these concepts that obviously patriarchy fosters, that women together are just a disaster, that they squabble and fight, and they can’t get anything done. (Katrina Allen) (Roseneil, 2000a: 281)

As a community and a social movement Greenham cohered as much, if not more, through the emotional ties of friendship, love, and sexual intimacy between the women who were part of it, as through shared politics and philosophies. Indeed, a valuing of all forms of same-sex affection, love, and care was fundamental to the politics and philosophy of Greenham. This was seen both as part of the feminist political project of transforming the dominant social relations of gender and sexuality, and as an everyday, life-sustaining pleasure.

Friendship and Future Feminist Agendas

Thus far I have shown how women’s same-sex friendships were important to twentieth-century feminism. In this section I go on to propose that the study of friendship should be central to twenty-first-century feminist agendas. The question of how people organize their personal lives, loving and caring for each other in contexts of social, cultural, and economic changes which increasingly demand the pursuit of individual life strategies, is a key concern for social scientists and policy-makers, and a major issue for feminist researchers internationally. It is my argument that if we are to understand the current state, and likely future, of intimacy and care, we need to foreground friendship as a social relationship, and de-centre the ‘family’ and the heterosexual couple in our intellectual imaginaries. While the idea of ‘family’ retains an almost unparalleled ability to move people, both emotionally and politically, much that matters to people in terms of intimacy and care increasingly takes place beyond ‘family,’ in and among networks of friends. Indeed, as feminist historical work on friendship discussed above suggests, it is probably the case that far more of people’s affective lives has always taken place outside ‘family’ than has been recognized by social scientists.

As the global distribution and mainstream success of a plethora of television shows such as Friends, Seinfeld, Ellen, and Will and Grace attests, popular culture is proving rather better at proffering stories which explore the burgeoning diversity of contemporary practices of intimacy and care than are academic researchers. If we were to seek our understanding of cultures of intimacy and care from the social scientific literature, we would be given to believe that they are still almost solely practiced under the auspices of ‘family.’ This is not to deny that the gender and women’s studies scholars have sought to meet both the empirical challenge of social changes in family and gender relations and the theoretical challenge of anti-essentialist, postmodern, Black and minority ethnic feminist, and lesbian and gay emphases on difference and diversity. They have responded by pluralizing the notion of ‘family,’ so that they now always speak of ‘families,’ and they emphasize the diversity of family forms and experiences, how the membership of families changes over time, as they break down and re-form, and they welcome lesbian and gay ‘families of choice’ into the ‘family tent’ (Stacey, 2002). This shift has been an important one, particularly as a counter to the anti-feminist and anti-gay public political discourse of ‘family values,’ which developed in the United States and Britain during the 1980s and 1990s. However, these moves to plu-ralize notions of ‘family,’ even when they embrace the study of lesbian and gay families, are insufficient to the task of understanding both the contemporary and the future experience of intimacy and care for two reasons. First, they leave unchanged the heteronormativity of the social scientific imaginary, and second, they are not grounded in an adequate analysis of contemporary social change because they do not recognize the increasing importance of friendship. Let us look at each of these issues in turn.

Challenging Heteronormativity: Friendship Matters

Gender and women’s studies, as well as sociology, continue to marginalize the study of love, intimacy, care, and sociality which takes place beyond what they define as ‘family’; even though the definition of ‘family’—or at least ‘families of choice’—may have been expanded in scope. Heteronormative assumptions continue to produce analyses which are overwhelmingly focused on monogamous, dyadic, co-residential (and primarily hetero) sexual relationships, particularly those which have produced children, and on changes within these relationships. Jo Van Every’s (1999) systematic survey of British research and writing on families and households published in one year, 1993, found that there was ‘an overwhelming focus on the “modern nuclear family”’: that is, on married couples who lived together in households only with their children. She argues convincingly that ‘despite all the sociological talk about the difficulty of defining families and the plurality and diversity of family forms in contemporary (postmodern?) societies, sociologists were helping to construct a “normal” family which looked remarkably similar to that which an earlier generation of sociologists felt confident to define’ (1999: 167).

The ‘non-standard intimacies’ (Berlant and Warner, 2000) created by those living non-normative sexualities pose a particular challenge to a field which has studied intimacy and care primarily through the study of families. Although some lesbians and gay men refer to their emotional networks quite consciously—often with a knowing irony—as ‘family,’ the adoption of the term ‘families of choice’ by writers such as Kath Weston (1991), Jeffrey Weeks, Brian Heaphy, and Catherine Donovan (2001), and Judith Stacey (2004) to refer to lesbian and gay relationships and friendship networks actually serves to direct attention away from the extra-familial, counter-heteronormative nature of many of these relationships.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that friendship, as both a practice and an ethic, is of foundational and particular importance in the lives of lesbians and gay men. Networks of friends, which often include ex-lovers, form the context within which lesbians and gay men tend to lead their personal lives, offering emotional continuity, companionship, pleasure, and practical assistance. Building and maintaining lives outside the framework of the heterosexual nuclear family, and sometimes rejected or marginalized by their families of origin, lesbians and gay men ground their emotional security and daily lives in their friendship groups. Weeks et al. (2001), Sasha Roseneil (2000, a; c), and Jacqueline Weinstock and Esther Rothblum (2004) draw attention to the blurring of the boundaries of, and the movement between, friendship and sexual relationships which often characterizes contemporary lesbian and gay intimacies: friends become lovers, and lovers become friends—and many have multiple sexual partners of varying degrees of commitment (and none). Moreover, an individual’s ‘significant other’ may not be someone with whom she or he has a sexual relationship (Preston with Lowenthal, 1996: 1). These practices de-centre the primary significance that is commonly granted to sexual partnerships and challenge the privileging of conjugal relationships in research on intimacy. Non-normative intimacies—those between friends, non-monogamous lovers, ex-lovers, partners who do not live together, partners who do not have sex together, those which do not easily fit the ‘friend’/ ‘lover’ binary classification system—and the networks of relationships within which these intimacies are sustained (or not) largely fail to be registered in a literature which retains an imaginary which, without ever explicitly acknowledging it, sees the heterosexual couple as the heart of the social formation, as that which pumps the life-blood of social reproduction. It is time for this heterosexual imaginary to change and for research which focuses both on friendship and on ‘non-conventional’ forms of sexual/love relationships—and the interconnections between the two—a move that was heralded in some of the feminist work on the history of women’s same-sex friendships discussed earlier.

Analysing Social Change: Friendship is Becoming More Important

As we have seen from these feminist histories, friendship is a socially constructed relationship whose meanings and practices change over time. The second element of my argument that feminism should take friendship seriously suggests that we do so because friendship is a relationship of increasing social significance in the contemporary world.

The version of friendship which emerged in the mid-twentieth century, which promoted the companionate intimate heterosexual couple as the primary arena of intimacy and emphasized a new culture of mutual disclosure between husband and wife and the importance of joint leisure activities, has recently started to be unsettled. Shifts in gender and family relations, processes of individualization, and the postmodernization of relations of sexuality are socially and culturally de-centring heterorelations and destabilizing—or queering—the distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual ways of life. As geographical mobility increases, as marriage rates drop and marriage takes place later in life, as divorce rates have soared over the past thirty years, as births outside marriage, and indeed outside any lasting heterosexual relationship, increase steeply, as the proportion of people living in single-person households rises, and the proportion of women not having children climbs, patterns of sociability—as well as the more widely discussed patterns of intimacy—are undergoing transformation (Beck and Beck Gernsheim, 1995; Giddens, 1992). A smaller proportion of the population is living in the heterosexual nuclear family of idealized mid-twentieth-century form, and fewer people are choosing or able to construct their intimate relations according to the symmetrical family, intimate-couple model. In 2003, only 22 per cent of households in Britain comprised a heterosexual couple with dependent children (National Statistics, 2004). This increasingly means that ways of life that might previously have been regarded as distinctively ‘homosexual’ are becoming more widespread. As Weeks, et al. have suggested, ‘one of the most remarkable features of domestic change over recent years is… the emergence of common patterns in homosexual and heterosexual ways of life as a result of these long-term shifts in relationship patterns’ (2001: 85).

The significance of these processes of individualization calls for attention to the relationship and caring practices of those living at the leading edge of social change. Evidence from the British Household Panel Study shows that men and women who are divorced are more likely to see a close friend during the week than those who are married. Moreover, the British Social Attitudes report suggests that people are more likely to have seen their ‘best friend’ than any relative who does not live with them in the previous week. While there has been a decline in the proportion of respondents seeing relatives or friends at least once a week between 1986 and 1995, the decline in contact with friends was considerably smaller (Pahl, 1998). Peter Willmott’s (1987) research also suggests that friends were, by the mid-1980s, more important than relatives or neighbours in terms of providing practical help with everyday tasks. It seems highly unlikely that this trend will suddenly change and that there will be a reversion to the forms of familial and neighbourly assistance which were reported in the working-class localities researched in the British community studies of the 1950s (such as Hodges and Smith, 1954; Young and Willmott, 1957).

There is a new cultural emphasis on post-heterorelational friendship and a popular celebration of it. It is no coincidence that Friends is consistently the most popular television comedy across the Western world. The show speaks to the experience, desires, and hopes of a generation which is constructing its lives outside mid-twentieth-century notions of heterosexual intimate relationships, and which seeks comfort, stability, and companionship in networks of friends rather than in a dyadic relationship. As the theme song declares, friends are there for you, every day, when life is going well and when it’s going badly. Many other television programmes which have captured the popular imagination share this focus on lives built around friends in which sexual relationships come and go but friends remain: This Life, Men Behaving Badly, Seinfeld, for instance. Magazines for women and girls seem to be placing a stronger emphasis on the importance of same-sex friendship, with the focus on ‘getting and keeping’ a man losing its centrality. In the 1990s, the pop group Spice Girls’ valorizing of girls’ and women’s same-sex friendships with each other extended a pro(to)feminist emphasis on same-sex friendships into a younger age group. Perhaps even more significantly, men are now constantly enjoined by agony uncles, opinion writers, and advertisers to spend time and emotional effort developing their friendships with other men, to go out to dinner with a close male friend, to telephone their male friends for a chat, and to talk about their feelings with any friend, man or woman, who will listen.

Case-Study Example

Research I have carried out with Shelley Budgeon (Roseneil and Budgeon, 2004) adds weight to the idea that friendship is an increasingly socially significant relationship. This research has investigated how the most ‘individualized’ in our society—people who do not live with a partner—construct their networks of intimacy, friendship, care, and support. We wanted to find out who matters to people who are living outside conventional families, what they value about their personal relationships, how they care for those who matter to them, and how they care for themselves. We carried out in-depth interviews with fifty-three people aged 25 to 60 years old in three locations—a former mining town that is relatively conventional in terms of gender and family relations; a small town in which alternative, middle-class, ‘down-shifted’ lifestyles and sexual non-conformity are common; and a multi-ethnic, inner-city area characterized by a range of gender and family practices, a higher-than-average proportion of women in the labour force, and a large number of single-person and non-couple households. We talked to men and women with and without children, of a diversity of ages, ethnic origins, occupations, and sexual orientations, with varying relationship status and living arrangements. This gave us detailed insight into the texture of people’s emotional lives.

We found that across a range of lifestyles and sexualities, friendship occupies a central place in the personal lives of our interviewees. Whether they were in a heterosexual couple relationship or not, the people we interviewed were turning to friends for emotional support. Jools, a heterosexual woman of 28 from a former mining town, spoke for many people when she said: ‘I think a friendship is for life, but I don’t think a partner is… I’d marry my friends. They’d last longer.’ There was a high degree of reliance on friends, as opposed to biological kin and sexual partners, particularly for the provision of care and support in everyday life, and friendship operated as a key value and site of ethical practice for many. Far from being isolated, solitary individuals who flit from one unfulfilling relationship to another, most of the people we interviewed were enmeshed in complex networks of intimacy and care, and had strong commitments and connections to others. In contrast to the mythology of the singleton in desperate search for a marriage partner—exemplified by Bridget Jones—very few showed any yearning to be part of a conventional couple or family. A great many, both those with partners and those without, were consciously placing less emphasis on the importance of the couple relationship. Instead, they were centring their lives on their friends. Of those with partners, almost all had chosen not to live together. Very few saw cohabitation as the inevitable and desirable next stage of their relationship.

Many of the interviewees had experienced the ending of a marriage or a long-term cohabiting relationship, and the pain and disruption the breakup had caused had made them question the wisdom of putting all of their emotional eggs in one basket. The people who mattered were either friends or a combination of friends, partner, children, and family. This was not a temporary phase, and people did not return to conventional couple relationships as soon as an opportunity arose. Re-interviewing people eighteen months later, we found a remarkably consistent prioritization of friendship.

Friends were an important part of everyday life in good times and bad. Most of the people we spoke to put considerable effort into building and maintaining friendships in the place where they lived. A good number had moved house, or had persuaded friends to move house, with the aim of creating local friendship networks that could offer reciprocal childcare and help in times of illness, as well as pleasurable sociability. It was friends far more than biological kin who offered support to those who suffered from emotional distress or mental health problems and who were there to pick up the pieces when love relationships ended. Many of the people we interviewed were opening up their homes to people who were not part of their conventionally defined family. It was not just the twenty-somethings who spent much of their leisure time hanging out with friends at each other’s homes or having people in to dinner, parties, and barbecues. Friends were invited to stay during periods of homelessness, when out of work, or when they were depressed or lonely.

What this research suggests is that researchers have often failed to recognize the extent to which, as a matter of preference, people are substituting the ties of friendship for those of blood, particularly with regard to everyday care and emotional support. If gender and women’s studies are interested in thinking about the social world of the twenty-first century, a shift in gaze beyond the study of ‘the family’ as the privileged locus of practices of intimacy and care is necessary, and a refocusing on friendship is vital. In the context of processes of individualization and the destabilization of the homosexual/heterosexual binary, there is a need for an approach which is able to grasp the ways in which what matters to people in terms of intimacy increasingly exceeds the category of ‘family.’


This chapter has explored the significance of friendship for feminism and gender and women’s studies in the past, and for current and future research agendas. One of the most exciting aspects of the topic of friendship is the way in which it is able to build a bridge between the practices and theoretical concerns of feminists of previous eras and the social transformations of the contemporary world. Indeed, the increasing importance of friendship as a social relationship, which I argued in the second section of the chapter, can be seen, in part, as related to the radical social changes set in train by the feminist politics and theory of earlier times. It is no longer the case that women can only be represented in relation to men. Women’s friendship is culturally valued and recognized in ways unimaginable to Virginia Woolf, and women (and men) are building lives outside heterorelations in ever greater numbers, grounding themselves psychically and socially in friendship, as feminists of the second wave were keen to promote. While the organizations, collectives, and communities of the feminist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have largely faded away, the value they placed on bonds of affection and care outside the familial has permeated contemporary Western societies.

Taking friendship seriously can offer feminism important discursive resources. First, it provides an important counterpoint to the work of public intellectuals such as Zygmunt Bauman (2001; 2003), Robert Putnam (2000), and Richard Sennett (1998), whose ideas have been taken up in a widespread discourse about a supposed crisis in personal relationships and community. These patriarchal pessimists bemoan the demoralizing, anomic impact of individualization and the social transformations of the past three decades on intimacy, community, and personal character, expressing a conservative hankering after a lost golden age of stable families and seemingly more secure structures of care. A recognition of the value that people place on friendship and the care and support that it offers also challenges the familialism that still characterizes the policies of many Western governments. From this recognition we can start to map a political agenda which moves beyond the rhetoric of ‘supporting families’ (Home Office, 1998), to consider how we can support and recognize the importance of friendship. For instance, work-life balance policies can be framed in terms of the range of important personal relationships and commitments within which people live their lives, rather than narrowly with reference to family responsibilities. Employment benefits should be redefined to extend bereavement leave to apply to all the people about whom an employee cares or with whom he or she shares a special relationship. More radically, it is time to press for the extension of civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples, now legal in many Western states, to recognize any significant relationship—sexual or otherwise—and to open up fiscal benefits, inheritance, and other rights to those whose intimate lives are not covered by a policy framework which focuses on conjugal couples and families. A progressive feminist policy agenda needs to enable all of those who care for others, whoever they are, to do so with maximum social support and recognition.

That said, friendship is not a universal panacea. It cannot promise to solve all of the problems which face feminism. As a personal relationship which tends to bind together people who are socially similar, it cannot resolve all the political and ethical issues feminism faces, not least the problem of its constitutive outside—the enemy and the stranger. If we are to develop a politics that is not just concerned with those within the charmed circle of love, affection, and care, we have to consider our collective obligations to the lonely, the unloved, and the uncared for. We have to recognize what we all know from personal experience: that friendship is not always easy, that it can struggle with difference, and that it sometimes flounders when friends misrecognize each other. Friendship can cause us pain, as well as offering us care and support. But, nonetheless, foregrounding friendship casts light on feminism’s radical past and allows us to understand better how people are living and loving today.