Sisters before misters and Girl Power are not just catchy phrases that women made up out of nowhere – they were created out of women’s legitimate need for other women. Today we have actual science to show that women need a tribe, or sisterhood, for their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
Why Women Need a Tribe
In many cases of modern society, women have been raised to be competitive with one another. In both our relationships and our work life, women are subconsciously brought up to feel threatened by other women.
Much of this stems back to a time when the only way a woman could live a good life was by marrying well, so competition for “good men” was high. In the work setting, there are traditionally fewer seats at the table, especially in leadership roles, for women. All of this, of course, breeds competition.
In ancient times, however, things were somewhat different. Whereas now women are more isolated in their homes from each other, back then women:
- Shared child care duties with each other
- Gathered food together
- Cooked together
Even during menstruation, women would often come together with traditions such as the Red Tent to support one another during those difficult days. Essentially, women spent more time working together and supporting one another. They needed each other.
Why Female Friendships Are Important
Women still need each other today. We are more natural nurturers and give a vast amount of emotional energy to our partners and children. Having good female friends is critical to restoring that energy because we nurture each other.
We’ve all met those women (or perhaps we are one) who say that they “just get along better with men”. Though male friendships are important and provide different perspectives, there are certain aspects of life as a woman that only our female friends can truly understand and empathize with.
The Science Behind Female Friendships
Think about a time when you were going through something difficult and went to a female friend or friends for emotional support. How did you feel afterward? I’m willing to bet that most of you will say calmer, more relaxed, and rejuvenated.
Research on the hormone oxytocin has revealed why our female friendships have such a positive impact on us. Scientists found that women and men hormonally respond differently to stress. (1)
Oxytocin is one of the hormones released into our bodies when we experience stress. In men, the large amount of testosterone that is released when they are stressed reduces the calming effect of oxytocin. (1) This can cause two responses (1):
- Aggression (the “fight” response)
- Withdrawal (the “flight” response)
Women, however, have much higher levels of estrogen. This estrogen affects oxytocin differently and actually buffers the fight or flight response. Instead, women turn to the “tend and befriend” pattern, meaning that we seek out emotional support. This happens in other species of animals as well, not just humans. (1)
The more women engage in tending and befriending when stressed, the more oxytocin is released, and the calmer we become. (1)
Benefits Our Physical Health
Having strong female friendships doesn’t just impact our psychological wellbeing, but it has positive benefits for our physical health as well. A 2006 breast cancer study found that women with no close friends were four times as likely to die from the illness than those with 10 or more friends. (2)
The study also found that it was simply having those friends that increased the chance of survival. How often you saw or spoke to those friends did not change the outcome. (2)
The Power of Sisterhood
Any woman with close female friends will tell you how vital those friendships are to her happiness. Though friendships with men also provide benefits, they can’t replace the female ones. Actress and activist Jane Fonda agrees.
“Friendship between women is different than friendship between men. We talk about different things... delve deep… [and] We go under, even if we haven’t seen each other for years. There are hormones that are released from women to other women that are healthy and do away with the stress hormones. It’s my women friends that keep starch in my spine and without them, I don’t know where I would be. We have to just hang together and help each other.” (3)
Women need each other. Instead of feeling intimidated or threatened by one another, we need to cheer each other on, provide comfort and support when needed, and most importantly love on another. Fonda says it brilliantly:
“It’s because our friendships – female friendships are just a hop to our sisterhood, and sisterhood can be a very powerful force, to give the world … the things that humans desperately need.” (3)