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The Social Sex: The History of Female Friendship, by Marilyn Yahom.

August 2, 2015

The Social Sex: The History of Female Friendship, by Marilyn Yahom.  Harper Perennial (2015), 400 pages.  Forthcoming.

3+ stars

An interesting, but loosely organized account of women’s friendship in Western Culture past, present, and future.

Marilyn Yahom is an established scholar who has written a number of books, often collaborating with other scholars. Her area of focus has been on women and family issues in European and American history. Typically she has shared academic findings with a broad general audience. Although her work is carefully documented and sometimes provocative, it is aimed at non-specialists or others seeking a broad perspective.

In her new book, Yahom addresses the somewhat nebulous topic of women’s friendships. She is at her best providing readers with delightful vignettes of a wide variety of women who cared for each other since classical times. The women are rich and poor, young and old, conservative and on the cutting edge, kin and non-kin. Friendships with men are also included. Sometimes she discusses attitudes toward friendships and sometimes the relationships themselves. Sometimes she writes about pairs of women and at others whole clusters of them. While she agrees with most scholars that friendships occur on a continuum that includes sexual attraction, she seems to go out of her way to explain the unknowable; which women were sexually active with each other and which were not. Her point that the context of women’s lives shapes their friendships is obviously true, but the topic is so big and the women described so varied that connections and comparisons among them are difficult.

The stories themselves are often ones that have been ignored by historians. I am glad to see them highlighted. But they have only vague connections to the thesis that Yahom sets out in the book’s epilogue. She starts the book by addressing the ideas of men’s friendships that emerged out of Greek and Biblical periods. From these, she sees a definition of friendship that fit men’s lives. Friends were political and military allies. The male leaders ignored women’s allegedly more nurturing friendships, as they ignored so many other aspects of women’s lives. But the fact that men did not write about women’s friendship is not evidence that they did not exist, as Yahom implies. We see written evidence of such friendships expand in recent centuries as more women began to be literate, but their bonds may have been even stronger in premodern times. We have little evidence either way.

The last section of Yahom’s book focuses on the present and the future and is the most thought-provoking. She observes the ways social media and women’s employment have reshaped their friendships. At the same time, dependence on family and marriage has provided less security. As gender roles are being redefined, the differences between men and women’s styles of friendship break down. Men are finding more room to be nurturing and women are standing with them in public places. She suggests that as marriage and husbands become less central to women, friendships with both women and men may become even more vital. I don’t know if I am convinced, but that is an intriguing idea.

Although Yahom’s book itself has problems, I recommend it for its wonderful stories of women’s bonds to other women and its stimulating assessment of ways in which their friendships are changing.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Harper Perennial for providing me with an electronic copy of this book to review.

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