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Sisterly solidarity: Why female friendships in politics can be empowering

Sisterly solidarity: Why female friendships in politics can be empowering

Forget fight or flight, smart women know the way to cope with threats is to tend and befriend.

That, at least, was the conclusion of an influential piece of research by the University of California into the benefits of female bonding.

The institution’s ‘bio-behavioural’ psychologists found women “create, maintain and utilise social groups, especially with other females, to manage stressful conditions”.

Survival of the fittest is for cavemen. Natural selection is kinder when there’s an element of co-operation.

The University of California study found women are 30 per cent more likely than men to reach out and help others in their group. This empathy builds mutual support, even if it’s offered selflessly. So, there’s a payback: multiple studies show people with networks of close friends have less mental and physical illness.

Female non-romantic friendships are frequently portrayed in popular culture as competitive, bitchy and mean spirited. That’s about as close to reality as women’s pro-wrestling.

For all the women I know, the most enduring bonds, the relationships which get them through the roughest of patches, are with other females.

There was no bio-behavioural researcher around to measure the cortisone levels of myself and my pals after our spa break at Portavadie in Argyll last weekend.

But had we been observed, in even a semi-scientific way, I suspect the happiness hormone, oxytocin, would have been identified in abundance – and not just because of the loch-side infinity pool.

This group of women goes back 30 years. We are not neighbours or colleagues and don’t all now even live in the same city. Most of us have other people in our lives we see more often. 

We have diverse backgrounds, some still work in demanding professions, others have embraced busy retirements or have family and caring responsibilities. 

We have simply been friends for a very long time and are committed to making space for our group. We do Christmas, combined birthdays and the occasional weekend away. Months might pass between events, but when we do meet, time melts away like those Salvador Dali clocks which slid from the walls of the student flat a couple of us once shared.  

Our conversation is lively and wide-ranging. But if we disagree, there is no real division, nothing which would damage the affection and respect of decades.

Can such meaningful support networks among women also cut through political divides in parliament?

One of my favourite photographs from Holyrood was taken in the chamber on 6 February 2018. It was of female MSPs and marked exactly 100 years since the Representation of the People Act gave some women the vote.

I remember it as a genuinely warm moment of camaraderie when all of us – Conservative, SNP, Labour, Green or Liberal – could reflect on how far women in politics had come and remember the suffragettes (and suffragists) who made it possible for us more than a century earlier.  

I usually clung to the comforting uniform of a black suit in parliament, but for this occasion somehow managed to assemble a green dress, white jacket and purple scarf. A colleague noticed the Pankhurst vibe and pushed me to the front, between Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson. We all beamed with pleasure, a fleeting moment of harmony.

There is a certain irony that only a few years later, a woman wearing the same suffragette colours was ejected from the parliament – something for which the presiding officer later apologised. 

The incident occurred during a parliamentary committee hearing on the Gender Recognition Reform Act, when the woman was quietly observing from the public gallery.

Her sartorial choice was viewed by some as a contentious and controversial act – just like her suffragette sisters back in the years before 1918. 

How ironic also that a group of women MSPs, united in the chamber for our photograph, would be fractured by the topic of women’s rights itself.

On the other hand, the political struggles that destroyed some parliamentary friendships brought others together. 

From 2019 until the election in 2021, a cross-party group worked together to raise awareness of the dangers that the proposed erasure of sex posed to women.  

We asked questions about men in women’s prisons, in hospital wards and refuges. We held events about the effect of the ideology on children, particularly those who were vulnerable.

It’s actually quite easy to work across party lines in areas where there’s little disagreement – many parliamentary debates unite the chamber.

It is more difficult to find common cause with ‘the other side’ when you are in opposition to your own party whips. In the case of gender recognition reform, concerned women in Labour and the SNP worked together against the leadership line held by both parties. 

I developed a deep respect for Jenny Marra, Johann Lamont and Elaine Smith, who spoke up despite the intimidation from some Labour activists, which was just as bad as in the SNP. 

We’re unlikely to take a spa break together any time soon. But by reaching out, we built a support network that gave us all strength – and helped power a new women’s movement that will endure – like the best female friendships.

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