In 2007, Kelly Valen wrote a personal essay for the New York Times' Modern Love column titled, "My Sorority Pledge? I Swore Off Sisterhood." In the column, Valen detailed how the cruelty she experienced in her college sorority caused her to avoid friendships with other women. But despite her own trauma, or perhaps because of it, Valen remained fascinated by women and the ways in which they relate to each other. So instead of giving up on her side of the species altogether, she drafted a survey that was completed by more than 3,000 women across the U.S. from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The results of that survey project are detailed in her book Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships. She talked to TIME about what she learned from the women she surveyed, how to avoid raising mean girls and why she has opened up to having female friends again.
Your New York Times piece created quite a firestorm online, drawing in both women who empathized and those who thought you were being too harsh. What did you learn?
That I wasn't alone in these feeling and anxieties. I thought other women were enjoying their friendships for the most part, and I was the only one who was thinking about some of these issues on a deeper level. It was unbelievable to have hundreds of women reaching out, saying these behaviors really need to stop. But I didn't really like getting ripped apart in the blogosphere either. I like to think of myself as a strong person, but that was really hard. There were so many misinterpretations and personal attacks.
A lot of women who disagreed with you seemed to want to assign the blame elsewhere on men, especially. What did you think about that?
I'm not saying that sexism doesn't exist, but I think it's fair to hold up a mirror at the same time as we hold up the bullhorn. Women are really getting hurt, and we're doing it to each other in many ways. I know this because I've heard it from 3,000 women.
About those women, what surprised you?
Let's start with the good news. Ninety percent of those women said that they did have a solid girlfriend in their life. That's wonderful news. But 84% of those same women said they had suffered real genuine wounding at the hand of other women. That shocked me. More than that, 88% said that there was an undercurrent of meanness and negativity plaguing the gender.
Why do you think other women have the capacity to hurt us the most?
Women have a different style of relating we mean so much to each other. We're socialized from a very young age to trust one another. I believe the closer you are, the more at risk you are to be hurt. There's that quote, "Men can hurt my body, but women scour my soul."
Michelle Obama has said she works very hard to make sure her kids are not mean girls. How much control do parents really have here?
Parents get the first crack at it. We're the ones that are setting the moral compass. The survey results showed that more than 90% of women feel that a mother can set her daughter on the right course. If you are sitting there with your girlfriends gossiping, judging other women and being two-faced and your daughter sees that day in, day out, it really teaches her to follow your way. It's a powerful message about how the world works when you see your mother bonding with other women over that. I'm not here to judge; parenting is hard. But I think we could all benefit from better role modeling.
I have to admit, I'm a bit terrified of having a girl now.
I heard that from so many women! And I heard from women who had boys and said they felt like they had dodged a bullet. What can I say? I think it's hard to be a kid these days, period. They have to deal with so many pressures that we didn't experience. But I do think girls have additional pressures. Look at the environment that they are growing up in. I worry that it's a less hospitable culture and getting worse. That the gender is no longer this sort of open, welcoming and nurturing sisterhood.
What can we all do now to change the experience for the next generation of girls?
It's so basic it's silly: it's opening up. It's smiling. It's being more inclusive and reaching out to other people. Not just writing other women off or dismissing them because they are different or not a part of your regular day or safe friend group that you already know. It's putting yourself out there and knowing that a lot of women feel the same way you do. Maybe they're sitting at home too, just waiting for another woman to give them a chance. We've got to treat people with respect and dignity. If that sounds cliché, I'm sorry, but it's a reminder so many of us forget.
So are you still sworn off other women?
No. I've opened back up. The happiness in all of this is now I feel like I really do have good, solid girl friendships. I feel like maybe I've let them down over the years because I've had these issues. But as a result of this project, I think I'm a better friend, I'm a better woman, I'm a better human.