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The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship

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From historian and acclaimed feminist author of How the French Invented Love and A History of the Wife comes this rich, multifaceted history of the evolution of female friendship. In today’s culture, the bonds of female friendship are taken as a given. But only a few centuries ago, the idea of female friendship was completely unacknowledged, even pooh-poohed. Only men, the From historian and acclaimed feminist author of How the French Invented Love and A History of the Wife comes this rich, multifaceted history of the evolution of female friendship. In today’s culture, the bonds of female friendship are taken as a given. But only a few centuries ago, the idea of female friendship was completely unacknowledged, even pooh-poohed. Only men, the reasoning went, had the emotional and intellectual depth to develop and sustain these meaningful relationships. Surveying history, literature, philosophy, religion, and pop culture, acclaimed author and historian Marilyn Yalom and co-author Theresa Donovan Brown demonstrate how women were able to co-opt the public face of friendship throughout the years. Chronicling shifting attitudes toward friendship—both female and male—from the Bible and the Romans to the Enlightenment to the women’s rights movements of the ‘60s up to Sex and the City and Bridesmaids, they reveal how the concept of female friendship has been inextricably linked to the larger social and cultural movements that have defined human history. Armed with Yalom and Brown as our guides, we delve into the fascinating historical episodes and trends that illuminate the story of friendship between women: the literary salon as the original book club, the emergence of female professions and the working girl, the phenomenon of gossip, the advent of women’s sports, and more. Lively, informative, and richly detailed, The Social Sex is a revelatory cultural history.


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From historian and acclaimed feminist author of How the French Invented Love and A History of the Wife comes this rich, multifaceted history of the evolution of female friendship. In today’s culture, the bonds of female friendship are taken as a given. But only a few centuries ago, the idea of female friendship was completely unacknowledged, even pooh-poohed. Only men, the From historian and acclaimed feminist author of How the French Invented Love and A History of the Wife comes this rich, multifaceted history of the evolution of female friendship. In today’s culture, the bonds of female friendship are taken as a given. But only a few centuries ago, the idea of female friendship was completely unacknowledged, even pooh-poohed. Only men, the reasoning went, had the emotional and intellectual depth to develop and sustain these meaningful relationships. Surveying history, literature, philosophy, religion, and pop culture, acclaimed author and historian Marilyn Yalom and co-author Theresa Donovan Brown demonstrate how women were able to co-opt the public face of friendship throughout the years. Chronicling shifting attitudes toward friendship—both female and male—from the Bible and the Romans to the Enlightenment to the women’s rights movements of the ‘60s up to Sex and the City and Bridesmaids, they reveal how the concept of female friendship has been inextricably linked to the larger social and cultural movements that have defined human history. Armed with Yalom and Brown as our guides, we delve into the fascinating historical episodes and trends that illuminate the story of friendship between women: the literary salon as the original book club, the emergence of female professions and the working girl, the phenomenon of gossip, the advent of women’s sports, and more. Lively, informative, and richly detailed, The Social Sex is a revelatory cultural history.

30 review for The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship

  1. 5 out of 5

    McKenzie Richardson

    I received this book from GoodReads in exchange for an honest review.This is kind of a difficult book to rate. While the text is informative, the overall narrative feels as though it is lacking. Part of the issue is clearly a lack of historical texts to use in order to determine changes in female friendship. This is mostly a history of white middle class friendship with a brief look at various "other" friendships such as "Friendship in the Workplace, Third-World Style", an unfortunately flippan I received this book from GoodReads in exchange for an honest review.This is kind of a difficult book to rate. While the text is informative, the overall narrative feels as though it is lacking. Part of the issue is clearly a lack of historical texts to use in order to determine changes in female friendship. This is mostly a history of white middle class friendship with a brief look at various "other" friendships such as "Friendship in the Workplace, Third-World Style", an unfortunately flippant title. Again, this is partly due to the lack of documentation outside of the dominant group, but I think the missing pieces were crucial to this history. The historical connections to feminism were interesting, especially the chunk of the book dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt, but as a whole the book felt a bit dull. The text was broken up well into digestible pieces, but some areas were heavier than others, leaving some sections unsatisfying thin. The section on modern friendships was incredibly short with very little depth. A decent book, but the lack of concentration in certain areas left me unsatisfied as a whole.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Yasmin

    The last few chapters seemed to really lag for me. Indeed I decided not to bother finishing chapter 14 and skip to chapter 15. Primarily the women in this book were wealthy or middle class white women, mostly from the U.S. Not only that but it isn't accurate to say that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton never had disagreed on anything. They did disagree. Anthony thought that Stanton kept bearing children when she should have been completely focused on women's issues, as well disagreeme The last few chapters seemed to really lag for me. Indeed I decided not to bother finishing chapter 14 and skip to chapter 15. Primarily the women in this book were wealthy or middle class white women, mostly from the U.S. Not only that but it isn't accurate to say that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton never had disagreed on anything. They did disagree. Anthony thought that Stanton kept bearing children when she should have been completely focused on women's issues, as well disagreements about other women. I also would have liked a little more of a mention on Charlotte Bronte's friend Ellen Nussey and I would have thought something of Emily and Anne Bronte's friend(s). But there are some good points, however, overall the book could have been better. After all the sharp generalisation of Toni Morrison's female characters all end up mad or dead robs much from Toni Morrison as a writer. The only real woman of note that wasn't white was Pauli Murray and even that was too brief to have a sense of who the woman was. It shall also be added that Oscar Wilde had a number of great friendships with women as a boy and as a man.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    I'm reviewing this book for the next print issue of Bitch magazine!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Wamuyu Thoithi

    I had to skim through this book as there really was no cohesion. I enjoyed the upfront section on Greek philosophy and the chapter on ‘Can men and women be just friends’, but that’s where it ended for me. As a woman of colour I could not relate AT ALL. The title is inaccurate- it is not representative of women. The title really should be ‘The Social Sex: A history of WESTERN/ EUROPEAN/ WHITE AMERICAN CIS-female friendships’. A miserable attempt was made at mentioning women of colour in the later I had to skim through this book as there really was no cohesion. I enjoyed the upfront section on Greek philosophy and the chapter on ‘Can men and women be just friends’, but that’s where it ended for me. As a woman of colour I could not relate AT ALL. The title is inaccurate- it is not representative of women. The title really should be ‘The Social Sex: A history of WESTERN/ EUROPEAN/ WHITE AMERICAN CIS-female friendships’. A miserable attempt was made at mentioning women of colour in the later chapters, with a small excerpt on ‘Black Sisterhood’. The chapters on 21st century and social media friendships really felt like they had no point. I think this book may be useful as reference text for academic writing but not much else. You’ll be alright skipping it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Pinero

    I have read "The History of the Breast" by Marilyn Yalom, so I was excited to read this book because I really enjoyed the thoroughness of History of the Breast. Unfortunately, I really had to power through the first couple of chapters of the book because the stories of the women described were repetitive and boring. Once she started in on the 20th-century things started to pick up but I felt as if she had given much thought and research to the first several chapters but started to become bored a I have read "The History of the Breast" by Marilyn Yalom, so I was excited to read this book because I really enjoyed the thoroughness of History of the Breast. Unfortunately, I really had to power through the first couple of chapters of the book because the stories of the women described were repetitive and boring. Once she started in on the 20th-century things started to pick up but I felt as if she had given much thought and research to the first several chapters but started to become bored and sped through the 20th-century to now. I wish she would've taken more time to dissect friendship today in the 21st century, but maybe it's hard to do that as things are still occurring and she can't look at things entirely from a bird's eye view. I overall learned a lot and I definitely really value female friendships. There is still a lot to gain from this book if you can power through the first few chapters.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Phillips

    After reading Yalom's previous book, "A History of the Wife," I thought this would be a more interesting read. Unfortunately, I was left sorely disappointed. It is ironic that this book contains a passage in which Toni Morrison lamenting the absence of the portrayal of friendships between women that are absent of any kind of sexual suggestion, as that is one of my complaints about this book. I don't mean to suggest that same-sex relationships between two women are unworthy of study, nor do I mean After reading Yalom's previous book, "A History of the Wife," I thought this would be a more interesting read. Unfortunately, I was left sorely disappointed. It is ironic that this book contains a passage in which Toni Morrison lamenting the absence of the portrayal of friendships between women that are absent of any kind of sexual suggestion, as that is one of my complaints about this book. I don't mean to suggest that same-sex relationships between two women are unworthy of study, nor do I mean to suggest that some women had lesbian relationships that have been subject to erasure due to the social unacceptability of such relationships at points in history. The point is that this book purported to be about female friendships, which is a separate subject. To include what were clearly lesbian relationships in such a book does what Morrison was complaining about: that two women are apparently not permitted to have close, supportive, loving relationships with each other without people looking askance. That is just one of this book's many problems, however. Despite purporting to be a book about female friendships, quite a bit of space is dedicated to male friendships (especially the first portion of the book) or to male/female platonic friendships. Additionally, the book is clunky, reading more like an undergraduate term paper. I couldn't help but continually feel that this book was in desperate need of a more effective editor.* Instead of examining trends in the way female friendship has evolved over time, the authors give detailed examples of friendships between specific women (and, confusingly, sometimes between a woman and a man) and make little to no attempt to generalize such friendships to wider trends in most cases. Case in point: a full chapter is devoted to Eleanor Roosevelt's friendships, again, including one with a man. While Eleanor Roosevelt is undoubtedly an important and interesting figure in the 20th century, if I wanted detailed information about her relationships, I'd opt to read one of the many biographies available about her. Perhaps the problem is that not enough information was available, especially until recent history, about women's friendships. The way the book is written would seem to reinforce this speculation, as later chapters begin to generalize more about relationships instead of focusing on very specific people. Even the later chapters, though, seem insistent on including male friendships and couple friendships as well. I was left wondering whether maybe there just wasn't enough information to create an entire book, and if that is the case, this book just shouldn't have existed. *side note: if I read one more book in which the television show "Sex and the City" makes it through the editing process misidentified as "Sex IN the City," I might, in the words of Andy Bernard, lose my FREAKIN' mind.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Katherine

    I picked up this book on a whim and am surprised at what I found. This is definitely worth a read. However, I feel like there are some pieces about friendship that are missing. When you figure it's mostly focused on popular culture of Europe and America in history it makes sense. The writing is also balanced, mentioning several sides to a quotation from letters, such as views from historians or popular opinion. Some of the points made in the book really stood out to me. The major one that stood I picked up this book on a whim and am surprised at what I found. This is definitely worth a read. However, I feel like there are some pieces about friendship that are missing. When you figure it's mostly focused on popular culture of Europe and America in history it makes sense. The writing is also balanced, mentioning several sides to a quotation from letters, such as views from historians or popular opinion. Some of the points made in the book really stood out to me. The major one that stood out to me is where she questions if men and women can be friends without assumption of there being a sexual tie. It was answered as possibly with time: "Our history suggests that women will continue to show the world how to be friends." I am extremely interested in this due to the fact that I value friendships from all over, but despise the fact that it's assumed I must have "something going on" with a male friend. I wish to dedicate time to a relationship, and in my current position, I believe I lack the focus to be able to do so. Due to that, I am not in a relationship, and choose to keep it so for the time being. Another view that I have seen even more popular is the mention of "Going online to get offline", where people create groups online and immediately set up times and locations to meet in person. One of the reading groups I am a part of through goodreads has created several chats to meet up with other readers so as to talk person-to-person instead of screen-to-screen. I would favor this except that I am probably a few books behind. I am on the side of "going online to get offline" because of a valid argument that is made: "While 'efficient friendship' might sound oxymoronic, social media allows busy women to maintain friendships separated by distance or conflicting schedules. A few girlfriends might use social media to schedule an impromptu get-together that never would have happened in an age of telephone tag." It has been a lot easier with scheduling outings or calling up someone with social media (even using google calendar and sharing it among friends is a key to success). It also makes conversation easier among people you may not talk to often. Not to be stalker-ish, but it can help you understand what someone has been doing recently so you are not coming in out of nowhere, especially when all you want to do is chat and continue a friendship. I definitely enjoyed this and couldn't put it down.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Pam

    I was so disappointed! I think another reviewer, McKenzie Richardson, says it best... This is kind of a difficult book to rate. While the text is informative, the overall narrative feels as though it is lacking. Part of the issue is clearly a lack of historical texts to use in order to determine changes in female friendship. This is mostly a history of white middle class friendship with a brief look at various "other" friendships such as "Friendship in the Workplace, Third-World Style", an unfor I was so disappointed! I think another reviewer, McKenzie Richardson, says it best... This is kind of a difficult book to rate. While the text is informative, the overall narrative feels as though it is lacking. Part of the issue is clearly a lack of historical texts to use in order to determine changes in female friendship. This is mostly a history of white middle class friendship with a brief look at various "other" friendships such as "Friendship in the Workplace, Third-World Style", an unfortunately flippant title.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    An enjoyable read that marks a lot of important points about the ideas and patterns of female friendship throughout the ages. Although the book seems a bit unbalanced at times (the ending seemed rather rushed; the beginning, which is about previous male views of friendship was perhaps too lengthy), the middle and majority of the text hones in on a key friendships throughout history, depicting the women and their partnerships in engaging ways that should interest any history lover.

  10. 5 out of 5

    jen8998

    Started off promising in the first chapters but became dull. Changes in women's friendships in modern times are given short shrift at best.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen McRae

    This book was not an easy read it has some interesting facts but you had to search them out.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ana

    I liked how friendship among writers was emphasized, but I wish there were at least a couple of friendships from people of color.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Renate Stendhal

    The author is a charming erudite.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    I really wanted to like this book! If my expectations hadn't been high I might give it a higher rating. Women's friendships are an important topic and well worth being written about. I will say for this book that it's a very quick and pleasant read. However, it's hampered by the authors' focus on friendships between elite Western women. The book purports to be a social and cultural history of women's friendships, but the narrow focus on a tiny women limits how convincing any of the arguments can I really wanted to like this book! If my expectations hadn't been high I might give it a higher rating. Women's friendships are an important topic and well worth being written about. I will say for this book that it's a very quick and pleasant read. However, it's hampered by the authors' focus on friendships between elite Western women. The book purports to be a social and cultural history of women's friendships, but the narrow focus on a tiny women limits how convincing any of the arguments can be with regard to what kinds of friendships are possible or will develop. Admittedly the historical record is biased towards male and elite sources, so the authors can be off the hook when talking about women in the classical or medieval worlds. Chapters about more recent periods expand their focus somewhere, but the default seems to remain white middle-class women's experiences. Cultural history of the rest of the world is almost entirely missing (apart from a short section about the importance of women's friendships for Third World microfinance. Phew.) The book likewise seems to take heterosexual experience as the norm. Statistically that may be valid but in trying to understand the history of women's friendships, much more consideration of erotic, romantic and partnering relations between women need to be considered where historical evidence is ambiguous. (This is mentioned with regard to some key examples given in the book; but somehow it doesn't seem to make it into the analysis of friendships which retains a heterocentric perspective.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Serian

    I think this does what it aimed to do, which is to start to write an overview of female friendship. It's very easy to read and there is a lot of interesting information. I'd certainly encourage people to read it, if that's something they're interested in. However, it is very much focused on Western Europe and the US. I am also very unconvinced by their approach to queer relationships. I agree with their points that it is hard to judge the past, given the different ways we talk about love and fri I think this does what it aimed to do, which is to start to write an overview of female friendship. It's very easy to read and there is a lot of interesting information. I'd certainly encourage people to read it, if that's something they're interested in. However, it is very much focused on Western Europe and the US. I am also very unconvinced by their approach to queer relationships. I agree with their points that it is hard to judge the past, given the different ways we talk about love and friendship in different eras, but I also think some of their choices weren't explored in enough detail. An interesting read, but not overwhelming.

  16. 5 out of 5

    E2d2

    It was a less rigorous history of female friendship than I expected, written in a very accessible tone. Exploring friendship between women in it's changing complexities is a tricky undertaking, and the authors rely primarily on literary and archival texts with supposition and corollary building to modern emotional assumptions. It was also super white elite focused, largely as a result of their source material. They attempted to address this gap, but it often came across as a sideline show. But f It was a less rigorous history of female friendship than I expected, written in a very accessible tone. Exploring friendship between women in it's changing complexities is a tricky undertaking, and the authors rely primarily on literary and archival texts with supposition and corollary building to modern emotional assumptions. It was also super white elite focused, largely as a result of their source material. They attempted to address this gap, but it often came across as a sideline show. But for all that, I'm always here for a read on the important value of female friends in all their complexities.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Valeria

    I have mixed feelings towards this book. I loved the first chapters, I found them insightful and entertaining. They were encompassing from Greeks, to Romans, from the Bible to European as well as American stories. Then the author started to solely focus on America and on stories of friendship between people I never heard of, and I started to lose interest - and struggled to finish it. The last few chapters seemed rushed and not thought through, it seems that the author lacked information or time I have mixed feelings towards this book. I loved the first chapters, I found them insightful and entertaining. They were encompassing from Greeks, to Romans, from the Bible to European as well as American stories. Then the author started to solely focus on America and on stories of friendship between people I never heard of, and I started to lose interest - and struggled to finish it. The last few chapters seemed rushed and not thought through, it seems that the author lacked information or time to analyze modern days’ friendships in a careful way.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Allen Thakur

    A good overview of women's friendships over the ages; the writing was interesting but not compelling. I enjoyed some of the theme-based chapters (such as romantic friendships), which sparked my interest in researching a particular woman's life in more depth.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Marie

    Tried to read. Couldn’t get into it.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ehsan Gazar

    This book helps you to think more about female friendships and compare it with men, even though, the narrow of the book is hard to follow.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    I wanted so many more details! I felt that this book could have been at least twice as large.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    it's no Captain Blood

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lance Grabmiller

    The scholarship is broad but rather shallow and the tone a bit too breezy for me.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    For much of human history women's friendships have been invisible, because much of human history has been written by men; and, as with most things exclusively female, men have paid little care or attention. When women's friendships were mentioned at all, it was usually dismissive in tone - women were not deemed capable of the kind of deep, philosophic, 'one soul in two bodies' kind of friendships that the ancients wrote about. Women's friendships, if they were permitted to have them at all given For much of human history women's friendships have been invisible, because much of human history has been written by men; and, as with most things exclusively female, men have paid little care or attention. When women's friendships were mentioned at all, it was usually dismissive in tone - women were not deemed capable of the kind of deep, philosophic, 'one soul in two bodies' kind of friendships that the ancients wrote about. Women's friendships, if they were permitted to have them at all given that associating with anyone outside of one's family involved being allowed a certain amount of independence and freedom of movement outside of the home, were deemed to be shallow, frivolous and fleeting. How different from today when the situation is almost reversed and women are considered to to be the 'social sex', those who have deep intimate friendships with their 'sisters', who discuss their innermost thoughts and feelings, who bond on a deep level. Men's friendships, perhaps because men are discouraged from dwelling on silly petty things like feelings and emotions in our hyper-masculine culture, are more of a shallow, shoulder-to-shoulder type of relationship, rather than the face-to-face intimacy of women's relationship. A massive generalisation, to be true, but with elements of truth. And that is probably how I would describe this book - a massive generalisation with elements of truth. In reality, as I mentioned above, it is fairly impossible to write a really adequate history of female friendships, because for the bulk of history those friendships have been invisible. Even when women began to make their own voices heard through letters and diaries and records, it was still only the voices of those privileged classes able to read and write and with the leisure time to do so. Also, the examples are almost exclusively drawn from British and American sources, again, a very particular subset of women. So, sadly, I found this book very cursory and shallow, with little depth to it. At times it seemed a fairly tedious series of potted biographies of notable women and their perhaps less than notable friends, and I found myself growing quite bored.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Devin

    I feel compelled to justify my two-star rating on a book I expected to love, for future reference. It just read like a college research paper, with all the chapters summed up by fairly shallow generalizations. There's not enough historical record to justify the existence of the chapters on Biblical and ancient Greek/Roman female friendship, or to justify the attempted broadness of other chapters. It would have been much more interesting if it had focused more in depth on specific friendships abo I feel compelled to justify my two-star rating on a book I expected to love, for future reference. It just read like a college research paper, with all the chapters summed up by fairly shallow generalizations. There's not enough historical record to justify the existence of the chapters on Biblical and ancient Greek/Roman female friendship, or to justify the attempted broadness of other chapters. It would have been much more interesting if it had focused more in depth on specific friendships about which there is enough documentation to say meaningful things. It's also completely centered on US-American/Western European history, without ever actually saying that that is its focus. So overall a disappointment, in spite of a few interesting bits.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mark Beaulieu

    As this is the Digital World, here are my thoughts 1/3 or the way into the work - then I will revise when done. Very pleased so far. I met the 2 authors last night in La Jolla and so my thoughts are combined with their teasing preview... Much as is said about love, little is written of friendship. Especially that between women, arguably stronger and more enduring than between men. The writers present their historical research on the actors and the anthropology behind feminine friendship. This kin As this is the Digital World, here are my thoughts 1/3 or the way into the work - then I will revise when done. Very pleased so far. I met the 2 authors last night in La Jolla and so my thoughts are combined with their teasing preview... Much as is said about love, little is written of friendship. Especially that between women, arguably stronger and more enduring than between men. The writers present their historical research on the actors and the anthropology behind feminine friendship. This kind of literature is not for everyone, it is expansive and thought-provoking and an important original work about friendship and femininity.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Gayle Francis Moffet

    More 3-1/2 than 3, but not quite enough for me to go for the full 4. It's an interesting book, tracing friendships between women from the bible and forward. Near the end, it suddenly brings male friendships with women into the story, and it feels like they felt they needed to discuss it rather than simply discussing only female-to-female friendships. It threw me out a little, as I was greatly enjoying the history of only the female-to-female friendships, and would have happily finished the book More 3-1/2 than 3, but not quite enough for me to go for the full 4. It's an interesting book, tracing friendships between women from the bible and forward. Near the end, it suddenly brings male friendships with women into the story, and it feels like they felt they needed to discuss it rather than simply discussing only female-to-female friendships. It threw me out a little, as I was greatly enjoying the history of only the female-to-female friendships, and would have happily finished the book on that note. It's deeply researched and written with love, and it's entertaining if occasionally dry. I do recommend it if you see it at the library.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ady

    The premise of this book was intriguing to me. I wanted to delve into this book and lose myself in the social science aspects. I wouldn’t have even minded dry language that simply conveys facts. I expected it, in fact, and I looked forward to my first nonfiction of the year. Unfortunately, it was a long dive into a shallow pool. It just didn’t explore this topic fully and left me feeling unsatisfied. No shortage of dry language though.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jessika

    There was a lot I enjoyed about this book, but I've got to say, having the last chapter be "Can Women and Men Really Be 'Just Friends'?" kind of felt like a slap in the face. It's 250 pages of the development of women's friendships and our changing roles in society, and then it ends by looking at our relationship with men? Please.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mariana

    A somewhat broader, poorer sister of Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Skipped most of it. A somewhat broader, poorer sister of Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Skipped most of it.

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