Some years ago when I was working internationally on maternal and child health issues, I visited a deeply impoverished neighbourhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The poverty there was crushing; most Americans would have found it inconceivable that families shared wooden platforms for beds, ate rice while squatting on dirt floors, and had sewage running past the door. I was welcomed into a home in such a neighbourhood by a young woman in a thin sari with a baby on her hip and I've never forgotten what she said to me through our translator: "Forgive me, my house is a mess. I didn't know you were coming!"
In that moment I was struck by the universality of womanhood, for whom among us has not said the very same thing to visitors, no matter how posh or poor our surroundings?
Over the years, as I travelled to diverse communities and countries, I've been struck repeatedly by the way that women speak to each other, and by the things that we share as priorities. Whether among incarcerated women, women in poor communities of urban America, affluent women in the world's capital cities, bank tellers in Kenya or beauticians in Thailand, it's been my experience that what we talk about is always the same: Our kids, our relationships, our challenges and how we overcome them.
On a recent trip to South America, my husband and I met a lovely family - three generations celebrating a reunion and a birthday. As we shared lunch and then dinner with them at a guesthouse, the women almost immediately talked intimately among themselves, this one worried about her moody son, that one was concerned for her unmarried daughter, all of us were empathising with each other as the stories unfolded.
In the lovely little town of Santa Cruz, Chile, we happened upon my new best friend, Lallie, who had stopped by the bed-and-breakfast where we were staying. Three hours and many confessions later, we were invited to visit her home the next night. The evening turned out to be wonderful and, not surprisingly, full of whispered secrets between Lallie and me while the men talked politics.
On a boat trip, I made friends with a young German couple, newlyweds as it turned out. At the end of our time together, I invited them to visit us in New England. "Would it be okay to bring a baby?" the woman asked me, her eyes twinkling. "We want to have a baby!" Such shared intimacies with a virtual stranger did not seem out of place at all. We were simply women talking about what was important to us.
Much has been written about the difference between women and men in terms of their communication styles and topics. That is not the point of this reflection. Rather, what I am struck by is the immediate, genuine, shared intimacy that exists among women, irrespective of class, culture, country, age, race, or other seeming barriers. I find it extraordinary that a desperately poor woman in Bangladesh would say the same thing to me as a well-heeled matron in Buenos Aires might. Or that a woman I've only just met by happenstance would invite me into her home and open her heart with such obvious pleasure. (The night at Lallie's in which our new friendship was forged was hilarious!) It amazes me that no matter where I go I find women who are thinking, feeling, experiencing, and talking about the very same things, and they are connecting with each other in extraordinary ways.
Once, while at a writer's conference in a small New York town, I stopped at a local shop. I watched a woman there whose husband was nagging her in a way that made me sad for her. Our eyes met, the understanding that passed between us was palpable. As I left the store I passed close by her and on impulse whispered, "You have the strength to do whatever you need to do." "I know I do," she whispered back to me. I've often wondered what happened to that woman. I like to think my moment of empathy helped her decide what to do.
The point is, women's connection to each other is an extraordinary thing, and I am reminded of it everywhere I go. Just as my oldest friends are dear to me because of everything we've shared, so too are the new friends I make because of everything we've understood about each other's lives. Even in fleeting moments of exchange, there is something real and rich about women's lives crossing because of our universal reality.
Such moments of convergence are a true gift, freely given and accepted with gratitude, woman to woman. They are gifts without a price and without boundaries.
By arrangement with WFS