Well-to do women in 19th century China were isolated from mainstream society, their lives unfolding parallel to the men who were their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. Marriages were arranged to accomplish the greatest economic and social advantages for the families of the young couples, and to produce sons who would inherit property and carry on the lineage. Romance was not associated with these arranged marriages and women found companionship and affection in their relationships with other women. Chinese women referred to each other as sister, and most of them established formal sisterly relationships with other young women from similar circumstances. These relationships, called laotang and laotong were institutionalized in Chinese culture. A laotang arrangement was typically a circle of young women that formed prior to and in preparation for a wedding, and it was dissolved upon marriage. The laotong relationship could be formed after marriage with other married or widowed women. A laotong relationship was rarer and was formed when the two girls were young. At its most fundamental level, a girl who committed to a laotong relationship would always be able count on a sister who would always be interested in her welfare. Eternal fidelity was expected of the sworn sisters.
Transitions from one life stage to another were formalized in Chinese society. When Lily and Snow Flower were just little girls, they had the feet bond as a way to ensure a chance at a better marriage. They were taught to write in the Nu Shu script -- a secret phonetic form of writing used only women in China. Women often wrote messages to one another on the panels of folding fans, probably because the fans were an accessory that men would not be likely to notice or attach significance to, thereby making the transmission of secret messages safer. Specific ritual also existed to ease girls through the role change that came with marriage. When Lily crossed the threshold of her family home at the point of her marriage, she was sentimental about leaving. But her mother was coldly resolute, sent her daughter forward and chastised her, saying "We are women. We are borne to leave our parents." Married life could be harsh for a woman, even if she married into a prosperous family. A young girl could was generally expect to have to cater to a disapproving mother-in-law (sons were doted upon, daughters-in-law were tolerated because they could produce sons, or grandsons as the case may be). Chinese husbands were not known for their marital fidelity nor for establishing mutually satisfying relationships with their wives. These and many other influences in the lives of women living in 19th century made friendships with other women all the more precious.
Experiences of a Contemporary Woman
The grandmother of a friend of mine has entered her ninth decade of life. Clara is an only child of working class parents. Her father was a house painter and her mother was a telephone operator. Clara worked as a registered nurse for most of her life. Her years in training to be registered nurse serve to illustrate many of the stark differences between the lives of women in the 19th and the 20th centuries, and to make salient the vastly different experiences of women living in China and living in America during those centuries.
Clara applied to nursing school right out of high school, but they told her she was a bit young and that she should wait a year. So Clara enrolled in a state-funded college and matriculated for a year. Upon re-application to nursing school, Clara was accepted into the program. During her first three years in the nursing program, Clara was completely absorbed in her studies and her work. As an unmarried woman, she lived in the student nurses dormitory with a cohort group of nursing students, all of whom entered the program at the same time and presumably would graduate at the same time. Throughout her life, Clara remained in close contact with the women in her cohort group. They spread out after graduation, taking jobs in hospitals and clinics across the country. Throughout their lives, as they married and had children, and eventually stopped working as nurses, they kept track of each other. In the early years, before life got too complicated with children and family obligations, they would meet and rekindle their friendships at annual reunions. As they aged, they found that they had neither the stamina nor the heart for those reunions with their beloved nursing school sisters.
It would seem that these nursing students were emancipated women, free to choose careers and live on their own. The proverbial joke, now, is that women in those days could be teachers, secretaries, or nurses. Or they could get married. And it literally was "or" since getting married while in nurses training could get a student nurse kicked out of the program. Getting pregnant was an absolute and immediate end to nurses' training. World War II was being waged about the time when Clara was a student nurse. The nursing students lived with a strict curfew -- the doors of the dormitory were locked at a certain hour and the nursing students were not allowed to have dates in their rooms. The student nurses often had to work night shifts and devote long hours to their classes and studies. Even with these restrictions, and as luck would have it, Clara fell in love with an enlisted man in the Air Force. The airman asked her to get married, but Clara was nearly finished with her nurses' training. Clara decided to ask permission of the dean of the nursing school to get married. She was taking a big risk -- if the dean refused to give her permission, then she would have to deal with the pressure her fiance was putting on her to get married. And the dean could say no, and drop her from the nurses' training program anyway. Clara considered herself lucky when the dean of the nursing school agreed to let her get married, but not before she lectured both Clara and her fiance about not getting Clara pregnant. That, the dean emphasized, would be an instant deal-breaker and, sadly, would mean the loss of an excellent nurse from the student nurses' graduate pool. Clara felt that her excellent standing as a student nurse was what made the dean decide in her favor -- she had already proved that she was a serious student and that she very much wanted to graduate and become a registered nurse.
The status of women was underscored at every turn, even in the 20th century. Women did not run business, either directly or indirectly. Women did not sit on the boards of corporations, nor were they found in the C-suite of companies. In medicine, too, women held positions considered to be of secondary importance. In the hospital setting -- in medicine in general -- nurses were required to show respect to doctors -- and presumably their readiness to take orders from doctors -- by standing up when the doctors entered a room where nurses were working. At the time when Clara was a student nurse, there were no men in the nurses' training program and there were no women doctors working in the hospital.
Women as Friends
Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis, wrote that as a little girl, she used to creep out of bed and spy on her mother's weekly bridge group from behind the upstairs bannister railings. The laughter and whispery gossiping floated up to her like a promise -- a circle of friends like this was something Marla could count on when she grew up. "I thought," Marla wrote, "I was witnessing a glimpse of my future. Instead it was the ghost of a fleeting past" (Paul, 2004, p. 5).
"Unlike many of our mothers, who sank roots into neighborhoods like ancient oaks -- raising children, playing bridge, and drinking coffee with the same women for decades -- our paths in the 21st century no longer follow neat parallel tracks. Our lives shift, veer off onto new paths, and old companions fall away. We have babies at wildly different ages or not at all. Our work lives often ricochet from a communal office to a home-based business and back again. We dip in and out of retirement" (Paul, 2004, p. 4).
Robert Putnam studied the impact of social changes on isolation and social connectedness. His work underscores that of Paul, but at a society level and not just at the personal level. Interestingly, Clara and her friends -- both in nursing school and later in her life -- seemed to have escaped the isolation that Putnam described -- even through several moves to different states. But then, Clara had a way of reaching out to make friends. Following a move to a different state in which there did not seem to…