Oprah and Gayle, Mary and Rhoda, Tina and Amy. To update a popular aphorism, behind every successful woman are other successful women. But female friendships are not just good for one’s health and career, they are also good for politics. And now we have a holiday that, among other things, highlights the political power of female friendship: Galentine’s Day.
In February 2010, NBC inaugurated the holiday on its sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” starring Amy Poehler’s iconic character Leslie Knope, civic crusader and friend extraordinaire. As Knope described, each year on Feb. 13, she gathers together her best female friends, including her mom, to celebrate what she loves about them over waffles.
Galentine’s Day is not just a pop-culture celebration, however. It is a political statement. Sure, Leslie and her pals swapped stories over waffles and crafts, but Galentine’s Day is about something more. From her office tributes to Madeleine Albright to her group activism disguised as social outings, Knope promoted civic engagement grounded in female friendship. Knope convinced new generations that, like gathering for dinner or splurging at the spa, engaging in politics is something worthwhile that women should do together. And savvy viewers could not help but link Knope’s political engagement to that of Poehler and her real-life friend Tina Fey, such as their 2008 endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president during “Saturday Night Live.”
In doing this, Knope built on an important tradition: women engaging with local, state and federal government and supporting one another while doing it. For the past two centuries, female activists have sought out friendships with other women to fortify themselves and their causes against a world that was hostile to women and women’s leadership.
Consider, for example, the friendship of Antoinette Brown and Lucy Stone. Having met at Oberlin College in the 1840s, the two became best friends who devoted themselves to abolition and women’s rights. Stone helped lead the American Woman Suffrage Association, while Brown became the first ordained female minister, the first woman to publish a feminist response to evolutionary theory and one of the only first-generation suffragists who lived long enough to vote in 1920. Especially in their younger years, when it was taboo for women to speak in public, the two were energized and emboldened by each other and their shared ambitions. After marrying the brothers Samuel and Henry Blackwell, Antoinette and Lucy kept their own last names, continued with their professional and reform work, and modeled virtually unheard-of egalitarian marriages.
Thanks to the PBS documentary “Not for Ourselves Alone,” the most well-known example of 19th-century feminist friendship may be that of women’s rights pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Over the course of 50 years, the pair worked together to found and lead various women’s rights organizations and to propose a federal amendment granting women the right to vote. Their friendship was particularly vital during the 20-plus-year period when Stanton gave birth to and raised seven children while her husband frequently traveled. Anthony, who never married, would visit Stanton for weeks and months at a time to help with the children so Stanton could continue to think and write.
Such friendships set the stage for the burgeoning women’s club and women’s reform movements of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. These organizations formalized female friendship networks to advocate for political change, championing causes from safe milk to public parks to temperance. Letters that female reformers wrote to one another reveal the extent to which they relied on each other for moral, tactical and even financial support. During an era when most women could not vote, female reformers intent on changing public policies found strength in numbers, recruits and new confidence in friendship networks.
The African American beauty entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker — the first female African American millionaire — harnessed the power of female friendship networks by directing her saleswomen to sell her products door to door, a revolutionary idea at the time, and at neighborhood beauty salons, which functioned as third spaces, apart from home or work, for African American women. In addition to creating desirable jobs for thousands of black women, Walker used her vast fortune to fund the NAACP, to fight lynching and to support African American education.
While most all-female groups throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries remained segregated by race, the interracial friendship between first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and lawyer Pauli Murray fueled decades of civil rights and women’s rights activism. The two became friends when Murray, then a young Works Progress Administration worker, wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt to protest his decision to speak at the all-white University of North Carolina, which had denied Murray admission because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt replied, and over the next 25 years, the pair exchanged hundreds of letters, visited each other often, and shared goals and ideas. Murray did not need any help coming up with brilliant ideas, but she was bolstered by Roosevelt’s encouragement and social connections. After proposing the legal challenge to segregation that NAACP lawyers eventually used in Brown v. Board of Education, Murray developed the strategy that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would later draw on to topple the legal justifications for sex discrimination.
Compared with their historical antecedents, the women of Leslie Knope’s generation have much greater opportunities to put their money, as well as their time, where their mouths are. The vast majority of 19th-century women’s rights activists lacked career and economic opportunities. And precarious professional situations limited women’s ability to engage in overt political activism throughout the 20th century.
But today, women have increasingly begun to tap their professional and personal networks for political contributions and support, resulting, in 2016, in a record amount of political contributions by women. And this year, the political power of women’s friendship networks has resulted in the most female — and the most racially diverse — Congress ever elected, plus a record number of women running for president in 2020.
So before merchandisers convince us that Galentine’s Day is just another occasion to buy cards and pink things for the women we love, civic activist Knope and the trailblazing female friends who preceded her — Antoinette and Lucy, Elizabeth and Susan, Pauli and Eleanor — remind us that Feb. 13 is an opportunity to celebrate the political power of female friendship. What better way to mark Galentine’s Day this year than by celebrating the record number of female officeholders and reaching out to women whose candidacies we would like to support in 2020.
Kimberly A. Hamlin is an NEH Public Scholar and an associate professor of history and American studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.