Women in the Middle Ages were excluded from many realms: the law, universities, and surprisingly, from friendship, writes author Kayleen Schaefer. The term "friend" was reserved for the half of humanity that purportedly possessed superior morals — men — and only used to describe other men.
With our fictional and real worlds populated with duos like Abby and Ilana, Oprah and Gayle, and Thelma and Louise, a world without female friendship seems as distant as one without indoor plumbing. Schaefer's book Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship charts our growing appreciation for relationships between women. In telling this complex history, the book takes readers to intriguing locations and moments, from the cul-de-sac where the author Judy Blume once longed for female companions to a stately New York apartment building with 375 single rooms, all occupied by women.
Schaefer salts her cultural analyses and interviews with her own experiences, though she casts herself as an unlikely chronicler of female friendship. As a kid, she saw other girls as competitors rather than potential buddies — an all-too familiar experience for many women. She spent some time early in her career working at a men's magazine, where she admired the male journalists and tried to be a "cool girl." Meaningful connections with other women didn't top her priority list.
Schaefer's transformation from "one of the guys" to a female friendship evangelist began after she decided she wasn't ready to marry her longtime boyfriend. It was then, she says, that she started to "really believe, for the first time, that my life was more than just a groundwork for couplehood and marriage." As she grew uncertain about her romantic prospects, Schaefer became certain of something else: She wanted tighter bonds with the vibrant women in her life.
This is but one moment when Schaefer's treatise on friendship becomes, in part, a story about marriage. Women are increasingly getting married years later than their mothers did, or perhaps not at all. The book's stories bring to life the ways the waning dominance of heterosexual marriage can leave space for a heartier form of friendship among women, relationships that fulfill many needs once thought to be the domain of husbands. Like recent books that seek to elevate female friendship, All The Single Ladies (which, full disclosure, I worked on as a research assistant) and The H-Spot, Text Me When You Get Home reimagines what support systems can look like, bursting with friends — no spouse or ring needed.
The sustenance women find in friendships gets no formal recognition, legal or social, creating a stark contrast between the way women see their close friendships and the ways they're perceived by others. This gulf can be especially wide in moments of vulnerability. Schaefer speaks to a woman whose best friend died in a car accident; in addition to grappling with this loss, the woman had to face people who didn't understand why she was in so much anguish over a friend. Were the object of her grief a spouse or sibling, her coworkers might have been more accepting.
Though Schaefer's interview subjects aren't all of a hetero, lily-white set, urban professionals — especially writers — are overrepresented. She therefore misses out on stories that could illuminate what friendships look like in a state of economic insecurity, when friends might take on support roles we normally peg to families. Schaefer also offered a limited sense of what friendship looks like for women in their 60s, 70s and beyond — women who are less likely to have families and work to consume their worlds, and for whom friendship might be ever more crucial. She includes a wide range of historical and cultural sources, but this would have been a stronger book had those choices been matched in scope by her interviews.
Even with this oversight, Text Me still offers a sharp analysis of female friendship. Anyone who's had a close friend will likely read Schaefer's book feverishly; it's hard not to be sucked into the social world she portrays. She offers a peek into her exuberant bond with her best friend Ruthie (Schaefer's fear that everyone will want to be friends with Ruthie, laid out in her acknowledgments, is well-founded) and lets us witness something many of us would alternately love and loathe: a reunion with her high school's Queen Bee.
Text Me has the thrills and laughs of a romantic comedy, but with an inverted message: "There just isn't only one love story in our lives," Schaefer writes. If you're lucky, friends will be the protagonists in these multiple love stories. It's high time that we start seeing it that way.