i need to know their names
those women i would have walked with
jauntily the way men go in groups
swinging their arms, and the ones
those sweating women whom i would have joined
after a hard game to chew the fat
what would we have called each other laughing
joking into our beer? where are my gangs,
my teams, my mislaid sisters?
all the women who could have known me,
where in the world are their names?
— poem by Lucille Clifton
The word radical comes from the Latin word radix (radice) meaning root. In botany, the radicle (coming from radix) is the first part of a seedling—a growing plant embryo—to emerge from the seed during the process of germination. It is the embryonic root that extends down into the ground to suck up water so the plant can eventually send out its leaves and start photosynthesizing. To do this, the radicle requires enormous strength.
Under the soil, roots communicate with each other about possible dangers, in part by providing nurture, to keep one another alive. This is possible thanks to a symbiotic relationship called mycorrhiza that happens between respective plants and mycelium, a fungal network that grows inside roots connecting them underground. Almost every place we walk on has mycelium under the soil, like an invisible network of survival.
These root systems are not unlike the endlessly radical—or radicle—work that women have done for each other to oppose the structures that oppress them. Under the veil of a system that seeks to control our bodies, we talk to each other about trauma, we find safety in the darkness.
Almost every place we walk on has mycelium under the soil, like an invisible network of survival.
I do not know whether it is feminism that found me or I found feminism, but what I am sure of is that what kept me here is an understanding that the experiences I have had were not felt in isolation. Around me was a network of women that supported each other and held space for one another. The sisterhood I am referring to is not one that takes every experience as the same, but one where compassion and connection happen despite our differences. As Minna Salami writes in her book Sensuous Knowledge: “Sisterhood confronts racism, classism and homophobia so women can stand in political solidarity against patriarchy.” Any radical movement for liberation requires all the people to become free: until all of us are free, none of us are free.
A while ago I wrote an article where I asked: Who owns the female body? After much research, it seemed that everyone exerts control over women’s bodies except the woman. In 2021, we are seeing many countries, most often ruled by men, roll out laws that restrict a person’s right to their body—policies that impact not just women, but also gender non-conforming individuals and many members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The ban on abortions recently implemented in Texas is a clear example of this, and so are the countless protests that took Argentine and Mexican women to the streets to demand that the elite stop asserting their authority over their bodies. In fact, only 36 percent of women who are of reproductive age around the globe live in countries where abortion is legal on request. This means that 64 percent of women worldwide have to tend for themselves when it comes to terminating a pregnancy.
The reality is that abortion does not stop when it is banned, it simply becomes less safe and more deadly. Women in countries where abortion is illegal seek shelter with their sisters. In Argentina, for example, the socorristas en red—feminists who abort in English—help women by providing information, legal and medical advice on what to do when they want to terminate an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy. Women on Web, abortionpil on Instagram, is a telemedicine service that provides safe abortion by mail in almost 200 countries. Their website is currently blocked in some countries.
Any radical movement for liberation requires all the people to become free: until all of us are free, none of us are free.
“What hurt me the most about going through an abortion was the illegality of it,” said Camila Ferrari, who had an abortion in 2016 in Argentina (where it was legalised in December 2020). The weight of silence and darkness brings shame to many who feel isolated, and it is a weight that is better shared, she said. In a forest, when a tree is sick, other trees give up some of their sugar and send nutrients through mycelium to the tree in need. This sharing of resources is not unlike the acts of solidarity that take place within the safe spaces created by communities under oppressive laws. Like a forest, sisterhood is about survival, about the ability to work together towards a shared and equitable future.
This does not necessarily mean that we are all working towards the same goal or that we share the same problems, but that the different challenges we face come from the same oppressive place. And it has become clear just how important and sought after solidarity and sisterhood is to the liberation of women; we saw that with fourth wave feminism, which utilised the internet as a means to share and connect through movements like #MeToo #NiUnaMenos #WhyIdidntReport and #YoTeCreo.
In Italy, the movement DonneXstrada was born during the pandemic as a way to support women walking home alone who felt in danger. The Instagram account, created by a psychologist, grew from zero to 45,000 followers in one month and continues to provide a service for women to do either live or private calls as they walk home. On one occasion, more than 3,000 people joined a live Instagram to support a woman taking another woman home safely.
What differentiates seeking power from questioning it is the act of sisterhood, evolving with strangers, helping and nurturing each other to build a stronger community.
I myself have experienced the relief and joy that is felt when experience is shared. I grew up in a world that attempted to divide women, putting us in competition with each other, a narrative perpetuated by white liberal feminists of the Lean In movement. As writer Lola Olufemi writes, “a feminism that seeks power instead of questioning it does not care about justice.” What differentiates seeking power from questioning it is the act of sisterhood, evolving with strangers, helping and nurturing each other to build a stronger community.
“We are all born into the world of community,” according to feminist bell hooks. “Children are born into a world surrounded by the possibility of communities,” she continues. “Family, doctors, nurses, midwives, and even admiring strangers comprise this field of connections, some more intimate than others.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that isolated trees have far shorter lives than those in forests; there is no survival without connection. Like the mycelium networks that exist under the Earth, sisterhood—holding each other in safe spaces, speaking out for one another— is also at times invisible but fundamental to the survival of us all.