Polly Campbell: On cultivating and treasuring the strength of sisterhood

It rained a lot last summer, but somehow it almost never did on the days of my aqua aerobics class. Three days a week we met – early in the morning in an outdoor pool. It’s good exercise, and being in the bright aqua shimmer of a pool always makes me feel relaxed and free. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

But it’s the other women who make the class such a happy experience. They are young and old and older, Black and white. Every body shape is there, and there is no competitiveness whatsoever—nobody can see what you look like or what you’re doing under the water anyway. There are different abilities and levels of energy to match the music, which, age-appropriately, tends to Aretha and Patti LaBelle and Donna Summer. 

As the water lifts and buoys us up, we talk about how cold the pool is, trade little compliments, notice who’s back from vacation, ask about health problems. And smile. So many beautiful smiles.

I cannot tell you how lovely it is to be with them and feel the everyday female empathy all women know about, the kind made out of signing sympathy cards and bringing your best stuff to the potluck. 

A highlight of my spring had been getting together and renewing a friendship with my best friend from high school. We met halfway between where we each live, stayed in an outrageously ’70s-decorated Airbnb and brought all the letters we’d written to each other back when we were starting on adult life, when we were finding ourselves, our careers, trying out this boy and that, and honing our writing styles. We were both moved, remembering the kind of support and love we gave each other in those letters. 

It wasn’t easy, figuring out what we were supposed to do. We were from the early cohort of women in between those who were expected to just get married and have kids and those who were expected to work and have careers. I was reminded of that again at an all-women party earlier in the year. A conversation with several women who had just retired or sold a business turned to whether we cared about the legacy we left behind us. Thoughts on the question were varied. But how wonderful, to look back on our lives and careers that were not necessarily expected of us, that I certainly never foresaw. Now we were celebrating what we’d actually done. Amazing to think this huge change for the good happened in my lifetime. 

Another reminder of women’s past and present: the clips of Joni Mitchell singing recently at the Newport Folk Festival. To see her come back from a brain aneurysm, having re-learned everything, including her own sophisticated guitar technique, was so inspiring. But what made the tears start up for me was Wynonna Judd, weeping openly as Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now,” and the loving, respectful support Mitchell was being given by Brandi Carlile. 

Mitchell did not have a lot of female company in the perniciously male world of rock ’n’ roll. She made it because she was so incredibly talented, but only grudgingly given credit. Rolling Stone actually published a chart of the male musicians she had allegedly slept with. She opened up space for the women who came after her, who have had it a little easier. Carlile’s support was a thrilling reminder to me of what has changed from the days when one woman at a time was allowed. 

It’s a change that still makes some people very fearful. There are people who do not want this full life for us, and who do not want it for our younger friends, and our daughters. It seems impossible that the progress of women would reverse course, but it already has. And plenty of people still would rather see women dependent on men, to have no sexual agency, to be quiet and have children and conform to male-created ideas of attractiveness. The former president commented constantly on women in derogative ways. They’d like to deny us contraception and reproductive choice, and are actually willing to see a woman suffer, even die, rather than give up a pregnancy.

That is a rough, rough thing to understand, how strong those impulses are in some of our fellow citizens. Especially some of the elected and appointed ones, who seem to feel it more strongly than everybody else. How little they understand about women and their strength and the everyday small fights and the big life-long battles they fight. (Just look up the lives of Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin for not-uncommon examples.) I feel a sort of weariness about it, how to fight against it, on top of everything else that needs to be set right. 

All I can say is we women are going to have to do it together. We’ll have to cultivate and treasure the strength of sisterhood. We need the buoyancy and the lift we give each other more than ever.

Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at editor@moversmakers.org.

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