When we sat down to read Text Me When You Get Home ($24) by Kayleen Schaefer, we didn’t know what an emotional roller coaster we were in for. The highly anticipated new non-fiction book details the ways in which female friendships have evolved over the decades. Starting in the 1950s, Schaefer unpacks how our mothers’ generation typically viewed their female friends. Because of the focus on family during this time, it wasn’t uncommon for women to let their relationships with their female friends slip in order to focus more on supporting their husbands and taking care of their children. Today, modern women are choosing to value different things than their mommas may have — including making time for their gal pals a serious priority. From girl squads to Galentine’s Day, female friendships are blossoming.
Schaefer details her own experiences with forming female friendships (she even went so far as to interview her former high school rival for the book), along with offering a critical analysis of how far female friendships have come in the media, culminating in an enlightening read about the undeniable power of modern female friendships. We recently got the chance to sit down with Schaefer and pick her brain about what makes today’s female friendships so darn special.
Brit + Co: Text Me When You Get Home is a phrase many women use, myself included, to make sure that their girlfriends arrive home safely after a night out. But you argue that the phrase implies more than just a confirmation of safety — it’s actually a sign of solidarity. Can you explain this?
Kayleen Schaefer: It’s a way of telling each other, in just a few words: I know what it’s like to be a woman alone, whether you’re walking down the street by yourself or into an empty apartment. I’ve felt the same unwanted scrutiny and I’ve had the same unsettling thoughts. And I will be there for you, no matter what, even when you’re no longer standing in front of me.
B+C: I found it particularly interesting to read about your mother’s female friendships (or lack thereof) and the generational notion that the family unit should supersede any other relationships. Why do you think that the previous generation prioritized family over female friendships?
KS: In the 1950s, for the professional class, having a spouse and children was the contemporary way to live. A sociologist I spoke to for Text Me When You Get Home, Judith E. Smith, a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, told me, “Heterosexual romance and the focus on the heterosexual couple was one of the hallmarks of being modern.”
B+C: In the book, you mention that the majority of movies prior to the 1980s focused on stereotypically negative aspects of female friendships like rivalries and “catfights.” Then shows like Golden Girls and Designing Women came and disrupted this stereotype. Can you talk about how these shows impacted the cultural understanding of female friendships?
KS:Golden Girls and Designing Women were different because they were created by women (Susan Harris and Linda Bloodworth Thomason, respectively), so for the first time, we got to see what stories women would tell about their friendships, instead of having to see men’s takes on them (which were always, like, having women throw whipped cream at each other).
B+C: You also discuss the stereotype of the “mean girl” and how women and girls are often cited as being Regina George-like by using relational aggression (indirect aggression to diminish another’s reputation or social status). How has this stereotype negatively affected modern female friendships?
KS: The “mean girls” stereotype made it seem like being competitive with each other was the default way to be — as if we had no other choice but to view each other as enemies. Nancy Jo Sales, who wrote American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, told me, “Girls hear these things and they begin to believe them. It would be surprising if they didn’t to some extent.”
B+C: How are modern films and television shows like Parks and Recreation, Girls, and Big Little Lies changing the discussion around female friendship?
KS: I think the main thing they’re doing is putting the focus on female friends — it’s another story to tell besides, “Will the two main characters who are clearly meant for each other ever realize it and fall in love?” Like I say in the book, “There’s not just one love story in our lives.”
B+C: In one section of Text Me When You Get Home, you discuss the Women’s March on Washington and note how powerful it is to see millions of women marching the streets in solidarity. “But for me right now, being with other women is crucial, for feeling comfortable and seen,” you write. “For the first time, I’m not thinking of feminism as about slogans or intellectual arguments. It’s about standing and yelling and looking around and learning how other women want to transform our culture.” Do you see the Women’s March as a modern symbol for female friendship?
KS: I don’t think friendship is the same as political organizing — liking each other isn’t going to guarantee us equal rights — but we don’t have that many examples of women in groups getting along, so in that way, I think gatherings like the Women’s March are really important. It’s more proof that the stereotype of women not being able to work together is a lie.
B+C: Why do you think women today are treating and pursuing female friendships more seriously?
KS: This story is also a story about marriage. Because women are marrying later, if at all, that leaves more space for friendships — and the feeling that the well-being and happiness we get from each other is just as a valid as the support we get from any other relationships in our lives.
B+C: Is there anything about the response to Text Me When You Get Home that surprised you?
KS: I didn’t expect that women would text or call their friends after reading the book — or live-text them lines from it as they were reading it. Hearing that’s happening makes me so happy.
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(Photos via Getty and Joel Barhamand)