This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Can Men and Women Be Friends?
Excerpted from the May 28, 1924 Issue
Friendship between men and women is rather a new thing in the history of the world. Friendship depends upon equality and choice, and there has been very little of either in the relations of the sexes, up to the present. A woman does not choose her male relatives, nor is she according to archaic family laws their equal; motives other than personal choice might lead her to become a man’s wife; wholly impersonal reasons might place her in the relationship of kept mistress. Only in her role of paramour was there any implication of free choice; and even here there was no full equality, not even of danger. None of these customary relationships of the past can be said to have fostered friendship between men and women. Doubtless it did exist, but under difficulties.
Family bonds, however, are being more and more relaxed, women are no longer the wards of their male relatives, and friendship with a father or brother is more than ever possible. The free personal choice which marked only the romantic amours of the age of chivalry is now regarded in America as essential to any decent marriage, while the possibility of divorce tends to make free choice something besides a mere youthful illusion. More than ever before, husbands and wives are friends.
[Yet even] today extra-marital friendship exists in an atmosphere of social suspicion. If dancing were not a general custom, if it were the enlightened practice of an advanced few, how peculiar would seem the desire of Mr. X and Mrs. Y to embrace each other to music; and how scandalized the neighbors would be to hear that they did! No one would rest until the pair had been driven into an elopement.
We build huge palaces for the kind of happy communion which dancing furnishes; we tend more and more to behave like civilized beings about the impulses which are thus given scope. We are less socially hospitable to the impulses of friendship between men and women.
In friendship there are many moods; but the universal rite of friendship is talk. Talk needs no palaces for its encouragement; it is not an expensive affair; it would seem to be well within the reach of all. Yet it isn’t. For the talk of friendship requires privacy—though the privacy of a table for two in a crowded and noisy restaurant will suffice—and it requires time. It is a flower slow in unfolding; and it seems to come to its most perfect bloom only after midnight. But, unfortunately, not every restaurant keeps open all night. It is satisfied with two comfortable chairs; a table to lean elbows on is good, too; in winter an open fire, where friendly eyes may stare dreamily into the glowing coals—that is very good; hot or cold drinks according to the season, and a cigarette—these are almost the height of friendship’s luxury. These seem not too much to ask. Yet the desire for privacy and uncounted hours of time together is, when considered from that point of view, scandalous in its implications; quite as much so as the desire of Mr. X and Mrs. Y to embrace each other to music. However, Mr. X and Mrs. Y do, under the aegis of a convention, indulge their desire and embrace each other to their heart’s content with the full approval of civilized society; and it seems as though another convention might grow up, under the protection of which Mr. X and Mrs. Y might sit up and talk all night without its seeming queer of them.