If you ask Sam Maggs, female friendships don’t get enough credit in history. It’s why the author decided to write a book about them: A band of gal pals who became the first women admitted to medical school in the United Kingdom. The musicians who defied laws to become Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra. Two female pirates who sailed the seven seas together.
In “Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History,” Maggs recounts the stories of friend groups who helped change the world. “I think it’s important, especially as we look back on history, to see where women were able to fight back against the patriarchy,” she said.
Particularly during periods of racial and gender inequality, Maggs believes there are key lessons to learn about how women supported each other, because “no one is successful on their own, and especially with women, the more we work together, the stronger we are.”
Kaila Story, an associate professor in the departments of Pan-African studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville, adds: “If we’re trying to eradicate such monumental structural institutional things, we need our homegirls to hold our hand, to give us a hug and to see us and let us know that we’re not only capable, but that we’re more than capable.”
In recognition of Women’s History Month, we talked with authors and professors to highlight five friendships between women leaders in politics, art, literature and activism.
The unlikely friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and activist and legal scholar Pauli Murray began as a confrontation, said Patricia Bell-Scott, who wrote about the pair in her book “The Firebrand and the First Lady.” In 1938,frustrated by the South’s racial segregation in higher education, Murray penned a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady wrote back within two weeks, Bell-Scott said, “and that opened a conversation that continued for nearly three decades.”
Over time, they moved from disagreement to allyship, Bell-Scott said. And following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, their correspondence shifted from political issues to genuine concerns about personal family matters. “So it became one of mutual caring and friendship,” Bell-Scott said. “They had very busy lives, but rarely were they out of touch for more than six months.”
Roosevelt and Murray’s friendship demonstrates a willingness to have difficult discussions and listen to other viewpoints, said Bell-Scott, who was also a consulting producer for the 2021 documentary “My Name is Pauli Murray.” For instance, in one letter to Roosevelt, Murray explained how she was being threatened with eviction from a White neighborhood in California where residents felt she didn’t belong.
“From that day in the ’40s through the end of her life, fair housing and housing discrimination remained a priority for Eleanor,” Bell-Scott said, “because she had, through her friendship with Pauli, a vicarious sense of how painful that experience was — the denied opportunity on the basis of race.”
When Mexican painter Frida Kahlo traveled to America in 1930, she was a 23-year-old budding artist trying to figure out her place as the wife of well-known muralist Diego Rivera, said Celia Stahr, an art historian and professor at the University of San Francisco. “She was really starting out,” Stahr said. “And she meets a number of women artists who I think really inspired her and helped her with her first breakthrough.” Among them was modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe.
They met the following year in New York when O’Keeffe was 44 and at the height of her career, Stahr said. But while O’Keeffe was thriving professionally, she was falling apart emotionally over her husband’s infidelity. “In some ways, Diego Rivera wasn’t that different from [O’Keeffe’s husband] Alfred Stieglitz,” Stahr said of the two male artists who were both known to have had affairs. “So I think that [Kahlo and O’Keeffe] must have bonded over that as well.”
In a male-dominated community, “women artists didn’t typically have a lot of support systems,” Stahr added.
While they both grappled with relationships and mental health in their lives, their brief time together in New York was marked with fun memories, too, including one unforgettable tequila-filled night, said Stahr, who wrote a book about Kahlo’s time spent in America.
“As far as I could find, I don’t think jack-in-the-pulpit really grow typically in the Mexican desert landscape,” said Stahr, adding that the portrait is also one of the first times Kahlo is seen painting with flowers.
“I do think that’s directly connected to Georgia O’Keeffe,” Stahr said.
Audre Lorde and Pat Parker
Audre Lorde and Pat Parker had a lot in common. Not only were they both Black lesbian poets, mothers and activists, they also each battled cancer, said Story, the University of Louisville professor. In 1974, five years after they first met, they began exchanging letters regularly, discussing their writing and sharing intimate details about their personal lives, according to the book “Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974-1989.″
“These are letters being exchanged with two of the greatest poets of the 20th century,” Story said. “And both of them used their lived experiences as these springboards for change.”
Lorde was central to many liberation movements, including second-wave feminism, civil rights and Black cultural movements, as well as struggles for LGBTQ equality, according to the Audre Lorde Project. Her friendship with Parker served as inspiration for a number of poems, but Parker also wielded influence of her own as an unsung hero of the Black Arts Movement, Vice reports.
While Parker was based in Oakland, Calif., Lorde split her time between New York and traveling abroad. But they sustained their friendship through correspondence that lasted for 15 years, ending the year before Parker’s death.
“They were both such incredible women who really formulated a lot of our current ideas around justice, transformative education, critical race theory,” Story said. “All the things we’re grappling with now as a nation, these women were talking about in their letters to one another and in their work.”
“Marilyn greatly admired Ella,” Mark said. “So much so that Marilyn’s singing is kind of based on how [she] thought Ella sang things.” Eventually, Monroe began showing up to different venues where Fitzgerald was performing, he said, “and they got to know one another.”
A key event in their friendship occurred in 1955 in Los Angeles. While Fitzgerald often played concert halls with big bands, she struggled to land nightclub gigs, said Mark, who also hosts a radio show celebrating the singer’s music. One popular venue in particular, Mocambo, wouldn’t book Fitzgerald. That’s when Monroe stepped in, reportedly telling the club owners that if they booked Fitzgerald for 10 days in a row, Monroe would show up every night with celebrities.
“Ella got booked, and Marilyn was true to her word,” Mark said. On opening night, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland were reportedly among the famous friends who showed up. The club was sold out for 10 days, Mark said, and from then on, Fitzgerald never had an issue booking nightclubs anywhere.
“That’s, I think, a wonderful early example of women power — one woman helping another to achieve her goals,” Mark said.
Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz
Both wives of slain civil rights leaders, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz’s friendship was born out of tragedy following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And while the media often cast them as “the widows,” the women were activists and leaders in their own right, author and minister Barbara Reynolds wrote in The Washington Postin 2013.
In 2013, Lifetime released the film “Betty and Coretta” to recount their achievements and the sisterhood they forged together. “Lifetime brings them out of the shadows for a renewed examination, appreciation and recognition of their leadership,” Reynolds wrote at the time, though members of both King and Shabazz’s families later flagged inaccuracies in the biopic.
“Nevertheless they were truly spiritual sisters,” Reynolds wrote. “That is one truth I am certain of."