Family comes with built-in hierarchy as well as built-in connection. The hierarchy between parents and children is self-evident, but the same is true of siblings. Even though we use the phrases “like sisters” or “like brothers” to describe friendships that are close and equal, actual sibling relationships are defined not only by the connection of shared family but also by the hierarchy of birth order. I have been particularly intrigued by sisters—not only because I have two but, most important, because in sisters we see a relationship between women that is deeply competitive and hierarchical.
In Having Our Say, the Delany sisters' 1993 best-selling memoir, Bessie Delany is quoted as saying, “Sadie doesn't approve of me sometimes. She looks at me in that big-sister sort of way.” When she said this, Bessie was 101, and Sadie was 103. Elsewhere in the book, Sadie says, “If she lives to 130, I'll just have to live to 132, so I can take care of her.” Their relationship was shaped more by the two years separating them than by the century they had lived.
These centenarians' comments reflect dynamics I heard from many of the more than 100 women I interviewed about their sisters for my book You Were Always Mom's Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives, as well as comments I have heard about brothers: older siblings were often seen as protective but also judgmental. After all, these qualities are two sides of the same coin. “Judgmental” means you see how others can improve themselves and their lives—and tell them. We all often think of ways our friends, relatives and even strangers could do things better. But we usually don't tell them what we think—unless we feel responsible for them. Parents often come across as judgmental to children because they feel it is their right, if not their obligation, to make sure their children's lives go as well as possible, which means letting them know the ways they can improve. Such offers of advice, however, no matter how well-meaning (in other words, focused on connection), are typically heard as criticism—and therefore as put-downs. The giver of advice is one-up, superior in knowledge and, by virtue of exercising the right to tell the other what to do, also superior in rank.
Similarly, many older sisters speak to younger siblings with commanding and unambiguous authority—ways of speaking that are more often associated with boys and men. One woman told me when she was small, she and her older sister played a game they called “mop.” She was the mop. Her sister would grab her by the feet and drag her around the house, her long hair sweeping the floor like a mop. Several other women recalled their older sisters organizing and directing plays. A typical casting setup was: “I'll be the princess; you be the frog.” In my own family, my father overheard me asking my sister, when I was about four and she about six, “Mimi, can I play in your backyard?” Clearly, I did not question the authority that my older sister had assumed in her dealings with me.
At the same time, closeness is the holy grail of sister relationships, as it tends to be for girls and women in other contexts as well. When speaking to women about their sisters, I often heard “I wish we were closer,” but never “I wish we weren't so close.” Their comments also generally reflected the assumption so common among women that troubles talk is critical for intimacy. Women told me they were deeply hurt to learn that a sister had kept important personal information secret. Whereas a brother (or a father) might say, “He told us when he was ready,” sisters (like mothers) often feel, “I thought we were closer than that.”
A powerful rivalry often accompanies sisterly ties—but it can take the form of competition for connection. Sisters often feel acutely competitive about who knows what about family members' secrets—or who knows what first. Correspondent Juju Chang, in a segment of the news program 20/20 that was based on my book, explained that she and her three sisters have learned that if one of them has important personal information to impart—news of an engagement or a pregnancy, for example—they must set up a conference call so all three sisters will learn the news at the same time. Otherwise, the sister who is called first will seem to be favored, and the others will feel slighted.
Thus, sisters are often very competitive, and hierarchy is built into their relationship by virtue of birth order. And brothers are often very close and have connection built into their relationship by virtue of shared family. Sisters and brothers tend to vie, however, for dominance in different arenas. Sisters may compete about who knows more personal information about family members, whereas brothers may compete about who knows more facts about impersonal information such as computers or history.
Family relationships make clear that closeness is not opposite or even distinguishable from hierarchy and competition. Indeed, one reason that older sisters feel so comfortable bossing younger ones around and giving them advice is precisely because there is a strong connection between them. In addition, the deep love between older and younger siblings, like that between parents and children, results in part from the acts of caretaking and the experience of being taken care of that these roles entail.
Listening in on conversations among family members reveals a unique blend of authority and intimacy in talk among women as well as among men. It highlights the ways in which gendered conversational patterns can be different routes to the same goal: finding the right balance of closeness and distance while simultaneously negotiating relative power.