Ever since Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of using her “woman card” to get ahead in the presidential election, we’ve been hearing a lot about how that card is actually worthless. Many people have pointed out that this special pass doesn’t even get you a discount on anything; in fact, it usually means you are the discounted item. But before we all get so depressed that we fall into a pit of endless digital outrage about the wage gap, the pink tax (why do pink razors cost more than blue ones, all other things being equal?) and the tiny number of representatives we have in government, I want to talk about a few advantages of the double X.
First of all, a woman card gives you access to a kind of female emergency-response system. This isn’t universal, but if you’re lucky, you have a bunch of friends who, in various combinations, will always respond to a signal of distress.
I’m part of a posse of women who can sense a disturbance in the force without anyone’s saying anything. They get the subtext of texts and can read silences. If it’s urgent, one will suggest a 6 a.m. roving summit in the park. And another, the kindest woman on earth, will have coffee waiting in a to-go cup; she’ll even text you at 5:30 to say it’s brewing, so come on over. We will trot along for a few miles in the dark if it’s winter, and in the glorious green if it’s not. Whatever fresh hell (or triumph) that has emerged will be analyzed, and the right dose of empathetic cursing or wry advice will be administered. Whether it’s a kid thing, a job offer or a uterus-related issue, nothing is out of bounds. By the time you get home, the sun is up, you’ve exercised (sort of), and you’re at least 72% less angsty. It’s like getting triple points on your woman card.
These friends are also the kind of people who show up with a bag of pastries on a day when you can’t leave the house, or drag you away from a bag of pastries when you should leave the house. One of these women has a wildly generous habit of sending flowers to my office exactly when I feel like moving to Costa Rica with one very small suitcase and a phone that doesn’t get email. Gifts like these make you look important and feel loved simultaneously. That’s expert multitasking.
Today we rely on our personal board of advisers more than ever. As Rebecca Traister points out in her excellent book All the Single Ladies, women marry later today and therefore have more years devoted to their friendships (with men as well as women, of course). She says friends provide so much emotional support these days that some women are less likely to put up with romances that are just O.K. You could call it soft power.
But when gathered in groups, women are still described with language that implies that whatever they’re talking about is slightly juvenile, even if they’re in charge of a university department or are a best-selling author. It’s all “girl” talk, just gabbing and gossiping. In reality, the jokes, the barbs, the laughter, the cries of supportive incredulity and the storytelling are the way we weave our safety net. It’s a system that can sustain a person through the life events you don’t want to post on Facebook: a parent in hospice, a kid in real trouble, the slow disintegration of a marriage, a determination to breast-feed that fails. Sure, you’ll get lots of likes for that picture of a good day, but it’s at actual kitchen tables, sofas, bars and park benches that the real friending gets done. And on the phone too, human to human.
I am absolutely sure that I wouldn’t be employed or even remotely functional without friends buoying me through tragedies and absurdities alike. (I would also still have those awful highlights I got in 2004, which could easily have been a job and relationship killer all in one.) And when things go well for me or any of us, flowers arrive or a brunch is convened, and the celebration is mutual. It’s like being on a team, but the game is the pursuit of sanity and joy, though not necessarily at the same time.
Perhaps Trump is right when he says Clinton wouldn’t be successful if she weren’t a woman. But not for the reasons he might think. She’s known to have a close circle of longtime friends who knew her back when—the kind who don’t waver with the polls. That’s it, of course. How else could anyone have survived such damaging political and personal hurricanes?
A squad of smart, supportive women could be everyone’s backup, their Trump card if you will. And no, you don’t have to be female to get one.
This appears in the May 16, 2016 issue of TIME.
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