How I love my ‘Hippie W.I.’.
No, not the Women’s Institute or ‘blue-rinse brigade’. More a gathering of women, around the time of the new moon, to just ‘be’, to listen and to be heard, to be seen and to accept others. I recently midwifed a Red Tent into being in my local area (see here for listings of Tents in your area), having loved attending a group near my family and the town of my upbringing. I have commented to the Women of the Red Tent Movement that I see it as a precious, safe, space for women – something I hadn’t realised was missing until I had attended my first gathering. It is a different experience than spending time with friends – wine is sometimes involved, lots of chat, lots of laughs and plenty of honesty. Our time with friends differ because often, we care so much for our friends that we don’t wish to burden them with our own needs or we care so much about them that we take on their worries. Equally, this is not the equivalent of men withdrawing for their cigars and whiskey. It is the acknowledgment of the need of many women to seek and give support, and to have a space for themselves. Almost a room of one’s own. Almost. A red one.
So this is about women meeting their own needs. This is about women respecting and understanding their cycles and their bodies. This is about women fuelling their wellbeing by the accepting and supportive company of women. If the feelings a woman can have on stepping out of the Tent could be bottled, it would be sold for a mint and scientists would queue to dissect its composition. Each dose, each gathering, a tonic.
Much in the same way as Adrienne Rich, feeling like a rebel, a renegade from the institution of motherhood; so have I felt rebellious and earthly, a rebel from the institution of economic and capitalistic misogyny, in a way which I had never experienced before spending three hours a month in the company of women in the Red Tent. In a nurturing space. A nourishing space. It immediately brought to a head many emotions I had not confronted for years: why had I avoided groups of women where possible, for so long? Why had I always felt uncomfortable among groups of women? How had I come to see a group of women as unavoidably toxic and venomous, rather than life-affirming and mutually supportive?
For a huge number of reasons: some of the company I had to keep in my initial professional incarnation; in my second career, a couple of women who would delight in maliciously dissecting everyone in sight; a hideous experience of a post-natal NCT group to name some. But my self-imposed, longstanding, discomfort of being in the exclusive company of women was in part because I saw no value in it. I didn’t see that there was anything to be gained from the simple experience of just ‘being’ alongside my sisters. My ‘equality’ politics had subconsciously affected my relational experience. I had swallowed the message that a woman needed to be an Island – just like no man is.
Needs? Bury them.
And, somehow, since becoming a mother, that changed. And I am thankful for that. I had dared finally to tread towards a safe space of women.
When I talk about women, I am not talking about femininity. I am not talking about stereotypes. I am not diminishing women or denying their complexity or interests or strengths. I am a feminist. I don’t subscribe to gender rules about what makes a woman or what a woman must or must not do, say, feel, wear, sound like, or represent. We are all and everything, we are different and diverse. We are human beings. We are mammals. Of the female kind.
And with that, we may remember, many of us bleed. We bleed. We rage. We weep. We hurt. Every 28 days. Yes. We bloody well do.
Granted, not all women bleed, for a multitude of reasons – hysterectomies; low weight; continuous synthetic hormonal implants, menopause. We are not lesser women as a result. Some women get through each month without a hint of tearfulness or craving for carbohydrates or Ms Hyde coming by to lock our Ms Jekyll in the cupboard. But many many women do not. We neglect part of our lives, a regular feature in our lives, when we ignore or try to suppress our cycles and the challenges we face when our bodies do the things our bodies do. We could benefit in mood and self-acceptance if we stop to listen to our bodies. Although it is still unusual to read about women’s monthly menses, thankfully it is gaining momentum in political and activist attempts to increase visibility of issues relating to, say, those who pay VAT on sanitary products because they are considered a ‘luxury’ rather than a necessity, or women who are refugees or homeless or blighted by poverty.
That said, Red Tent and women’s circles go far beyond blood. It is about something that can happen when women showing an open mind gather. It’s not magic. Saying that, I occasionally get the feeling that, once, we women of the Red Tent would have been burned at the stake.
The sumptuous reds and scarlets, the vibrant fabrics and soft fleece, silk and organza. Tapestries adorning walls and cushions and throws on floors and sofas. The transformation of a space from a residential living room into a Red Tent. Meditation, nourishing food, a circle in which to be speak and listen, a space to share and to reflect.
Anita Diamant’s work of fiction, The Red Tent, inspired this movement – itself birthed by Alisa Starkweather. It is growing, worldwide, slowly and organically. The more women attend and discover these circles, the more the seeds of female empowerment has an outlet which goes beyond the boardroom and FTSE 100. To quote:
“Women’s lives have changed immeasurably in the last 50 years but we still live in a desperately unequal world where many women feel powerless and unheard. In particular we have yet to achieve balance in terms of leadership and how decisions are made. Meanwhile shocking levels of violence and discrimination against women continue in our communities and around the world.
The Red Tent movement is about creating regular feminine spaces for women to share their stories, rest and gain strength to meet the challenges of our time and their daily lives. This is work that we believe will make a difference not only to women themselves but also to all the people around them. In short, we “know” that the simple act of creating safe and empowering feminine spaces is life and world changing work.”
The greater the number of women whose lives have been enriched, with openness and solidarity, the greater the chances of the next generations receiving a welcome into womanhood with rites of passage and in celebration of their steps towards adulthood as a woman. This can only be a good thing. It is something missing for many Western women. Forget a Brotherhood of Man.
Welcome to a Sisterhood of Woman.