Women’s Circles – An introduction based on existing literature

ABSTRACT

This article explores several writings from the still scarce existing literature on the topic of Circles of Women (CWs), addressing both descriptive introductory elements and critical attitudes and shortcomings. Most insights are drawn from Chia Longman’s (2018) article “Women’s circles and the rise of the New Feminine – Reclaiming Sisterhood, Spirituality and Wellbeing”, while my perspective or interpretation as a researcher, participant and young facilitator in the world of CWs is sometimes shared.
 

Key words: women’s circles, fourth wave feminism, spirituality, post-secularism, neoliberalism

Women’s Circles, circles of women, women’s temples, moon circles, or Red Tents are spaces where women from diverse backgrounds gather to celebrate sisterhood and the ‘feminine’ (Longman, 2018). In her 2018 article, the author Chia Longman defines women’s circles as “non-institutionalized, often monthly gatherings, for women to come together and relax, meditate, share stories, partake in rituals, heal, nourish, and empower themselves” (p.1). These spaces offer women from diverse backgrounds a space that they find lacking in the secular-liberal society – a space where they can “’re/connect’ with each other, their bodies, their inner selves, and sometimes with the sacred” (p.1).

Longman explores how CWs are sometimes seen as an indicative of the strong presence that women have in the subjective well-being culture, comprised of elements ranging from spiritual endeavors such as Yoga and Tantra, to more secular personal growth activities. Critics often correlate CWs as being “merely expressive of  [a] neo-liberal individualist consumer culture or retrograde gender essentialism” (p.1), aspect which will be explored in more detail later on and in following articles and commentaries. Aware of this criticism, Longman’s article argues that in spite of this, CWs can be seen as “sites of sisterhood, solidarity, and dissent, cultivating a new type of femininity” (p.1), sometimes referred to as ‘conscious femininity’. The author shows how in CWs, femininity and sisterhood are practiced in new ways – ways that transcend boundaries between the spiritual, the religious, and the secular. Circles are presented as exemplifying “women’s post-secular agency and subjectivity” (p.1) and as spaces allowing women can explore, share and celebrate themselves.

Most often, circles are held with the occasion of the new moon, a way of honoring a cyclical way of living and the symbolic connection between the lunar calendar and the menstruation cycle. Women-only circles, although rooted in the practice of the circle as a “recurrent format within the context of therapy, and ceremonial and community gathering (e.g., taking circles, family circles, dance circles, prayer circles, drumming circles…)” (p.2), are usually traced back to the feminist spiritual movement of the 1970s and can be encountered in gatherings and rituals within Goddess and Pagan movements (Longman, 2018).

Such circles are found to be especially appealing to women due to their non-linear and non-hierarchical nature, where the ancestral, the ancient, and the cross-cultural aspects of human experience are emphasized and welcomed. Some researchers pin them under the broader umbrella of fourth wave feminism, characterized through trans-national values and a strong online presence. To better understand this, the four waves of feminism are shortly presented in the following paragraphs.

1st wave feminism was fully essentialist, in the sense that women united with other women to feel stronger, while referencing themselves to the position of men and emphasizing being equal to them. Feminism (and sisterhood amongst women, in this sense) was understood as “a common front to compete with men”, and what feminists have in common is “a shared experience of oppression caused by male patriarchy” (Rodak, 2020, p.120S). According to this approach, a proper feminist had to be female. The women’s suffrage movement and their fight for the right to vote during the late 19th century primarily characterize this wave. However, as noted by second-wave feminist and beyond, this movement largely excluded and discriminated against women of color (Delao, 2021).

During 2nd wave feminism, roughly between the 1960s and 1990s, non-hierarchical relations between women start to become important. Realizing the oppression and exploitation of women by other women, questions regarding what it really means to be a feminist start to arise (Rodak, 2020). Issues such as pay equality, reproductive rights, female sexuality, and domestic violence are addressed during this wave. A common feature between the first two waves is that most of these goals were achieved through legislation. Still, although efforts were made to address racial injustice, race and class remained less important than gender equality. Thus, “disparities between white women and white men narrowed, but the inequity between women of color and white men or even between women of color and white women remained the same” (Delao, 2021).

During the 3rd wave of feminism, which emerged from the 1990s, the influence that the patriarchal society has had on women and sisterhood is noted. bell hooks is often quoted as representing the values of this wave, and claims that “femininity, as defined by men, is sexist” (Rodak, 2020 quoting hooks, 1986). From this perspective, women have internalized male supremacist values, such as degenerative, competitive behavior, and were competing with each other, ending up perpetuating the very behavior feminism initially set up against. The third wave “challenged female heteronormativity, sought to redefine femininity and celebrate differences across race, class, and sexual orientations” (Delao, 2021). Sometimes, the word ‘feminism’ is rejected altogether, as are many of the stereotypes enforcing a feminine ideal. ‘Intersectionality’ started to develop here, term coined to “describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap” (Delao, 2021). hooks holds a critical position towards sisterhood, emphasizing [this is my interpretation] that it should not be taken for granted that sisters are identical ideologically or in terms of background and needs, nor even similar. “In order to revitalize sisterhood, differences amongst women should be confronted. To achieve this goal, female consciousness should be transformed” (Rodak, 2020 quoting hooks, 1986).

4th wave feminism is new and still emerging, being still difficult to define, especially scientifically, despite enjoying a high reach in the media and social networks (Rodak, 2020). It can, however, be defined through its anti-essentialist approach including all people, regardless of gender, in the discourse of feminism and sisterhood. In this light, the question transforms from “what women or individuals of all genders have in common, [to] what the conditions to build the bonds between each other are, taking into account the diversity of the members of the group” (Rodak, 2020). The 4th wave is characterized by “action-based viral campaigns, protests, and movements like #MeToo, advancing from the fringes of society into the headlines of our everyday news. […] It has also been characterized as “queer, sex-positive, trans-inclusive, body-positive, and digitally driven” (Delao, 2021), seeking to continue deconstructing gender norms. White male supremacy is mainly confronted, and it is believed that “there is no feminism without an understanding of comprehensive justice that deconstructs systems of power and includes emphasis on racial justice as well as examinations of class, disability, and other issues” (Delao, 2021). Online environments play a crucial role in spreading ideas and bringing together individuals which otherwise would probably not have met.

Returning to the topic of CWs, the possibilities offered by online environments have enabled the women’s circle movement to expand to a broad trans-national audience (Longman, 2018). Longman has empirically researched CWs in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, noting that at the time of her writing very few empirical studies have been done on CWs. She found that the circles were mostly autonomous or loosely affiliated or inspired by transnational circle movements (some examples are The Red Tent or Global Sisterhood).

The circles that she studied do not promote “any particular feminist and/or religious movement or spiritual tradition” (Longman, 2018, p.2). Nevertheless, they do contain features that in common perception and scholarly literature are considered spiritual – “meditation, bodywork, presence of altars, oracle cards, blessings, and sometimes references to the divine or sacred feminine or goddesses” (p.2). However, when the author interviewed CWs participants, they shared that they saw spirituality more as a “personal issue, rather than a pre-requisite of the circle ethos and experience” (p.2). The term ‘spirituality’, although lacking an academic consensus regarding its meaning, is used by Longman to differentiate from established religious practices, as seen in “‘spiritualities of the self’, ‘holistic spiritualities’, and/or ‘Mind Body Spirit’ (MBS) practices” (p.2). The term ‘subjective well-being culture’ is used with the purpose of including what is “referred to as the more secular (non-religious, worldly, or immanent) character of some of the circles […] studied” (p.2). The term ‘post-secular’ is used to describe the “paradoxical present-day condition in which currents of ongoing secularization and religious revival, of disenchantment and re-enchantment, seem to co-exist” (p.2). It also employs the deep entanglements between the religious, the spiritual, and the secular, bringing into light how they can only exist in relation to one another and are therefore influenced by one another.

Through a feminist perspective upon the religious, the spiritual, and the secular, employing a gendered nature in the secular narrative, it becomes visible how the religious realm has assigned an inferior position to the ‘feminine’ – term used here to refer to the private, the emotional, the irrational, the bodily, immanent spheres – as opposed to the ‘masculine’ realms of reason, mind, rationality, transcendence and other Enlightenment ideals (Longman, 2018 quoting Jakobsen and Pellegrini, 2008; Graham, 2012; Aune et al., 2008). Through CWs, women are reclaiming these relegated spheres of the feminine as important, valuable, therapeutic, nurturing, and/or sacred. In this light, Longman argues that CWs are seen as a response to the “perceived failure of (neo-) liberal gender ideology to empower women and transform society within secular modernity” (p.2). This means that from this perspective, women’s empowerment, although visible, has only occurred within a man’s world, where women were allowed to play the ‘game’ design by men for men – where the so-called masculine principles (competition, efficiency, and linearity) are praised and desired for financial, political, and economical success, while feminine principles (such as cooperation, care, cyclicality) are still inferior, invisible, or simply unfruitful in this context. Thus, for the ‘new feminine’ cultivated through women’s circles, achieving success as a woman in a man’s world is not seen as fulfilling, desirable, or enough for creating a world where both masculine and feminine principles are honored and remunerated. To achieve such a world, given the patriarchal history and Euro-Western privilege furthering a masculine structure and benefiting white, cis-gendered men above all other identities (Thayer-Bacon, 2000), a conscious effort in holding space for feminine or non-hegemonic structures is necessary in order to create balance. This statement is not meant as derogatory towards these men, since patriarchy in the context of women circles is understood as hurting not only women and non-traditional gender identities or sexual orientations, but men too. This is because every being is seen as possessing both feminine and a masculine aspects, so if only half of these aspects are valued, imbalances are created on both the individual and collective sphere for everyone involved (Global Sisterhood post, 2020).

Spirituality, Wellbeing and Agency

According to Longman’s (2018) analysis of recent literature on the topic, in much of secular feminism, “religion was seen as an impediment to women’s liberation” (p.3). However, today, in what is referred to as ‘the post-secular turn in feminism’ (Braidotti, 2008), “the assumption that religion would simply always be oppressive to women, and the axiom that secularization accompanies gender equality and sexual liberty, are increasingly called into question” (Longman, 2018, p.3 quoting Butler, 2008; Scott, 2009). On the spiritual side, however, drawing on an analysis of the empirical research done on women’s spirituality in the West, Longman (2018) shows how “longer established counter-cultural and new religious movements and spiritualities such as Wicca, Goddess spirituality, Neo-paganism, and New Age might offer women empowerment lacking in more traditional, patriarchal, and institutionalized religious traditions. [… These movements] might promote gender quality, hold a more positive view towards the female body, and engage in validations of ‘feminine’ values related to practices of healing, care and female solidarity” (p.3, quoting Crowley 2011; Eller 1995; Puttick 1997; Rountree 2004; Salomonsen 2002; Fedele 2012; Fedele and Knibbe 2013; Sointu and Woodhead 2008).

However, criticism towards these movements stresses that in practice, they might not lead to the desired change against gender hierarchies, since “gender and power relations are complex, entangled within their social context and cannot be reduced to a dualistic model of female dominating or female empowering” (Longman, 2018, p.3 quoting Fedele and Knibbe, 2013). Longman, however, views CWs as “a separate phenomenon from these longer-standing movements, communities, and traditions” (p.4). CWs also seem to be more ‘post-secular’ in nature, and can be aligned with “the much broader realm of women’s agency within subjective well-being culture” (p.4). Regarding this topic, social and cultural theorists hold “a far more critical view of the well-being sphere and self-help culture’s tendency to reproduce normative femininities and what it sees as its complicity with a postfeminist version of the neo-liberal self (Longman, 2018, p.4 quoting Salmenniemi and Adamson 2015; Hochschild 1994; Kenny and Bell 2014; Blackman 2004).

The emergence of spirituality and well-being movements for women has been attributed to a ‘subjective turn’ from traditional religion towards “an immanent, reflexive, and expressive selfhood and personal empowerment in a post-traditional society” (Longman, 2018, p.4 quoting Heelas et al. 2005; Houtman and Aupers 2007). This view is contrasted by more critical takes, which see a “rise of the spiritual marketplace which is seen to represent ‘secular consumer culture’” (Longman, 2018, p.4 quoting Lau 2000; Carette and King 2005). A broader critical literature inspired by Foucault extends against the broader sphere of well-being, touching “the realms of popular psychology, self-help, therapy, life-coaching, and personal growth”, depicting these “‘technologies of the self’ as the product of a form of neo-liberal and secular governmentality that forecloses political critique and social change” (p.4 quoting Rose 1998, Wood 2007). Other critics of ‘therapy culture’ and ‘wellness industry’ challenge the way “the new moral imperative towards body and/or mind is directed at the cultivation and management of the happier, healthier, entrepreneurial, and even ‘narcissistic self’, where individual responsibility and self-expression are morphed with the mindset of a free-market economist, and are hence suited to, rather than disruptive of, the demands of neo-liberalism and late-capitalism” (Longman, 2018 quoting Cederström and Spicer 2015).

These debates are relevant from a feminist and gendered perspective. Longman asks: “Do spaces such as women’s circles offer alternative experiences of the self, body, and spirituality that challenge dominant representations of the female – commodified and sexualized – body? Or, conversely, are these ‘new’ femininities perhaps more expressive of a postfeminist neo-liberal governmentality of consumer culture in which individuals are falsely construed [or interpreted] as self-interested economic actors with agency and control over their lives? (quoting Gill and Scharff 2013; Phipps 2014). In her article, she sets out to explore how the femininities cultivated through CWs can be critically analyzed and assessed.

The organizational structure of women’s circles

Through her field study that took place between 2014 and 2017, Longman (2018, p.6) found the following information about the way CWs take place by participating in 20 women’s circles.

Outer structure: Most circles take place in the evening, often around the new moon, and last for about 2.5h. Some circles are self-directed without any affiliation or leadership, while others are offered by women who are involved in other well-being or spiritual practices such as workshops, retreats, yoga, or festivals on a regular basis. Participants usually come in numbers ranging between 6-12 women; however, this number can be smaller or larger. Location-wise, they happen in places ranging from a woman’s home (living room, spare room, attic or barn converted into a ‘temple’) to rented spaces usually use for activities such as yoga, workshops, dance and even in the open air. Before a circle starts, cushion are places in a circle often surrounding an altar in the middle, where flowers, oracle cards, small statues, candles or other decorative or ritual objects can be placed. These objects might also be used to decorate the room, together with shawls and drapes. Incense might be burned and delicate music might be played to create a soft, welcoming atmosphere.

Inner structure: Most circles start with a few welcoming words from the host, after which each participant introduces themselves and/or shares their intention for being present, or something about how they are feeling. One circle facilitator explained how women circles or Red Tents are an ancient phenomenon found in many cultures around the globe. Although nothing extraordinary takes place, “it gives women renewed energy, as it offers a form of support for women to be able to cope better with daily life in a ‘man’s world’. Activities serving as the body of a CW include sharing based on proposed themes (which can include more specific “‘women’s topics’ such as birth, menstruation, sexuality, motherhood, and sisterhood”, or more general topics such as “‘making yourself visible, vulnerability, shame, thankfulness, letting go, the ‘power of the heart’, how to actualize yourself, how to make time and space for yourself within relationships, family, and work, etc.” (p.6). Other activities can be guided meditations or visualizations, “which are referred to as ‘grounding’ or ‘re/connecting with your bodily self and the earth’” (p.6). Activities can also be spontaneous and include personal stories, or craftwork and art such as dancing, singing, chanting, or drumming usually guided by a common theme, ritual, or meditation. Most circles used the ‘talking stick’ as a form of mediating conversation, so that everyone can have the change to speak and be heard without interruptions. The principle behind talking stick circles is that in turn, a stick is passed to each person (or they can take the stick if they want), and while having the stick, they have the space to ‘bring in’ or share and express what they want, or ‘what is alive in them now’ (p.6) without any pressure, meaning that silence is also welcome. A noteworthy remark is that excepting the circles that have been started amongst friends or acquaintances, most participants who attend start out as strangers to each other, and usually interact with each other only inside their circle bond.

Safe Spaces

To create what is referred to as a ‘safe space’, first and foremost, “that which is told in the circle must stay in the circle” (Longman, 2018, p.7). Another element nurturing a safe space is “to refrain from giving advice or judgment after one speaks – act which is referred to as ‘holding space’ for another” (p.7). “The circle is seen as an essentially egalitarian space, where there is respect for the opinion, expression, experience, wisdom, and knowledge of all, regardless of age, education, or background” (p.7). During a circle, nothing has to be done, achieved, or performed. They are space where participants can take a break from ‘doing’ and explore purely ‘being’ in the here and now. They are usually contain moments of rest and relaxation, achieved through “simply breathing and slowing down […] what many interviewees perceived as the hectic, high-pressured, and exhausting lives of many women today” (p.7). In the circle, the interviewees claimed that “you can ‘be yourself’, and ‘let down masks’; ‘you don’t have to impress and compete with others’, but can simply be ‘seen, acknowledged, nourished and loved’” (p.7).

The New Feminine?

In this section of her article, Longman (2018) analyzes the women who are attending women circles and how they experience themselves, womanhood, femininity throughout their lives and careers.

She found that “a substantial number of [her] interviewees who became involved in well-being culture had been professionally active in demanding and/or competitive careers. Some had suffered burnouts and opted out of their former jobs; others had become increasingly frustrated or disillusioned with the neo-liberal ethos in the workplace that stresses competitiveness, shallowness, individualism, rationality, profit, and gain” (p.7). She notes that such traits were often associated with ‘masculinity’. Many women shared that they developed a strong masculine side during their lives and careers (often related with patriarchal values and living in ‘a man’s world’), but found that something was missing. By attending or facilitating spaces where the feminine can be consciously cultivated, they claim to have connected to a part of themselves that was hidden or hurting.

Analytically, Longman (2018) notes that “despite of its centrality in the social constructionist approach to gender, the concept of ‘femininity’ remains somewhat under-theorized” (p.7 quoting Gill and Scharff, 2013). As noted somewhere above, “second-wave feminists saw constructions of femininity as the grounds for women’s oppression” (p.7). From this perspective, females were seen as having been “socialized into feminine behavior and values ‘associated with passivity, submissiveness and dependency’” (p.7). Because of this, during this wave a rejection of feminine identities was propagated as “crucial in producing a feminist identity and consciousness” (p.7 quoting Hollows, 2000, p.10). In this context, “female empowerment sits uneasily with dominant constructions of femininity that have positioned women as ‘other’, ‘irrational, over-sensitive, destined to be wife and mother’, and associated with ‘the body, sex, and sin’” (p.7 quoting Braidotti, 1994, p.235). Longman notes that this negative view of femininity is still dominant in feminist activism and thought, and more positive approaches to second-wave feminism have come to be recently referred to as postfeminism. This kind of radical, cultural feminist thought is often seen as having “re-inscribed stereotypical femininity by simply reversing the values traditionally accorded to gender differences” (p.7). My interpretation of this statement is that by rejecting feminine identities in order “to achieve the autonomy, individuality, and subjectivity that has historically only been accorded to men” (p.7), the proponents of this view accept and reinforce misogynistic values oppressing feminine aspects while cultivating masculine ones. This kind of thought often seen in second-wave feminism has been accused of “biological essentialism” by perpetuating the idea of a ‘unique female nature’, and it is often viewed as exclusionary in it disregard for racial, ethnic, and class differences” (p.8 quoting Alcoff, 1988; Bulgeon, 2011; Rudy 2001) [I would add here sexual orientation and gender identity].

Recently, ‘femininity’ has enjoyed fresh attention regarding the way women (mostly white and middle class) have been represented in popular literature, media, beauty, and body politics, this time influenced by a ‘postfeminist sensibility’. These studies show how “global consumer capitalism and neo-liberalism has incited the emergence of ‘empowered’ female subjectivities’ as ‘entrepreneurs of the self’” (p.8). The worry is that “although these ‘new femininities’ might have displaced earlier constructions of femininity highlighting women’s mothering and caring roles, and they might offer women today more individual agency, freedom, and pleasure, they are also disciplinary in their emphasis on consumerism and self-laboring, and often reproduce dominant forms of (hetero-)sexual attractiveness” (p.8). From today’s gender theory’s perspective, both the regulative and the potentially empowering elements of these representations can be noted. However, Ulrike Dahl (p.36) remarks in her recent work on queer femininity that  “to date, feminist theory still has trouble with the question of femininity” (Longman, 2018, p.8 quoting Dahl, 2017, p.26).

In the next article on the topic, women’s circles will be analyzed in terms of gender identity and intersectional feminism.

 References

Delao, M. (2021). A brief look at the four waves o feminism. The Humanist website       https://thehumanist.com/commentary/a-brief-look-at-the-four-waves-of-feminism/#:~:text=The%20different%20movements%E2%80%94often%20termed,rights%2C%20and%20social%20justice%20movements. (accessed on 22.11.2021)

Global Sisterhood quote from December 8, 2020             https://www.facebook.com/globalsisterhoodmovement/photos/a.322124868183343/1212872615775226 (accessed on May 14th 2021)

Longman, C. (2018). Women’s circles and the rise of the new feminine: Reclaiming sisterhood, spirituality, and wellbeing. Religions 9(1): 1–17.

Rodak, L. (2020) “Sisterhood and the 4th wave of feminism: An analysis of circles of women in Poland”, Oñati Socio-Legal Series, 10(1S), p. 116S–134S. https://www.opo.iisj.net/index.php/osls/article/view/1305 (cccessed: June 24th 2021).

Thayer-Bacon, B. (2000). Transforming critical thinking: Thinking constructively. Teachers College Press, Columbia University

Image source: https://www.melaniefrome.com/new-moon-womens-circles/

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