“Everything the power of the World does is done in a circle”
One late summer afternoon in 1977, my husband arrived home from work, said he had met that morning with an interesting woman who mentioned in conversation that she was forming a women’s group.
She asked him if he thought I might be interested in joining.
I was twenty-four, relatively new to Maine, with a ten-year old son, a newborn and a part-time secretarial position at a college where my husband was Dean of Students.
A bit intrigued, but puzzled, I replied….
“What’s a women’s group”?
The following week….with reluctance, some trepidation, but a high degree of curiosity….I knocked on the door of an elegant home on a quiet street in Waterville, Maine, belonging to the woman organizing the new group. The sun streamed in through the statuesque windows of this charming house and onto the floor and female faces of women I had never encountered before, sitting in a circle, busy with excited chatter and intermittent laughter.
I met Judi for the first time that afternoon. She sat cross-legged, perched on the edge of a shaggy pile rug….wearing a red and black plaid flannel shirt, denim jeans, sporting a mini-afro of thick, dark curl and a warm, confident smile.
“Hey there, I’m Judi,” she said in my direction.
I smiled back at her, and not knowing or recognizing anyone else, decided the empty space beside this friendly woman was calling my name.
The leader began to talk, quieting the sounds of the room. She was poised, and spoke softly in an almost hypnotic cadence. With direct eye-contact, pausing to gaze upon each individual, she welcomed us and shared the concept of a ‘women’s consciousness raising group’.
The potential group members introduced themselves. Many were college educated, including three female Colby professors. A number of the women possessed high-level positions in organizations or had businesses of their own.
I left that afternoon unsure of whether or not I would join. I felt so out of my comfort zone…and my league. With only a high school education and a ‘Mrs.’ degree, I questioned if my lowly credentials were anywhere near good enough for entry to this sophisticated circle.
As happens to me on rare, but what later prove to be vitally important occasions….a small inner-voice of knowing lifts me up and carries me through my hesitation and fear. Thus, the decision was made to join this women’s consciousness raising group.
No doubt….it was one of the most important decisions of my life.
One of the professors, a chic Jewish woman….dynamic extrovert with a Brooklyn accent….introduced to us a structured group outline originating from the New York City Women’s Collective, an organization that developed out of the feminist movement, which was only beginning to evolve from its infancy.
The group design required strict confidentiality.
Our pledge….“what is said in this room, stays in this room” ….was vital to sharing openly, authentically and at a deep level of vulnerability. The importance of regular attendance and participation was emphasized. The outline catalogued fifty or more topic questions listed in chronological order from childhood to adulthood; one question to be discussed each time we met. Group members would, in turn, address the topic, speaking as long as desired and without interruption. Topics were directed toward life cycle experiences and issues common to women….and the mandate was basically…. ‘tell your story.’
The purpose of the group was to provide a circle of support in which to share and disclose, often for the first time, personal joys…and perils…of being female. The premise was that by speaking from our head/heart/soul, we might reclaim the powerful feminine energy within ourselves, and within the circle, resulting in an embodiment of living our truth and highest purpose.
The circle experience ‘magically’ produces a sense of power, energy and solidarity that is fostered when women and their feminine essence convene.
Quoting renowned writer and Jungian analyst, Jean Shinoda Bolen:
“Women meeting in circles with a spiritual center are in a sacred space, practicing and developing compassion when they listen, and are deepening themselves. The more circles there are, the easier others can form. At the same time, each circle adds to collective human consciousness.”
Questions in our group covered numerous themes, such as: “What was it like when you experienced your first period?”, “What was your first sexual encounter like?”, “Were you ever sexually assaulted, abused or touched inappropriately?”, “What about your body do you like, not like?”, “Have you ever had an abortion and how were you impacted by that experience ?”, “Who was your role model or mentor and how did that person influence, enhance or change your life?”, “What was your role in your family of origin?”, “What are your hopes, your dreams…and what deters you from realizing each of them?”
To provide an additional layer of safety and comfort to members, you were always personally responsible for how much you wanted to share, or whether or not you wished to speak to a particular subject at all.
As trust grew and members disclosed more freely, we ventured from surface sharing into deeper layers of exposure, establishing compelling emotional bonds and an almost mystical, divine connection. In the process of disclosing our personal selves, the circle became a place of unconditional acceptance and understanding….each member receiving unbridled acknowledgement, encouragement and support when needed.
Some disclosures were dark and painful….often never having before seen the light of day. Childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, abortion, trauma, shame, depression, anxiety…spoken about out loud, often for the first time.
In this sacred circle, we inspired one another to lean into discomfort, take the plunge and often make what would become life-altering decisions, for example….whether or not to have children, traveling to exotic vacation destinations with female friends, experimenting with sex toys, or affirming ourselves as we created partnership and an even playing field with our male partners regarding home care, child care and life responsibilities.
This behavior….acknowledging and asserting our needs and desires as females….and claiming a sense of independence and equality in our partnerships….were almost unheard of prior to the 1970’s.
We entered the circle as girls, we left as women.
Our group experienced a few adjustments in membership as the college professors moved on to new locations and left the State.
As a result, we added members….and the seven females in this newly formed group connected in a profound way creating an even higher network of commitment, deciding to meet more frequently, eventually on a weekly basis, for almost seven years.
In our new circle, we engaged in exercises and conversations that provided us opportunity to develop comfort with our bodies, our sexuality and sensuality….and consulted with the Boston Women’s Health Collective, a non-profit responsible for the book, “Our Bodies, Ourselves”.…a groundbreaking manual addressing sexuality and reproductive health, that drastically changed and influenced the women’s health movement around the world.
We stretched our purpose….and planned and conducted a circle evening with a local men’s group; wrote a collective letter to the editor of our local newspaper about exploitation of women in regard to an ad designed for a Waterville cocktail lounge; one of our artist members led us through a group art project creating a singular piece of work in which we all participated; we began keeping a diary of our meeting content and our collective programs and projects; a few of us went on to develop The Everywoman’s Center….providing a drop-in center, a library of feminist literature, a newsletter of articles of import to women, and a monthly dinner meeting that hosted guest speakers.
As the group evolved, our individual lives expanded as well.
One member left for Boston to seek a doctorate at Harvard; another utilized the group’s reassurance to begin a nursing program; two of us were inspired to pursue college degrees. I eventually got my Master’s and started my own psychotherapy practice.
We cherished one another.
We were each other’s coach and cheerleader. We all grew from our circle experience.
There is no doubt that my membership in this group….the stability, knowledge and inspiration it provided….gave me the confidence to take one step after another toward enlightenment and previously unimaginable goals.
“Circles” can be life changing.
“Peer-led, spirit-centered “circles” have helped women successfully face the challenge of our times,” as noted in “Calling the Circle”, a guide to developing a group circle practice, “where women sit together, pass a talking piece from person to person, speak clearly, listen compassionately, and make well-grounded decisions.”
Women have been creating circles of grounding and sharing since the beginning of time. As noted in the 2015 ‘Sacred Earth Journeys’ blog, “women have gathered in sacred circles throughout history….around a fire in prehistoric times, in hushed monasteries of the Middle Ages, in consciousness-raising groups in 1970’s living rooms or in online groups in the digital age, women have long congregated to laugh, share, heal, grieve and spiritually collect in community. In such gatherings, women can experience a deep authenticity within themselves – a truth or ‘realness’ that is often lacking as we tend to our day-to-day lives and its multitude of roles and responsibilities”.
We were no longer our mother’s daughters, though we ached for our mom’s whose choices were sadly, profoundly limited. Without modern discoveries like birth control, or access to personal credit, or job opportunities outside of the narrow range afforded them….their potential to thrive as powerful, equal beings to their male counterparts was almost obsolete. Few of our mom’s worked outside the home and if they did, generally it was in low-pay, inferior jobs with little if any opportunity for advancement.
We, their daughters, hoped for… and worked towards…a better life….one embracing change and choice.
Quoting Bolen again, “when women come together and make a commitment to each other to be in a circle with a spiritual center, they are creating a vessel of healing and transformation for themselves and a vehicle for change in the world”.
There may be no better time for women than now to assert that change.
Given the escalating hostile climate in our country regarding women….we currently have a mixed-bag of feminine potential and effectiveness. The unprecedented, powerful, “Me Too Movement” and the worldwide 2017 Women’s March protest advocating for legislation and policies regarding human rights, immigration and healthcare….are occurring in parallel to the name-calling and verbal assault on the character and abilities of women that is emanating from the White House….and the deplorable mocking of a truth-telling Professor at a hearing for an unqualified Supreme Court Justice.
I have also noted on a micro-level what appears to be steps backward for women in their 20’s and 30’s as I observe the co-dependent behaviors and subservient attitudes present in many of my heterosexual, young, female clients. What emerges is a pattern of denying “self”…placing the needs and wants of their partners before their own, expecting little in terms of mutually satisfying experiences, locked in relationships of accommodation and ‘other’ care, often relinquishing decision-making to the men in their lives….even foregoing their own sexual needs focused instead on pleasing their boyfriends and husbands.
These same young women….and women like them….watched the Kavanaugh hearing…..a torturous spectacle of denying women’s memories, women’s voices, women’s value, women’s rights.
I wonder…was the women’s movement all for naught?
But……perhaps there is hope….
We….women in our 60’s and 70’s….have developed a sage wisdom that we can employ to serve as muse to young women.
At our stage of life, we are experienced ‘badass goddesses’….women who have been baptized by fire to reach levels of self-confidence, self-respect, independence and self-reliance not experienced by previous generations of women.
We have been successful at partnering with our significant others in all aspects of life. We experience mutual understanding and respect. We negotiate needs. We are co-equals, co-creating a healthy, conscious, productive co-existence.
As a result, we have the capacity to fully embrace and enjoy the lives we desire….and deserve….to have.
Even now, at sixty-eight, I am a member of a women’s group….have been for over six years. We meet one day a month…start with a communal breakfast, meditation, share in a sacred circle space….and then relax together over lunch. I bask in the divine knowledge and wisdom of five other women….all therapists….in one of the most welcoming, authentic, loving, supportive, playful, fierce, ego-less, feedback-filled spaces of my life.
The women lingering on deck…. in the generation behind us….are in need of our encouragement….our knowledge…our guidance….our wisdom.
This is a rallying cry to my wise crone sisters, to seek creative ways to impart your precious knowing to younger females that matter to us. Develop open-ended conversations, be curious, share your experiences growing up female, cite what has helped you to become the woman you were meant to be…..
…..perhaps suggest and reintroduce the concept of creating empowering sacred circles.
“There is nothing so wise as a circle” ….Rainer Maria Rilke
We have much to share, fellow goddesses….young girls and women are thirsty for our knowledge….
…..time to pass the baton….