In a recent blog on Feminism and Religion, “Insights on Sisterhood,” Eirini Delaki opened a dialogue about problems that arise in women’s circles. According to her, many of us are reacting against the poisonous pedagogy of control which is all too familiar in patriarchal families and patriarchal cultural, religious, and economic institutions. Desiring to be free of hierarchical structures that inhibit our growth and happiness, we often react against all structures.
We imagine that groups without structure will provide a space where we can learn and grow together. We begin with a vision of sisterhood in which everyone’s voice will be heard. In practice, however, groups without structure usually end up being dominated by those with the loudest voices and the biggest egos. The quieter and less sure members of the group find themselves dominated again. When the vision of sisterhood is not realized, the group is likely to dissolve.
In the early 1970s I took part in a consciousness-raising group of about ten or twelve women. If I remember correctly, we met once a week to discuss an agreed upon topic, such as our feelings about our bodies, our love relationships, our mothers, our dreams for careers. To ensure that everyone had a chance to and would speak, we each spoke in turn about our experience in relation to the topic, before we began a general discussion of it.
This was a “structure” we had read about, and it worked relatively well. Occasionally someone talked longer than the others, but sometimes this was necessary, and in any case, we all got a chance to speak. Because we had all spoken at the outset, it was less likely that a few would dominate the others when we moved on to discussion.
When I began to teach, my goal was to encourage each student to think deeply about the required readings in relation to her or his own life. I expected the students to have read the assigned texts and to have considered whether the readings answered important questions everyone asks—or should ask—about the meaning of life and our place in it. I hoped that in group discussion we would deepen our questions and find answers together.
In the classroom setting, I was the facilitator as well as a participant. I would share my own reactions to the readings on both a personal and intellectual level in order to encourage others to do the same. One of my roles as teacher was to ensure that everyone got a chance to speak. If someone was speaking too much, I did not hesitate to say, “Let’s see if someone who has not spoken yet has something to say.” I also was not afraid to call on students who had not spoken—not to humiliate them (as is too often the case), but rather because I firmly believe that every student (who had done the reading) has something to contribute to the discussion, even if it only to express a confusion or to ask question. I also made it clear that students were expected to have done the reading.
On the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete we have a women’s circle on most nights. Here too there are structures designed to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. We begin the circle with an affirmation. Each of us says, “I am whole, I am here, I am (name).” The group repeats this back three times. “You are whole, you are here, you are Karolina. You are whole you are here, you are Karolina. You are whole, you are here, you are Karolina.”
It is amazing how powerful this simple process can be. We not only learn each other’s names, but we also affirm ourselves and are affirmed by the others. This gives us confidence and trust to share deeply in the circle. I first came up with this idea as a way for us to learn each other’s names in one of my classes. But even after we knew each other, the students insisted that we begin each class with the affirmations.
I also set a few “rules” or “structures” for sharing in our circle. I explain that the goal is for each of us to share deeply and reflect upon her own experiences. I note that as the experience of one of us resonates in the experience of another, we “hear each other into speech,” as Nelle Morton so eloquently stated. Our “rules” are simple. We acknowledge each other’s words and experiences, but we do not offer advice or try to “fix” each others’ problems. This is lesson I learned in group therapy: playing the therapist can be a way of taking control of a situation and distancing ourselves from difficult feelings. We also do not engage in intellectual discussions or disagreements in the circle, for this too can be a way of controlling and distancing. “There will be plenty of other times,” I say, “to offer advice or to discuss theological and philosophical issues on the bus or during meals.”
As in my classrooms, I sometimes take the lead in sharing deeply, in order to set an example. If someone has already spoken, I will ask her to wait to see if there are others who want to speak, before speaking again. If no one is ready to share, I do not hesitate to let the group sit in silence for several minutes. Sometimes this allows space for words to emerge.
When I began to write this blog, I thought I remembered that Heide Goettner-Abendroth had written that “egalitarian matriarchal societies have well-established structures of participatory democracy in order to ensure that everyone’s voice will be heard.” Reviewing her essay “The Deep Structure of Matriarchal Society” in Societies of Peace, I did not find these exact words. However, she does describe the “structures” that lead to consensus decision-making in egalitarian matriarchal groups. This could be the subject of another blog.
Here, I will I will simply note that the alternative to structures of control by the dominant is not “no structure,” but rather, carefully thought-out structures that ensue that everyone’s voice will be heard. The alternative to hierarchical leadership is not “no leaders,” but rather leaders tasked with the goal of ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and acknowledged.
*The featured image is by Arna Barrtz.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.
Carol will be participating in the webinar Dignity of Women Across the World’s Wisdom on Wednesday, March 18, 2020
1:00 PM – 2:30 PM EDT (US). Register to tune in.
15 thoughts on “Women’s Circles Need Well-Established Structures to Ensure that Everyone’s Voice Is Heard by Carol P. Christ”
Great post! The artist is Arna Barrtz!
Brava! And I love the image of the circle. Hooray for Arna Barrtz.
I have facilitated and belonged to numerous women’s groups. In some of them, we used a “talking stick,” which is some object (not often a real stick but a little goddess figure) that a woman would hold while she spoke, and then pass to the next woman so she could speak. Yes, occasionally I (or another woman) would say, as politely as possible, that a woman had been speaking too long and it was time for her to pass the talking stick along. Women seldom objected to this.
I have also belonged to groups run by consensus, i.e., everyone had to vote or agree before any action would be taken. Sometimes those groups got nothing done. We need leaders, even if they’re gentle leaders. When you’ve grown up and gone to school and belonged to groups run on the boss (i.e., patriarchal) model, it can be hard to make changes. Carol, you’re doing splendid work. Don’t stop!
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Carol, this is so right on. I have recently found myself wanting to lead in two of my women’s groups. The reason, not because I want to be a leader but because of the egocentric way that the de facto leaders of these groups lead and because inclusion is my passion. I want to make sure that everyone has the chance to speak, the time to prepare to speak, and feels heard when they speak. But that wasn’t happening. Surely these leaders, who can often be heard saying, well I should lead because I’ve been doing it for decades, had a passion for inclusion at some point. But they lost it. In one of these groups, a different structure would have helped. In the other, we had structure but the leader’s ego and lack of empathy and sensitivity was too overwhelming for the structure to work against it.
Thank you for speaking about this issue and for your insights and experience on ways to resolve it. I also appreciate how you applied it in the classroom too!
Yes I do think it is best if a group shares a commitment to hearing everyone speak. But that also is why we need leadership, I think, and not just talking sticks for example, but we need leaders who are not egotistical but who really do believe that other people’s perspectives have value and who really do believe that the best decisions come when everyone has had a chance to speak.Such leaders can help the group to speak and listen to each other.
And yes good leaders must be empathetic and sensitive to the feelings of others.
May it be so
Informative post Carol – I agree with virtually everything you said – I liked especially your reference to being willing to share deeply in your classes – As a teacher I often did the same thing to encourage thoughtful in depth discussion – I also did this as a therapist – and might add I was criticized for my refusal to distance myself from anyone I worked with. Your words “playing the therapist can be a way of taking control of a situation and distancing ourselves from difficult feelings” really resonated with me…thanks so much!!!!!.
You are so right! In carefully thought out structures everyone’s voice has a chance to be heard –
Carol, the affirmation circle is so perfect. There are just so many variations that might embrace us: “I am beautiful, I am here, I am ..”, “I am strong …”, “I am wonderful …”, “I am perfect…” etc. etc. Thank you for your always insightful, thoughtful posts.
Great post, Carol. While teaching Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I used all of these techniques, although our check-in was less structured than the affirmations of your spiritual circle. Since I taught during the very first years of Women’s Studies, my philosophy was that together class participants and I were creating this new discipline. Our classes were often similar to consciousness-raising sessions, depending on the subject matter. I would only add one other technique. Because we vary in our extroversion, it is often useful to break a larger group into smaller groups — twos or threes or even fours — so that those who are more introverted feel safe to speak. Then the smaller groups relate their discussions back to the larger group, and often a more extroverted woman will tell the class about something she appreciated from a quieter woman in her group.
Yes, good point, I do that sometimes too.
In teaching I try to create a balance between personal sharing in relation to the readings (not just anything that someone might be feeling at the moment) and discussing the readings. I continually find that once students are given permission to share personally they may think that means they don’t have to do the reading or respond personally in relation to the reading. Same old either-or problem. But when the balance between the two is achieved, classes can be magical.
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That is my method in class discussion too!
I often did the same thing while teaching women’s studies – depending on the size of the group.
These things need saying again and again. Otherwise they run the risk of being lost.
I first came across these ideas fifty years ago, in an essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman (versions are on the web). And we still have to keep learning them.
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Thanks, Carol. I have been in many, many groups, since the very early 70s, and have experienced all sorts of structures that worked and didn’t work. The guidelines you illustrate for a workable structure is what I thought of when I began reading the article. A good, equitable structure allows all to be heard and to contribute. As a teacher and sometime group leader, I have learned how important it is to make sure that all get to speak, to hold space for those who are quiet(er), to speak up, and to shut up. And this goes for any and all genders.
I love that opening affirmation for beginning a circle! I may adopt that when we are able to resume meeting in person again. I wanted to comment on your closing: “Here, I will I will simply note that the alternative to structures of control by the dominant is not “no structure,” but rather, carefully thought-out structures that ensue that everyone’s voice will be heard. The alternative to hierarchical leadership is not “no leaders,” but rather leaders tasked with the goal of ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and acknowledged.”
BINGO! One of the challenges I’ve run into over my 12+ years at leading women’s circles is having “no structure”/”no leader” being somehow viewed or presented as most desirable/ideal and then…surprise…the whole container falls apart/never even gets going. I have had to gently balance “safe, open, welcoming, nurturing space” with “and we still need a few guidelines and a basic *shape* to structure our container/interactions/experiences together.” I truly think all the members of our current circle share a sense of “ownership” over the circle experience and that has taken very careful tending to nourish and support.