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.