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"The Red Tent: A Woman-space Phenomenon"

by Tracie Welser

Off Our Backs. Washington: 2007. Vol. 37, Iss. 2/3; pg. 41, 4 pgs

 

Abstract (Summary)

At gatherings and festivals, Red Tent facilitators offer intimate spaces for women to meet and discuss issues such as body image, self-acceptance and the sacred feminine.

 

WHEN ANITA DIAMANT'S NOVEL The Red Tent was first published in 1997, it didn't cause much of a stir. According to Newsweek reviewer Susannah Meadows, thousands of copies of the imaginative story of a minor biblical character named Dinah lingered in warehouses after a lackluster debut. In a surprising move, the author herself began a campaign to enhance the book's appeal: by word-of-mouth. Copies were sent to rabbis, female Christian ministers and independent booksellers. Within months, the book's popularity soared, and reviewers began to take notice. Recently, the book hit several bestseller lists and was optioned for a film version. But what makes this book remarkable, in spite of reviews that characterize the book as melodramatic and revisionist, is the response of women around the world to the premise referred to in the novel's title: the importance of creating women-only spaces.

 

The Red Tent is the retelling of events in the book of Genesis (chapter 34), of the family of Jacob and his wives, daughters and sons. As Jacob's only daughter, Dinah is barely mentioned in the Bible, the victim of a rape avenged by her brothers. In Diamant's retelling, Dinah is the narrator, allowing the reader to become acquainted with her as a central character rather than a secondary one. In a world of restrictive patriarchy, Dinah takes comfort and gains wisdom in the red tent, a refuge for women (and a required segregation from the company of men) during times of menses or childbirth.

 

Many Jewish and Christian women have embraced Diamant's book; interestingly, a great number of women who see themselves as neither have also been captivated by the idea. As one reviewer, Christine Schoefer of New Moon Network magazine, prophetically noted, "I expect that reading this book will awaken in women the longing for a red tent and the wisdom that women shared there." Although at least one rabbi has publicly stated that there is no proof this proto-feminist tradition ever existed in biblical times, and the author herself acknowledges that it is mostly her own creation, a number of Red Tent groups have formed based On the idea.

 

For feminists, the creation of women-only spaces is nothing new. But with the advent of this novel, a revived, larger and more mainstream acceptance of woman-space has become apparent, in the form of permanent spaces and organized meet-ups, virtual Red Tent groups, and mobile spaces arranged at festivals. These groups have manifested with differing modes and purposes: to share menstrual and birthing information, for spiritual reasons, for the purpose of activism, to simply provide a safe haven for women's voices or a combination of these.

 

The Red Tent Women's Project of Brooklyn is one example of a permanent woman-space. Just over a year old, the Project is a center for women in the New York area, providing workshops, support groups and organizing space for activism. Most events and workshops are free and open to women of all backgrounds. According to the Project's website, the main goals of the organizers are educating and empowering women. They currently offer yoga and meditation classes, a women writers group, a support group for motherless daughters, empowerment workshops, a book club and more. The Project also has an ongoing Clothesline Project display that is continuously growing.

 

In the virtual world, numerous groups based on a Red Tent model exist, including blogs, myspace and Yahoo groups. A particularly noteworthy instance is www.theredtent.tribe.net, created in 2004. This is a forum-style site with overt interest in the biological aspects of women's knowledge and a Goddess-centered perspective. With over 600 members, the message board could be a bit more robust, but topics are up-to-date, and a strong sense of community is evident. Many touching testimonials to the power of women's spaces, as well as questions, recommendations and support, are posted there. After attending a Red Tent gathering at this year's Womongathering, one member remarked, "The Red Tent is alive and well. The message needs to be carried to every woman, everywhere." The Goddess, she says, "gives us this creative, divine spark, so that we can find our way out of the underworld and show the light for our sisters so that they can get out too." In this way, the virtual presence of Red Tent culture is a safe haven for women's voices and a link to face-to-face experiences.

 

At gatherings and festivals, Red Tent facilitators offer intimate spaces for women to meet and discuss issues such as body image, self-acceptance and the sacred feminine. Organizers and participants alike are passionate about the Red Tent and often form lasting friendships. One example is the Red Tent Tribe of Florida Pagan Gathering (FPG). FPG is a twice-annual event that takes place in Ocala, Florida. In 2004, women of FPG chose to dedicate a space as exclusively woman-space (FPG is not a women's festival, but a four-day gathering open to all people of pagan and Goddess faiths). Inspired by Diamant's book, the women worked to establish a presence at the event, or as they call it, "a festival womb space." Their stated purpose is "to honor and represent Women's traditional sense of solidarity." They welcome all women to participate in the Red Tent, which takes physical form as a lovely canopy draped with red curtains and festooned with Goddess prayer flags, wind chimes, and bits of lace and velvet. Inside, rugs, cushions, and perhaps even chocolates offer visitors a welcoming atmosphere. Enthusiasm for temporary spaces like this one attests to the appeal of the Red Tent as a specific type of woman-space.

 

Even if you have not read Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, it is plain that this book published in 1997 has made a lasting impact on women's culture in the United States and elsewhere (it has been published in twenty-five countries). The yearning that many women feel for women's spaces, and the creation of those spaces online, in permanent places and temporary spaces, demonstrates the strength and power of ideas to change women's lives for the better.

 

What follows is a portion of an interview by Tracie Welser with one the FPG Red Tent organizers, Melora Asherah Firepixie.

 

Who can I say was/is the founder of this Red Tent at FPG? I got the Idea that it was mostly you, but I want to be accurate.

 

MAF: There are four key facilitators that have helped the Red Tent grow to what you see at FPG today: Ann Marie Augustino, Lynn Carol Henderson, Lady Skyefire, and myself.

 

How did the book The Red Tent Influence you?

 

I read this book in 2004. The story became a bridge to the past for me. I immediately felt connected to these women in certain aspects-their relationships with each other, their relationships within their community, and their place in society as a whole. I saw this book as a tool to helping me reshape and reaffirm my personal female relationships in a very subtle and specific way. This book as a whole helped me better appreciate the relationships I had and long for the closeness the characters felt for each other. The book became the lead topic of Women's Circle at FPG October 2004, and from that meeting of thirty women grew the Red Tent, which made its debut in May 2005.

 

For feminists, the creation of women-only spaces is nothing new. But with the advent of this novel, a revived, larger and more mainstream acceptance of woman-space has become apparent...

 

START YOUR OWN RED TENT

 

What advice would you give to women who want to start a tent in their area? The first piece of advice I would give women is to draw on active support from their fellow sisters. A Red Tent should be created with the love and fellowship of our sisters. It is also created with actual assistance! Draw on strengths from everywhere and delegate responsibilities to make this truly a community effort. Assign everyone who wants to be a part of creating a women's space one or two tasks, and accept any/all donations. The first Red Tent was put together by just three of us, and we provided all the decorations, led every workshop. It was beautiful and successful-but hard work and loving effort. Now we have a multitude of physical volunteers to assist us and an additional facilitator to assume more responsibilities. This takes time, so share the responsibilities to make this happen and it will.

 

The second piece of advice is to start sharing ideas, talk to each other, ask questions about each other and really listen to each other. This conversation thread was the very first Red Tent meeting place and the true definition of a Red Tent.

 

Set up a "Mission Statement" right away so that volunteers and coordinators can work towards a common known goal. The Red Tent is designed to forge a sacred women's space for sharing ideas and life stories. The Red Tent bridges the gap for women to communicate with each other because we share a common thread-we are women! Creating a space where age, race, life experience, family, sexual orientation and religion disappear-if only for a short while-is a place for us to share and listen to each other.

 

The third and final piece of advice is to lead with your heart. Listen to your inner voice and follow your instincts. Women may not even know that they are missing this sisterhood of friendship until you share it with them. The Red Tent stirs up a bond among women that they can take with them to other places. This happens when you share with your heart and soul. So follow your heart and a whole sisterhood will be waiting to embrace you with open arms. -T.W.

 

The story became a bridge to the past for me. I immediately felt connected to these women in certain aspects-their relationships with each other, their relationships within their community, and their place in society as a whole.

 

TRACIE WELSER teaches writing at Polk Community College. She is graduate of the University of South Florida Women's Studies Master's Program. She enjoys writing, yoga, cats and lounging in red tents.