By Christina Mellen
I came to the Red Tent through a circuitous route. If anyone could have told me twenty years ago in my college days that I would passionately participate in a group that celebrates the womb, that perilous territory hotly contested by both religion and politics, well, I would never have believed them. I was too busy spiking my hair and enrolling in Women’s Studies classes, absorbing the falsely empowering doctrine that gender is simply a construct of society that we as a rational society would, in some unrealized future, evolve beyond. Fast forward twenty years, and I am engaged in a conversation with a female friend a few years younger, but with the same preconceived notion. When I invited her to visit the Red Tent that had just begun meeting in her community, she responded “I don’t participate in gender-based groups.” She then shared a story about teaching children to knit in her art class. She said she won’t offer the class until just as many boys sign up as girls, and surprisingly the boys seem just as interested. She says she doesn’t see gender, and I feel torn.
The part of me still stubbornly clinging to the ideals of feminism-though I’m often told they are as outdated as my k.d. lang-styled bolo tie- wants to agree with her. However, soon after college, many of my feminist friends went on to get married and have children, heeding the calling of that anatomy that our philosophical musings about the nature of woman left out in the cold. I did not feel a great emotional or psychological need to procreate so I got along fine disowning this part of my embodied self, thanks to the modern miracle of the birth control pill.
Since then I have been married and divorced. I have explored women’s spirituality groups led by wise women in herb shops who seemed full of New Age joy but soon proved to be post-menopausal man-bashers. I found my own “Ya Ya sisterhood” of women writers and poets who worshiped the Goddess on seasonal holidays. I’ve hollered, hooted and cried communally at “The Vagina Monologues.” But it wasn’t until a fellow Goddess worshiper at my Unitarian church begged me for several consecutive months to come to Red Tent that I started having something to look forward to once a month instead something to cyclically gripe about. Over the last two years of sharing space and stories, solace and soup, in community with women in various stages in their fertility cycle, my own silenced womb has begun to speak in its own voice and I have begun to listen.
At forty-one I am finally contemplating the place that nurturing has in my life now and may have in the future. An early identifier with the option not to have children, I am in a place of openness, honesty and consideration about this life choice. When I read the novel by Anita Diamante that holds the same title as this growing national movement, I was drawn to the womens’ sisterhood and strength and the way they maintained their sacred secret world, honoring the Goddess under the noses of the patriarchy. I longed for that closeness, that solidarity. I loved the sensuality of birth- among these experienced women, I imagined I would be less fearfully fear facing my own travail.
The reality of this growing force of mutual empowerment–connecting through our common experience and witnessing each other’s differences without judgment–surpassed the serene escape of fiction. At the Red Tent each month, we share and create our own story. We check our titles and egos, fears and fierceness, at the door, and enter into vulnerability and introspection together. Among the crimson tapestries and candlelight so lovingly and artfully arranged by familiar hands in acts of service and joy, we can finally lay down our arms, breathing a little more deeply. In that vulva cathedral, the weight and expectations of the world are far away.
And when we emerge each month self-renewed, our cups filled, we find we have more to give back to our jobs, family and loved ones. We find we are changing the world by finally asking the questions that academic and political feminism shied away from—defining ourselves as women not by our past or by the roles we refuse, but by who we are now and who we are becoming—a more compassionate and empowered society than our embattled grandmothers could ever have imagined.