The Red Tent

Anita Diamant’s historical novel, “The Red Tent”, published in 1997 is the deeply compelling and affecting account of Dinah, a minor character in the Bible, which reveals the traditions and turmoil of ancient womanhood – the world of the red tent. Dinah’s story reaches out from a remarkable period of early history and creates an intimate connection with the past. It talks of love, endurance, and a call to midwifery – being ‘with woman.’

Image credit; Fancycrave1
As a former midwife, I have had the exceptional privilege of being 'with woman' at times in the lives of women when they are at their most magnificent, terrified, peaceful, empowered, fulfilled, euphoric and vulnerable. Although I am not a member of a Red Tent, my experiences with women have given me a powerful love and respect for them, as well as a relatively rare insight into the benefits that a woman can gain from having other women present at pivotal moments in their lives. As an advocate for women, I trust in the relationships and partnerships that women can develop with each other which can nurture them throughout their lives and the lives of others connected with them.
Image credit: Rosy

Red Tents are a global movement of women coming together and finding time to just be where they are, meet other women in their community and enjoy the opportunity to share in a deeper way than they might usually do. They are about creating some room in the life of women, to share stories, support each other, and see what transpires without a specific goal or outcome in mind. They are also about building community, finding how easy it is to be in the company of others and be nourished by the time together, recharging for the month ahead. In essence, they are gatherings of menstruating women but a more modern interpretation of the Red Tent's ethos is that it welcomes all women; sisters, mothers, menstruating girls, menopausal women, young mums, grandmothers, and friends to attend a monthly gathering where they are welcomed as they are and as all of who they are.
Sunset in West Wales. Image credit: Niki Rathmell

Traditionally the Red Tent performed a number of functions, including: rite of passage instruction and ceremonies, teaching and sharing of healing methods, teaching and sharing of pampering and beauty treatments, meditation and healing for self and the greater community, sharing of recipes, child rearing tips and life experience, sharing of personal stories and parables for spiritual teaching, counselling and emotional support, lunar and seasonal sacred ceremonies, and teaching and sharing of crafts.
"Self-care is how you take your power back" - Lalah Delia
As it has been for millennia, Red Tent gatherings usually occur with the new moon - the time when the moon is at its thinnest and darkest - symbolising a time when insecurities, vulnerabilities and old wounds are apt to surface and create a shadow in our lives that we try to hide from others. By learning to accept and heal our shadow, we grow in our acceptance of the natural process of ageing.  It is for this reason women of all indigenous societies for thousands of years gathered together at this time to reflect upon their lives, offering emotional support and healing to one another. The new moon is also the time when most women experience their ‘moontime’ or Tian Gui  (heavenly water) as it is known in traditional Chinese medicine.
Image credit: Birrell Walsh

A modern day red tent usually involves a circle of like-minded women sharing with each other and allowing each woman to have some time to express herself. It might be enough for the rest of the circle just to listen to her, to witness her. Or it might be a discussion on spirituality, astrology, menstruation, health, menopause, some kind of support on her life journey, gentle motivation, or setting an empowering intention.

"Menopause comes knocking at our door, burning us up with strange longings. Wild as the berries in the basket of the wise old woman in all the best fairytale forests, it comes to wake us up, to revivify the magic that was lost to most of us when we left childhood behind." - From Hagitude: Reimagining the Second Half of Life by Sharon Blackie

Red Tents are as varied and diverse as the women who attend them (importantly, many of them welcome anyone who identifies as a woman). The gatherings are safe and supportive while remaining open and flexible to the specific needs of the women who attend. At each monthly meeting, intentions are set to take time out of busy lives, slow down, rest, talk, share food, enjoy creative pursuits, and take part in other activities that fulfil their needs. By coming together in this way each month, they are able to be more present in their own lives and the lives they share with others. When they meet in Red Tents they are also connected, in their practice and intention, to all the other women who are holding Red Tents across the world.
Women supporting women
One of our local Red Tents, here in CraftCourses' neck of the woods is run by Lara Morgan, a friend and former colleague who very kindly spent some time with me to talk about it and also to have our own 'mini' Red Tent with a little creativity, some delicious food and, much later, a bit of a dance at a 'Twmpath', a Welsh  word literally meaning a 'hump': at one time it signified the mound on the village green where musicians sat and played for the community to dance, and today it has come to mean the event itself... a raucous, hot night of traditional steps, folk music, and refreshments - in this case, kombucha and cake!
Image credit: Gerd Altmann
But, before the evening of hopping, skipping, whirling and music, the creative activity of choice was macrame. Due to the general level of nattering, and our fledgling macrame artist status, we kept it to a very simple project - a plant hanger - while we had a general catch up about life and then a chat about the Red Tent that Lara runs from a yurt in her garden. 
Lara feels a huge connection to the women in her Red Tent and believes wholeheartedly in the collective values of the Red Tent movement:

  • We are and we only are fully responsible for ourselves.
  • We work in service, with clarity, openness and respect for each other and every woman. 
  • We meet our own needs before we give our time, energy and resources to this work. We encourage other women to do the same because we believe that learning to meet our own needs before supporting others is a vital lesson for many of us. From a place of fullness we have so much more to give.
A painterly interpretation of the Red Tent - artist unknown
Although Lara's Red Tent was initially held in other venues, including on our fabulous Poppit Beach, her commitment to the group that she founded is evident in the yurt that sits invitingly in her wonderfully abundant (and occasionally wild) garden. When you enter through the ornately decorated door, you find yourself in a warm, colourful space draped in bright fabrics that bring a cosiness conducive to talking and sharing. It's circular nature and comfy seating invites the women to relax and feel able to share as they sit within that circle. When each woman wishes to speak, she holds a talking stick and that is her time entirely to speak about anything pertinent to her own experience whether that is something joyful or sad, and it is without shame, judgement or fear. A soon to be installed wood burning stove will ensure the group's cosy nature can continue throughout the winter months and, in some way, emulates the fire that would have been a focal point of Red Tents in the past.
Lara's yurt
Creative activities are decided on by the group with the women often bringing their own ideas, but with Lara providing a guiding hand and holding the space for them to fully engage in the significance and symbology of each one. Many are connected to nature, the earth, and family and always hold womanhood at their centre. Activities such as creating memory bundles, making cloth bags with 'labia-like' embellishments, or putting together period packs to donate to women and girls struggling in the community, give a sense of collective purpose and intention. 

"Thank you for such a deep and nourishing Red Tent last night, creating and sharing our bundles. A beautiful space Lara held with love xx"
Talking sticks in the centre circle
In the past, women's gatherings were nearly always multi-generational - a birthing woman, for instance, might have her sisters, mother, aunts, and grandmothers present to hold, support and comfort her during her labour, birth and in the hours, days and weeks afterwards. The Red Tent is a return to those values that once were the norm and which are now, on the whole, lost in the annals of time. Women taking time to care both for themselves and the others in their group, is so natural, warm, nurturing and positive that it is a valuable reminder that the traditions of the past should not be forsaken in the rush and haste of modern life. Women of all ages and life stages are invaluable in holding that space for each other.

“I want to build a moon lodge

where old womyn braid my hair

brushing slowly, gently

the tangles of my life free

where there are no walls

only painted cloth

flowing, circling

blanketing me from the world”

~ Jessica Todd
Bathed in a circle of light
Are you thinking of setting up a Red Tent in your area? Perhaps you are feeling inspired to meet more women locally and join thousands of women meeting in Red Tents worldwide. Could you create a space for women to share, connect and authentically be; a space for women to share their stories, rest and gain strength from being together and supporting one another; a space for women to meet their own needs, to respect and understand their bodies, and to fuel their well-being by the accepting and supportive company of other women, feeling and offering solace and sisterhood.
The moon and the womb

For further reading:

WOB - The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

 WOB - Red Tents by Mary Ann Clements

WOB - Maidens in the Red Tent by Mary McCrystal 

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