Strength in Numbers

When crisis happens, women gather, encircling those in need with comfort, support, love. Circles of women are powerful things, something our ancestors who used to gather in this way knew only too well. Perhaps it’s time we all started gathering again, says Lucy Jones…

My mother recently had to go into hospital. She is single, and there is only my sister and me around who can support her. Or so I thought.

Since the first day she was admitted to hospital, women from all corners of her life have materialised in our lives with beautiful grace. My aunts have driven from all over England to be with her in hospital and to sit around my kitchen table and make plans, so that my sister and I are not alone. An ex-nurse friend of hers, who has recently had a hip replacement, has issued orders and translated doctor jargon from her own recuperation bed, while another friend has shared her diary with me so I can coordinate visiting times.

My friends have dropped off food, sent messages, brought me flowers and turned up with hugs. My sister-in-law, another ex-nurse, rings me every day on the way back from hospital to help me make sense of the latest test results.

Other friends have invited my children over for play dates or have done the school run, while others have listened while I ranted, without once questioning my rage or sadness.

Together, this group of women has encircled my sister and me, wrapping their arms around us, holding us in the centre of this impossible time with instinctive compassion.

And there are stories like this throughout all women’s lives. When the husband of Sheryl Sandberg, formerly COO of Facebook, died suddenly, her group of six friends rallied round to be there for her. When, in the dark weeks after his funeral, she emailed them all to say ‘someone come’, they responded with total commitment. ‘They have jobs. One of them has five kids. They are busy.

But I knew that they weren’t gonna fight over who wasn’t coming. They were gonna fight about who would. They’re always there,’ she told Desert Island Discs in 2017.

Cancer survivor and coach Christine Handy, who writes and speaks about the role of faith in her recovery, recalls how her friends supported her and gave her a reason to keep going during the painful months of chemotherapy. ‘One day, I came back from chemotherapy and my mother was on one side of me and my father was on the other side of me, carrying me into my house because I was so violently ill. And my father opened the front door, and inside, all over my house, were yellow sticky notes and on every sticky note was a scripture from the Bible,’ she told a podcast in 2021. ‘My friends had come over while I was at chemo and papered my house in scripture. Now I was looking at Bible verses instead of my pretty porcelain and my Prada bag. And it gave me hope.’

Women have always done this for each other. We rally. We come together when the worst happens. But, centuries ago, we didn’t do this only in a crisis – we gathered together all the time. We lived with our relatives – our aunts, our grandmothers, our cousins. We supported each other through marriage, babies, loss, illness. We gathered at kitchen tables, cooking stoves, fires, in wash houses and around cotton looms, sick beds and gravesides. We made things while we talked, we sorted out problems while we worked, we raised each other’s children, heard each other’s stories, healed each other’s aches and pains, and we knew that this village – this true village of women – was always there.

‘There is so much power in uniting. Especially when you unite women,’ says Handy. ‘When we stand with each other for months and months and seasons after seasons, then really we’re unstoppable.’

Recently, there has been a shift towards gathering women together in this way with more regularity, to try to reconnect with some of that ancient and instinctive wisdom that bound us all together.

Women’s circles aim to bring women together regularly in a safe, held space to emulate those times when we felt part of a village, encircled by our community of women. While there would have traditionally been a central fire around which women gathered, now they meet around candles or lanterns, with nature altars reflecting the seasons, as well as crystals, talismans and healing stones. Many circles now even meet online, a virtual and literal web of support fanning out across the globe. Space is left for the sharing of stories and there is time for reflection, meditation, rituals and blessings.

At Sister Stories, founder Gemma Brady, who also offers women’s circle-leadership training, runs a circle journey over the course of six months. Her latest offering, called » ‘Tender’, is a women’s circle designed to hold space for developing a deeper relationship to yourself and treating yourself with reverence and care. ‘Tender is medicine for the heart, a place where expansion meets deep holding,’ she says. ‘It is an access point to finding the tools to support you through the most challenging of times… To feeling the ways in which we can allow ourselves to be held by others if we open ourselves to it.’

The backbone of this programme, and all Brady’s work, is circle, which she describes as an intimate, guided space in which you can share and be held and which crucially brings women together with regularity so that they can come to rely on this time each week or fortnight.

For Nicola Wood, who runs Women Replanting and trained with Brady, a circle is a wonderful way for women to make gathering together a regular habit. ‘I believe that we all have within us the answers that we seek. Sometimes, it helps if we are welcomed into a space with an invitation to slow down, be held in community, given permission to unfurl, peel back the layers and masks we wear day to day and feel truly seen and listened to,’ says Wood.

Circles can take many forms, with lots of them focusing on a specific aspect of women’s lives. Across the world, many women have set up Red Tent circles, which take their inspiration from the red tents used in tribal society. Red tents were traditionally menstrual huts, a space for women to retire from all tasks for a few days each month. ‘A Red Tent is a red textile space where women gather to rest, renew and often share deep and powerful stories about their lives,’ explains Isadora Leidenfrost, whose documentary Things We Don’t Talk About: Women’s Stories from the Red Tent goes behind the scenes of this unique space.

‘The Red Tent movement is changing the way that women interact and support each other by providing a place that honours and celebrates women,’ says Leidenfrost. Some women create red fabric spaces specifically to honour their menstruation, and meet on a monthly basis, while others offer workshops, discussion or simple circle spaces.

In London, Anoushka Florence, who founded The Goddess Space, runs a Mama Village circle alongside Debbie Raynor, a trained holistic Waldorf practitioner, focusing specifically on the motherhood experience. ‘It’s a space created for conscious mamas seeking to find a tribe of like-spirited women,’ says Florence. ‘A space created for mamas to connect back to themselves, their babies, nature and each other.’ Florence describes the circle as a ‘journey’, asking that each woman commits to meeting weekly and starting to grow a supportive community of women on which they can all rely. ‘This is an ode to rebuilding the village… We will come together in circle where we can openly discuss the joys and challenges of raising a child in this modern world. Creating an open space to share our stories, a space to be heard, listened to and witnessed.’

Online, Katie Beete runs her Seven Mothers Circle, holding space for a group of seven women from across the UK and beyond, to specifically help them to connect with what they need and having those needs met. ‘Circle is a perfect space to go within and ask the questions we may have been avoiding asking and to seek the medicine we need,’ says Beete. ‘It is so important to understand as mothers and women what our needs are and where they are not being met.’

With a specific focus on grief, Nici Harrison has created a circle space that allows anyone grieving to connect with their grief, share their story and experience grief as part of a community. ‘Grief circles are ancient. For thousands of years, across different cultures and continents, people have been coming together in circle to share in life’s joy and pain,’ says Harrison. ‘Within a grief circle, you will be held and supported throughout. You can expect an exploration of grief tending, guided meditation, group sharing and soothing poetry or music to support us integrate our grief.’

Of course, women’s circles do their most powerful work simply by bringing women together in a space that is held and safe from judgement.

Women are welcomed to circle as their unapologetically authentic selves, supporting each other by sharing their stories and witnessing those of others, always being accepted for who they really are. ‘Going to circle is like coming up for air,’ says Charlotte Sarre from Spiral.In, who runs circles online and in London and also trained with Brady.

‘In a world where we are often expected to play a certain role, that of the mother, the colleague, the partner, the friend, I believe that having a space where we can be unapologetically ourselves is a necessity. I believe it’s one of the most important acts of self-care a woman can gift herself.’

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