Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Things We Don’t Talk About: Healing Narratives from the Red Tent

March 19th, 2012 by Chris Bobel

What would the world be like if young women were mentored by older women?

What would the world be like if we knew we had a place for our stories to be told?

So intones the voiceover at the start of the trailer of a forthcoming film.

And it is right on time.

The recent media attention paid to Tomi- Ann Roberts and Nikki Dunnavant’s research recent re: religious identification and menstrual traditions has got me thinking (more than usual) about women, bonding and menses. Roberts and Dunnavant’s religious women harbored more negative attitudes toward their periods than their secular counterparts, but they reported a sense of woman-to-woman connection during their menstruation that non-religious women did not.

So how do we create community and lose the shame?

Red tents anyone?

“Things We Don’t Talk About: Healing Narratives from the Red Tent” explores the increasing reach of the “Red Tent Temple Movement” seeded by women’s empowerment facilitator Alisa Starkweather and inspired by Anita Diamant’s 1997 bestselling novel The Red Tent – a rich fictionalized treatment of biblical character Dinah. In the novel, Dinah and her tribeswomen gather during their menses in a sacred women-only space.

The practice in a book became a movement.

Starkweather and others in more than 50 red tents across the nation and beyond (in 30 states and 6 countries) believe that the simple practice of gathering women and girls in a space dedicated ONLY to them (whatever their date on the menstrual calendar) is precisely what women and girls need to feel supported and nurtured. This is the stuff of healing, they say.

Red tents are an initiative within what I call the ‘feminist spiritualist’ wing of the menstrual activist movement — a loose collection of activists who emerged in the 1970s and share an earnest celebration of embodied womanhood. This style of activism, I’ve argued, has endured and innovated for more than 4 decades, but remains on the fringe of feminist movements as a mostly white middle class concern.  Liedenfrost’s film, however, may nudge an expansion of the movement (or perhaps, show that it is already slowly capturing a diverse following?). A commitment to inclusion rings through the voices of the women captured in “Things We Don’t Talk About….” Red tents, as one woman explains during the trailer, are safe, welcoming and invite each woman to “come as you are and who you are is enough.”

Filmmaker Isadora Gabrielle Liedenfrost, a seasoned filmmaker specializing in “multicultural motifs and embedded cultures and spiritual traditions” presents a rich palette of reds, auburns, and fuchsias and a haunting soundtrack in this piece. Her camera brings us images of small and large groups of women crying, laughing, dancing and hugging together woven with the heartfelt stories of the empowering benefits of women-in-community.

Photo credit: Isadora Gabrielle Liedenfrost (used with permission)


I am left asking: could red tents offer women—whatever their spiritual inclination—a shame-free community? Could they restore a lost tradition now updated in a contemporary body-positive context? Surely, the feminine intimacy offered here is not for every woman, but for many, it might feel like home is a lovely little tent.

7 responses to “Things We Don’t Talk About: Healing Narratives from the Red Tent”

  1. Jacqui says:

    I’ve been running Red Tents for the last 15 months and while it’s true that they do attract a huge majority of white middle class women on the road to personal development, when I’ve taken the tent to other groups of women, the stories have been essentially the same and the need to speak even greater. We all of us need a space in which to ‘lay down our luggage’. Even the most socially acceptable facet of womanhood, that of being a mother brings with it so much stuff that is just crying out to be acknowledged, childbirth, ambivalence, isolation, etc. And that’s only motherhood which is universally valued! What do we do with all the rest of our experiences, the ones that our culture has no room for? Abortion, miscarriage and duh… menstruation? This is the subject that can run and run in a Red Tent! What we talk about is almost in inverse proportion to what’s talked about on the outside.
    So yes, Red Tents in every neighbourhood! Women need them!

  2. Chris Hitchcock says:

    It’s interesting to see how the same practice (menstrual seclusion) can be seen as both good and bad for women.

    I’m reminded of a similar idea (good and bad from different points of view) in a story my grandmother told me. Grandma spent many of her retirement years teaching overseas, mostly in Nigeria, but also in Lesotho and Bolivia. She told me about a woman she met who was one of two wives. She felt sorry for western women who were the only wife of a man, and wondered whether we aren’t lonely living like that.

  3. Chris Bobel says:

    Hear! Hear! to both Jacqui and Chris. I love the way you put it, Jacqui–a place to *lay down our luggage* and I agree, we all NEED and DESERVE this, though so many factors play into whether we can make space/time for it. And your grandmothers’s story, Chris, is poignant, too. I appreciate every time my particular standpoint gets disrupted. For me, really points to how feminist analyses must always be contextual to be truly useful and meaningful.

  4. Chrysopal says:

    Hello, it is so wonderful to hear, read, on a way to be so deep connected with your energy! I also would love to share the most intimate feeling, experiences or just to rest and listen and feel my heart free.
    In moment many women are not really ready to share unconditionally, to be unconditionally, to open and connect the heart with the flow of life unconditionally.
    The most people I know are afraid to let their heart open, people are afraid to be touched…
    In 3 days I will go, after a very long time, to the land were I was born 40 years ago and my intention is to start a group of women, a healing circle, a group or a space where people feel themselves free TO BE as THEY ARE. A space for unconditional love and acceptance. A space to heal the deepest part of oneself. I hope you will send me energy and support so that my intention will unfold when needed! Much Love & Light to All, Cxxx

  5. Laura Wershler says:

    When I was at Sexual Health Access Alberta, we held an event called Scarlet Summer, an evening for friends and relatives of all ages to explore our complex connections to the menstrual cycle.

    We showed Giovanna Chesler’s film “Period: End of Menstruation,” held discussions and did menstrual crafts, followed by show and tell with the crafts. One older woman, who came alone, told us that this was the first time in her life that she had talked about menstruation with anyone. She had read about the event in the paper.

    This post and these stories remind me of the line from the book and movie, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

    What I’ve learned is that if we pitch our red tents, women will enter them.

  6. Chrysopal says:

    Thank you, Laura.
    Much Love, Cxxx

  7. Anara says:

    I am holding red tent womb lodge in Spain this November and can I please use the beautiful image above of the child touching the womans face.
    My new home is just outside of Seville, Andalucia.
    It is a space for healers, birthers and Sistars to come together to celebrate our journey and blossoming as fragrant women & also a space in which fellow Holistic Healers & Practitioners will share our home to hold their courses and workshops.
    Here is also a link to one of my events.
    Loving the womb space here…
    do keep in touch
    Bright Blessings

Readers should note that statements published in Menstruation Matters are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.