A new activist movement is gathering women across faiths
ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, California psychotherapist Kathlyn Schaaf was overwhelmed by a powerful thought. Watching the violent images on television, she suddenly felt the time had come to "gather the women." She wasn't alone. Schaaf and 11 others who shared her response soon created Gather the Women, a Web site and communications hub that 5,000 women have used to chronicle their local events in support of world peace. As women assembled near the pyramids in Egypt and held potluck dinners in Alaska, staged candlelight vigils and other rituals in countries around the world, it confirmed Schaaf's gut instinct that an untapped reserve of energy "lies like oil beneath the common ground the women share."
Since then, the group has organized a series of congresses to connect women's groups. Their work is one example of a new kind feminism, slowly growing for a decade and now bursting out everywhere. At its heart lies a new kind of political activism that's guided and sustained by spirituality. Some are calling it the long-awaited "fourth wave" of feminism -- a fusion of spirituality and social justice reminiscent of the American civil rights movement and Gandhi's call for nonviolent change.
This phenomenon is most visible in the popular conferences organized by women spiritual and religious leaders. Just as important are those meeting privately to meditate and pray, to study the world, and to support each other in social action. These gatherings share a commitment to a universal spirituality that affirms women's bonds across ethnic and religious boundaries. They're also exploring a new feminine paradigm of power that's based on tolerance, mutuality, and reverence for nature -- values they now see as crucial to curing the global pathologies of poverty and war.
Previous advances in American feminism have rarely happened smoothly; the gains of one generation have often both shaped and conflicted with the ambitions of the next. First-wave feminists fought for women's suffrage. Led in the 1970s by icons like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, a second wave pushed for economic and legal gains. Their ideals would eventually clash with the spirited individualism of third-wave feminists, women in their 20s and 30s who still advocate for women's rights while embracing a "girlie culture" that celebrates sex, men, gay culture, and clothes.
But as never before, today's conservative political environment has united women across the feminist spectrum. The result differs from earlier forms of feminism in several ways. For one, it espouses a new activism based not in anger, but in joy. It also tends to be focused outward, beyond the individual to wider issues, often global in scope. In the words of author Carol Lee Flinders, "Feminism catches fire when it draws on its inherent spirituality," which means something else can happen as well. "When you get Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi women all practicing their faith in the same room," she recently said, "another religion emerges, which is feminine spirituality."
THOUGH FLINDERS AND other writers have been calling on women to reconnect with the sacred for years, many agree that the tipping point was 9/11. Before then, a women's spirituality conference called Sacred Circles, held biannually at Washington National Cathedral in the nation's capital, had focused on personal spirituality. More recently, however, program director Grace Ogden said she felt compelled to use the gatherings to address religious violence. "There was this sense of something gone terribly wrong," she said, "of communities splitting apart and a growing suspicion of people of Arab descent or other traditions." Her planning committee has since become more interfaith than in the past. Recent Sacred Circles conferences have stressed the role of compassion and tolerance in addressing political, economic, and religious differences.
Appalled by the lack of women in positions of religious authority on 9/11, Dena Merriam, a New York arts writer and public relations executive, joined others trying to form an international network of women religious leaders from the major faiths. In October 2002, they launched the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders in Geneva, Switzerland. Associated with the United Nations, the initiative wants to get religious leaders more involved in U.N. peace-building plans. Specific programs aim to help young women of different faiths to communicate in places like Jerusalem that have been torn by conflict.
Merriam, the group's convener, said that one of women's strengths in peace work stems from their greatest weakness -- their long exile from authority inside mainstream institutions. "Suddenly women are beginning to realize that their outsider status is an asset," she said, leaving them free to act directly, outside institutional lines. Many women are following the fate of U.N. Resolution 1325, which, if passed, will mandate that women be involved in all peace negotiations.
Feminism's new direction was perhaps most striking at the Women & Power conference sponsored by the Omega Institute and V-Day in New York City last September. The 3,000 participants heard celebrity feminists like Jane Fonda, Sally Field, and Gloria Steinem herself note the shift. Playwright Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day, a movement to stop global violence against women and girls, addressed the need to change the face of power. Today, she said, our power is seen in terms of "country over country, tribe against tribe." The new paradigm, however, has to be about power "in the service of" -- collaboration, not conquest.
The free flow of creative expression at these assemblies marks a radical departure from the church coffees of our mothers' era. Participants often join together in fashioning new rites and rituals from ancient traditions, shaping forms at once old and new. Organizers at the Women & Power conference draped one room in carpets and labeled it the Red Tent area, evoking the Jewish ritual popularized by the book of that name. Elizabeth Lesser, a co-founder of the Omega Institute, said the room was like "an ancient gathering place where women were laughing, crying, brushing each other's hair, praying, and meditating. It seemed to satisfy women's deepest longings and was spiritual in a very feminine way."
At gatherings big and small, many are realizing that putting themselves in the service of the world is feminism's next step. At a time when the United States is viewed with increasing distrust by other countries, feminism's shift toward cultivating a spiritually informed activism may help to repair our diplomatic ties. No less important is the depth that comes from quiet reflection closer to home. As Carol Lee Flinders notes, a "serious spiritual life with a strong inward dimension" is crucial in itself, releasing the energy that can turn visionary feminist theory into action.
Meanwhile, as feminism allows more women to reach positions of power in American culture, increasing numbers have discovered that material success does not satisfy their hunger for meaning and connection. Women are becoming increasingly clear and vocal about the need to integrate an emerging set of feminine-based values into the culture. As the Democratic Party searches for a guiding set of values, it might consider turning to the women's spirituality movement for inspiration.
Pythia Peay serves on the organizing committee of Sacred Circles in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Mercury Retrograde (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004) and Soul Sisters: The Five Sacred Qualities of a Woman's Soul (Tarcher/Penguin, 2002). For more information on women and spirituality, visit Feminism's Fourth Wave: Spirituality Rituals .