Cover Story: Feminine Whiles

A leadership academy for another kind of feminist

Jul 7, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Geoff Raker and Cameron Knight

Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: That's not funny.

Contrary to stereotype, most feminists do have a sense of humor, says Mary Pierce Brosmer. It's just that they're in charge of deciding what they find funny.

Brosmer founded the Feminist Leadership Academy, which graduated its first class May 21 (see "A Woman's Place ," issue of Jan. 7-13). Sixteen women read and discussed books Brosmer chose. They developed leadership practicums and completed writing projects. They learned to incorporate yoga, tarot, knitting and Jungian dream interpretation. They worked with a voice coach and created a code of ethics.

After some initial resistance, they happily knit, which Brosmer sees as symbolic of "women's traditional work of making the social fabric."

They talked a lot about leadership qualities and integrity.

They worked together to identify the "conscious feminine," then to figure out how to incorporate it into their lives and work.

"What cracks the mask is no more, and no less, than the sound of women's voices telling the truth of our lives — whatever they may be," Brosmer says.

Cracking masks to tell truths is little understood, radical work. Some question the work's necessity in what's been dubbed our "post-feminist" age. Why can't women tell their truths? Who's stopping them?

Might as well ask why, post-emancipation and suffrage, many African Americans still feel marginalized. And then settle in for a long discussion.

'Feminine feminists'
Among the books assigned by Brosmer was Appetites: Why Women Want by the late Caroline Knapp, a popular writer for alternative weekly The Boston Phoenix.

Knapp described her long, secret struggle with anorexia and alcoholism, even as her writing career bloomed. She wrote about how the second wave of feminism crested and retreated, opening doors to women without providing them enough support to grow into their new roles. It's psychologically overwhelming, even to seemingly successful women.

Or consider what high school teacher Jenn Reid wrote for her Leadership Academy application.

"I grew up believing that it was best to keep my feelings to myself, lest I disturb the perfect image I created," she wrote. "The oldest of four children, the daughter and granddaughter of firmly Catholic and faithfully married men and women ... I learned that the secret to being loved was achieving it. I was an empty book to be filled by the wants of everyone else ... I needed permission to tell the stories trapped inside me."

An intimate, off-the-record conversation with many women will draw out similar confessions, especially from women fortunate and unfortunate enough to have grown up in the stiflingly polite society of some middle-to-upper class social groups and institutions.

"We haven't had enough time to be women in a system shaped by and for men," Brosmer says. "It's not an advantage for women to be like men. That's not what the fruit of feminism is about."

And the fruit of feminism doesn't nourish only women.

"Liberating women liberates their husbands and their children," says Sarah Bartlett, one of the recent graduates. "It becomes normal to have a mother with a voice."

"Standing in my own truth doesn't take away from yours," says fellow graduate Beth Lodge-Rigal.

Brosmer tells the story of two women involved in Women Writing for (a) Change (WWf(a)C), which she founded in 1991. One woman wrote about an abortion she'd had. The other, a nurse opposed to abortion, wrote about partial-birth abortions she'd seen.

They listened to each other's stories, Brosmer says, because writing brought them into one another's worlds.

Brosmer actively encourages this sort of discussion with writing prompts like this one: "Create a character who will 'have her say' about the war in Iraq. Here's the catch; she is not you; her beliefs are opposite yours. Listen for her voice, it will help you understand her truth."

Brosmer calls herself a "peace-making social entrepreneur," and she's come to believe in the power of not "either/or" but of "both/and."

The divisiveness of the militant feminism of the 1970s is one reason many of the women in the Leadership Academy felt alienated by it.

"I go right to this place of anger that I don't identify with," Lodge-Rigal says. "The word 'feminism' carries a lot of baggage."

That's because, like every word associated with women, over time it's been appropriated and demeaned, according to Brosmer.

Some, like Bartlett, prefer "spiritual feminism." Bartlett didn't use the word "feminist" at all when she first marketed her fledgling writing school.

"I think it would've been a very different group," she says.

Lodge-Rigal, from Bloomington, Ind., home of Indiana University, said creating a school in a small academic community with a lot of powerful, educated and opinionated women involved careful negotiation and discernment. Would calling it a "feminist writing center" close doors or draw in just the people she wants?

This discussion surfaces often. A typical exchange:

"I wish we were called the 'feminine feminists,' really. It softens the sharpness."

"We'll be the femininists."

In fact, what they'd been doing was renamed the "Feminine Leadership Academy" on the graduation program.

Explaining feminism is analogous to explaining the school itself, Brosmer says — which is to say it's nearly impossible, because it's experiential.

Brosmer thinks now is the time to introduce the feminine consciousness, the "deep feminine," because so many systems are so obviously failing: electoral systems, free trade systems, educational systems, prison systems. The techniques of WWf(a)C can be like putty in the cracks until they start replacing whole bricks and then whole walls of society's institutions.

Writing prompts can draw out open, honest dialogue and encourage creativity. Attending to process naturally increases productivity.

Developing self-perpetuating ways to lift up the spiritual, creative and emotional resources of a group and modeling openness and grace in dealing with conflict and diversity — Brosmer thinks all this is possible through "membership in a body of conscious, truth-telling women who are committed to making their part of the world (their businesses, church communities, faculties, families) healthier, more peaceful and life encouraging."

Many of the women of the Leadership Academy bring Brosmer's methods into the heart of society — to the schools in which they teach, the social service organizations they run, the sick to whom they minister. Others use writing to maintain their consciousness of the deep feminine in business and personal lives.

There is no one for whom connection and deep listening aren't useful, except those either afraid of them or who have benefited from more traditional ways of doing things.

Out of the food chain
One of the Women Writing for (a) Change techniques, "read-arounds" of students' work, are open to female visitors. They receive mixed responses. Some say the quality of writing is inconsistent. Others leave entirely unimpressed.

As a published poet, Brosmer highly values craft. But Women Writing for (a) Change isn't a traditional writing school, she says emphatically.

Anyone who's taken a writing class recognizes the food chain of strong writers, mediocre writers and just plain unwieldy writers.

"What we don't do is set up the traditional dog-eat-dog 'boot camp' workshop that many have experienced," Brosmer says. "A lot of ordinary creative women — there's no place for them in that."

She suspects that those who don't understand this have often been the ones blessed with confidence and talent, ones "very privileged by the other way of doing it."

Her school's faculty is more interested in encouraging women to use writing as "a tool of individual artistic and spiritual development," though students write in every genre. Those writing for publication mingle with others seeking only to write for themselves.

Regardless of their goals, a noncompetitive atmosphere, with more emphasis placed on expression than on craft, "allows for much less artifice," Brosmer says.

Likewise, the Leadership Academy isn't a creative writing program.

"Writing in the leadership program is a tool of discernment, problem-solving, dealing with other people," she says.

In the same vein, Brosmer doesn't think much of poetry slams. It's not her work in the world to encourage competition, she says.

Also implied in the school's name, she says, is a deeper mission: using women's words as catalysts for change in their lives and society.

"Literary merits aside, it's the only place I've been where women's truths about their lives as women can be held," she says.

Brosmer once pulled aside a writer who responded to another writer's work by saying, "Get over it."

"Can you respond to the writing as writing, or are you going to give life advice?," Brosmer asked her.

The woman wouldn't budge, so Brosmer finally asked her to leave.

"What is that dynamic?," she wonders, then answers herself. "Fear."

But creating a nonjudgmental space is easier now that "there are so many women holding the group consciousness," she says. She estimates that as many as 80 percent of those who sign up for semester classes are returning students.

Far from touchy-feely, the work is dangerous. WWf(a)C is a safe place, but it's sometimes dismissed or attacked by outsiders.

Brosmer's used to that. One woman left the community in a huff: She wanted nothing to do with this "New Age cult." In a draft of a book she is writing about WWf(a)C, Brosmer bristles at the term.

"The characterization I hate the most of 'how we do what we do at WWf(a)C' is that of 'New Age,' a sloppy, pejorative term used like the word 'liberal' is used to paint someone as naïve, not rigorous, not trustworthy," she writes. "These were lessons in how careful — and courageous — we have to be in order to claim powerful means and continue to use them in the face of our own and others' fear. We seem to be embarked on a gradual process of reclaiming words, symbols, rituals which have been corrupted and used to coerce."

Lodge-Rigal, like many students, recognizes the power of Women Writing for (a) Change rituals such as passing a candle to open and close a writers' circle and ringing a chime to segue between stories.

"It's too bad we've lost the educational power of ritual in every place but church," she says.

Brosmer's working-class upbringing saves her when she's in danger of being shamed out of using what she calls "powerful means in my teaching." The pragmatic daughter of a railroad engineer simply returns time and again to what she knows works.

'At the service of everyone else'
Brosmer's dream of a place for women to tell their truths materialized in 1991 when the women of her first-ever WWf(a)C class pulled their chairs up to a lace-covered table.

Since then, the school has grown to seven sections of semester courses for 15 to 25 women each. The WWf(a)C Foundation, directed by local poet Pauletta Hansel, offers scholarships and administers the Saturday workshop series, Young Women Writing for (a) Change and a WWf(a)C radio show. Soon the school, which now meets at the Ironworkers Local 44 hall in Madisonville, will expand to two campuses when it moves into the former Crazy Ladies Bookstore in Northside.

Brosmer calls the Feminist Leadership Academy the most difficult and rewarding experience of her life, second only to starting the school.

More intensive training seemed a natural progression. Over the years women had asked her for help starting their own writing schools, and facets of her model extended ever further into other work. For example, Inside/Outside, a multi-media arts program for felons in the River City Correctional Center, incorporated the rituals, ceremony and fluid leadership teams of WWf(a)C (see "Creativity Behind Bars," issue of May 19-25).

"Gradually it dawned on me that implicit in the programs, classes and volunteer opportunities of the school was the development of women's leadership skills," Brosmer says. She decided to take a year off to devote her energy to the Leadership Academy.

Feminism, according to the Sisters of Loretto Women's Network, is a process freeing women to work toward liberation for themselves and other oppressed persons.

During the second academy session, lawyer and activist Monique Hoeflinger is frustrated with the circle. She feels like their conversation's taking place in a vacuum, detached from the social structures that "very much affect our lives."

She fears that doing all the inner work in this removed place will limit their leadership abilities in the larger world.

"We have to recognize that which is not in the circle," she says.

"I have reactions," Brosmer begins, then starts over. "Ideas to lay alongside yours, not reactions. But I'll let others go first."

Sister Mary Ann Jansen, a nun, likens the retreat to religious seclusion, which has value to the larger world simply because "there is a place like that that exists." The boundaries of the circle protect safety, not ignorance, she says. Not to mention the "human adventure" of living together.

Barbra Druffel, a mother and successful Realtor who grew up as one of 10 kids, says this is the only place in her world where she affords herself time and space to write.

"I have been at the service of everyone else all my life," she says. "If that isn't edgy for me, then I don't know what is."

She wants to model this behavior for just one person before she dies, she says.

Participants come together to solidify who they are in the world, then go back out to do the work, Montessori teacher Marta Donahoe says.

"What does it mean for a group of all white women to come together to talk about leadership in the larger world?," Hoeflinger asks next.

Brosmer wrestles with that question herself.

This isn't diverse enough, one female visitor responded to an open read-around.

"When there were stories from hundreds of perspectives," Brosmer says.

Most of the women in the semester classes are middle class, middle-aged, white, college-educated, heterosexual, politically liberal and from European and Christian backgrounds. This troubles Brosmer, though she's quick to defend what she calls the "deep diversity" of the writers' experiences. Nor are the women in her classes any less in need of expression than other people.

Knowing the classes can be cost-prohibitive and because most of the school's marketing is by word-of-mouth, Brosmer created the foundation to make scholarships available and administer outreach programs. But a diversity truly representative of the city's is one thing she has yet to achieve.

'We build community'
Between the third and fourth session, Bartlett held a poetry reading to introduce her small Vermont hometown to its new writing school. Before beginning to read, she lit a candle and asked her audience to take a minute to record on index cards what they sensed. Then she asked that they focus the same attention on her words. She even asked for, and received, "read-backs," in which listeners call out phrases that resonate with them.

"And no one got up and walked out," she says.

"You created a space for real listening to happen," Brosmer says. "I think if writing works, it builds a sense of community in the room when you're reading."

"That's what we do in classes," Bartlett says. "We build community every time."

Three women decided to start their own WWf(a)C schools. The hardest part of starting a school is marketing, Brosmer says. Women don't like being sold to and often recoil from talking about money at all.

"Women in general are used to giving work away," she says.

Brosmer understands that money stands for the exchange of energy, but it's still difficult for her to put a price tag on her school and her ideas. The semester classes cost $475.

But to find a number for the Leadership Academy, she consulted financial advisors and thought back to the seed money she'd poured into the school about $10,000 she'd saved for graduate work. She set the leadership academy price at $2,000 per session for the three sessions of the certification track, and then more for the longer licensing track through which she helps women start their own schools.

But broken down by hour, it costs no more than a regular yoga class, Brosmer says. Nothing can live without resources, and she thinks it important to preserve the autonomy of the school and leadership academy by keeping them tuition-based.

Tenuous, sacred space
I write about WWf(a)C and its Feminist Leadership Academy from inside and outside. While covering the first session of the academy, I was so taken by the truth I saw women feeling safe enough to express — and express proudly, without the shame that comes with being overly emotive or confessional — that I signed up for a semester class.

I found the women there more guarded but no less brave. In my small group we shared very personal writing; it felt safer and more intimate than years of friendship. But as a loner, I couldn't help being keenly aware, and somewhat suspicious, of the unfamiliar women in the group-at-large.

The 16 women of the Leadership Academy graduated May 21 in a ceremony of their own design. As I watched, the affinity and respect for these women, which had grown from the intimate peeks I'd gotten into their lives, bumped up against something else: a faint feeling of separation, a revolt, a small voice in my head that sounded like the familiar and unwelcome echo of a mocking, dismissive male.

It might have been partly jealousy, the ungrounded feeling of a permanent outsider, but it was also a feeling of violation: The audience of mostly friends and family gathered to watch the women open and close the circle, but they were not part of the circle. They weren't accountable to it. What if they didn't understand? These women were making themselves so vulnerable.

I was again aware of how tenuous and sacred is the space that Brosmer helped create, how inexplicable, how important.

The next Feminist Leadership Academy takes place in 2006; see for more information. The WWf(a)C Foundation will hold a series of free workshops throughout August at its new location in the former Crazy Ladies Bookstore; for more information, call 513-541-4198.