News: A Woman's Place

Feminists gather to learn and teach leadership

Jymi Bolden


Mary Pierce Brosmer says many women "lose their voices" as teens. She helps women reclaim them.



A recurring dream still visits Mary Pierce Brosmer. She's screaming in a crowded theater.

"My voice is just swallowed up," she says.

Brosmer uses dreams as guides. In fact, she drew the idea for Women Writing for (a) Change — the writing school for women she founded in 1991 — from a dream of women sitting around a lace-covered table, reading and talking about poetry.

The school offers day and evening courses in poetry and prose. Infused with ritual and community, the classes offer a safe place where women — many of whom, as in Brosmer's dream, felt voiceless — go to write about their lives.

Brosmer is now doing dream work with the Feminist Leadership Academy, which opened last weekend. Sixteen women were invited to spend a week at the Moye Center of St. Anne's Convent in Melbourne, Ky. Participants work toward either a certification or a licensing program that will allow them to use the name "Women Writing for (a) Change" (WWf(a)C). They also receive Brosmer's guidance in starting their own writing schools.

Four more weeklong sessions, about one a month, are to follow.

Turning off 'auto pilot'
In the Sophia Room's common meeting space, women curl into overstuffed armchairs and sprawl across large pillows on the floor. Sometimes they rise to wander the perimeter of the room and then rejoin the circle.

They gather to talk about writing, teaching, public policy, race, class, culture, but most of all about the challenges of being leaders in a society that's still male-dominated.

They are 20 years old or 60 or in between. They are married to men, committed to women or single, heterosexual or homosexual and one, who describes herself as "queer," says she has "enjoyed meaningful relationships with men and women."

Two young women, who look like students themselves, teach high school English. Some are the heads of social service organizations and others are mothers who volunteer. A realtor, an attorney, a midwife, two nuns. One woman is commodore-elect of an all-male sailing club.

They laugh, confide, poke gentle fun, disagree, take turns talking clearly. They give space and fill it.

Brosmer has also arranged for daily yoga to stress "how important it is to live in the body."

An adjunct professor flew in from Grand Junction, Colo. Until she found Women Writing for (a) Change, she says, her teaching was a sham. She taught writing by rote, but she herself couldn't write. Reading her freshman students' essays was like "drinking dust."

She heard about WWf(a)C from a friend and convinced Brosmer to let her attend a summer retreat. Now that she applies to her life and her teaching what she's learned at WWf(a)C, the quality of both has skyrocketed. She's here because she's ready to start her own writing school.

All the women present are committed to social justice. All love their sisters passionately, regardless of the differences between them. Brosmer describes the qualities of the women accepted to the academy.

"Spiritual depth, integrity," she says. "People who want to make a difference in the world."

Chairs are in a circle. In the center, a tapestry has been spread on the orange carpet. On it are carefully placed items: a large candle with several wicks that are lit at the beginning of each meeting, a "talking piece" crystal which the women pass as they take turns speaking, a vase of peach roses, a red cloth box for the chime Brosmer rings twice between speakers: once to acknowledge the speaker who has just finished and once to welcome the next. Each session opens and closes with a poem. Brosmer presents open-ended writing prompts and then invites women to read from their responses.

Women talk about childhoods of poverty, neglect, privilege, support. They talk about abuse, disease, rape, divorce, depression, their own addictions and others'. They all talk of lives in transition.

Jenn Reid, a tall young woman with a small sparkling nose stud, teaches 10th-grade English at Madeira High School. She started attending a WWf(a)C class seven years ago. Now she teaches Young Women Writing for (a) Change and chairs the board of the nonprofit Women Writing for (a) Change Foundation.

She's here because she wants to start a faculty writing group at her school to "provide a space for (teachers) to feel cared for and heard," so that they are "consciously taking care of themselves, consciously considering the amount of potential their kids have."

Reid, like many women, lost her voice in her teens. She thought love and respect were to be achieved like bullet points on a resume, so she excelled at everything — except telling her truth.

"I was raised in a culture where what I had to say, especially if it was about my feelings, didn't have any worth whatsoever," she says.

A series of teachers in high school and college made her feel heard, as if she mattered, as if her story mattered.

"What was it that had made me quiet as a teenage girl, sort of go on auto pilot?" she wonders.

Now she's committed to making sure that doesn't happen to the young women in her charge. She wants her students to leave her class saying, "I'm a writer and this is my voice."

"I'm always amazed by the power and incredible feeling and incredible insight that young people's voices have," she says. "If you don't make a space for these stories to come out, then you force kids to go on auto pilot."

A space of our own
Sarah Bartlett flew from Burlington, Vt., to attend the academy. A mother of four who holds two masters degrees and a doctorate, she now finds herself transitioning back into the workforce in her mid-50s. She wants to "work with a population of women for whom healing and finding their voice is almost paramount, and use writing as a vehicle for that."

Bartlett considers taking the WWf(a)C model of writing classes to a foundation of women surviving breast cancer or battered women or the single mothers she's met as a site supervisor and editor of the quarterly newsletter for Habitat for Humanity.

She inherited a talent for light-hearted rhymed verse from her father, who marked special occasions with poems.

She also harbors what she describes as a "pretty angry voice in defense of women who find themselves in destructive relationships, a seedling feminist voice."

Bartlett just published her first poem in The Aurorian, a quarterly poetry journal.

A year ago Brosmer took a sabbatical from teaching at WWf(a)C to incubate her vision of this academy, in part to ensure the existence of her school after she is no longer part of it.

"If you want to get rich, this is not the way to do it," she says.

But then she describes her own "embarrassment of riches."

"I feel so rich, because I'm making a living doing something I absolutely love and I see it makes a difference in people's lives," she says.

But not just women's lives. Husbands approach her to say what a huge difference WWf(a)C has made in their wives' lives and therefore in their relationships.

Growing up, Brosmer saw that women didn't have any spaces of their own. "Women were always available, and then they died," she says. "And it makes me really sad."

That image spawned her original outreach idea: a WWf(a)C radio show at 11 a.m. Sundays on WVXU (91.7 FM). She imagines a woman in the northern Ohio town where she grew up, where there isn't a WWf(a)C and probably never will be, listening to the radio as she stands in the kitchen doing dishes.

"She could hear women writing about their lives, being authentic," Brosmer says.

Brosmer, then a single mother, taught English for 15 years at Milford High School before leaving to start WWf(a)C with $10,000 she'd saved to pursue a doctorate. A former student told Brosmer's son, now 29, that though his mother was a great teacher, she favored girls.

"I really don't think it's that she favors girls," her son said. "It's that she doesn't favor boys."

"Boys and men are not aware of how much space they take up," Brosmer says. "The perception is that if you veer off — if you're not for them, you're against them."

She excludes men mostly to conserve energy for the important work with women.

"I love bridging, but it can wear you out with men," she says.

Once she let herself be convinced to try a co-ed writing group. Eventually the men simply stopped coming, she says.

She says the dynamics of leadership are different for women. They still have too much work to do in the home; research shows women still bear the brunt of housework whether they work outside the home or not.

Then there's the patriarchal model of leadership with which to contend.

"I have to become an honorary man in order to be seen as a viable leader," Brosmer says.

She points to Hillary Clinton, vilified for every lapse into femininity and every move outside its traditional conception. But she says the sky's the limit for puppets of the patriarchy such as Laura Schlessinger, "Judge Judy" and Ann Coulter.

The relational web, which is more honoring to women, just isn't accepted.

"If you talk like a woman or from a woman's point of view, then you've got an axe to grind," she says. "So much that's important to a woman has to be separated out."

That's not the case at her academy, and hopefully one day it won't be true at all.

Breathing Was Always an Issue
In the spirit of "readbacks," in which women record poignant phrases they have just heard read aloud by the others, these are excerpts from a "read-around" of essays on why the 16 women sought participation in the Feminist Leadership Academy.

the silencing power of words/the silence of no words/learn how not to do good work badly/overprotected, unmentored, victim-modeled/model values rather than just teach them/I lose myself so easily/carefully placed rose-colored glasses on my nose in regard to my marriage/I was able to hear other women better for being heard/love is the only answer, gentleness the only appropriate response/self-imposed exile/deadly coercion versus lively creativity/working on the edges of institutions/I sit at the edge of the last third of my life/struggle with breast cancer/the school saved my life/courage to name more clearly/need the learning process be threatening to the learner to be scholarly?/to be authentic/everything came from a dry and lifeless place/fearful, terribly shy child/afraid to shine too brightly lest somebody be jealous or angry/from the outside I appear awfully competent/little niggling voice that shadows me is destined to be my lifelong companion/ the me of me/knowing myself is a constant ebb and flow/didn't have a voice for the severe way me and my friends treated each other/didn't have a voice for my promiscuous ways/she emerged on paper eight years late, but not too late/she was real and she was right, but no one ever told her that/I am telling her now/lest I disturb the perfect image/learned the secret to being loved was achieving it/an empty book to be filled by the wants of everyone else/drug use and constant dieting/need permission to tell the stories trapped inside me/something to say perhaps ever more worthy than the A she earned saying it/raped by a close friend/intense depression/nervous breakdown/started paying attention to the heaviness inside me/find ways to allow those great waves of sadness to pass into and through me/gyrating everything gyratable/I had a voice in my head clear as a bell as I stood holding my heart after the dance/ninth in a line of ill-planned births/raped again at gunpoint/very little resources and fewer skills/how do we wrestle with the boundaries of being food for others without being eaten alive?/you have to teach people how to respect you/writing will draw on a part of you that is closer to the bone/am I living my life?/I wasn't given life to have it smothered/wisdom of women making a way out of no way/relational rather than hierarchical/learned to devalue our own worth, our intelligence and our intuition/with so many holes and needs, I slide into roles that don't fit my strengths/if she tries to kill herself, she will probably botch the job/feminism is no more and no less than the radical belief that women are people/soul is ultimately what I am after/we are in the cultural infancy of reclaiming the feminine wisdom and energy which is our only hope for survival/breathing was always an issue for me/second hand became second nature/I didn't know such words were allowed/the destructive nature of compliance/I might be stupid after all/my name was nowhere to be found/these gifts were my burden before I found the words/the biggest boost to my wellness was a group of women/I have the capacity to be a healer and a leader

— Stephanie Dunlap



Mary pierce Brosmer hopes to reprise the Feminist Leadership Academy in early 2005 or 2006. Women Writing for (a) Change offers day and evening courses in prose and poetry, as well as retreats. Call 513-272-1171 or visit

Jymi Bolden


Mary Pierce Brosmer says many women "lose their voices" as teens. She helps women reclaim them.



A recurring dream still visits Mary Pierce Brosmer. She's screaming in a crowded theater.

"My voice is just swallowed up," she says.

Brosmer uses dreams as guides. In fact, she drew the idea for Women Writing for (a) Change — the writing school for women she founded in 1991 — from a dream of women sitting around a lace-covered table, reading and talking about poetry.

The school offers day and evening courses in poetry and prose. Infused with ritual and community, the classes offer a safe place where women — many of whom, as in Brosmer's dream, felt voiceless — go to write about their lives.

Brosmer is now doing dream work with the Feminist Leadership Academy, which opened last weekend. Sixteen women were invited to spend a week at the Moye Center of St. Anne's Convent in Melbourne, Ky. Participants work toward either a certification or a licensing program that will allow them to use the name "Women Writing for (a) Change" (WWf(a)C). They also receive Brosmer's guidance in starting their own writing schools.

Four more weeklong sessions, about one a month, are to follow.

Turning off 'auto pilot'
In the Sophia Room's common meeting space, women curl into overstuffed armchairs and sprawl across large pillows on the floor. Sometimes they rise to wander the perimeter of the room and then rejoin the circle.

They gather to talk about writing, teaching, public policy, race, class, culture, but most of all about the challenges of being leaders in a society that's still male-dominated.

They are 20 years old or 60 or in between. They are married to men, committed to women or single, heterosexual or homosexual and one, who describes herself as "queer," says she has "enjoyed meaningful relationships with men and women."

Two young women, who look like students themselves, teach high school English. Some are the heads of social service organizations and others are mothers who volunteer. A realtor, an attorney, a midwife, two nuns. One woman is commodore-elect of an all-male sailing club.

They laugh, confide, poke gentle fun, disagree, take turns talking clearly. They give space and fill it.

Brosmer has also arranged for daily yoga to stress "how important it is to live in the body."

An adjunct professor flew in from Grand Junction, Colo. Until she found Women Writing for (a) Change, she says, her teaching was a sham. She taught writing by rote, but she herself couldn't write. Reading her freshman students' essays was like "drinking dust."

She heard about WWf(a)C from a friend and convinced Brosmer to let her attend a summer retreat. Now that she applies to her life and her teaching what she's learned at WWf(a)C, the quality of both has skyrocketed. She's here because she's ready to start her own writing school.

All the women present are committed to social justice. All love their sisters passionately, regardless of the differences between them. Brosmer describes the qualities of the women accepted to the academy.

"Spiritual depth, integrity," she says. "People who want to make a difference in the world."

Chairs are in a circle. In the center, a tapestry has been spread on the orange carpet. On it are carefully placed items: a large candle with several wicks that are lit at the beginning of each meeting, a "talking piece" crystal which the women pass as they take turns speaking, a vase of peach roses, a red cloth box for the chime Brosmer rings twice between speakers: once to acknowledge the speaker who has just finished and once to welcome the next. Each session opens and closes with a poem. Brosmer presents open-ended writing prompts and then invites women to read from their responses.

Women talk about childhoods of poverty, neglect, privilege, support. They talk about abuse, disease, rape, divorce, depression, their own addictions and others'. They all talk of lives in transition.

Jenn Reid, a tall young woman with a small sparkling nose stud, teaches 10th-grade English at Madeira High School. She started attending a WWf(a)C class seven years ago. Now she teaches Young Women Writing for (a) Change and chairs the board of the nonprofit Women Writing for (a) Change Foundation.

She's here because she wants to start a faculty writing group at her school to "provide a space for (teachers) to feel cared for and heard," so that they are "consciously taking care of themselves, consciously considering the amount of potential their kids have."

Reid, like many women, lost her voice in her teens. She thought love and respect were to be achieved like bullet points on a resume, so she excelled at everything — except telling her truth.

"I was raised in a culture where what I had to say, especially if it was about my feelings, didn't have any worth whatsoever," she says.

A series of teachers in high school and college made her feel heard, as if she mattered, as if her story mattered.

"What was it that had made me quiet as a teenage girl, sort of go on auto pilot?" she wonders.

Now she's committed to making sure that doesn't happen to the young women in her charge. She wants her students to leave her class saying, "I'm a writer and this is my voice."

"I'm always amazed by the power and incredible feeling and incredible insight that young people's voices have," she says. "If you don't make a space for these stories to come out, then you force kids to go on auto pilot."

A space of our own
Sarah Bartlett flew from Burlington, Vt., to attend the academy. A mother of four who holds two masters degrees and a doctorate, she now finds herself transitioning back into the workforce in her mid-50s. She wants to "work with a population of women for whom healing and finding their voice is almost paramount, and use writing as a vehicle for that."

Bartlett considers taking the WWf(a)C model of writing classes to a foundation of women surviving breast cancer or battered women or the single mothers she's met as a site supervisor and editor of the quarterly newsletter for Habitat for Humanity.

She inherited a talent for light-hearted rhymed verse from her father, who marked special occasions with poems.

She also harbors what she describes as a "pretty angry voice in defense of women who find themselves in destructive relationships, a seedling feminist voice."

Bartlett just published her first poem in The Aurorian, a quarterly poetry journal.

A year ago Brosmer took a sabbatical from teaching at WWf(a)C to incubate her vision of this academy, in part to ensure the existence of her school after she is no longer part of it.

"If you want to get rich, this is not the way to do it," she says.

But then she describes her own "embarrassment of riches."

"I feel so rich, because I'm making a living doing something I absolutely love and I see it makes a difference in people's lives," she says.

But not just women's lives. Husbands approach her to say what a huge difference WWf(a)C has made in their wives' lives and therefore in their relationships.

Growing up, Brosmer saw that women didn't have any spaces of their own. "Women were always available, and then they died," she says. "And it makes me really sad."

That image spawned her original outreach idea: a WWf(a)C radio show at 11 a.m. Sundays on WVXU (91.7 FM). She imagines a woman in the northern Ohio town where she grew up, where there isn't a WWf(a)C and probably never will be, listening to the radio as she stands in the kitchen doing dishes.

"She could hear women writing about their lives, being authentic," Brosmer says.

Brosmer, then a single mother, taught English for 15 years at Milford High School before leaving to start WWf(a)C with $10,000 she'd saved to pursue a doctorate. A former student told Brosmer's son, now 29, that though his mother was a great teacher, she favored girls.

"I really don't think it's that she favors girls," her son said. "It's that she doesn't favor boys."

"Boys and men are not aware of how much space they take up," Brosmer says. "The perception is that if you veer off — if you're not for them, you're against them."

She excludes men mostly to conserve energy for the important work with women.

"I love bridging, but it can wear you out with men," she says.

Once she let herself be convinced to try a co-ed writing group. Eventually the men simply stopped coming, she says.

She says the dynamics of leadership are different for women. They still have too much work to do in the home; research shows women still bear the brunt of housework whether they work outside the home or not.

Then there's the patriarchal model of leadership with which to contend.

"I have to become an honorary man in order to be seen as a viable leader," Brosmer says.

She points to Hillary Clinton, vilified for every lapse into femininity and every move outside its traditional conception. But she says the sky's the limit for puppets of the patriarchy such as Laura Schlessinger, "Judge Judy" and Ann Coulter.

The relational web, which is more honoring to women, just isn't accepted.

"If you talk like a woman or from a woman's point of view, then you've got an axe to grind," she says. "So much that's important to a woman has to be separated out."

That's not the case at her academy, and hopefully one day it won't be true at all.

Breathing Was Always an Issue
In the spirit of "readbacks," in which women record poignant phrases they have just heard read aloud by the others, these are excerpts from a "read-around" of essays on why the 16 women sought participation in the Feminist Leadership Academy.

the silencing power of words/the silence of no words/learn how not to do good work badly/overprotected, unmentored, victim-modeled/model values rather than just teach them/I lose myself so easily/carefully placed rose-colored glasses on my nose in regard to my marriage/I was able to hear other women better for being heard/love is the only answer, gentleness the only appropriate response/self-imposed exile/deadly coercion versus lively creativity/working on the edges of institutions/I sit at the edge of the last third of my life/struggle with breast cancer/the school saved my life/courage to name more clearly/need the learning process be threatening to the learner to be scholarly?/to be authentic/everything came from a dry and lifeless place/fearful, terribly shy child/afraid to shine too brightly lest somebody be jealous or angry/from the outside I appear awfully competent/little niggling voice that shadows me is destined to be my lifelong companion/ the me of me/knowing myself is a constant ebb and flow/didn't have a voice for the severe way me and my friends treated each other/didn't have a voice for my promiscuous ways/she emerged on paper eight years late, but not too late/she was real and she was right, but no one ever told her that/I am telling her now/lest I disturb the perfect image/learned the secret to being loved was achieving it/an empty book to be filled by the wants of everyone else/drug use and constant dieting/need permission to tell the stories trapped inside me/something to say perhaps ever more worthy than the A she earned saying it/raped by a close friend/intense depression/nervous breakdown/started paying attention to the heaviness inside me/find ways to allow those great waves of sadness to pass into and through me/gyrating everything gyratable/I had a voice in my head clear as a bell as I stood holding my heart after the dance/ninth in a line of ill-planned births/raped again at gunpoint/very little resources and fewer skills/how do we wrestle with the boundaries of being food for others without being eaten alive?/you have to teach people how to respect you/writing will draw on a part of you that is closer to the bone/am I living my life?/I wasn't given life to have it smothered/wisdom of women making a way out of no way/relational rather than hierarchical/learned to devalue our own worth, our intelligence and our intuition/with so many holes and needs, I slide into roles that don't fit my strengths/if she tries to kill herself, she will probably botch the job/feminism is no more and no less than the radical belief that women are people/soul is ultimately what I am after/we are in the cultural infancy of reclaiming the feminine wisdom and energy which is our only hope for survival/breathing was always an issue for me/second hand became second nature/I didn't know such words were allowed/the destructive nature of compliance/I might be stupid after all/my name was nowhere to be found/these gifts were my burden before I found the words/the biggest boost to my wellness was a group of women/I have the capacity to be a healer and a leader

— Stephanie Dunlap



Mary pierce Brosmer hopes to reprise the Feminist Leadership Academy in early 2005 or 2006. Women Writing for (a) Change offers day and evening courses in prose and poetry, as well as retreats. Call 513-272-1171 or visit www.womenwriting.org for more information.

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