The Circle of Life

By Sandy Burgham

Circle of life

While some people play Fantasy Football, constructing and betting on dream teams, I play Fantasy Dinner Party, constantly mentally bumping people off chairs in favour of someone more interesting. But one person who always holds her seat at my table is my real-life living hero, Gloria Steinem. So time stood still for me when on the morning of her sell-out appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival, I was invited to be one of a handful of women to meet her at Ngāti Whātua Orākei marae.


At 82 and after a lifetime on the road as a feminist activist, Steinem knows a thing or two about a personal journey. When one’s journey intersects with an idea bigger than oneself, it is often called a “purpose”, and to say she lives purposefully is an understatement. She has devoted her life to, as a friend’s young daughter puts it, “women’s rights and wrongs” and it was a true privilege to talk with her and share others’ perspectives on womanhood.


There were 19 of us, including two Māori kuia, one man, and the acknowledged presence of Steinem’s dear friend, Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller. We had a two-hour conversation like no other I have ever been part of. We sat in what Steinem dubs a “talking circle”. And while initially I was a little puzzled, if not a tad disappointed, as all I really wanted was to hear was her speak, I was rewarded with so much more.


After a karakia and the imagining of a fire smouldering in the centre of our circle, we set adrift a conversation with no agenda, but an intention infused with respect and trust. The words flowed across the circle many times, gathering collective energy and gravitas, as someone’s thought would lightly touch another’s idea. There were tears, poems, performances, insights, advice, myths and legends, laughter and light bulb moments. While I had expected to learn the most from Steinem, what she taught me is that wisdom is not from one source, but from a collective force. In her words, we are linked — not ranked.


Indeed the presence of each one of those women and our lovely male friend was a gift, and Steinem herself was just one of the group. That evening as she addressed the crowd at the Writers Festival, she affirmed that that morning’s experience was life-changing for her as well. Steinem specifically sought out the company of Māori women while in NZ. With the observation that history seems only to begin when the patriarchy began, she has a particular interest in first cultures, and how power and influence was originally a shared framework and not a gender-biased one. She believes in the power of talking circles, which women have always been naturally drawn to do. In the height of second-wave feminism, Steinem and her colleagues called them “consciousness raising circles”. She got a laugh at the Festival when she noted, that those circles today “are called book clubs”. So while I wrote about male friends last month, it seems only fair to now honour female circles.


In a group, women have a natural tendency to communicate and share. I have seen this many times in the leadership development work that I do. But what has this got to with talking circles and “The Second Act’? Steinem has always maintained that “women may be the one group that grow more radical with age”. And from what I have experienced, I tend to agree. It is of course a deliberate choice. A woman’s 40s may be often characterised by a flurry of Botox and boot camps. Messages in popular culture encourage women not to let themselves go aesthetically (look at the personal attacks on Hilary Clinton’s appearance), rather than emphasising the importance of staying strong mentally, physically and spiritually.


So what is the second half of your life going to be about? I’m with Steinem — it is about standing up for “women’s rights and wrongs”. After all, as another childhood hero, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, said: “We have to free half the human race, the women, so they can help free the other half”. And it all starts with a conversation.

— Sandy Burgham


This post first appeared in The Hobson July, 2016