Stonehenge: Historic Women Family Therapist Meetings 1984 and 1986


Click here for the video of pictures and discussion of the meetings.

3 Meetings of Women Family Therapists: 1984, 1986, 1991

by Monica McGoldrick & Froma Walsh

It was not so long ago that leading women from many tribes and from many parts of the territory left behind their husbands, children, and everyday tasks, rendezvousing in a distant and mysterious place. The men, left behind for the first time, were puzzled and wary. They drew together in little groups, watching and whispering as the women left the villages, gradually disappearing from sight As the women gathered at this beautiful, misty place, ringed by ancient monoliths, they greeted each other and, tentative at first, began to share their stories. The women’s voices grew louder and more animated as they began to recall the long suppressed myths of the great goddesses, to hearken back to the proud, original forms of these stories before they had been diminished and grown ugly in the voices of the medicine men of the territory.

They shared their own stories, their own lives, cementing a new and powerful bond. On the last day, sad to leave but renewed, they clasped hands and took a vow of secrecy, for they had experienced the dangers to women and to women’s stories in their everyday worlds. Each woman, strengthened and somehow changed, headed back to her village, to her tasks, to her kin.

–Joan Laird- A Tale she included in a write up about Stonehenge for the AFTA Newsletter


The Set-Up for the First Meeting

In 1984 the two of us with our third “musketeer” Carol Anderston arranged a meeting of 50 women at the cutting edge of family therapy training, theory, and research, which took place at Stonehenge in Connecticut in 1984. The aim of the colloquium was to share and build on our mutual efforts to understand the issues of women in families and in family therapy. It was the first time as far as we know that there was a group convened for the sole purpose of discussing the place of women in family therapy.

The initial reactions to the idea of the Stonehenge conference were many and surprisingly negative. Monica had originally proposed co-sponsoring the conference with The Women’s Conference in Family Therapy, a group of 4 of the senior women in the field: Betty Carter, Peggy Papp, Mary Ann Walters and Olga Silverstein. They did not think such a meeting would be worth participating in, although in the end they were great enthusiasts for the meeting. Marianne even told me initially there were no women out there she would be interested in meeting. Luckily she changed her mind and participated actively in all 3 of the meetings, but it gives you an idea how strongly we women had been socialized to view men as the center of the universe.

We invited the mothers of the field including Virginia Satir and Mara Selvini, who later said they did not believe there was any need to have a meeting just with women. One senior woman rejected the invitation out of hand, saying she never concerned herself with gender since it was a trivial level of difference, which held no interest for her. Another woman said that to participate in the meeting would be “counter to all my efforts toward systems theory.” A third said she had no “legitimate excuse” to go off for three days “with just women,” particularly since she had been away from her husband too much already. Others worried what it would be like to meet “with only women” for three days, and a few were concerned that their male colleagues would be upset with them for attending. In other words, few women were unambivalent about the idea of a conference of and about women. Several joked that 20 years ago the idea of a meeting without men would never have occurred to them, and if it had, would have been immediately dismissed as too boring to consider. Indeed, at the meeting itself Kitty LaPerriere, one of the very few early women leaders in the field, commented that she was surprised herself to realize that there was no place on earth she’d rather be that Saturday night than with this very amazing group of all women!

Men who heard about the meeting also reacted strongly. Several expressed fears that we women were trying to mobilize a takeover of the field to oust the male leaders. A few tried to get themselves invited or at least to be allowed to send a representative. The meeting was compared to a coven of witches. The meeting stimulated emotional reactions and fantasies far beyond our expectations. Women who were interested in attending were called radicals, men haters, and–the worst of all possible insults–“nonsystemic thinkers.” Even we as the initiators wondered at times about the possible negative effects of such a meeting. Would it unite us or divide us? Would it alienate those who could not attend?

As the emotional climate intensified, so did our commitment to the meeting and our curiosity about the causes of such extreme responses from otherwise rational people. It became clear that some very powerful issues were being raised; some very important unspoken rules were being challenged.

Stimulating turmoil had not been our intent. In developing the plan for Stonehenge, we had seen the need for a network of support and sharing, a need for more visible women mentors and role models, and for hearing the many wonderful voices of women in the field, who were so often overshadowed by the men in their lives. Indeed, the inspiration for the meeting came to Monica as she travelled around Ireland in 1983 with Lynn Hoffman and realized through their conversation what a hidden but significant force Lynn had been for so many in the field since the early 1960s and yet hardly anyone knew her name. She had ghost written Virginia Satir’s first book, she had given the structural therapists their name and framework, she had written key materials for which Jay Haley alone was known. And she had been a major force in defining the concepts of the Milan Systemic Model. Lynn herself turned down the invitation but later wrote a touching letter of apology, saying “What a mistake not to come to the Women’s Conference!” And she did turn up at the second Stonehenge meeting two years later and became, as did so many others, a much more visible force in the field in the years afterward.

Although some men and, surprisingly, some women reacted negatively to the Stonehenge meeting, once the conference occurred almost everyone found it to be an experience which brought together thoughtful, articulate women family therapists to talk about their lives, ideas and experiences in the field. What was remarkable about the meeting and the many connections it helped to foster among women in the field, was the energy, intelligence, and power that were there to be mobilized. We had all struggled with gender issues at every level all our lives, but we were only beginning to articulate the issues as they confronted the field of family therapy.  The issue of gender had been for most of us, as Betty Friedan described it, “the problem with no name.” The themes we discussed at the meeting included:

  • Women and Work
  • Women and Money
  • Mentoring & Role Models
  • Mothers & Sons, Fathers and Daughters,
  • How to think about the intersection of gender, sexual orientation, race, culture and social class
  • Women, Power and Leadership

As we talked together, we learned that we had all experienced problems with the unequal division of power and labor in our own families, in the families we saw in treatment, and in our professional relationships. We found that we contributed to these problems by our own attitudes and behaviors: lacking confidence to assert ourselves, feeling guilty when we did not take total responsibility for our homes and children, and when we did not protect and defer to men. One most memorable presentation by Ellen Berman on the “Glory-Work Ratio” suggested that we pause over-night at least and call a friend any time we get invited to do a presentation, because as women we were so likely to under-sell our abilities and accept being underpaid for our writing, training and clinical services.

One of the resolves the group had at the end of our first meeting was to write an open letter to the field, signed by the participants about our concerns. The group called on the field to join in a critique and transformation of family systems theory and practice to build a movement for change in the field, challenging inequities that support inequality in the field and in families. Even here the question remained: would our efforts do more harm than good? Indeed there was major controversy about what to say to our community. One senior women thought our initial letter was “too inflammatory” for saying “Family therapists have ignored the category of gender in their conceptualizations of family life.” She said such words were: “polarizing, only a partial truth, and likely to start meaningless blame-defense- and counter-blame arguments.”

After much post-group conversation, the group’s revised letter was published in the Family Networker the following year and read in part as follows:

In September 1984 almost fifty women family therapist clinicians, trainers, theorists and researchers assembled at a colloquium at Stonehenge in Connecticut to address the role of women in families and in family therapy. . . We were concerned . . . that the family therapy field has ignored gender in conceptualizations of family life. Under the rubric of systemic thinking, family therapists have come to assume that the interior of the family is the source of all dysfunction of its members. Such thinking results too often in holding women ultimately responsible for family functioning and penalizing them for their centrality in domestic life. . . (We have) concern about the lack of theory (and therefore practice) which connects family functioning to the gender inequalities in the social system which forms the family context. . . The feminization of poverty, the lack of resources for the rearing and maintenance of children, and the rise in domestic violence, all should move family therapists beyond the systemic myths that husbands and wives hold equal power in families or that families can be treated apart from this context. (Family Networker, Nov-Dec 1985, p. 17)

Three decades after these words were put together, we are still struggling with these very issues. The imperative for therapists to take context into account remains the same. While we have a greater awareness of the contextual intersectionality of gender with race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, ableism and many other dimensions of our identities, the crux of the matter is that we must not limit our perspective the interior of the family. We as family therapists had begun with an expanded awareness that healing could not occur only at an individual level or in linear fashion. As systemic therapists we already knew this, and yet the pressure from larger systems to ignore inequities at the interior and exterior of the family was becoming increasingly obvious. It has become a great deal more obvious today even than it was three decades ago in 1984 as we struggle with the possibility for the first time in history of having a woman as our nation’s President.

In addition to the call to the community to join in a critique and transformation of the field, we began to analyze the field’s leadership, the leadership of the journals and organizations such as AFTA, and to intentionally pressure for change. We wrote letters to journal editors, challenging the lack of female representation on their editorial boards. We sought leadership roles where we could have a say in program planning, which led, perhaps not surprisingly to backlash, for example, within AFTA, where a number of the senior men in the field withdrew angrily from the organization. (cite Frank Pittman). Froma successfully challenged a “decade review” of the field which made virtually no reference to any women whatsoever! We worked hard to help each other become more conscious of the subtle and not so subtle ways gender and other inequities played out in our field.

The Second Stonehenge Meeting, Ridgefield Connecticut, 1986

Two years later we convened a second Stonehenge meeting expanding the participation to about 60 women, including several who had had a chance of heart since the first meeting. Many key women who had not been present did participate including Lynn Hoffman and Bunny Duhl and a number of new voices brought to the group through networking- friends bringing friends.

After the second meeting, some women were very keen to keep the group going, but we were extremely concerned about the issue of a group boundary creating a sense of inclusion for those inside but also a sense of exclusion for those who were not included. We felt it would make more sense to allow for the creation other forums for women (and men) to expand the conversation.

The International Women’s Colloquium, Kolle Kolle, Copenhagen, Denmark Mary 1991

Several years later, a few of us, initially Evan Imber Black, Betty Carter, Bella Borwick and Monica McGoldrick, thought it would be exciting to create an international women’s colloquium along the lines of the Stonehenge meetings but at a broader level.

In terms of size we felt group would have to be limited to a number who could at least make preliminary contact with each other in a three day meeting. We settled on the number 100. We thought women from the U.S. would be very keen for such a meeting, especially since our Stonehenge experience, but we realized saw how we could easily become dominant and colonizers of the experience. The size and composition of the group created enormously difficult problems. How could we expand the network, create a good and not too expensive colloquium, include women from as many different backgrounds as possible, and not create negative feelings of exclusion over our having assumed the power to create the experience. We decided to limit women from the US to 20% and to try to have at least 2 women come together from each area so they could support each other on their return. Through networking we received a great number of suggestions and in the end we had women from about about 30 countries including Japan, Finland, Israel, Tanzania, Nigeria, Spain, Mexico, Canada, Australia?, Germany, France, England, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the US, Russia?, Korea?, Hong Kong? and . . . [if anyone out there remembers any other countries please let us know!] The group was extraordinary. In the end the group itself contributed to scholarships for several women whose financial situation would not have allowed them to participate otherwise. The international networking continued in and expanded from the women who met at that meeting to many international contexts in the years that followed.

Personal Connections: The Importance of A Sisterhood

The three of us who organized the first Stonehenge had all experienced deep bonds with other women in our own families. But society had taught us that life was supposed to be about “getting the Prince,” a process which weakens women’s ties of sisterhood with the competitive struggles, which has so often separated women professionally and personally from each other. But we also knew the importance of our own sisterhoods through friendship, colleagueship, and mentoring. In all the years since Stonehenge there has seemed to exist a special, often unspoken, bond among those who shared in those meetings the vulnerabilities and stereotypes of our lives and fostered each other’s achieving her power in the evolution of the field whether in teaching, writing, or research. We became extremely conscious during those meetings of our need for each other, to validate not just the intellectual bonds we share, but of our emotional and spiritual bonds as well. We made a conscious effort to grow in our ability to articulate and respect our differences and the varied perspectives and contributions we could make to a fuller appreciation of women’s experiences in families and beyond- in communities and in the larger world. We ourselves produced the book Women in Families (W. W. Norton) in 1991 to which the women of Stonehenge were the primary contributors. Many other writing, research and training projects were sparked by those meetings and collaborations among those who had first met there.

Click here for the video of pictures and discussion of the meetings.