Red Tent Norfolk and WI part of health boosting sisterhood

A meeting of Red Tent Norfolk, a group set up by Kayla Bainger as a space for women to come together

A meeting of Red Tent Norfolk, a group set up by Kayla Bainger as a space for women to come together in Norwich and share and discuss what is important to them. - Credit: Archant

Findings from a raft of studies suggest female friendship could be one of the most powerful forces for boosting women's health. Sheena Grant looks at the evidence...

Members of Cake and Revolution WI in Ipswich.
Picture: Cake and Revolution WI

Members of Cake and Revolution WI in Ipswich. Picture: Cake and Revolution WI - Credit: Archant

Life in our fragmented, fast-paced, technologically-driven world has brought huge change in a short space of time.

And research suggests not all of it has been for the better when it comes to our health, particularly for women.

It wasn't so long ago that we lived in societies where women were essentially part of a 'tribe', raising children together, sharing domestic tasks and helping each other through life's ups and downs. And those of us who have managed to build that 'sisterhood' into our modern lives have a big advantage over those who haven't, studies suggest.

Without a sense of belonging and connectedness that comes from female friendships it seems we risk being more anxious, stressed and less able to fight off and recover from disease.

In a landmark study, US researchers Laura Klein and Shelley Taylor looked at friendships and stress and discovered differences between women and men in relation to the effects of the calming, bonding hormone oxytocin. Women, say the researchers, are hard-wired for friendship in a way that men aren't and when life becomes challenging, women seek out each other as a means of regulating stress levels.

There's evidence that friendship can help women recover from disease and live longer too. A 2006 breast cancer study found that women with close friends were four times more likely to survive the disease. Meanwhile, the Nurses' Health Study at Harvard Medical School showed that the more friends women have, the healthier and happier they are as they age.

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Here, we look at what sisterhood means to women in East Anglia.

'One of the most important and enduring relationships a woman can have'

Jayne Davey, manager at Kesgrave-based mental health charity Suffolk User Forum, says: 'I really value my girlfriends who feel like a real sisterhood with genuine warmth, affection and understanding of the ups and downs of family life. We share many similar life experiences; from aging parents, hurt from men who have betrayed us, through to the joys and challenges of nurturing and parenting our children.

'We can pour out our disappointments and frustrations without judgement, receive understanding, with shared humour in even our darkest moments, drawing strength to trust that this too will pass, and we can again be strong. We can celebrate collective joys, achievements and happiness.

'A sisterhood friendship group is nurturing; it's one of the most important and enduring relationships a woman can have.'

'I wanted to be inspired'

Female friendship and support can be found in a more formal group setting too. The Women's Institute was set up in 1915 to revitalise rural communities during the First World War but it seems 21st century women still hanker for the sisterhood it can bring.

Cake and Revolution, in Ipswich, is one of a 'new wave' of WIs formed in recent years to appeal to a wider audience. It was set up a year ago with 118 members, making it instantly the largest WI in the Suffolk East Federation. It now has 136 members with a waiting list of 49.

Membership secretary Sharon Turner says: 'I joined the WI primarily to meet and socialise with other women. I wanted to be part of an active, vocal group of women in Ipswich and I wanted to be inspired and invigorated by other women. I have met the most wonderful, caring, funny bunch of women, all of whom have skills and advice to pass on.'

A space to be heard and held

Red Tent Norfolk was set up in Norwich by Kayla Bainger in 2014 as a space for women to come together. The Red Tent movement, which harks back to an ancient tribal tradition, arrived in the UK in 2009 and there are now thought to be around 50-plus active groups across the country.

Kayla says the Norfolk initiative was borne out of her desire to make meaningful connections with other women.

'Since having my son I really wanted a space to be heard and held without judgment,' she says. 'It is a supportive space for women to share and discuss what is important to them. It is about taking time out of our busy lives to relax, feel empowered, celebrated and restored for the month ahead.

'Each gathering is different depending on the needs of the group. We explore the seasons of the year through meditations, relaxation, sharing stories, singing, massage, and self care rituals. As women see themselves reflected in each others' stories they have the opportunity to heal their own stories. The strong yet gentle support that I've witnessed whilst at a red tent is so profound, playful, wild, free, tender, deep, loving and transformative.'

To find out more visit or find Red Tent Norfolk on Facebook.