Sister act: Behind the closed doors of Britain's all-female power groups

Across Britain, groups of women are gathering behind closed doors to scheme, network and share ideas. Who are they and what do they want?
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As we know, it's women who run the world. They're simply rather subtle about it, operating in invisible networks, behind closed doors, using their own ways and means. This piece seeks to gently lift the lid on women-only groups, to observe them, not with an agenda, but more in the manner of a field study, a survey of some of the sororities that are constantly humming away, making stuff happen, just below the radar.

How do they organise themselves? What do they want? There are as many answers as there are groups, but some patterns emerge. Every group I spoke to used the word "relaxed". Women-only environments are just less hassle. Socially and mentally. Within them, utopian ideas can flourish, whether it be a plan for helping young women beauty executives climb the greasy pole (see "The beauty mafia", page 21) or a vision for how to change public policy on power stations run by coal (see "The eco cabal").

In the privacy of Rebecca Frayn's kitchen, the women behind Bright Green Pictures have been thinking big. Huge. They want to make short films that will change our attitudes towards energy consumption. I found myself thinking of their radical forebears, of Hannah More, the 18th-century "bishop in petticoats", who wrote so stridently against slavery, calling for "a revolution in manners... a radical change in the moral behaviour of the nation". What gave her the courage? Being part of the Bluestocking movement must have helped.

The Bluestockings shared books, friendship jewels (such as a tiny enamel locket-like box containing each others' pictures) and, most importantly, assets – usefully, one of their number, Elizabeth Montagu, was filthy rich. She built a "temple of virtue and friendship" on London's Portman Square, where they could all be brainy together in luxury. When Montagu's husband died she used his money to endow her coterie of writers.

It wasn't all sweetness and light, however. Ann Yearsley was a milkmaid from Bristol whom the Bluestockings "discovered" as a gifted poet. They helped her get into print, but Yearsley claimed they had defrauded her of 'royalties, and there was an embarrassingly public row. Generally, though, the Bluestockings seem to have been very happy sharing contacts, painting one another's portraits, and enhancing their mutual fabulousness.

What did they do, then, to deserve the 1815 Rowlandson cartoon "The Breaking Up of the Bluestocking Club" (recently displayed at the National Portrait Gallery's Brilliant Women exhibition), in which they are brawling, scratching and pulling hair? How did the word itself come to be a term of derision? All-women power groups have never delighted the patriarchy, shall we say. Band together and you're a "coven"; disagree and you're "at one another's throats". Perhaps it's no wonder these groups operate so discreetly.

Theatre director Suzy Willson is the co-founder of the Clod Ensemble and the woman behind the internationally successful "happening", the Red Ladies. Dressed identically in red stilettos, red headscarves and dark glasses, the Red Ladies move through towns with "great love, incredible style and devastating integrity" (these are their stage directions). Who are they, and what is their purpose? The public leap to all sorts of conclusions. Men shout lewd comments at them, or show exaggerated deference. Some people are afraid. Others assume they are selling something, perfume perhaps. No one knows how to read the Red Ladies. We are simply not used to seeing women in uniform.

"There's an Everyman, but there isn't an Everywoman," says Willson. Her performance art is disorienting and exciting because it gives us a glimpse of something rare: women looking as if they belong together. Men do it all the time. Think of a black-tie dinner, a business suit, football supporters. Men slip on a mask that makes them all of a type. Women must always dress like individuals. It can be a privilege but it sure gets exhausting; adopting a temporary group identity can be a refuge and a relief.

The Red Ladies have no leader. "They move a bit like starlings," says Willson. "You think they must be choreographed, but they're not. The group has its own energy." Some of the more informal groups I interviewed here were the same. They had no head honcho, no stooges. They ran themselves, carried along by a mysterious momentum. Could this be a glimpse of – ah! – the lost, the mystical Amazonian Way of Doing Things?

On the other hand, many women's groups just replicate structures set up by men, for men. At Christ's College, Cambridge, an all-male sporting society called The Marguerites has been carousing round the quiet quads since 1899. When women joined the college in the 1970s they set up The Hippolytans on very much the same lines. "We started as a response to the Marguerites, I'm sure," says fourth-year undergraduate Lexy Docwra, former secretary of the Hippolytans, chair of the May Ball, hockey-team captain and all-round college star. "But there are differences in the way we do things. When the boys initiate new members, they wake them up with a pint of vodka. We're much classier. We wake them up with a glass of ' champagne, and then lock them out of their rooms so they have to go to the porter's lodge in their pyjamas..." Other initiation rites include tipsy wheelbarrow races and stealing "trophies" from other colleges. "We match the Marguerites in high spirits," adds former Hippos president Cat McIntosh, "except we want the girls to have a nice time. It's not about endurance." The Hippos attend weekly social events, sometimes wearing their black-and-red sorority ties, sometimes fancy dress. On one memorable occasion the theme was "hill-climbing" and the Hippos turned up tied to one another by rope. Is there a homoerotic vibe?

"No, that's something I think happens more at all-women colleges," one Hippo tells me. "They need the publicity." "I'm sure Hippos sounds strange to the outside world," says Docwra. "My father understands it, though, because he was a Marguerite, though in his day Christ's didn't have any women at all."

It's dizzying thinking how quickly everything has changed. Sometimes women's groups don't keep up. Another group running on a male structure is the female Freemasons. Yes, they exist – 6,000 of them – alive, well and busy operating the secret two-way tunnel between Selfridges and the Hampstead ladies pond. OK, that last is a lie, but the truth is scarcely less extraordinary. They address one another as "Worshipful Brother Margaret" or "Grand Master Florence", slavishly copying their male counterparts, even though, after 100 years of negotiation, they still don't have official recognition from them (in practice, however, both organisations co-operate amicably and share premises).

The founding female Freemasons of 100 years ago were radical feminists because they believed in – oh, horrors – birth control, but times changed and the female Freemasons didn't. These days, they are a conventional lot – when I asked about criteria for membership,I was told you needed to be "respectable" – yet what they do is, in many ways, pretty radical. Usual gender roles are totally upturned.

The women have the grand titles and enjoy elaborate dinners; their menfolk are allowed to help out "with charity work". The female Freemasons flounce about in robes decorated with golden badges of their Masonic achievements, like glorified, grown-up Girl Guides. They claim the hieratic status of mysticism. When the female grand masters took to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall for their centenary celebrations last month, husbands were permitted to come along to watch. "It was the first time most of them had seen us in our regalia," Zuzanka Penn, assistant grand master, told me proudly. I'll bet they were dazzled. In her robes she is as stunning as a cardinal. Yet her personal preference, as a Christian, is to receive communion from a male officiate. The female Freemasons are indeed a rich source of contradictions.

But the point of this article isn't to simplify, but to reveal women's groups in all their complicated variety and subtle permutations. This is what we do when no one's looking, and this, and this, and this...

The radical readers

They went out to support the women of Greenham Common. Thirty-odd years later, they're still reading against the patriarchy.

"We only read books by women," explains Harriet Spicer, a founder of Virago Press and a long-term group member. "I did once manage to slide in a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft by Richard Holmes but the idea is to honour women writers by reading them. My daughter will say, 'Mum's getting all "votes for women" again,' but I do think there's work to be done."

No one can quite remember exactly when the group started. "Put it this way, one of the babies who attended in a straw basket is getting married this summer," says Spicer.

Members past and present include Julia Bard of the Jewish Socialists, Anna Barfield, who ran the women's desk at Compendium Books in Camden, and Margaret Lally, of The Owl bookshop in Kentish Town. Controversial reads over the years include Raising Children in the Goddess Tradition by the radical San Francisco feminist Starhawk.

Spicer sums up: "Our group works, so no one wants to change it. Everyone brings food without much consultation, and somehow we never end up with six pots of hummus... although, to tell the truth, there is always one pot of hummus."

The eco cabal

Four film-makers – Eski Thomas, Lila Morgan, Christina Robert and Lesley Cavendish – get together as Bright Green Pictures with one big idea: to make short environmental consciousness-raising films, "commercials on behalf of the planet".

"Motherhood means you take a break, and you start to think differently, to reprioritise," says Robert. "We all had that, I think. We stopped and we realised: you know what? We could make small films with a big impact. Between us, we've got quite a lot of contacts."

Understatement of the year: not only do all these women have 20-odd years' film experience, they all happen to be married to major power players: Morgan to writer of The Queen Peter Morgan; Thomas to Bertolucci's producer, Jeremy Thomas; Cavendish to the producer of Bridget Jones; while Robert's spouse, Barnaby Thompson, is head of Ealing Studios and produced St Trinian's.

"I see the Trinian's girls quite a lot and Tallulah Riley has told us she is ready to be in her first Bright Green Pictures film," says Robert.

Boy, are these women efficient: "We put our first film together in about three hours in our friend Rebecca Frayn's kitchen," (see "We don't have set roles, as such," says Robert, "it just happens. None of us has patience with hierarchical structures any more. We're all mothers and we all appreciate the value of each other's time."

Cavendish, a producer of adverts and mother of triplets aged 11, sees their association as "post-feminist".

"Nobody shouts each other down," she says, "But that's what we're like as individuals. That's nothing to do with gender."

The all-girl dance crew

The SINstar Bgirls crew includes Chi-Boogie, Ladybug, Raquit, RascElle and Remady. Their artistic director is TrubL Roc (aka Lucy). SIN stands for Strength In Numbers.

"It's a more united feeling, dancing in a girls' crew," says TrubL Roc. "When I started out, there weren't many girls in UK hip hop so a lot of us thought we had to be strong like a boy, or get our cleavages out like French B-girls. We don't do either of those things.

"We've got inner strength without being butch. We dress like girls, with big earrings and necklaces that are always falling in our mouths at inopportune moments, and we dance like girls. We get style and confidence from each other, definitely." In dance, or in life? "There's no separation!"

TrubL Roc and a friend she had been breakdancing with since primary school started their first all-girl group, Cassé, in Cambridge 10 years ago. "I was 18 and I already had one of my daughters, who used to come to training when she was tiny, sitting in a car seat, bobbing her head. We did an all-girl showcase at the UK Championships in 1999 and the blokes who told us it would never work were like, hang on, we want a bit of this. We thought about having them in the group but they were so moody and took up so much floor space in practice that it made us realise we had something special being just girls."

The women of the Lodge

There are 6,000 female Freemasons in the UK and Commonwealth and their centenary celebrations recently filled the Albert Hall. The current grandmaster supports a policy of non-secrecy, hence this rare interview with Dr Iris Oktabsova and her daughter Zuzanka.

"It's not about worldly power," says Oktabsova, past grand master of Lodge Equity 16. "It's about spirituality and personal growth." Oktabsova, 86, joined when she was 21 years old, after attending a "spectacular" meeting at the Grand Lodge in London's Notting Hill. "A lot of masons at that Lodge were Equity members, so it was quite a theatrical performance." What, with hymn-singing and dancing? "That sort of thing."

If Oktabsova is vague, it is "because otherwise there would be nothing for new members to discover". "There would be no journey," agrees Zuzanka, accountant by day, assistant grand master after hours.

As for secret handshakes: "We have several," says Oktabsova. "And we have fun too," adds Zuzanka. "I shouldn't say it but some of our meetings can be hysterically funny. When you're trying to be very serious and solemn you can get the giggles."

Pioneering female Masons of the early 20th century were suffragists and women's rights campaigners. Is there still a feminist angle? "No. I am definitely not liberated," winks Zuzanka.

"Yes," agrees Oktabsova looking skywards, "it goes beyond gender."

The beauty mafia

Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW) promotes networking and leadership in the beauty industry. Its 600 UK members include anyone who's anyone in war paint, from brand managers to product developers to beauty journalists.

"I would never want to go to an event that was just a makeover or a luncheon club," says Caroline Neville, president of CEW. "But if you were going to tell me about tax laws, intellectual copyright, green cosmetics – that I would want go to."

These are some of the topics CEW has recently discussed at its power breakfasts.

"We meet at The Avenue in St James's – a perfect white space. I'm from a PR background, so anything I put on was always going to have style and quality. We pay minimal fuss to the breakfast, just plenty of coffee."

Guest speakers might be stars – the actor Sarah Jessica Parker has attended to discuss celeb fragrances – or CEOs. Networking opportunities are dizzying.

"A younger member on a low-price ticket could find herself next to the managing director of a major brand," says Neville. "It's what we need if we're going to make young women leaders. In the US, where CEW started in the 1950s, it's now 4,000-strong and you have to be a member to get anywhere in the industry. CEW France is more elitist; you have to be an MD to join. Here I run mentoring schemes to bring people up through the ranks.

"Unlike fashion, there isn't a formalised way to enter the beauty industry through college. So we, CEW, act like an informal training school."

What do men make of it? "We have a big issue with men, I have to say. They all want to join."

The creative circle

Most of the Muses (bar Urania) are represented in this long-running book group, whose members include a writer and novelist, two painters and a dancer-turned-opera director. Based in East Sussex near Hastings, they have been meeting once a month for 11 years. "We've seen each other through many crises," says Charlotte Moore, a writer, journalist and long-term member. "Radiotherapy, divorce, bereavement... it's been a sort of informal feminist support group, without ever setting out to be that. It fulfils a real need for intelligent conversation."

That was how it all began, when most members had toddlers. "Now we all drone on about the menopause. It's very interesting to me, seeing how women's lives take shape." Has the group featured in her novels? "Not explicitly, but everything feeds in."

Hosts take turns, in alphabetical rotation. "The food's hit and miss; we're not socially competitive in that way. Power is remarkably equally shared."

No one could be said to lead this group, nor does it have a name. It "comes in and out of focus, becomes more or less important at different times in our lives".

Once, in an orgy of creativity showcased at a Sussex arts festival, the group's members rendered portraits of one another in their own different media – words, food, and painted representations, both abstract and realistic. The Bluestockings would have been proud. HE