I think a lot of young women get really beaten down by overt materialism, the demands on what you look like, pressure to be a certain way.
George-Allen cites one, recent, high-profile example of a young woman stepping aside from conventional society and into a quiet religious life: former ABC Queensland journalist, Nancy Webb, who announced in July last year that she intended to join the ultra-conservative Sisters of Life in New York.
For her book, Witches: What Women Do Together (A Celebration of the Power and Pleasure of Working with Other Women), George-Allen moved among, and researched, different all-female groups – from religious women to female weight-lifters, ballet dancers, midwives and women who identified as actual witches – to try to identify the «chemistry» that can occur within groups of women.
Of the nuns, who continue to fascinate her, she writes that even more «curious» than their decision to join a convent is that «most of these women are choosing to become contemplative rather than active nuns, and overwhelmingly join orders that still wear the habit and follow more conservative, traditional lifestyles».
On the phone from her book tour in her home state of Tasmania, she adds, «A lot say they’re looking for a spiritual life they can’t access otherwise; it’s not something that we talk about that much … I think a lot of young women get really beaten down by the overt materialism, the demands on what you look like, the demands on your time and that you capitulate to social pressure to be a certain way.
«By being a nun, you avoid all of that and devote your life to one thing that really matters to you.»
Want of a spiritual connection is a theme that could unite many of the groups of women whose cultures George-Allen explored. Having noted the popularity of astrology among her well-informed age group, and noting a Starter Witch Kit was due to hit the shelves of mass market make-up chain Sephora (which had to withdraw it after protest from women identifying as practising witches), George-Allen decided to delve also into contemporary use of ancient practices.
«Witches is a term deployed like other terms have been to put women in their place, but there’s something about the power implied in the term that’s really interesting,» says the author. «There is a pop-culture resurgence in witchcraft, as well, spells for luck are popular, everyone’s into astrology – it’s a playful outlet, but you can tie it back to this desire to have more of a spiritual life.»
George-Allen was interested to learn, while discussing contemporary witchcraft with women who practice it, that it involves some elements of traditional organised religion. «A lot of these practices have elements of Catholicism that are really important to them. The saints and the psalms, that kind of stuff, particularly in English and Irish folk magic.»
She says «a global, semi-serious network of women identifying as witches, and claiming a kind of power – even if it’s only symbolic – is allowing an avenue into a kind of spirituality which is however you want it to be». For the women participating, «feeling that sense that sense of connection is really valuable».
Sam George-Allen’s Witches, What Women Do Together (Vintage) is out now.
Wendy Tuohy is Lifestyle editor.