Back to the Women’s Land

How do women gain power in a society economically and politically dominated by men? This question vexed mid-20th-century second-wave feminists. At issue was whether women should occupy male spaces or ...

How do women gain power in a society economically and politically dominated by men? This question vexed mid-20th-century second-wave feminists. At issue was whether women should occupy male spaces or create their own female spaces. For example, was power acquired by demanding entry to traditionally masculine domains like Ivy League colleges, private clubs, and corporate boardrooms? Betty Friedan and other members of the National Organization for Women fought legal battles in pursuit of those goals. Or could women successfully exert power by rejecting mainstream society to live in a women-only world? Radical lesbian groups such as Washington, DC’s Furies Collective chose this path. In Herlands, Keridwen Luis investigates other groups of women who opted for segregation. For them, separatism was a political statement of their power to live without men.

Luis introduces the reader to an obscure microculture of women who live in intentional communities composed entirely of women, what she calls “women’s lands” occupied by “land women.” (A subset of “lesbian lands” restricts membership to lesbians or “landdykes,” a term created by landdykes themselves.) Women’s lands exist in urban, suburban, and rural locales. Far from being a relic of the 1970s, there are still over one hundred such communities in the United States. Although Luis distinguishes between women’s lands and lesbian lands, the book is predominantly about lesbians.1

Upon being invited to review this book, I reached for my copy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915). Ah, I thought, an homage to Gilman soon after the centennial of her utopian novel. In it, she described a “Woman Land,” where only women and girls lived; no men were allowed. Imagine my surprise when I found nary a mention of this feminist classic in the book’s introduction, nor elsewhere in it. Neither does Luis use the term “herlands” anywhere but in the title. How could Luis have ignored this feminist classic? My assignment, however, was not to ponder this question, but to reflect on issues of feminist uses of space, a topic that grounds Luis’s work.

Herlands makes a contribution to the literature on feminists and space by focusing on rural rather than urban examples. Regardless of location, feminists use space for political purposes. Three examples from history illustrate my point.

During the Middle Ages, single women could avoid both marriage and the convent if they chose to live in a beguinage. A beguinage, of which there were almost one hundred throughout Belgium, Flanders, and the Low Countries, was typically located in an urban home donated by a wealthy individual; some were part of walled compounds that formed a secular community of women. Beguines lived without men, but they were not cloistered. Neither were they prevented from undertaking economic pursuits like teaching, nursing, and weaving.

Were beguines feminists? They certainly followed a nontraditional path that was controversial within the Church, which spent a great deal of energy (uselessly) trying to regulate their lives. Did their living arrangements have a political purpose? Yes, since their opposition to the patriarchal Church was comparable to contemporary feminist rejection of patriarchal secular society. The compounds that separated them from the rest of the city were symbols of their independent lives.

In more recent American history, the late 19th-century settlement house movement provides another urban example. The predominantly female American movement was modeled on the exclusively male Toynbee House Settlement in London. Settlement house residents, many of whom were suffragists, converted old houses to serve as their own living quarters, and as classrooms and kindergartens for their immigrant neighbors. College-educated women scandalized their families by choosing to live in poverty-stricken districts. In the process of creating new uses for urban spaces, settlement residents conducted studies of neighborhood conditions that influenced national labor and housing legislation. Their stand for the rights of immigrants was politically controversial. The most famous settlement house resident, Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House, lost funding when she supported the striking Pullman Railroad workers. Settlement houses gave educated women an avenue into public life and thus into politics.

My third example: in the mid-20th-century United States, feminists in many cities adapted old buildings for use as women’s centers, bookstores, health clinics, and domestic violence shelters. These places, like settlement houses, taught the founders organizational and political skills while providing vital services to a marginalized clientele. Women’s centers gave material shape to the women’s movement; feminist bookstores fueled an intellectual environment that encouraged female authors. Feminist health centers addressed women’s most basic needs for reproductive rights. And domestic violence shelters protected women from physical and psychological trauma. None of these places existed before the 1970s. The founders transformed their politics into practice when they created new institutions to address women’s unmet needs.

During the same era that some second-wave feminists dedicated themselves to urban political activism, others chose rural areas, in a back-to-the-land movement. Unlike Progressive-era settlement workers or second-wave activists, land women wanted to escape from the larger society, not transform it. Those feminists, and their use of land, are the subject of Luis’s Herlands. As separatists, they use space to reject heteronormative society—a decidedly political purpose.

Women’s lands “sprang from the passionate experimentalism of feminism, lesbian feminism, and women of color(s) feminism sometimes known as second-wave feminism, and are often thought to have vanished along with the philosophy of lesbian separatism—often considered embarrassing by modern feminists.”

Although Luis makes such a claim more than once in the book—that modern feminists are embarrassed by lesbian separatists—she provides no citations to support it. If she means by “modern” the second-wave feminists who tried to silence lesbians and expunge them from the sisterhood, as Betty Friedan did when she decried “the Lavender Menace” to the women’s movement, she has a point. I doubt, however, that contemporary third-wave feminists are as prejudiced against gender or sexual preferences as older feminists were. Members of the third wave pride themselves on recognizing the intersectionality of gender, race, and class in creating layers of oppression. Concepts of “transfeminism,” “ecofeminism,” and human rights for all people characterize a diverse third-wave agenda.

Luis traces the origins of the land movement to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the Seneca Peace Camp. She addresses the inherent racism in these predominantly white communities, the prevalence of identity politics, and the gendered body in its symbolic and physical forms. She explores how gender is represented in the mountainous landscape, for example, and how food, toilet practices, and the fat body are treated. “Transgendered bodies” merit a chapter, as does the aging and disabled body. With the exception of the contentious debates about transgender women, there appears to be little conflict among land women.

Unlike Progressive-era settlement workers or second-wave activists, land women wanted to escape from the larger society, not transform it.

Herlands’s research is based on the author’s participant observation in four rural women’s lands (in Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, and Tennessee), participation in the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, attendance at two Landdyke Gatherings, interviews with 32 women, and archival sources. Nearly 80 percent of interviewees, some of whom had children and/or had been married to men, identified as lesbian. Almost all identified as white.

Although few interviewees identified themselves as separatists, land women tend to be perceived by members of the “matrix” (Luis’s term for mainstream heteronormative culture) as lesbian separatists. One assumes that they all identified as feminists, although that is, again, unclear. Luis is careful to use the term “identified as.” She recognizes that racial and gender identities are fluid, and is attempting to let subjects speak for themselves. The book’s introduction begins with Luis identifying herself as a lesbian, who, with her wife, attended a Landdyke Gathering in New Mexico. She reveals her profession as an anthropologist several pages later.

Feminists of a certain age will remember the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, held every August between 1976 and 2015. It was a “Womyn’s Woodstock,” a clothing-optional weekend camping event where 3,000 to 10,000 women (mostly lesbian feminists) gathered on 650 acres to have fun and take refuge from the heterosexual male world. It was a huge undertaking. Women constructed performance stages and cooking and medical facilities; installed the electricity; set up the sound systems; and staffed childcare tents. It was a small city that was dismantled every year and built again the following year. The festival ended in acrimony over the decision to exclude transgender women. More about this later. The Mich Fest, as it was called, is central to the origins of the women’s land movement because it inspired many participants to seek permanent women-only communities. Luis’s respondents described the festival as empowering and life-altering.

Another, lesser known and more overtly political, settlement was the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in Seneca Falls, New York. It opened in 1983, to protest the nearby nuclear depot. The Peace Camp was established by members of the women’s peace movement, Women’s Pentagon Action, and the women’s movement. They were united by an oath of nonviolent protest against militarism in general, and nuclear warfare specifically. The nuclear installation eventually closed but the Peace Camp still has a modified presence. Like the Mich Fest, the Peace Camp gave residents a taste of the powerful possibilities of women-only communities. And like their foremothers demanding voting rights at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, they created political change that reached beyond their immediate community.

Chapter 2 of Herlands, on racial identity and racism, holds few surprises. Women’s lands are predominantly white and reflect deeply ingrained white cultural values despite most participants’ efforts to address their own biases. By taking their race for granted as the default category, many white land women constructed “whiteness” as normal, as the absence of race rather than as one color in a continuum of many. Racism is constructed as “other,” actions done by and to other people, not by members of women’s lands. It is difficult to disentangle racism from sexism and homophobia as intersecting forms of oppression. Most members recognize individuals’ experience of prejudice, but fail to understand the larger system of institutionalized white privilege. Luis laments the lack of diverse ways of seeing the world, in women’s lands and in the matrix culture.

Luis contends that women’s lands become feminist through practices of “feminist consciousness,” which she divides into “community,” “commensality,” and “aesthetics.” Community is formed by like-minded women (e.g., lesbian separatists who are feminists); commensality refers roughly to governance by consensus (the scourge of many a communal living experience); aesthetics includes care for the land (ecofeminism), spiritualism based on Goddess worship, and rejection of capitalism.

Land women appear to be successful at creating their own male-free environments, but at the cost of abandoning efforts to change mainstream institutions.

Women’s lands members were mostly of retirement age but remained economically active in marginal pursuits like driving taxis, making jewelry, or selling radical literature out of the back of a van. They gardened or chopped wood, depending on the season. In other words, these women were low-to-middle income and depended on communal living for physical as well as spiritual sustenance. Sharing assets allowed them to buy or build a dwelling on land they could not easily afford on their own. It also promoted collective domestic tasks. The choice to live on women’s lands could be economic, political, emotional, spiritual, or a combination of any of those motivations.

In their attempts to engage in alternative economies, however, lesbians in particular have risked courting doubly marginalized lives. Feminist author Karen Williams, whose 1995 essay “Lesbian Riches” Luis cites, expressed a similar concern when she commented that “part of the unspoken vow that we took when we became lesbians was the vow of poverty.” Having money was not a sin, Williams argued, if lesbians spend it to support lesbian events and bookstores. Or to buy land for separatist communities. Luis also explores the concept of gift-giving among land women, and how, ideally, it rests on the exchange of services according to one’s talents (e.g., trading chopped wood for meal preparation). Yet it is impossible to escape capitalism completely: women still need money to pay rent and taxes.

However embarrassing (i.e., divisive) lesbian separatism has been to modern feminists, any debates over separatism are mild compared with the controversies plaguing transgender discussions. One camp of feminists thinks only cisgender women (i.e., those born as, and identifying as, women) should be included in feminist endeavors. The other camp believes that men who identify as women and have pursued hormonal or surgical alterations—i.e., transgender women—also deserve to be included. The ill will generated by this disagreement put an end to Mich Fest, whose founder insisted that only cis women should be included. For Luis, the current discrimination against transgender women echoes the earlier exclusion of lesbians from the mainstream women’s movement. Both types of discrimination reflect anxiety about people “doing gender” correctly.

I see Luis’s point: transphobia is dangerously reminiscent of feminists’ initial homophobia; one can only hope that transphobia eventually becomes as repugnant in feminist circles as homophobia is now. Personally, I am increasingly aggravated by the energy wasted on these identity issues. They are yet another way to sow divisions among feminists. Few enough people call themselves feminists as it is; who are we to make distinctions among those who want to join the sisterhood?


“The Shape of Power Is Always the Same”

By Jenn Stroud Rossmann

In Gilman’s urban utopia, women designed and built entire towns complete with homes, parks, and winding streets. Women both governed and controlled the economy. Men were unnecessary (even, evidently, for procreation, since female children were part of the community). Gilman’s Herland provided its residents with a sense of safety; it eliminated the male gaze and banished men who might try to regulate women’s bodies.

These are some of the same goals that land women pursue in their rural communities. These women appear to be successful at creating their own male-free environments, but at the cost of abandoning efforts to change mainstream institutions. They have given up trying to make men responsible for creating a more just society. Based on the current state of politics in the US, one must concur that white men in power show no moral compunction about degrading women and sponsoring legislation to control their bodies.

What are feminists to do? Retreat to their own utopian communities, or engage in mainstream politics? The record-breaking number of women who ran for public office in 2018, including transgender and lesbian women, suggests that many feminists have decided that occupying “male spaces” of power is long overdue.


This article was commissioned by Max Holleran. icon

  1. The author conflates lesbianism with feminism. But not all lesbians are feminists. Or perhaps they are if they are living in separatist communities; this is unclear.
Featured image: Henry “Hy” Mayer, The Awakening (1915). Cornell University Library / Wikimedia Commons