Women’s Land and Language: Huntington, Vermont

In the physical space of HOWL, a feminist and separatist living community, discussion of feminist ideas takes on urgency when confronted with the immediate practicalities of daily living.

Before it is green land, it is a white house with a slanted breezeway. A painted sun rises—or sets—on one gable. Inside, there is potable water, a Free Angela Davis sign, and a hand-drawn map of the property. The path to our campsite skirts the outhouse, with its pride flag privacy curtain, and the chicken coop. Facing them is a broad slope of pasture, lent out in the evenings for the neighbors’ horses to graze. The summer grass is still knee-catchingly tall here. It makes indistinct the trails that loop the property, from the “woman-made” pond to the memorial garden, where staked eulogies dedicate pieces of land like garden plots.

Most of the space, though, appears untouched. Forest and striving daisy. We can’t guess where the property line stops. But we do have an excellent view. Not only of the Green Mountains—which look blue—but of the sun, whether rising or setting in the open sky.

Running alongside Camel’s Hump State Park’s protected woods near Huntington, Vermont, the fifty-acre piece of land was originally part of a much larger plot purchased by a Burlington woman in 1985 and held for a collective of local feminists until they raised the funds to purchase it in spring of 1989. HOWL is a somewhat belated example of the women’s lands that sprouted up across the US during the 1970s. Many of these women’s lands emerged out of the lesbian separatist movement, which advocated that feminists resist patriarchy by disaffiliating themselves with men altogether. (HOWL never defined itself as an exclusively lesbian project.) Unlike most of these women’s lands, it remains active to this day, with five collective members and three permanent residents.

In 2023, at the summer solstice, a few of us drove up to see HOWL for the first time. What we discovered in the archives, tucked away in the attic of the white house, was as significant as what we experienced on the land.

Before HOWL was a collective living project, it was a collective writing project. The idea to found HOWL grew out of the newspaper Commonwoman (sometimes Common Woman, Commonwomon, or Common Womon), based in Winooski, Vermont. The publication’s shifting names suggest the desire to divest from “men”  at the level of language. When the women founded their own land, this linguistic divestment was made literal.

The newspaper Commonwoman was, in part, envisioned as a way to help women gain practical skills in writing, editing, graphic design, and advertising. Yet the digitized issues of Commonwoman held by the Lesbian Herstory Archive also reveal a sense of writing and publishing as political endeavors. The first issue, which came out in August 1978, discusses legal restrictions on distributing printed instructions for obtaining abortions; criticizes the mainstream press for hostility to the women’s movement; and displays a spread of poetry submitted by women.

Consider a March 1984 issue. In an article called “Words are Keys,” one author imagines how words might unlock new virtual space for readers to communally inhabit:

Key words like: sexism, oppression, patriarchy and homophobia unveiled myths about reality. A key sentence was: It’s not my/our fault. Womon, incest survivor, healer, witch, amazon. I need these words that are keys to truth. All the hidden, all the unspeakable needs words in order to be visible in reality, to be changed. One creates reality with language, images, thoughts, belief systems. When enough people believe something to be reality, it becomes reality.

The writer suggests that new terms unlock new pictures of reality, and these pictures of reality might materialize into altered social configurations. New words are linked to new worlds. Both are created through the collaborative practices of consciousness raising and conversation.

The final issue of Commonwoman, published in May 1985, mediates a transition from the virtual space of language to the physical space of a woman’s land. One collective member recounts a recent meeting: “The women around me are excited by the decision to change, they are creating with their words. With their gestures and smiles, they are creating the end of a newspaper. They may be creating something else to take its place. They aren’t sure.” An article by a different collective member suggests that what may take the newspaper’s place is, indeed, a place. “We must as womyn take separate space to define ourselves … Womyns peace camps are a separatist strategy that I think is an effective one.”

Even after Commonwoman shuttered, writing and language remained central to the HOWL project. The most urgent ongoing collective writing project at HOWL has been the continual redrafting of the language the collective has used to describe the goals of the space and to whom it belongs.

If words could literally unlock new vistas, then one key word whose revision has been central to this revisioning is the word “open.” In a December 1986 edition of the HOWL newsletter, the front-page headline reads “HOWL … if you want to Help Open Women’s Land.” On the left-hand side, a circular illustration in black and white depicts pine trees and miles of mountains, and in the top right of the illustration, there’s a moon with a face. The moon’s eyes are closed, her mouth wide open. She looks entranced, or maybe just asleep, lulled by the two wolves in the center left who arch their noses up to the heavens, howling the words “open open open open open.” Emblazoned across the inky sky are the letters “HOWL”—and a lightning bolt tethers it to the very bottom of the image—“to help open women’s land.”

Here, open is not only a verb. It’s a command: a whine, a plea, a howl, an animalistic entreat.

In a recent essay for Sidecar, Caitlín Doherty laments that scholarly attempts to recuperate the voices of previous generations of feminists have evacuated their words of now-outmoded political content. Instead, these contemporary interpretations celebrate only their feminist “style,” which proceeds from “a speaker who narrates in the first-person, invokes the literary, and wants you to know of her pain.”

But what if something like literary style, aesthetic form, or writerly practice was already central to the political aims of 20th-century feminism? In his book Queer Forms (2022), Ramzi Fawaz argues that cultural forms are among the most enduring legacies of the feminist and queer social movements of the 1970s. Moreover, he asserts that these movements saw the urgency of contributing to the social imagination right from the start.

Even the idea of “collective criticism” may be a feminist practice, propose Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards in their book about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Ferrante Letters (2020). Such a collective practice eschews competitiveness to “make visible the slow, fractured, and creative accretion of ideas that underwrites all acts of criticism.” In The Ferrante Letters, the authors mostly avoid knitting their writing together into a collective “we” that would submerge their individual insights and writerly voices. In this way, they position their contribution against a “history of cowriting between women” that “has often taken the idealized scene of exchange between lovers,” preferring the alleged individuation of “friendship” to the formal fusion of lesbian love.

Separatism has been critiqued because divesting from the world means giving up the chance to alter it. And yet, HOWL’s example suggests that having a space to step back from the world is what enables us to revise it.

By contrast, Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth Richie mirror the “productive convergence and dissonance” of collective politics by returning to the first-person plural in their Abolition. Feminism. Now (2022). For these authors, positioning themselves in the legacy of women of color feminism, creative writing and art are essential to visualizing the still utopian future of a world without patriarchal or state violence.

The writings of lesbian separatists offer examples of a feminist “style” beyond the individualized trauma narrative that Doherty critiques, such as the collectively written manifestos of the Radicallesbians and the Combahee River Collective. As Fawaz notes, “The collective ‘we’ of a broad activist and academic left are, in this sense, far more indebted to the political imagination of lesbianism than we know or are willing to admit.”

In HOWL’s archive, early development documents suggest writing played a central role in collectively imagining and reimagining the land. We can see this in the meeting minutes and flyers that served as a reference for shared goal setting. But we can also see it through the grant writing and legal documentation that made the project possible. Multiple iterations of the purpose statement of Commonwomon Inc, filed sequentially with the Vermont state legislature, lay out updated visions for the organization during the early days of HOWL. If HOWL’s archives make visible writing as a form of labor—and, in a very real sense, as a world-making practice—they also testify to the complexity of any collective process.

Take the earliest by-laws draft in the archives. At the top of lined paper, someone has written the collective’s first policy: “consensus decision making.” Underneath, the same hand has added, “include a precise definition of consensus in the by-laws.” None appears. One imagines it was difficult to come to consensus on the meaning of consensus.

For members of this collective, the task wasn’t so much to get the words right as to remain open to the slow, iterative work of self-definition. HOWL calls this “visioning,” evoking Adrienne Rich’s 1972 essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” Rich connects writing and revision with the imaginative process central to women’s liberation, describing the process itself as “an act of survival.” Perhaps visioning and re-visioning is the key to HOWL’s continued connection to feminist praxis.

Shortly after acquiring the land, the collective changed its acronym from “Help Open Women’s Land” to “Huntington Open Women’s Land.” The replacement of “Huntington” for “Help” means that the word “open,” too, shifted from a verb to an adjective descriptive of the land itself.

This semantic shift raises an important question: For whom is this land open? Who belongs at HOWL?

In the collective’s nascent years, this question was a source of constant conversation, debate, and even tension for many members. One particular site of contention was the issue of what to do about “boy children.” Would prepubescent boys be welcome on the HOWL property? How could HOWL respect the views of lesbian separatists, who invested time and money with the assumption that HOWL would remain a categorically woman-only space? On the other hand, what about mothers who could not arrange childcare for their young boys? Would they lose access to a space ostensibly meant for them?

As one HOWL member noted in a June 1988 meeting, the problem is with the “absoluteness” of the issue—“what makes a boy?” HOWL’s meeting minutes show that the collective adjusted the age limit several times before eventually, ambiguously, opting for allowing “young boy children” on the land, “except during women only events and women only weekends.” The HOWL website currently states that “girls of all ages and boys up to and including the age of 10 are welcome.”

The same edition of the newsletter quoted above states that “it has been a year of openings as we begin to explore being open women’s land … being open women … being open…”—that is, learning to “accommodate women in our diversity of needs.” A questionnaire for women interested in living at HOWL asked potential members, “Are you actively interested in unlearning ‘isms’ … i.e. racism, anti-semitism, ableism, classism, etc?”

In late 1989, the collective suggested setting aside a space exclusively for women of color at HOWL. This sparked a variety of opinions. One woman wrote to HOWL in early January 1990 to express her disapproval: “We should have space together. We should work together. … I do not now or in the past wanted [sic] to be apart from women of diffrent [sic] color.”

Conversely, a local who identified herself as a “woman of color” wrote to the collective, “I personally have no need for such a space at HOWL. But I realise that there are women of color who do . . . and I commend your openness at being willing to discuss the possibilities of making this space a reality.” Yet she reminded the collective that any attempt to build a space for women of color would require reaching out to and working with these women. She signed off, “As always, I’m not into attending HOWL meetings.”

The HOWL members discussed the letter in a meeting. Ultimately, however, they reached the conclusion that there were not enough women of color in attendance to reach any real consensus on the issue.

The whiteness and gender essentialism in some separatist spaces has meant that, even in reparative readings of second-wave feminist thought, lesbian separatism often marks the cautionary limit of what can be taken up and made new. In her 2018 n+1 article “On Liking Women,” which reclaims Valerie Solanas’s 1967 SCUM Manifesto as an unwitting trans-lesbian text, Andrea Long Chu concludes, “The true lesson of political lesbianism as a failed project” is “that nothing good comes of forcing desire to conform to political principle.” For Chu, such politicization of desire animates trans-exclusionary radical feminist discourse today.

HOWL’s resistance to officially identifying as a lesbian-separatist space derives from the openness they hoped to communicate in language, regardless of their largely lesbian membership. A meeting note from 1987 reads, “We need to reexamine this issue of how to convey ourselves … Maybe we just need to SAY presently we are a bunch of lesbians but all women are encouraged to be a part of our project.”


Back to the Women’s Land

By Daphne Spain

In recent years, conversations about inclusiveness at HOWL have focused on trans and later nonbinary people. The late Crow Cohen, a member of the collective since the days of Commonwoman, began to nudge HOWL toward a more gender-expansive membership. She led the collective in a day of learning and reading and a series of hypothetical conversations about trans inclusion in feminist spaces before a concrete discussion of HOWL’s policies could take place.

After these discussions, HOWL amended their mission statement. The decision was contentious. Some people left HOWL, and some still send angry letters. The current version includes a commitment to “the full diversity of women, regardless of gender assigned at birth, and transgender, non-binary, and gender expansive individuals.”

HOWL is on the bleeding edge of debates about what feminism means now and whether feminists can work together across generations. The land will always exist, but the question is who will come together to inherit it.

In the physical space of HOWL, discussion of feminist ideas takes on urgency when confronted with the immediate practicalities of daily living. Profiles in the New York Times and Vermont’s Seven Days explore the commune in an elegiac mode, assuming the success of the project was measured by the ability to maintain a separatist living community.

Undoubtedly HOWL was, at times, conceived as a total divestment from patriarchal, heteronormative, and capitalist hegemony. Early meeting notes describe plans for developing a village—clearly a permanent living space. Yet we found that alongside these separatist visions there existed other conceptualizations of HOWL as a place of respite: a place where women could have temporary reprieve from oppression, a place self-described “city women” could visit, without plans to leave behind city life. HOWL imagines itself as a place to reconnect with nature, predicated on maintaining the undeveloped state of the land.

Separatism has been critiqued because divesting from the world means giving up the chance to alter it. And yet, HOWL’s example suggests that having a space to step back from the world is what enables us to revise it.

Writing has historically influenced women’s ways of living differently. Perhaps, then, contemporary feminist collective writing projects—including ours—might be dephysicalized realms in which the principles of collective living continue.

The four of us—Annabel, Anna, Caroline and Jadie—researched and wrote this piece collectively. By the time our own revision process rolled around, we were scattered eight time zones apart from one another in Dublin, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Vermont. Our idea to study the intertwined histories of women’s collective writing and collective living emerged out of a year’s worth of conversations from our contemporary feminism working group at UC Berkeley.

We had expected to travel to HOWL as a group, but at the last minute, Caroline couldn’t make it due to a medical emergency. This meant that Annabel, Anna, and Jadie needed to describe HOWL to Caroline from afar—evidence that in lieu of physically being together, our feminist community has, by necessity, taken shape through language.

On Zoom calls and FaceTimes, Annabel, Anna, and Jadie tell Caroline about the potatoes that took forever to cook over their bonfire; about Connie Kaldor’s “Come All You Women,” which they blasted over and over again in the car; and about how on their first night, Anna, a born-and-raised Californian, asked what those blinking lights were in the dark and learned that they were fireflies.

And, of course, they talk about the view of the mountains. It reminds Jadie of a note in the archive that none of them had thought to record. Years ago, a woman described how the land was so open that everywhere you look, all you can see is possibility.


The authors wish to thank the current members of HOWL for welcoming us, talking to us about their history, and stewarding the land and the archive. icon

This article was commissioned by Abigail Struhl.

Featured image: HOWL, courtesy of the authors.