Evolve or die: The stark choice facing America’s ‘women’s lands’

A collective meeting of Huntington Open Women’s Land (HOWL), a women-only community established in the 1980s in Vermont September 15, 2019. ― Thomson Reuters Foundation pic
A collective meeting of Huntington Open Women’s Land (HOWL), a women-only community established in the 1980s in Vermont September 15, 2019. ― Thomson Reuters Foundation pic

VERMONT, Oct 17 ― At the end of a dirt road that curls deep into the wooded hills of Vermont, a white farmhouse in overgrown meadows hides decades of US women’s history ― and a once thriving community, now in steady decline.

HOWL, short for Huntington Open Women’s Land, was one of hundreds of all-female communities that sprang up across the United States from the 1970s, many of them run by lesbians seeking to separate themselves from mainstream society.

But these male-free rural idylls risk dying out with their founders, unable to attract a new generation of women who do not feel the same need to escape discrimination, and who believe transgender women and some other minorities should be included.

“When I talk to women ― straight women, queer women, anybody ― they are kind of charmed by the idea of women’s land,” said Lani Ravin, one of HOWL’s five collective members, who function like board directors.

“(But) it doesn’t fulfil the same kind of visceral need that women (had) 30 years ago,” said Ravin, 60, who works in urban planning at the University of Vermont.

Today there are no permanent residents of HOWL, which was founded in 1985. Instead, up to three “caretakers” live there for anything from a couple of months to two years at a time, maintaining the land and paying a monthly rent of US$450 (RM1,887).

The rent, fees from occasional campers and donations cover HOWL’s US$12,000 annual expenses. But the community needs US$150,000 to shore up the basement and rebuild the barn, which is on the brink of collapse, Ravin said.

Change 

It is all a far cry from the 1980s, when the number of “women’s lands” peaked, aided by low land prices in some US states, according to Keridwen Luis, an academic and writer whose book Herlands documents the movement.

The movement used distinctive language, referring to “womyn”, “herstory” instead of history, and “landdykes” for lesbians living in these communities.

They were part of the “back to the land” movement that also birthed straight hippy communes, said Luis, who knows of about 80 still existing, but said there could be as many as 200. Most are in the United States, with some in Europe and New Zealand.

But as with many communities founded on utopian ideals, some women’s lands have been forced to change.

HOWL opened up to trans women about a decade ago. One of its current collective members is trans, and in September, the members met to discuss whether and how to welcome non-binary people ― those who do not identify as either male or female.

“We want to be as open and welcoming as possible and... keep everyone as safe as possible,” Ravin said after the debate, which they chose to keep private.

A new policy that includes non-binary people was still being drafted, she said.

The Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home Women’s Land Trust (SuBAMUH) in Ohio faces similar challenges.

Named after the women’s suffrage campaigner, it was set up in Ohio by Jan Griesinger and her partner Mary Morgan on 150 acres of land they bought for US$44,000 in 1979.

“We had to have women-only space to feel safe, to be able to talk honestly,” said Griesinger, now 77, by phone earlier this year.

But SuBAMUH’s policy excluding men and boys over the age five almost destroyed it, as mothers left with their sons, said Sabra Robinson, who lived there for 10 months in 1998.

“Women have men in their lives and when men are not allowed, it’s hard for women to build a life there,” said Robinson, 57.

To find new residents, SuBAMUH opened up to all and in 2018, two couples moved there ― one lesbian and the other a man and someone who identifies as non-binary. The second couple has since left and been replaced by two women.

“It was known to be a trans-exclusionary space,” said Loran Marsan, 39, a professor who studies LGBT+ issues at Ohio University and moved to SuBAMUH with her wife in May 2018.

“I know a lot of people like me don’t want to be in that space.”

‘Trained to be in charge’ 

But the inclusion of trans women worries some older members of women’s communities, in an echo of debates about gender identity taking place across the developed, English-speaking world.

At 78, Gloria Daley is the last surviving HOWL founder to still be a collective member.

Daley lived at HOWL for “a couple of decades”, leaving 11 years ago to move in with her girlfriend.

She remembered wanting “a place where women could go, could get naked, could play in the pond, could do whatever they wanted to do and not be told what to do by men”.

“I’m a little iffy about it because of my experience,” said Daley, recalling when two trans women came to HOWL and “immediately started telling us our meeting was wrong”.

“I don’t want to avoid trans people. I wish them well... But I have a little fear about nature,” she said. “If you’re born male you are trained to be in charge.”

Inclusive 

From the start, HOWL was open to all women regardless of their sexuality, though some of its founders believed in lesbian separatism.

After the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the Stonewall riots for LGBT+ rights in 1969, many lesbians decided to separate from mainstream society rather than fight it, defining their new communities as lesbian lands.

HOWL remains a non-profit organisation and its 20 hectares of land, bought in 1989 for US$50,000, are held in a trust for women.

Three decades later, the future of HOWL is uncertain. But it is likely it will look different.

Former university teacher Meg Mass has been living at HOWL for about three months and wants to establish farming for women and non-binary people, who she sees as suffering the same oppression that gave rise to the women’s lands.

“It’s just right to open the doors to other people who have had the experience that women established these communities to work against,” said Mass, 47.

“These lands that were originally lesbian separatist communities, there’s still space for that to happen and folks to live in that, but for me personally it’s important to be inclusive of the whole women’s and queer community.”

It is a view echoed by the youngest person at HOWL’s latest monthly meeting.

Lisa Scanlon, 32, lived there for nine months in 2017 after a relationship with a man broke down and recently returned to propose weekend-long feminist literature workshops ― a prospect that delighted the older women.

“Ultimately the root of feminism is to dismantle destructive patterns that come with capitalism and patriarchy,” she said.

“And non-binary and non-identifying folk are crushed under that same wheel, the same way that women have been and still are. And so their voices echo and strengthen our own. They do not water it down.” ― Thomson Reuters Foundation

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