Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

Who's Killing the Women's Land Movement?

As modern queer culture becomes more inclusive, the women's land movement—which once served as a refuge for thousands from a patriarchal, homophobic society—is now on a steady path of decline.

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Dec 19 2016, 6:00am

Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

Susan Wiseheart came out as a lesbian in 1973, after being "inundated by compulsory heterosexuality" until her thirties. The process was gradual, beginning with therapy and sped along by Ms. Magazine and her participation in the Women's Strike For Equality. She's 75 now, but still remembers walking out of the Grand Rapids, Michigan school where she taught at the time as a life-changing experience.

There were things she liked about the husband she would later divorce, though she struggles to name any today, apart from their shared fondness for cats and dogs. Wiseheart insists that the separation wasn't cold-hearted, and that it was painful for her, too. Still, it wasn't too painful to keep her from leaving behind the "romantic myth that was out in the world about how things are supposed to be," which for her included two young kids.

"I was not gonna do what he wanted done, which was be a traditional housewife," she told me. "That was not what I wanted for my life."

So she began to rebuild it from the ground up. Eventually, a friend introduced her to another schoolteacher named Tess, and the two ended up becoming lovers. The couple went on to form a social group they called Aradia as an excuse to meet other lesbians; it grew to become an informal network of women across the Midwest, who communicated through newsletters and drove hundreds of miles to meet at concerts, gallery openings and other events.

In 1976, Wiseheart attended the first iteration of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, an exclusively female gathering of musicians, activists and radical feminists. Though it would go on to achieve mythic status within the lesbian universe, the idea of banning men from its grounds was fairly novel at the time. (Later, it would become infamous for its women-born-women policy, and shuttered last year amid protests and petitions against the festival.)

The feeling of liberation Wiseheart felt there sparked an idea, which eventually led to her and her next lover, Terri, signing a 99-year-lease on 30 acres of land in near Ava, Missouri, in order to give the Aradians a physical place to call their own. It would grow into Hawk Hill Community Land Trust, where a handful of mostly lesbian women made a life for themselves surrounded by signs proclaiming "Jesus Saves."

They were far from alone: after the Vietnam war, as thousands of Americans moved away from cities to adopt an agrarian lifestyle, scores of lesbians simultaneously became disenchanted with the emerging women's liberation and gay rights movements, which many perceived as being either homophobic or misogynist. They reacted by forming closed-off, utopian societies—farms and communes where women often took on traditionally male activities like mechanics and engineering, in what would come to be known as the women's land movement. But like religious sisterhoods and lesbian bars, these male-free communities, which once boasted thousands of members, are in clear decline today.

Young queer people who want to get back to the land today have more options than women like Wiseheart, who decades ago relied on the women's land movement to provide safety in numbers and reclusion from a society once hostile to their sexuality.

Terri has long since moved on from Aradia, but Wiseheart has remained, and says she never plans to leave. It is, after all, her life's work. But once she's gone, it's unlikely that anyone will be willing or able to continue her mission. Signs of that are written across Hawk Hill—where chickens, dogs, donkeys, guinea fowl, cattle, horses and a flock of sheep once roamed its fields, calling it a farm today would be a categorical misstatement. Wiseheart now lives there with a few friends, also in their sixties and seventies, and a straight woman helping to pay the bills while they seek out a lesbian renter.

"We're still sometimes nervous, because we live in a fundamentalist Christian area," she explains. "We've managed to be safe and fine so far. We just don't want to be advertising it widely."

Meanwhile, there may be few modern women left willing to live a relatively cloistered life on a lesbian-only tract of land in the Ozarks. Young queer people who want to get back to the land today have more options than women like Wiseheart, who decades ago relied on the women's land movement to provide safety in numbers and reclusion from a society once hostile to their sexuality.

Nico Herrera is a 32-year-old from San Jose, Costa Rica, who grows vegetables at Star Route Farm in upstate New York. They identify as genderqueer, and although the Hunter College grad estimates that about half of their co-workers identify as queer, that distinction is not nearly as meaningful as it would have been to spiritual predecessors like Wiseheart.

For instance, take an anecdote that focuses on Aradia from an article by Hope College academic Jane Dickie and her students, Lesbian Communities: Festivals, RVs, and the Internet. In it, women recount the freedom they felt shocking passersby at Lake Michigan as they swam nude together. But Herrera says that sexual identity isn't nearly as important of a shared quality among Star Route farmers as a belief in socialist principles.

"For me, personally, it was important to be in a space where I felt safe, where white straight men were allies and not threats," they said. "At the end of a hot summer day, it's common for all of us to jump in the pond naked, and it's important that we all feel comfortable in doing so." And although they are indebted to it, Herrera adds that they've never heard of the women's land movement until I ask.

The movement only stands to grow more antiquated by government efforts to take queer farming mainstream. In 2014, the Department of Agriculture became the second federal agency to explicitly include gender identity and expression in its nondiscrimination regulations. That same year, it began actively reaching out to existing and aspiring queer farmers through annual summits called Rural Pride, the latest of which attracted 130 people to Boise, Idaho and became a national talking point when Rush Limbaugh freaked out about it on his radio show.

Perhaps more than attracting new queers to farming, the summits are an attempt to connect those who are already dotted out across America and lack spaces like Aradia. And while the agriculture department becomes increasingly progressive and diverse, the idea of women's-only land has only become more anachronistic. Take the Michigan Womyn's Festival, which ended last year after ongoing controversy surrounding their policy that excluded transgender women from attending. This women-born-women policy—a hold-out of second-wave feminism—is now at odds with modern queer identity politics, and has alienated young people who might otherwise be drawn to these spaces.

"I don't hate men," Wiseheart says. "I just prefer to not have to deal with them for the most part."

Although a refusal to adapt stands to shutter Wiseheart's way of life, too, the senior seems reluctant to change her views. While we're on the phone, she invites me and a guest to visit, so long as neither of us are trans. Later, she laments the fact that an event called Women in the Woods, which has taken place in Oregon for 30 years running, was told by venue owners last April that it wasn't allowed to continue unless it allowed transgender women to attend.

"They managed to get another year or two," she says. "But they don't know what they're gonna do after that."

Laura Smith and V Riva, 53 and 46, are a couple who are veterans of the philosophy behind women's land. After a stint in Oakland working as a social worker and an engineer, respectively, they moved to New England to farm at HOWL, a women's land trust in Huntington, Vermont. Some of its board members were in their 60s and 70s, the couple told me, and their views and way of doing things were set in stone.

A recent visit to HOWL's website reveals that boys over the age of 10 still aren't allowed on the property unless every resident agrees to host them, and they aren't allowed to stay for a long period of time regardless. But a HOWL representative also wrote me to say that as far as they knew, "all women have always been welcome at HOWL," and that the community does not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender at birth.

After four years at HOWL, Smith and Riva moved to the state's Northeast Territory and began raising a flock of Icelandic sheep in Danville, which is where I met them on a recent Sunday.

For Smith, the move was a homecoming of sorts—she grew up in nearby Jericho, Vermont. And with that came anxiety. Growing up, she says it was the kind of place where game wardens who chastised hunters were shot at. She describes it as "redneck," and remembers the relentless teasing that her brother (who was gay) endured in high school. But the land was cheap, so they decided to risk that cultural mores had since shifted, a gamble they say has paid off in spades.

With the exception of one homophobic veterinarian, they've been surprised by just how much life has changed for rural queers there in just a few decades. And while they didn't want to live in a place that was unwelcoming to men or trans folks, they can't help but recognize that it was the contributions of women from the 70s that made it so they could live like regular farmers despite being a lesbian couple.

"I had a lot of nervousness about coming back, but during the counterculture of the 60s, the Back to the Land Movement brought those values with them," Smith says, referring to the youth movement which drove young Americans to take up a self-sufficient, agricultural lifestyle during the 1960s and 70s. "So there's this mixture of values, and now it leans to the Left."

Today, the couple hosts queer volunteers on their farm as a way to encourage younger LGBTQ people to enter the agrarian lifestyle—and because they recognize that the previous model is on its last legs. Wiseheart, for her part, is now too old to tend to the land, but after decades of seclusion, she says she can't imagine any other way of life. When she goes to visit her daughter in ultra-liberal Portland, she says she can feel the anxiety rising in her chest.

"I don't hate men," she says. "I just prefer to not have to deal with them for the most part. I have kids and I have grandchildren. But in my daily life? I would rather just have female-born lesbians, because that's personally where I feel safest."

Although she doesn't know what will happen to Hawk Hill when she passes, Wiseheart insists that there will always be a need for female-born women's space. But many, including Smith, disagree.

"It'll die out," says Smith. "Those 60 and 70-year-old women are not looking for a place to steward. They're looking for a place to take care of them."

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

This article is part of the VICE series The New Queer. Read the rest of the package here.

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