No Man's Land: How to Build a Feminist Utopia
Existing most famously in feminist theory, the lesbian separatist communes of the 1970s called on women to claim lesbianism or celibacy and move out to rural farms deemed "womyn's lands." Today, some feminists are trying to revive the idea.
Photo by Mosuno via Stocksy
Waking up each day in the Land of Hims, where the pay gap is wide and sexism both subtle and overt, it's tempting to wish that the easy comfort and understanding found in the company of other women were a 24/7 reality. Spend some time at a women's college, or scroll through secret feminist Facebook groups where conversation can take shape freely, away from the patronizing or defensive rebuffs we've trained ourselves to brace for, and you might understand the lark of the feminist utopia. A place populated solely by women who Get It, living and working with ease. No leaning in, no pushing against, and best of all: no men.
Existing most famously in feminist theory, the lesbian separatist communes of the 1970s called on women to claim lesbianism or celibacy and move out to rural farms deemed "womyn's lands"—an act of literally and figuratively expunging men from their way of being. Though most of us wouldn't actually be willing to pack up and leave (either men or our lives), for some the wistful dream of an equitable women-only paradise, somewhere far off and away, remains an irrepressible desire.
Kate White is trying to put that desire into action. After coming up unsatisfied with the existing intentional communities she researched, which either required a hefty buy-in or were "too religious" for her goals, she's now in the midst of planning an entirely new space, using Charlotte Gilman's 1915 utopian sci-fi novel Herland as a guiding principle. The book imagines a placid world called the Land Without Hims, ruled and inhabited only by women, who have been free of gender stereotypes since the fall of men two thousand years before. "We are putting feminism into actual practice rather than just discussing things," White explains. "Building something new avoids the need for a revolution here [in the US]."
Though she has always longed to live communally, White currently lives alone in Fresno, California. She relocated two years ago, after living in a nearby county with her partner, where they had a house with an organic garden and homeschooled their two children. But all that changed after White, who suffered from a disabling condition at the time, lost her job, and Child Protective Services repeatedly—and White says wrongly—tried to deem White and her partner unfit mothers. The first time CPS showed up at their door, an agent claimed they had received a tip: There was no food in the house. Furious, White showed CPS their garden; she pulled open cabinets, the fridge—all stocked full. The CPS agent left, but they kept coming back, with mysterious tip after tip, the sources of which White won't openly speculate about. After one last unfortunate visit from CPS and the county sheriff, who allegedly threatened the couple during the encounter, it all became too much. White's partner took her own life; CPS took their two children away. (Repeated incidents like this have led to protests and litigation against CPS in California.)
Though reports in recent years suggest that flocking to a separatist commune is no longer en mode, the feminist utopia remains a looming figure. Women-only land co-ops like the Sugarloaf Women's Village in the Florida Keys or the Susan B. Anthony Womyn's Land Trust in rural Ohio live on quietly. And in our current political landscape—eroding reproductive rights, college administrations resisting sexual assault reform, transgender women continually relegated to men's prisons, etc. (etc.!)—new texts, like The Feminist Utopia Project, out today from the Feminist Press, continue to call on women to dream up their most imaginative feminist worlds as a reprieve from our decidedly sexist one. Tired of the frustration that comes with playing feminist defense and crying problematic, the anthology's editors, Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, sought escape from the cycle of "want[ing] no more than what mainstream politics told us we could have."
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In Alice Echols' sweeping account of radical feminist groups of the late 60s and early 70s, Cell 16 is credited with setting the foundation for feminist separatist communities. The opening essay from the first issue of Cell 16's journal, No More Fun and Games, by historian and Cell 16 founder Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, openly questions what comes after women have aired their grievances in private circles and now have to live in a state of raised consciousness—when "every transaction with a man is seen in a new light," "the role-playing and unnaturalness of one's own actions are revealed," and "the exhilaration one feels at this awakening of consciousness soon recedes and cold reality sets in." Or in current terms, when tweeting into the void about the ills of the patriarchy becomes depressing and infuriating at best and boring at worst.
For this Dunbar-Ortiz proposes some practical solutions: change your name, stop wearing makeup, forget fashion, "break out of the whole neurotic syndrome of expressing ourselves through our appearance"—how second wave!—and pick up self-defense (preferably karate). But she admits that karate alone can't "solve the problems of day-to-day life" and looks to hippie communal living for another possible means to liberation. "There is no way to escape the horrors of society and a commune designed as an escape is destined for failure," Dunbar-Ortiz writes. "However," she relents, "a commune set up on the right basis, female liberation," just might be a viable option. She then goes on to detail how the commune could theoretically be constructed. After all, isn't starting a new society the quickest and easiest way to rid oneself of the old one? At the very least, it circumvents that whole ordeal of resistance.
White has found that building a feminist utopia, for all of its inviting desirability, comes with its own set of challenges. In addition to being feminist-centered, the Herland community also aims to be environmentally sustainable, with minimal modern infrastructure, though White tells me they'll still have internet via satellite and are developing their own crypto-currency. (In preparation, White has already stopped using toilet paper.) Further complicating things, their intended destination is in the middle of a South American jungle, near the uninhabited, adjoining borders of Venezuela and Guyana. The exact location remains undisclosed, but the closest city, Boa Vista, is 50 miles out. Citing police harassment and raids of intentional communities—most recently, the Kew Bridge ecovillage in London, which coincided with the Occupy Movement in the UK, and the Garden of Eden in Texas—they figure the safest place for their squat would be one far from industrialization. "Building there also means getting away from the increasingly dangerous and violent society in general," says White.
A refuge isn't just something they want; it's something they feel like they need.
For now, they're still organizing in a Facebook group. With more than 3,000 members, a wall flooded with polls about how their society will be structured, and over a year and a half since the initial idea, it looks like insurmountable chaos, rather than utopian perfection. One of the group's members posted a fairly basic concern that still remains unresolved: "This might sound random but what is the plan when it comes to menstruation?"
The community, however, isn't limited to cis women only; it's also intended as a safe haven for trans individuals. This became a source of contention early on when a few trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) in the group aggressively tried to push non-binary members out. White, in fact, isn't even the Herland community's founder. She's more of their spokesperson who, as a white cis woman, is comfortable being named publicly; the founder, along with the community's other transgender members, fears being discovered by their online harassers again.
Once the group reformed without the TERFs, they doubled down and committed to becoming an inclusive refuge for any LGBT person—though most of the group's members identify as the L, according to another poll in the Facebook group. In the community's mission statement, the words "safety" and "security" pop up multiple times, in a way that suggests the outside world isn't very safe or secure in their eyes. A refuge isn't just something they want; it's something they feel like they need.
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White and the rest are planning on sending six initial explorers to the South American no-man's land to get their community off the ground. But before that can even happen, there are still ample questions relating to funding and travel—how to unite the group's disparate members from around the world and actually get them down to the jungle with enough equipment to survive until they start building lodging. From the looks of it, White explains, raising enough funding could take up to another year, since members of the group are wary of accepting large donations: With money comes unwarranted power, their logic dictates. For the US-based members, at least, there are vague plans that involve meeting in a central location and driving down in a truck.
Regardless, in White's eyes, the need for a place of one's own, a safe space, is clear, whatever it takes. It's an obvious tragedy for any one person, or Facebook group of 3,000 people, to view their world as decidedly unlivable. From a certain vantage, an idealistic commune could be considered nothing more than a feminist ghetto, where the marginalized are further marginalized, forced to a world divorced from the "real" one. Forty-six years after Cell 16's inception, Dunbar-Ortiz tells me that her original theory on communes as a means of liberation was "misguided." As a historian, she now sees the symbol of a commune as the mark of a political movement's devolvement; the equivalent of hands thrown up in the air, of giving up. "It really took a lot out energy of the movement," she says. "The ones that went out to the communes didn't have any societal effect, in terms of making changes, or a political impact," she explains.
We are putting feminism into actual practice rather than just discussing things.
"But it can develop into a nice lifestyle," she adds. "In that way, it's kind of elitist."
For the typical, middle-class white women who chose life on womyn's lands in the 70s, the privilege inherent in opting out of the system holds true. It's also apparent that the intentional community demographic of today lingers around college-educated anarchists for whom poverty is a choice. Still, for those who can choose, opting for communal life is understandable. When you've been barred from obtaining one—or when one has been ripped from you, in White's case—sometimes a "nice lifestyle" is really all you're after. Even if Herland never realizes itself in the jungle, their sprawling Facebook group is almost a commune of its own. Next to the various polls trying to gauge what diet the community should follow or what types of living structures they should build are women—trans women included—telling their stories, getting support, sharing links and resources, and looking forward to the future.