Reclaim the Night demonstration in Brisbane, Australia, 2013. Photo: Ursula Skjonnemand/Flickr. Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Some rights reserved.
Women-only space has always been important. From the political meetings where women share their experiences, plan for change, or rally together for Reclaim the Night marches against male violence, to the personal ‘girls night out’, they have the potential to be transformative, safe spaces, enabling us to speak up and express ourselves.
I’ve often treasured the support and solace that can be found in women-only spaces, and have long been intrigued by the history of women forming single-sex communities – from Lesbos in 600 BC, to 1790s Wales and 1990s Yorkshire, to contemporary Kenya.
Today women-only organising may be less common than in the past, and whether and how to involve men in feminist organising have become faultlines in the movement. Some radical feminists insist that women-only spaces must be protected, while others contend that men must be included.
Amid these debates, it’s important as well as fascinating to explore the reasons why women have sought support and solidarity in women-only organising throughout history – and ask whether those reasons still exist today.
In Ancient Greece, the poet Sappho is believed to have lived in a female-only community. In reality little is known about the poet, and her biography is the subject of considerable academic debate. Some say Sappho’s poems were expressions of homoerotic love and lust, written from a women-only community.
Sappho. Photo: AK Rockefeller/Flickr. Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0). Some rights reserved.
Queer women many centuries later continued to be inspired by this story of an early all-female community, where women could express same-sex desire and sexuality, away from men.
In the early 20th century, charismatic American heiress and “notorious lesbian” Natalie Barney travelled to Lesbos to set up "what she hoped to be a lesbian school for poetry and love." This didn’t come to pass, but Barney “gathered a similar community of women around her in Paris,” says writer Andrea Weiss in her book Paris was a Woman.
Other women-only communities have been documented by historians, including those established in Europe in the 18th century, centred on utopian politics rather than lesbian sexuality specifically.
Rachel Hewitt is author of the new book A Revolution of Feeling, about the “politically turbulent” 1790s. I asked her why this period in particular saw women coming together to create single-sex “utopian” communities, some of which endured for decades.
She told me that there was an “emphasis on the social role of the passions in the 18th century,” and that “for radical men and women, it became an important idea to found utopias based on the regeneration of emotion... in which 'social passions' might flourish, and anti-social emotions (anger, hatred, envy) might wither away.”
"utopias based on the regeneration of emotion... in which 'social passions' might flourish"
Men also dreamed of establishing sexual, utopian communities. Hewitt said the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wanted to travel to Pennsylvania to form a new community where “male libido might be liberated and marriage abolished.” Writer George Cumberland envisaged a sexual utopia on an island, free from the “suppression of the natural fires.”
But while these men’s visions never came to pass, numerous women-only communities were actually attempted. Unlike men, women in 18th century Europe would have been driven by very real material concerns and the need to escape the constraints of patriarchal society (including forced marriages, forced pregnancies, and the lack of independent status).
One detailed vision for a woman-only community came from British writer Sarah Scott, in her 1762 book Millennium Hall. It included schools, businesses and something of a ‘welfare state’ to help impoverished and vulnerable women to thrive. Sexual desire was not her concern. Instead, it was liberating women from marriage and sexual exploitation.
Scott’s vision was an imaginative exercise. Other women formed real communities. Often, they “began from the same starting point: from a reaction against, and evasion of, the constrictions placed on women by 18th century marriage,” said Hewitt. “Finding a viable alternative… was both an ideological imperative and a pragmatic, personal necessity.”
“finding a viable alternative…was both an ideological imperative and a pragmatic, personal necessity”
One of the most famous examples is that of the Ladies of Llangollen. The story is that two women Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby ‘eloped’ in the late 1700s to escape unwanted marriages. Speculation remains as to whether their relationship was sexual. If you visit their house in North Wales, as I did in 2015, the audio tour discusses this at length.
More recently, in the 20th century a flurry of new women-only and lesbian communities were established in the 1970s and 1980s. Some drew on separatist feminist theory and called themselves ‘womyn’s lands’.
Others had anti-war activism at their core, including the Seneca women’s encampment in the US, and the Greenham Common peace camp in the UK, the latter of which was founded in 1981, and only disbanded in 2000.
At the Greenham Common women's peace camp, 1983. Photo: PA/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Feminist activist and writer Finn Mackay moved to a women-only anti-nuclear peace camp in Menwith Hill in north Yorkshire at the age of 18, inspired by the women of Greenham Common and a “vision of women being powerful and living powerfully.” She lived there for a year and a half in the mid-1990s and describes it as a transformative experience.
Mackay told me it felt “like together we could change the world, because in a way we were. We took our politics and our values to the very gates of the industry we were protesting, and we forced them to engage with us. There is really nothing like sitting in a road... singing songs and staring down a nuclear convoy or military police or soldiers with guns.”
She added that living in the peace camp gave her and other feminists the chance to learn new skills – from chopping wood and building toilets, to defending themselves in courtrooms after arrests – and empower themselves in every sphere of their life.
Planning and carrying out large demonstrations, amid terrible weather, evictions, and police violence, “did bring a great sense of sisterhood and togetherness,” Mackay said.
a “feminist protest” against a “patriarchal, capitalist, military industrial complex”
She describes the Menwith Hill camp, which has since disbanded, as clearly a “feminist protest” against a “patriarchal, capitalist, military industrial complex.” It was understood, she said, that “this machine was run by mainly men and that meanwhile women and children often paid a great price.”
She told me she’s “sorry that young women today can not benefit from those types of political communities.”
However, across the global south, women are still coming together to create their own communities away from men – again, often in reaction to male violence. One example is Umoja, Kenya, an all-female village whose name means “unity” in Swahili.
A woman in Umoja, Kenya. Photo: Madelinetosh/Flickr. Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Some rights reserved.
Established in 2004, its website describes it as: “a refuge for women looking to start new, independent lives with their children free from oppression, abuse and other inequities.” In 2015, writer Julie Bindel visited the village and wrote in the Guardian about a unique place where women can live without fear of male violence.
I tried to contact the village to ask the women why they chose to live in an all-female community. Their partners, The Unity Project, an international development charity based in Canada, got back to me to explain their role providing education and literacy programmes for village residents. However I was unable to speak to any of the women directly.
Some of the women-only and lesbian communities established in the 1970s and 1980s still exist today – including Alapine in Alabama in the US. In 2009 the New York Times said it was one of “about 100 below-the-radar lesbian communities” in primarily rural North America, though the report cited concerns about its survival.
In 2015, artist Leah DeVun documented some of the remaining 'womyn's lands' in a photography series. She told the Huffington Post she hoped more women would “revisit some of the more radical, more utopian visions that were central to [past] movements.”
Also in the US are the Sugarloaf Women's Village in Florida and Mississippi’s Camp Sister Spirit, founded in 1993. There are feminist ecovillages, women-only squats, and in north London an Older Women’s Co-Housing collective has recently formed.
In Rojava, in northern Syria, Jinwar is an ecological women’s village under construction. The project’s Facebook page says it will be a place for women to “collectively rediscover, reestablish and reclaim” freedom.
Women-only communities have a long and varied history, therefore – as spaces to express lesbian desire, refuges from male oppression, and sites of political protest. For me, they show the empowering potential of organising and living away from men. As long as patriarchal societies dominate, we shouldn’t be surprised to see women continue to create and turn to such spaces for support, safety, and solidarity.