16 Facts About Womyn's Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism

Shannon Quinn - October 31, 2018

For better or for worse, men and women have always lived together, despite their differences. Even in loving relationships and marriages, it is sometimes impossible for men to understand women, and vice versa. Despite all of the problems over the course of humanity, these arguments and misunderstandings between the genders are usually debated or simply accepted for the sake of a peaceful co-existence. It brings to mind the famous phrase, “You can’t live with them, buy you can’t live without them.” Or…Can you?

Since the 1800’s, feminist groups around the world have decided that enough was enough, and they would be better off building off their own peaceful societies without men. These all-female communities range from a boarding house full of women all the way to the extreme; a commune where only women are allowed to enter.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
George and Martha McWhirter both worked together to help women. Credit: Pinterest

1. Martha McWhirter Saved Women From Unhappy Marriages

This trend of all-female communities started way back in 1860, when a happily married woman named Martha McWhirter ran a Bible study group at the Union Sunday School in Belton, Texas. Martha McWhirter and her husband, George, actually had a very happy marriage, and they were heavily involved in the Methodist church. They both had a passion for helping others that were in need, and that is how they spent most of their free time.

Many of the middle-class housewives who showed up at Martha’s Bible study became close friends, and they began to open up to one another, because they felt like this group was a safe space. Many of them prayed every single week for their husbands to stop drinking, beating, and abusing them. These women could not leave their abusive marriages, because they had children, and the social norm at that time was to stay together for the kids. The women were also financially dependent on their husbands, because it was not normal for middle-class wives to work at that time, and they didn’t have good childcare options, either. They were truly powerless to change their lives, and could only pray to God and wish that there was an option for them to leave their husbands and live independently.

At this time, almost no one ever got divorced, either. In most states, a judge would not grant the divorce unless the woman was beaten near-death on a regular basis, and there needed to be proof. People could not afford to outrageously expensive legal fees to get divorced, either. Even when people could afford it, most would stay legally married and live separately, but they were not allowed to get married a second time. Since the situation was so difficult, most people opted to simply stay together in an unhappy marriage.

After hearing all of these stories from all of these women, Martha McWhirter grew more and more angry at the plight of abused and unhappy women. She encouraged the ladies in her group to stop pretending like everything was OK when it wasn’t, and to confront their husbands about their marital issues. She wanted them to try to make their relationships better, but if the man refused to make peace, then the women should not have to put up with abuse.

At that time, women were raised to “be seen and not heard”, and it was unladylike to get angry. Many of these women did not even have the strength or the self-worth to confront their husband when they did something wrong, express their anger, or to even speak up and voice their opinions. Martha Mcwhirter began to encourage these women to stop having sex with their husbands if they truly hated them and wished they could afford divorce. The advice that she gave the unhappy ladies in the group was that they should continue to do their daily household chores, take care of the kids, and that’s it.

This may sound like a small thing, especially since we have marriage counseling today where both partners talk about their problems. And by today’s standards, just about everyone has heard of putting your husband “in the dog box” when the wife gets really mad, but this was revolutionary for the time. It was the very beginning of feminism and the women’s empowerment movement.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
Group photo of the original members of the women’s community in Texas. Credit: State of Texas

2. The Sanctificationists Started A New Trend In Women’s Liberation

About 10 years into listening to all of these desperate women talk about their individual stories about their unhappy marriages, Martha McWhirter started to have prophetic dreams from God. In the dreams, He told her that women did not have to endure this abuse, and that she needed to start a community where these ladies could escape and live independently from their husbands.

Martha’s husband George ran a general store on the bottom floor of their house. They moved to an apartment upstairs, and cleared out the rest of the spare rooms to let women live in the spare rooms whenever someone was running away from a particularly abusive and unsafe marriage.

These women were grateful for the help, and they didn’t expect to get free rent. Every time a woman stayed with the McWhirters, they offered to help run the general store and do their household chores in exchange for rent. These women also started to find jobs around town in order to get their own income so that they could pay for their own food, clothing, and other necessities. They started to do laundry, sell eggs and milk, and began clean houses in town to earn an income to pay for themselves and their children.

Since these women were all close friends who were in similar situations, they didn’t think twice about lending money to each other if one person came up short that month. After a while, these women began to feel more and more empowered. With each other’s support, they could actually pay their bills perfectly well without a husband. Eventually, there were too many women to fit in McWhirter’s house. All of these women pooled their incomes together to buy a boarding house. Each woman got their own bedroom, and they shared their kitchens, bathrooms, etc. Their money went into a treasury, and everyone benefited from the collective work of the group. This became known as the Belton Women’s Commonwealth.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
The Central Hotel was owned by The Women’s Commonwealth. Credit: State of Texas

3. From Desperation Came Enterprise

In these communal living spaces, women were feeling powerful and free, so they dared to think bigger. Instead of just doing odd jobs just to survive with basic food and shelter, many of the women began opening small businesses around town. The two most popular all-women businesses in the Belton Commonwealth were laundromats and boarding houses. Now, people in town could carry their laundry to the laundromat, instead of women going door to door to do the laundry for their neighbors. This made the process much more efficient, and laundromats are still around to this day.

Before this time, it was completely unheard of for women to become entrepreneurs. Men were usually in charge of the money, and many women were not given enough education to even know how to handle accounting. In 1891, the group defied all expectations and formed a corporation called The Central Hotel Company, and they opened multiple hotels in order to get income from renting rooms to men and women. With this money, they were able to purchase two farms that would grow food to support food to feed all of their employees. In this Commonwealth, each individual woman’s work was seen as being extremely valuable, and they felt appreciated for the first time in their lives. It only encouraged them to keep working harder, which in turn, lead to more success.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
Once they lived in the female communes, women had more time to pursue other things. Credit: Brooklyn Public Library

4. Women Became More Educated In Various Fields

In the 1800’s, married women had to bear the burden of raising all of their kids alone, clean the house, go grocery shopping, farm their land, and satisfy their husbands’ wants and desires. With all of these duties, there was almost never any time left for indulging in their own interests until their children were grown up. Life in these women’s communes was drastically different, and for many, it was a chance from them to finally receive an education.

Women living at the commune had set work hours, and they shared the household responsibilities. There were also classrooms full of kids, so one women did not have to raise her kids alone, either. This made it faster and easier to get their chores done, instead of being a housewife that was on-call 24/7. They actually began to have the luxury of free time. Many women learned to read and write for the first time in their lives. Others learned trades that were usually reserved for men, like blacksmithing and shoemaking. In modern times, a lot of these women’s communes that are still around encourage learning carpentry and other construction skills that are typically reserved for men.

Once these women learned how to read, they became obsessed with it. Since most of their basic needs were taken care of, they spent their pocket money buying books, which was seen as a luxury for many housewives at that time. The book collection of the Belton Women’s Commonwealth became so big, and the interests of all the women in the group covered such a wide variety of subjects, both men and women in the town began to come to the Commonwealth’s personal library to visit and borrow books. It dawned on the ladies that they should open a real library, so they did. It was the first public library of Belton, Texas, and it still stands there to this day.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
Women said they had a “happy home without husbands.” Credit: myrahmcilvain.com

5. The Commonwealth Didn’t Let The Haters Get Them Down

This may or may not come as a surprise to some people, but there was plenty of backlash about the Santificationist movement. Most Christian churches taught their congregation that divorce was not acceptable under any circumstances, because the man and woman made a promise before God that they were going to stay together for the rest of their lives. It is still technically against the rules in the Catholic faith to this day, and if a man and woman get a legal divorce, the Catholics believe you are still spiritually married in they eyes of God. Many people blamed Martha McWhirter for the rise in divorce rates in Texas. They called her a home wrecker, and many of the violent men began to threaten her.

One day, two Scottish brothers were visiting Belton, Texas, when they spotted the Women’s Commonwealth. When they heard the story from the locals about Mrs. McWhirter and her crusade to remove women from toxic environments, this somehow threatened their masculinity. So they got very drunk and stood in front of one of the Commonwealth houses to shout and scream at the female commune, calling them all kinds of nasty names and threatening violence against the women. Maybe these idiots were used to getting away with saying whatever they wanted to women back in Scotland, but they were in Texas, now, and they were going to get the surprise of their life.

A mob of women came out of the boarding house with their kitchen knives. These men were threatening them on their private property, so technically, they could have even shot these men for trespassing and threatening them. The phrase “Don’t mess with Texas” is no joke! The ladies grabbed the two men, and carried them inside the house. They were tied up, whipped, and brought to a local insane asylum, where the women told the doctors that they men were acting insane. So, they were locked up until they sobered up. The next morning, the Scottish men were let free, but only after promising that they would leave Belton, Texas, and never come back.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
Rare photo of lesbian couples together in the 1890’s. Credit: Alice Austin

6. Remaining Celibate…Unless You’re A Lesbian

As we mentioned before, during the Sanctificationist movement, women were encouraged to remain celibate in a bad marriage, and they were not allowed to bring men over when they lived in an all-female commune. If the women living in the boarding house wanted to court a new man and get married again, that was fine, If you’re a straight woman living in the commune, staying away from sex was supposed to help you keep your mind clear.

The “no sex” rule became controversial in the future, especially in more modern times, after the “free love” movement. So, this rule would change in some of the future communities, but most of the hardcore female communes still abide by the rule of celibacy.

It almost goes without saying that back in the 1800’s, the reason why many ladies were unhappy with their marriage was because they were a lesbian, but society taught them that they needed to marry a man. Many of these women who lived together in the Commonwealth were secretly lesbians, and they lived in absolute bliss together in these boarding houses, because they never thought it would be possible for them to do so.

In future all-female communes, women would become more comfortable admitting that they were lesbians, and that was the reason why they chose to join the group. This was not always the case, though, and these communities still continue to house women of all sexualities.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
In modern female communes, people live in cabins and tiny houses. Credit: Huffington Post

7. Back To The Land

In the 1960’s and 70’s, there was a boom of these all-female communities across the United States, and they were almost always situated far back in the woods on private land where people out in normal society didn’t even notice they existed. They called this “Going back to the land”- as in, living in self-sustaining communities that did not need the outside world to survive. Yes, this sounds extreme, but many women felt like it was their only option to escape the patriarchy and live life on their own terms.

These were called “Womyn’s Lands”, and many of them still exist today. They accept women of all races and religions. Some of these communes were specifically made to house lesbians. Other communities were meant to help women travelers who were brave enough to venture cross-country alone, and needed places to stay where they felt safe. (Considering how many women are still attacked and killed when traveling alone and staying in cheap motels, this kind of program would still be useful to this day.) Many of these places are filled with small cabins and shacks, almost like a campsite, and all of the citizens have to do their part to help keep the community going.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

8. There Is No “Man” In “Womyn’s Land”

When you read “womyn’s land” you may have thought it was a typo. Nope. It’s done on purpose by feminists who are offended by the fact that the word “woman” is just the word “man” with two letters added onto it. Same with “female” being two letters added to “male”. If you think about it, not all languages are like this, and the words for the genders are totally different from one another. In French, woman is “femme” and man is “homme”. In Chinese, the characters of “Nan” and “Njui” are spelled totally differently, making them separate, but equal.

The English etymology comes from way back in the Anglo-Saxon days. “Man” is meant to refer to all humans, but the Old English word “wifman”, meaning very literally “wife of man”. The word “Wife” also has a lot of connotations to being a man’s property, since many of the laws were actually written that way. For radical feminists, they reject the word “woman”, and they want to change it to “womyn”.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
Two of the Wild children. Credit: The Guardian/Channel 4

9. Children Grew Up In Communes Where The “Wild” Things Are

Since many of the women who joined all-female communes were running from toxic relationships with men, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of them show up with kids. Obviously, whether a child was a boy or a girl, they were all welcomed into the all-female communes, and they were collectively raised by a huge group of aunties.

In the 1970’s, The Women’s Liberation Movement encouraged women to escape the traditional nuclear family, and people were experimenting with all sorts of new options. Unfortunately, this lead a lot of young people to join cults, but sometimes, these communities were actually pretty great. There were newly formed feminist communes all over the English countryside in the 1970’s. Men were allowed to live there too, but only if they agreed with feminist ideas of sharing housework and having an equal partnership in raising their kids. Sometimes, there were even stay-at-home dads, if the woman had a better paying job. Some marries couples wanted to move to these communities simply because they didn’t want to feel judgement from their neighbors who thought a man was somehow less of a man if he stayed at home while the woman worked.

This idea that couples had to move to a remote commune in order for the dad to stay at home and raise the kids or to have an equal relationship shows just how much a few decades can drastically change society. Today, a lot of couples live this way, and they don’t need to go live in a remote commune in the middle of the woods to accomplish it.

But, at this time in the 1970’s, it only makes sense that the group took their philosophy to an extra level, and had hippie traditions. They decided that instead of taking the surname of the father or mother, they would just call their kids by the last name “Wild”, since they grew up in the wilderness, and they were not trying to place the man or woman’s surname as any more important than their partner’s.

These communities also embraced the African idea that “it takes a village to raise a child”. Some (but not all) of these relationships between men and women in these forest communities were open and polyamorous. In some households, kids were raised not even knowing who their actual biological parents were, since all of their last names were “Wild”. When they were a little older, they would learn who their biological parents were, of course.

For the kids who grew up as “Wild” children, they thought all of this behavior of their parents was normal, so it wasn’t exactly traumatizing or weird. Once they started joining normal society, some of them were embarrassed, and some even changed their surnames when they got married as adults. But for the most part, these hippie forest kids are pretty normal.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
A member of an all-female commune poses for a photoshoot. Credit: The Huffington Post

10. Sometimes, The Women Run Around Naked

Not all women’s colonies are also nudist colonies, but many of these hippie colonies that started in the 1960’s and 70’s embraced the idea that a woman can walk around shirtless without the fear of being sexualized by men. After all, the idea that a woman’s body must be covered at all times is one of the many issues feminists have with the patriarchy. Of course, they also believe in having confidence and embracing their natural bodies. It only makes sense, then, that these ladies have escalated to the point where a lot of them walk around completely naked in the forest without worrying who sees them.

Even today, ladies attending all-women events are encouraged to let it all hang loose. Women don’t have to wear bras, shave their armpits, hide tummy rolls, or do their hair to conform to societal norms. If women want to show up with their natural-born bodies, they can, without fear of judgement.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
A group of women helping break ground for one of the all-female retirement communities. Credit: The Telegraph

11. Female Retirement Communities Are Still Around Today

Aside from the issues discussed around young women escaping unhappy marriages, another issue that all women faced in the 1800’s and 1900’s was financial survival after their husbands passed away. For lower and middle class women, their husbands may not have left any money behind for them to survive. This was especially important for women who did not have children or family to help take care of them. By joining a women’s community, an elderly woman would never have to be alone. In fact, the original members of the Women’s Commonwealth were able to retire together. The group eventually moved from Texas to Washington, DC, so that they could spread their ideas of women’s communes to the capital. In the early 1900’s, the very small handful of living members eventually died out, but they were still together supporting one another until the very end.

In the 1990’s, a group called Older Women’s Co-Housing brought back this idea that women could help one another survive during retirement. These women don’t like to call themselves an all-female commune, because they don’t like the negative connotations associated with cults, third-wave feminists, or hippies. But the idea is very much the same as what the Women’s Commonwealth was trying to achieve in the 1800’s. Women want to live together, learn together, and help one another financially and emotionally.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
A demonstrator at a Pride event showing her support for trans women. Credit: The Independent

12. No Trans Women Are Allowed In These Communes

For many women who go into female communes or all-women events, they only feel comfortable doing that if they are around other cis women who understand the struggle of being born a into a patriarchal society that caters to men and teaches young girls to look and act a certain way.

When some third-wave feminists see transgender women, it makes them angry, because they feel like someone who is born a man should not be allowed to call themselves a woman. In their minds, a trans woman gets to enjoy all of the perks of enjoying their version of femininity by wearing makeup and female clothes without ever having to deal with the negative side of being born a woman and growing up in a marginalized group.

Some feminists feel the same way about trans women as some people feel about cultural appropriation. For some third-wave-feminists, a trans woman is just as bad as Rachel Dolezal; the white woman who identified as black and even fraudulently benefitted financially by pretending to be African American. Basically, they believe that someone from a non-oppressed group choosing to become apart of an oppressed group should not be allowed to join the club of the latter. Because of this debate, these all-female groups typically ban transgendered women from becoming members.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
Trans women started their own festival that was all-inclusive. Credit: Go Magazine

13. The Michfest Scandal Caused Feminists To Confront Trans People

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, also known as “Michfest”, was a female-only event that went on for decades, and ladies from all over the country would travel there to make new friends and share their common philosophy. In 1991, a transgender woman named Nancy Burkholder showed up to Michfest to have a good time, but the cisgendered women were angry that she showed up. Burkholder was surrounded by festival-goers, and they demanded to know if she was transgender, or cisgender.

Nancy Burkholder felt so intimidated by the angry crowd of women, that she left. The transgender community was outraged to hear this story, and a group of people in support of the LGBTQ community started a group called “Camp Trans”. Advocates in the gay community began to speak out against Michfest for their decision to ban trans women. Attending Michfest became synonymous with transphobia, so the attendance slowly died down over the years as people became more and more educated on the issue. The last festival was in 2015, and they had to shut down, because ticket sales were so low. There are ongoing discussions if the organizers would be willing to reopen Michfest and start accepting transgender women to join them.

In 1991, after the Nancy Burkholder scandal, a group of trans women came together to have their own festival, called “Camp Trans”. Their motto was: “Camp Trans. For Humyn-Born Humyns.” Basically, the point was that we are all human beings, no matter what gender we are biologically born into, and what gender we mentally identify with. The group continued to have all-inclusive events.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
A man who identifies as “Sister Mish” lives in an LGBT commune. Credit: New York Times

14. Trans Women Lived In LGBT Communities

Women’s communes were founded because ladies had nowhere else to go. For transgender women who desperately want to live their truth, that makes it difficult for them to fit into normal society, too. So it only makes sense that they got together to make these communes, as well.

These groups typically did not start until the 1970’s, and they are all-inclusive with people in the entire LGBTQ community. Usually, LGBT Communities have a majority of gay men and a handful of gender fluid or transgendered people. Some of these people identify with a counter-culture known as “radical faeries”. They have sanctuaries all over the world that welcome all kinds of people.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
A typical home in the Harbor community of Ouahu looks like this. Credit: YouTube

15. Leading An All-Female Life Sometimes Means Resorting To Anarchy and Homelessness

We have all heard of stories about “hobos”, or men who chose to be homeless in order to travel the rails. For a while, they were even sort of envied by normal society, because these guys were totally free of responsibility. In popular cultural stereotypes, you never see a female “hobo”, because this lifestyle was simply too dangerous for women. Even today, when we see a homeless woman, it feels extra tragic, and they usually get help right away, because they are often far more vulnerable to violence when they live on the streets. However, some female groups choose homelessness over living in society.

In Oahu, Hawaii, a woman named Twinkle Borge runs an all-female homeless encampment called “The Harbor”. They do not receive welfare or any other kind of government assistance, because they don’t believe in abiding by the rules of the U.S. government. White people are not allowed to live there, either, and the community is made up of native Hawaiian women, and their children.

They function very much like a native tribe. Each woman has her own tent and land that she is required to keep neat and tidy. They plant fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and gather water. A few of the women have jobs, but they cannot afford normal housing. Some of the women have a criminal history or are recovering addicts, and that’s why they chose to live at The Harbor.

Instead of money, the women work on a barter system. Whenever someone needs something, they trade their goods with one another, instead of using money. If there is a disagreement in the group, women are not allowed to disturb the community with their toxic cat fighting. Twinkle takes them out to “the ring” which is a bare patch of dirt set aside for fist-fights. During an interview with a YouTube channel called WeAreChange, Twinkle said that she believes that God has his eyes on The Harbor, because she has seen the community help so many women from horrible situations turn their lives around, quit drugs, and become better people.

16 Facts About Womyn’s Land, The All-Female Communes that Offered a Safe Haven for Abused Women and Feminism
With the growing acceptance of trans women, it makes radical feminists look far too extreme. This has lead to a decline in their numbers. Credit: The Independent

16. All-Female Communes Are Now A Dying Breed

After the fiasco at Michfest, a lot of women stopped attending these feminist groups if they support the LGBT community. It’s obviously hypocritical to talk about equality among genders and sexuality, but then completely rejected trans people, because it falls outside of what they consider to be “normal”. Having a closed mind is what caused men and women to begin fighting in the first place. However, there are some radical feminists who will stand their group and refuse to accept others.

The original purpose of women’s communes have changed so dramatically over the years, that it is scarcely the same thing anymore. In modern times, most women know that they have options to escape an abusive partner. Police are willing to protect women, and a judge will accept a restraining order without a woman having to suffer abuse for years. There are women’s shelters in nearly every city, churches who will accept runaways, telephone hotlines, websites, and community programs. Even if it is difficult for women to be brave enough to leave, there is more help than there was back in the 1800’s.

It is also normal for women to have full-time jobs and support themselves, now. They don’t really need to get together in a commune to accomplish that anymore. Today, women might have other female roommates, but that is the extent of it.

Sadly, all-female communes have almost reverted into the opposite of what they were originally intended to be. They only accept admittance if you fit inside of the box of what they see as fitting their rigid belief system. This is why many are saying “no thank you”, and all-female communes may one day be a distant memory.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Belton Women’s Commonwealth. Mary Ann Lamanna and Jayme A. Sokolow. Texas State Historical Association.

Love from the Land – A love letter from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. YouTube. 2014.

A Homeless Anarchist Community Run By Women. YouTube. 2016.

Rural Revolution: Documenting the Lesbian Land Communities of Southern Oregon. Heather Jo Burmeister. Portland State University. 2013.

Look Inside Some Of The Last Remaining All-Female Communes. Huffington Post. 2015.

My Four Mums. Sally Williams. The Guardian. 2009.

Michfest Might Be Making A Comeback With Hopes For A More Trans Inclusive Space. Corrine Werder. Go Magazine. 2018.

Who’s Killing The Women’s Land Movement? Vice. 2016.

Sixty, Female, And Living All Under One Roof. Just Don’t Call it a Commune. Sally Williams. Telegraph. 2016.

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