Cairns on Luis, 'Herlands: Exploring the Women's Land Movement in the United States'

Author: 
Keridwen N. Luis
Reviewer: 
Kathleen Cairns

Keridwen N. Luis. Herlands: Exploring the Women's Land Movement in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Illustrations. 320 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-9825-7; $112.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-9823-3.

Reviewed by Kathleen Cairns (California Polytechnic State University) Published on H-Environment (July, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56641

Since the early 1800s, utopian back-to-the-land communities have proliferated in the United States. From the Shakers, Oneida, and Brook Farm, to 1960s “hippie” communes, all represented the fervent desire to escape mainstream society with its claustrophobic rules, mind-numbing conformity, and materialistic obsession with money and status. Though not widely publicized, the 1970s saw the emergence of a new land movement, this one led by women, many of whom were lesbians. Like their predecessors, they sought freedom to shape their own lives. But they had different motives as well. As political activists, they essentially were “homeless,” disdained and mocked by larger society, and marginalized by second wave feminists who feared their presence could enable opponents to label the entire movement “deviant.”

Keridwen N. Luis’s book, Herlands, tells the story of this modern women’s land movement. Often referred to as “separatists,” in Luis’s presentation, they live both apart from and within larger communities of kinship and intimate relationships. In many ways, their lives resemble longstanding images of communal life: rustic conditions—including buckets as “bathrooms”; reciprocity—sharing land, resources, and food preparation; communal decision-making; semi-nudity and androgynous dress; and a focus on art and music. But not all the communities are isolated and rural; some are suburban. Some residents are permanent; others temporary. Some residents hold paying jobs as nurses, professors, office workers, and taxi drivers. They use technology: email, the internet. While residents are exclusively women, visitors include male family members and friends, even though the presence of men makes some residents uncomfortable.

Luis is an anthropologist. Her book represents an extraordinary contribution to the historical record of women’s lives and experiences over the last fifty years, particularly since few scholars have focused on the women’s lands movement. Her story starts in the 1970s, with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice. Held near the storied town of Seneca Falls, New York, the latter was organized to protest a nearby nuclear depot. Seneca represented a “political awakening for some women” (p. 25). The land movement, with dozens of communities throughout the country, largely grew out of political activism.

The communities provide “safe spaces” for both queer and straight women, including aged or infirm women fearful of anti-lesbian attitudes among members of the medical establishment. But, as Luis reveals, “sisterhood” can sometimes be elusive. As in larger society, “race” is a thorny issue. Even the word “communal” can be a misnomer. The lands on which women live often are privately owned, by single individuals, groups, or trusts. Owners can decide what gets built on the property and who lives there. “Land is the primary status symbol,” writes Luis. The community “defies capitalism, but is also shaped by it” (p. 127).

Luis interviewed thirty-two women, twenty-five of whom identified as lesbians; they call themselves “landdykes.” But Blacks and other non-White individuals do not always feel welcomed in land groups, she learned. Women’s communities may operate outside the norm of middle-class society but still within the norm of “whiteness.” Word-of-mouth often points the way to land communities, and women of color often do not have access to this information. Additionally, many communities are in rural areas, which are not necessarily welcoming to people of color. As of the year 2000, three land communities in the United States were composed entirely of women of color.

Most land women are working and middle class. They join communities hoping to live simply, eat food they grow themselves, and live free of society’s judgment. But they have their own prejudices. For example, some are “fat phobic,” obsessed with eating healthy foods and maintaining healthy weights. This intense focus has led some women to experience crippling anxiety over food. Luis offers the example of one woman, whose birthday celebration led members of the community to focus on the amount of sugar in the cake. “The symbol of the thin body ... remain[s] on women’s lands in spite of how [it] reflects a particularly gendered form of control,” Luis writes (p. 184).

A surprising revelation relates to “transphobia.” Women’s communities sometimes “scapegoat” trans women, according to Luis. Many landdykes argue that, despite identifying as female, trans women retain male privilege and, consequently, represent caricatures of women. The same phobia does not apply to women transitioning into men, however.

Herlands takes its name from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s iconic 1915 novel Herland, which depicts an idyllic community populated entirely by women—until the arrival of men. Luis’s depiction of real women necessarily provides a much more nuanced narrative of complex lives, identities, and motives. The narrative might have been strengthened both by an enhanced focus on the geography and landscape of the women’s communities and by fewer repetitive explanations of various terms, lengthy discussions of secondary sources, and over-usage of academic jargon, such as “matrix culture” and “doxic beliefs.” It is the story that counts, particularly when it is as interesting as this one.

Citation: Kathleen Cairns. Review of Luis, Keridwen N., Herlands: Exploring the Women's Land Movement in the United States. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. July, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56641

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.