We came here to create a lesbian universe.
— Hawk Madrone 1
In June 1982, writer Lee Lynch travelled from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest to visit a friend, Tee A. Corinne. Corinne was best known for her line drawings of female genitalia, published in 1975 as the Cunt Coloring Book. Lynch recalled, “Tee made several phone calls and out of those apparently uninhabited mountains of Southern Oregon swarmed more dykes that I would see in my first month back [east] … Had I stumbled upon a veritable lesbian Mecca?” 2
As Lynch’s wonder suggests, it’s not common knowledge that for several decades at the end of the last century, Southern Oregon was the heartland of lesbian separatism. 3 Midway between San Francisco and Portland, the region is sparsely populated. A cluster of steep canyons forested with Douglas fir, sugar pine, and Pacific madrone are framed by one wild river to the north, the Umpqua, and another to the south, the Rogue. Tucked among the canyons are picturesque pockets of meadowland. Lesbian locals termed the I-5 corridor that cuts through this crumpled topography the Amazon Highway; they sometimes called the hills “Mama’s Many Breasts.”
Nestled in the canyons and meadows was a thriving community of women-owned, women-built enclaves.
Nestled here was a thriving community of women-owned, women-built enclaves. At the heyday of the movement, from the mid-1970s to the early ’80s, eight separatist collectives flourished in Southern Oregon, with a ninth just south of Portland. 4 Their parcels ranged in size from seven to 150 acres, and were home to anywhere from four to 30 women. Thousands of lesbians visited, from all over the world.
Each land was distinct. Residents at OWL Farm shared meals and a bank account, while those at Rainbow’s End lived more autonomously, each in their own cabins. Fly Away Home sat atop a mountain and Cabbage Lane in a wide ravine. WomanShare was nicknamed “fat city” because it had electricity and hot water. Policies varied regarding marijuana, vegetarianism, boy children, and private property. Attitudes toward policies varied too.
Yet each community was born from the same conviction: Patriarchy had created a destructive, unjust society that needed to be junked. 5 The aim was a mode of living that respected the earth, eradicated class oppression, rejected paradigms of dominance, and regarded female biology as noble, even sublime. From casual nudity to consensus decision-making, the land-dykes overturned assumptions they’d inherited. They built their own houses, invented practices of worship, modified language, and attempted wealth redistribution. They loved each other fiercely, and insisted on a politics that began and ended with that love.
The aim was a mode of living that respected the earth, eradicated class oppression, and regarded female biology as noble, even sublime.
At the time of this writing, some of the lands have long since languished as inhabitants move away and structures deteriorate — though a few enclaves remarkably persist, albeit at much-reduced scale. What, now, can be learned from the tribulations of these women building a new society by hand in the American wilderness? Much has changed in the last 50 years. Uncloseted lesbians are not the anomaly they once were, and elements of the land-dykes’ environmentalism — so unconventional in the 1970s — are now accepted truths. Queer identity remains indelibly associated with cities, to the degree that rural exceptions are easily sidelined. Gender-exclusive alliances, once so liberatory, now seem less so. The separatist legacy is sullied by some separatists’ antipathy towards trans women.
And yet. Contemporary American culture clamors, again, for reinvention. Conceiving alternatives requires precisely the qualities the Southern Oregon land-dykes exhibited in abundance: audacity, courage, enthusiasm for hard work, and a conviction that the future remains unformed. What would it mean now to collectively commit, as these women did, to a plan for living that departs so radically from the received order?
Ruth Ikeler met Jean Janette Tangeman in 1970 at a Quaker retreat center outside Philadelphia. Both were in their late 40s and recently divorced; Ruth had five children, and Jean two. Ruth was a poet and an activist. Having been laid off from her job as a chemical analyst, she was volunteering as an abortion-rights advocate. Jean came from a wealthy family in Iowa — her father was Harvard Class of ’22 — and a recent inheritance had allowed her to quit her job as a social worker in Los Angeles. They met at a gathering for single parents.
Neither yet identified as lesbian, but Jean and Ruth went together to a talk by the radical feminist Rita Mae Brown. Brown had defected from the National Organization for Women to found the Radicalesbians, which had just published a manifesto, “The Woman Identified Woman.” “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion,” the essay begins. Choosing to love other women, the Radicalesbians argued, is the essence of female liberation. Historian Alice Echols summarizes the position: “feminism required lesbianism.” 7
On 420 acres of old-growth forest, the Mountaingroves made a seven-person family, living in an A-frame with no interior doors.
After Brown’s talk, Ruth and Jean continued reading in tandem, trading literature in the mail: essays by Kate Millett, underground newspapers, the 1970 anthology Sisterhood is Powerful. Then Jean went on a road trip in search of an intentional community in which to raise her children. She found what she was looking for at Mountain Grove, a small, religious commune on 420 acres of old-growth forest in Southern Oregon, near the town of Wolf Creek. 8 She and her kids moved in, and Ruth followed soon after, arriving in 1972. Ruth brought two of her children, and after a custody battle a third joined. They made a seven-person family, living in an A-frame house with no interior doors.
Ruth and Jean consummated their love and took the shared name Mountaingrove. 9 They designated a cluster of madrones as sacred; there they improvised rituals and wrote poetry and songs. 10 To express her metamorphosis as a woman-loving woman, Jean sewed a hooded cape of burlap sacks lined with green rayon.
They also continued reading feminist theory. The Radicalesbians dissolved, and Brown formed another short-lived collective, The Furies, modeled on cells in the Black Panther Party and Weather Underground. 11 The Furies were militant about the necessity of lesbianism. As Echols describes, they treated straight women as feminism’s dead weight, insisting that a willingness to renounce men — all men — was “the barometer of one’s radicalism.” 12
Ruth and Jean considered this carefully. Indeed, their experience at Mountain Grove was beginning to support the case for separatism. The couple hadn’t meshed well with their fellow communards, and were particularly critical of the male leadership. Things turned acrimonious when men responsible for cutting firewood stopped supplying the A-frame. Winter was on the way, and Jean and Ruth realized they would have to cut their own, and quickly. The chore seemed daunting — they had a single crosscut saw — but they got the hang of it. They were more self-reliant than they’d thought. Ruth wrote a song:
Two women, two women,
On a two-woman saw,
Cutting the bonds
That are rubbing us raw,
That keep us from living
And loving each other,
Making us wait
On some man or other.
On the Road
The Mountaingroves left Mountain Grove in 1973, to make a tour of the West Coast in search of lesbian community. Their children stayed behind while the two women lived on the road for about a year. 13
A momentous visit unfolded at T’ai Farm, in Mendocino County in California. T’ai Farm seems to have been the first women’s land in the U.S., though the Mountaingroves were more interested in the fact that its founders, Carmen Goodyear and Jeanne Tetrault, had also launched a magazine, Country Women. This was a substantial project; Goodyear claimed it had more subscribers than Ms. (a magazine that radicals considered obsequious). 14 Content in Country Women was practical and cerebral in equal measure; how-to notes on, say, raising pigs were interspersed with essays on the sexual politics of homesteading and Virginia Woolf.
How-to notes on raising pigs might be interspersed with essays on the sexual politics of homesteading and Virginia Woolf.
Goodyear and Tetrault suggested that the Mountaingroves guest edit a special issue on spirituality, and Ruth and Jean took to the task like bees to honey. Producing the issue was such a pleasure that they decided to launch their own magazine. They titled it WomanSpirit, and pegged their publication schedule to the equinoxes and solstices. 15 Then they continued their road trip. It proved difficult, however, to produce a magazine out of a VW bug, and they were delighted, in 1974, to return to Southern Oregon. Two gay men, Carl Wittman and Allan Troxler, invited the Mountaingroves to live on their property, rent free. 16 Ruth and Jean knew Wittman socially. He was an activist, and an English-folk-dancing enthusiast who hosted community dances.
The space in question was a former sauna, an eight-foot-square outbuilding. The cabin barely accommodated a bed and a tin stove. There was no electricity, no running water, no insulation, and no room for children. 17 What it lacked in amenities, however, it made up for in location. While the Mountaingroves were on the road, the lesbian-separatist movement in Oregon was gaining momentum. Wittman’s property was near six key collectives. Five were within a 45-minute drive: WomanShare, established in 1974; Rainbow’s End and Fishpond, in 1975; and OWL Farm and Fly Away Home in 1976. Cabbage Lane, which was founded first, in 1973, was even closer — just a steep hike away. By the end of the decade, there would be two more: Rootworks, which took form in 1979 when the Mountaingroves bought their own property, and Golden Women’s Land, set up when Wittman sold to lesbians in 1980 and moved away.
Not only were the women’s lands close by, but Golden had emerged as a community hub. Wittman shared the land with his aunt Betty, a retired schoolteacher who had served in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II, and who hosted a regular land-dyke cocktail hour she called “Betty’s Bar.” Wittman thought the Mountaingroves would enjoy the scene. They did.
The collective closest to Golden, Cabbage Lane, had started as a standard back-to-the-land commune: two young men and three young women relocated to a forest in 1972 and attempted to build a house. The terrain was “scrubby, barren, steep,” and they had no skills, no money, and no equipment. 18 They drove two hours to the beach to collect driftwood for building material, and their truck drowned in the tide. There were fights, including a staged wrestling match, and one woman defected. The others managed to complete a crude structure before winter arrived. When temperatures dropped, the men decamped. The remaining women, Patti and Nelly, stayed.
It was a tremendous amount of work to eat, bathe, and keep warm. Eventually, though, hardships gave way to a glorious spring.
They endured a difficult season. It was a tremendous amount of work to eat, bathe, and keep warm. Both suspected they were lesbians, but they couldn’t agree on whether to sleep together. Eventually, though, hardship gave way to a glorious spring. They planted a garden and a marijuana patch, set up an altar, and built a roofed platform for an outdoor kitchen. Visitors brought new joie de vivre. The seasonal flowering instilled such commitment to the land and to each other that when their fellow communards reappeared, Patti and Nelly weren’t welcoming. The deal was sealed when Nelly fell in love with a visitor named Frances (shortly renamed Zarod), who promised to stay on condition that, henceforth, the community be women-only. Nelly recalled, “I knew I was a lesbian. I knew I wanted to live with lesbians. I knew I wanted the land to be women’s land.” 19 The men were kicked out.
In fact, Nelly didn’t stay long at Cabbage Lane; when Zarod took a second lover, she fled to WomanShare. WomanShare had been purchased by three friends from Montreal who wept with longing when they read a description of a California women’s festival. They drove West to witness the scene themselves. The land was secured through the inheritance of one, Dian, but in accordance with their communal politics, all three had equal status on the deed. 20 Nelly joined, as did a fifth member named Sue — no one used patronymics on women’s land — and they co-wrote a book, Country Lesbians: The Story of the WomanShare Collective. Through distribution in the U.S. and U.K., and translation into German and Japanese, Country Lesbians sent out a clarion call for the like-minded.
OWL Farm had a very different founding story. It was not the optimistic gambit of a few friends, but an activist attempt to redress class inequity. In 1975, attendees at a three-day workshop on “Money, Class, and Power,” hosted by WomanShare, evolved a plan under which all participants, regardless of ability to pay, would have rights on a new land. The initial meeting was attended by over 100 women, and about 40 saw the project through. After researching ways to circumvent the strictures of private ownership, they settled on a then-obscure legal tool, a land trust. Contributors could pool money to buy property, but only the name of the trust would appear on the deed. The trust itself could be governed as a nonprofit, with bylaws that guaranteed no woman would have a greater financial stake than any other. The nonprofit, in turn, could be run as a collective, with all members having equal say.
They settled on a then-obscure legal tool, a land trust. The trust could run as a nonprofit collective, with all members having equal say.
After many meetings, 147 acres were purchased about 30 miles north of Cabbage Lane, and OWL was declared an open refuge to “Lesbians, light skin, middle class, working class, young, strong, caretakers, travelers, sick, old, middle, crazy, spaced out, straight, dark skin, mothers with girl children.” 21 (The property was known as OWL Farm, short for Oregon Women’s Land; the land’s administrators were OWL Trust.) WomanSpirit celebrated OWL’s founding with a celebratory cartoon: a realtor’s “FOR SALE” sign is replaced with one that reads “FREE SPACE FOREVER.” 22
How to Live
By 1976, when the Mountaingroves settled into their shack in Golden, women from all over the world were hearing about this seemingly mythical place where lesbians could live openly in a life of their own design. Those who made the trek to Oregon were amply rewarded. After days or hours of travel, culminating up a long dirt road, visitors arrived somewhere that must have seemed clandestine, sexy, spectacularly beautiful. There were trees in all directions, wild lilac, larkspur, and a cacophony of birdsong. Residents went topless, unadorned. They greeted new arrivals with hugs that could last five minutes. 23
Most were known by chosen names, often in homage to the natural world: Eva Beaver, Buckwheat, Woodsorrel, Splitrock. Some names — Freewoman, Miracle, Too Bad — referred to the act of self-invention. Zarod assumed her name as onomatopoeia: “I just threw my arms in the air and … this big sound came out of me … I said ‘I think that’s my new name.’” 24 Daily life hewed close to the rhythms of the earth. Time was measured by the sun; residents ate from their gardens, split their firewood, and hiked in all directions, coming to know the landscape as intimately as their own bodies. Particular pleasure was taken in masturbating, making love, and peeing outside.
The homemade built environment was a source of pride and lore. Some lands had been bought with existing structures — the main house at OWL, for instance, had been a homesteader’s log cabin — but most buildings were the work of women’s hands. Construction was the intoxicating proof that women could build anew, whether a cabin or a society.
Design was free form. There were twelve-sided houses, six-sided houses, elfish alcoves, spirit doors, and a “psychic shelter” made of tree boughs. Doorways might be situated to abut a madrone’s summer shadow, and windows to frame the winter setting sun. Each house had a name — Trillium, Rattlesnake, the Dome, She Wings — and returning visitors would inquire after specific cabins as if they were sentient. Gardens and paths were shaped like moons or ovaries, gates like sunbursts, roofs like stars. Women built wherever the land whispered “Here!” even when that meant transporting beams across a gulch or up into a tree.
Most buildings were the work of women’s hands. Construction was the intoxicating proof that they could build anew.
Conventional construction was rejected on principle. Ideally, “paint, plywood, concrete, electricity, bulldozers, fiberglass” were avoided. 25 Treated lumber was rarely purchased; when weather protection was absolutely necessary, wood was soaked in crankcase oil. Insulation was egg cartons, carpet scraps, tinfoil. (One winter, the Mountaingroves wrapped their shack in plastic, like a Christo sculpture.) Ephemeral shelters abounded — tipis, school busses, trailers, yurts — and sometimes evolved into permanent fixtures. In summer, when it was customary to sleep outdoors, lands were dotted with loose bedding.
As builders, the women learned as they went, and taught each other. (Several, in fact, went on to launch construction companies.) The main house at Cabbage Lane, for example, was originally balanced on flat rocks, to which the structural beams were not attached. It was also accidentally sited on the neighbor’s property. A group of women relocated the house by hand, wall by wall, and stabilized it with a new concrete foundation. Rather than deplore their original mistake, they reveled: they were strong enough to move a house! “The daring was rushing our blood,” wrote Zarod; “the energy felt overwhelming,” remembered Sally Smith. Sharon Marks described her first night in her cabin as “like riding a wild horse — the molecules of wood were still spinning.” 26
The architects of the collectives were friends, lovers, and ex-lovers. Many were alienated from their families of origin, and the separatist community became their kin. They shared similar backgrounds. Nearly all were White, well-educated, East Coast-born, and middle-class; many had been antiwar and Civil Rights activists; some were red-diaper babies. Their activism around race, class, and the Vietnam War laid groundwork for their approach to queer liberation. They saw themselves as abolishing proscriptive gender behavior, and they shaved their heads, abandoned bras, dressed in work boots. In contemporary parlance, they were all cis-gendered.
Hawk Madrone, co-founder of Fly Away Home, had studied philosophy at Penn State and taught at Howard University, where her contract was terminated after she spoke in support of students at a Black Power rally. Then she worked as director of the Washington, D.C. chapter of Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam, and joined the Radicalesbians. Pelican Lee, an early resident of Cabbage Lane who was central to founding OWL, dropped out of college to work with Students for a Democratic Society, and briefly joined the Weather Underground. (She left after she judged their endorsement of violence a male ego trip.) Bethroot Gwynn, the other founder of Fly Away Home, earned her MA at Union Theological Seminary. She worked for the YWCA as a liaison between New Left activists and local ministers, and as a coordinator for women’s lib organizations on college campuses. Bethroot’s former partner, Spes Dolphin, volunteered with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, setting up a Freedom School in Mississippi. When a house she was staying in was firebombed, she took a position with the Canadian Student Union for Peace Action, agitating for Indigenous rights. Zarod was involved with Chicago’s Citizens for Independent Political Action, then moved to San Francisco in 1969 to co-found an urban feminist commune.
They rejected consumerism, and sounded early alarms about environmental devastation.
One by one, these women severed ties with the New Left when the movement’s sexism became intolerable. In general, disillusioned New Left women turned in droves to feminism, but mainstream feminism failed lesbians when Betty Friedan famously characterized women-loving women as the “lavender menace.” Many lesbians turned then to the gay-liberation movement, but that alliance also proved disappointing. Gay men weren’t necessarily less sexist than straight ones, and didn’t seem to value lesbian concerns. (Activist Del Martin “quit” the gay men’s community in 1970: “I have been forced to the realization that I have no brothers in the homophile movement … they neither speak for us nor to us … Goodbye to all that.” 27) Three times excluded, lesbians felt they had no choice but to strike out on their own.
Going back to the land was a powerful declaration of autonomy, and Oregon forest seemed the ultimate terra nullius. Lesbian separatists were similar in some respects to the influx of hippie back-to-the-landers settling in Oregon at the same time. This movement also rejected consumerism and championed downward social mobility. Both groups eschewed private property and sounded early alarms about environmental devastation. And both indulged the colonialist fantasy that rural land was theirs for the taking.
In other ways, however, the land-dykes were very different. They were slightly older, with activist credentials and advanced degrees. They didn’t harbor the suspicion of elders typical in the counterculture; they welcomed the Mountaingroves as they’d welcomed Wittman’s aunt Betty — as matriarchs. The land-dyke collectives were not a druggy lark or an art project, but a serious political endeavor.
Of course, the biggest difference between rural lesbians and their heterosexual back-to-the-land neighbors lay in gender norms. Agrarian communes had a default tendency toward traditional divisions of labor; feminism tended to evaporate off the grid. One memoir, for instance, by a woman in a straight commune near Cabbage Lane, describes the land as “man’s country.” She explains her community’s heteronormativity with a shrug: “Somebody in the couple had to be able to wield a chain saw, build a structure, repair a vehicle.” 28 On lesbian land, that person was never a man.
Beyond Comfrey and Garlic
Day-to-day life was not without problems; as one OWL resident put it, “Living in the country on women-reclaimed land is not all comfrey and garlic.” 29 In fact, difficulties of an incredible variety strained the newborn society to its utmost.
Establishing rules was a quagmire. How best to collectivize labor when some participants had mobility issues? How to share childcare when not all women wanted to care for young children, and not all mothers wanted to cede control? Drug-use was central to some women’s spiritual practices, but a drug bust would bring policemen to the land. Some thought it wise to have guns — commonplace in this part of Oregon — while others were adamantly opposed. Zealous efforts to achieve fairness tended to sharpen the perception of unfairness, and anarchist-minded land-dykes never entirely agreed that rules were necessary.
Difficulties of an incredible variety strained the newborn society — even as land-dykes never entirely agreed that rules were necessary.”
The community was justifiably loath to seek help from Western doctors, psychiatric services, or the cops — but neither were they equipped to handle every issue themselves. Residents planted herb gardens and amassed an extraordinary knowledge of natural healing, but with close quarters and no running water, they were besieged with lice, crabs, intestinal worms, staph infections, and the “Great Scabies Epidemic of 1976.” 30 Poignant dilemmas were part of everyday life. What to do with the woman who refused to believe she was pregnant, even when the birth was imminent? Or the alcoholic living in a tipi with nineteen dogs, drinking herself to death? How to handle domestic violence? All of these issues, and countless others, were adjudicated internally.
Some problems proved intractable. Meeting after meeting, women argued about policy on boy children, on pets, on how best to manage the constant stream of visitors. (No one, it seems, anticipated the emotional toll of extending hospitality every hour of the day, every day of the year.) Communards observed each other’s lives at such microscopic range that things like income inequality could not be politely concealed. The cost of living was minimal — about $30 per month at Cabbage Lane, all-inclusive — so that an individual with savings or a disability allotment could handily cover expenses with cash left over for road trips and marijuana. Others scrimped by on a combination of food stamps and seasonal fruit-picking. (To get a job in town you needed a reliable car and a feminine mien.) A go-to insult was to call a woman “middle class” — code for not having divested her privilege. 31 On lands where finances were shared, keeping a private savings account was tantamount to betrayal.
Proximity also magnified sexual conflict. Straight sex, the thinking went, was a misogynist fantasy, but so were monogamy and traditional notions of beauty. Attempting to rethink and remake eroticism, women on the lands cultivated simultaneous relationships, and randomized their hookups. Cabbage Lane started a monthly Singles Week, during which the names of lovers-to-be were drawn out of a hat. Residents at WomanShare used Tarot to decide who would sleep in what bed on a given night, while others maintained ménages à trois. 32 Communal masturbation was not uncommon, and loud lovemaking declared one’s right to pleasure. 33
Radical sex made for extreme highs, but the lows were equally extreme. It was impossible to avoid seeing a lover with someone new in the secluded intimacy of a commune, and there was nowhere to nurse a hurt. Bad breakups were exacerbated by shame. Many utopians were genuinely surprised that they felt jealousy, which they’d assumed to be an emotion exclusive to men; they castigated themselves for what they termed “the pig in the head.” Long-term planning was stymied by drama, to the point that several collectives were at times hard-pressed to attend to the minimum requirements of land ownership. OWL in particular struggled against financial insolvency, and Golden Women’s Land was lost to foreclosure. 34
Collectives were at times hard-pressed to attend to minimum requirements of land ownership.
The only acceptable way of addressing a problem on women’s land was consensus decision-making, the ethical virtues of which are well-established. Consensus dismantles hierarchy, acknowledges minority opinions, and promotes community investment. Progress flows from respectful relationship rather than authoritative decree. The drawbacks, however, became clear in Southern Oregon: the process demands extreme patience, particularly when the group in question is large, peripatetic, and high on self-conviction.
All conflict resolution on the lands took place in circles, with everyone sitting on the ground. A facilitator, the “road woman,” passed a rattle. Whoever held the rattle had the right to speak, and the meeting wasn’t over until everyone refused the talking-piece. This could take hours and, occasionally, all night. It was unacceptable to interrupt or dismiss someone’s feelings, even the most mercurial and muddled. There were efforts to convene circles for practical as opposed to emotional issues — WomanSpirit tried to separate editorial meetings from “feeling meetings” — but usually everything tumbled out together. Marathon circles included interludes for dance, drumming, and massage; if a contentious issue reached an impasse, it wasn’t unusual for someone to request the rattle and start a song. The Mountaingroves published a songbook for this purpose, The Turned-On Woman (1975), and these anthems were augmented over the years. A hearty round of lyrics like “free to be a new woman” didn’t solve the problem at hand, but it did stoke fortitude.
Just as the Mountaingroves’ songs helped soften conflict, their publishing projects nurtured cohesion. Jean and Ruth had a knack for the concrete work of community-building. For the production of WomanSpirit, dozens of women were enlisted to sort contributions, draw illustrations, and haul issues to the post office. After the Mountaingroves bought their own land, their capacity for group work increased tenfold. Their new home was a seven-acre plot five miles from Cabbage Lane; previous lesbian owners had named it Rootworks. With the help of volunteers, the Mountaingroves erected a workspace, a barn-like structure of two stories, with a pitched roof and a dozen windows. They named it after the lesbian writer Natalie Barney (1876 – 1972).
The Mountaingroves erected a barn-like communal workspace, and named it after the lesbian writer Natalie Barney.
Natalie Barney became the community’s creative center. Paneled in plywood with salvaged squares of carpet on the floor, it (or she) not only housed the offices of WomanSpirit, but hosted many summer programs, including Dyke Art Camp and the Ovulars (“ovular” being Ruth’s alternative coinage for “seminar”). There is little archival record of what exactly happened at Dyke Art Camp, but the Ovulars, dedicated to lesbian photography, were meticulously documented. For two weeks each year, 30 to 50 women travelled from all over the country to gather at Rootworks and discuss what it meant to make lesbian images. They slept in tents and developed their film in the moonlight. The Ovulars evolved into a second magazine, The Blatant Image, which was also produced at Natalie Barney. 35 Photographers Tee A. Corinne and Carol Osmer Newhouse, and filmmakers Joan E. Biren (aka JEB) and Deborah Hoffman were Ovular faculty; Blatant Image contributors included Honey Lee Cottrell, Barbara Hammer, and others key to the history of lesbian image-making.
No More Surrender
Another avenue by which the Mountaingroves anchored their community was through spiritual practice. There was tremendous hunger in second-wave feminism for emancipatory rituals and traditions. Not all feminists identified as atheists, yet Judeo-Christian institutions were inexorably male-centered. “A woman’s asking for equality in the church,” wrote theologian Mary Daly in 1968, “would be comparable to a black person’s demanding equality in the Ku Klux Klan.” 36 Both the Mountaingroves had an abiding interest in religion. Ruth had studied mysticism under the Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, and her ex-husband was employed by the Presbyterian Church, in which she was also involved for a time; in 1950 she had published a letter imploring her fellow Presbyterians to speak out against Senator Joseph McCarthy. Jean’s background was mainstream Protestant, but after her divorce she found solace in Quakerism, with its emphasis on education and social justice. Jean had first elected to live at Mountain Grove because it reminded her of Quaker settlements.
Beginning with their editorship of Country Woman and continuing with each issue of WomanSpirit, with dozens of festivals and celebrations along the way, the Mountaingroves extolled the possibilities of gynocentric worship. They began with what it wasn’t: no male deities, of course, and also no characterization of spirituality as surrender. The paradigm of submission, whether to God or man, was inappropriate for lesbians: “What women need now is not surrender but strength.” 37 This religion of strength-over-surrender has come to be known as goddess feminism.
Group ritual was central. Croning ceremonies were designed to mark the final stages of menopause, and each pagan holy day (Samhain, Candlemas, Lammas, Beltane) occasioned a devotional circle. Solstices and equinoxes were important, as were certain self-designated holidays — the anniversary of naming oneself, for example. These occasions were observed through such a pastiche of practices that it becomes difficult to untangle the appropriations. Goddess feminists borrowed from Native American, Buddhist, and Wiccan sources along with Sufism, Transcendentalism, Druidism, and shamanic traditions. They gleaned details from anthropology and mythology in order to write runes and consecrate altars, and integrated labyrinth walking, Tarot, and I Ching into daily life.
Homemade rituals seeded scholarship in queer ecology, and transformed how thousands of women experienced their own bodies.
Goddess feminism’s most prescient aspect was its insistence that Western culture’s relationship to the earth demanded transformation. Oregon women understood both earth and body to be composed of the same sacred matter. Jean, for instance, designated her compost pile, which included human waste, as an altar to the Greek goddess Hecate. More often, the relationship between earth and woman was figured as erotic. Early issues of WomanSpirit featured Hawk Madrone’s account of a mountain guiding her to climax, and Barbara Alter’s description of an orgasmic encounter with a sea anemone. Tee A. Corinne completed a series of double-exposed photos that layered trees with vulvas. Women gynomorphized the meadows, the wind, and the seasons, and envisioned their devotion to the earth as returned in kind.
Goddess feminism anchored environmental activism on a spiritual cornerstone, and seeded future scholarship in ecofeminism and queer ecology. 38 It also transformed how thousands of women experienced their own bodies. Fecundity and cyclic rhythms were evidence of divinity rather than causes for shame; the proverbial curse of menstruation was recast as a visceral connection to the moon.
For several years, the Mountaingroves organized a grand Spirituality Festival, at which new rituals were collaboratively developed. Attendees pasted twigs and feathers on their naked bodies and smeared menstrual blood across their cheeks. They wrapped each other in ropes to symbolize umbilical cords, and slept in circles beneath oversized dream-catchers. At one year’s festival, the National Park Service made an unexpected appearance, having mistaken the smoke of a ceremonial blaze for a forest fire.
The all-important vector by which women claimed kinship with mother earth was the biologically female body. Female embodiment was as ideologically central to goddess feminism as it was to lesbian separatism; everything about building a life without men turned on the assumption that the sexes were categorically distinct from birth. Separatists’ solicitude towards other women was equal in proportion to their antipathy towards men.
Examples abound. The outlaw separatist Valerie Solanas wrote in her 1968 SCUM Manifesto that men are not “ethically entitled to live.” (Her acronym, of course, stood for Society for Cutting Up Men.) 39 Sally Gearhart, who lived at T’ai Farm and contributed to WomanSpirit, wrote sci-fi novels describing men as subhuman monsters who gear up for recreational “cunt hunts” with animal nets and machine guns. A playwright who lived at OWL titled her script “Dead Men: A Women’s Fantasy,” and members of the C.L.I.T. Collective published under the byline “killa-man.” The separatist group The Gorgons, known for wearing camouflage and carrying loaded weapons, went so far as to stage raids in 1978 on two feminist bookstores in Seattle. One store stocked writings by men, and the other allowed men to purchase books.40
Separatists cited patriarchy’s voracious appetite for violence — what would now be termed ‘toxic masculinity.’
The Gorgons’ account of these raids uses the word “pricks” in place of “men”; other separatist tracts use “pig,” “the enemy,” and “rapist.” Mention of masculinity was excised in as many ways possible. “Women” and “woman” were spelled as “wimmin,” “womyn, “womon,” and “we’moon”; words like “managing” and “manure” became “womanaging” and “womanure.” “Menstruation” was better as “moonstration,” and no one ever wrote “history,” only “herstory.”
Men were unequivocally banned from women’s lands, but the question of when exactly a boy becomes a man constituted one of separatism’s great quandaries. Some collectives allowed male children under eleven years old, some none at all, some one male child but no more, and some drew the line at breastfeeding — after weaning, male infants had to go. 41
Despite the devilish details, the case for male exclusion could be persuasively argued. Separatists cited patriarchy’s voracious appetite for violence — what would now be termed “toxic masculinity” — and simultaneously deconstructed the cultural prohibition on women’s anger. Writer Joanna Russ spelled out exactly how a moral judgement against hatred abets existing power structures: “It’s nothing new for the oppressed to be solemnly told their entry to Heaven depends on not hating their oppressor.” 42 Vitriol towards men was appropriate, separatists argued, and also productive; by fully experiencing their rage, women would realize their kinship with each other. A space without men was a space where women could heal and flourish.
On the issue of trans women, however, separatist logic was distorted.
On the issue of trans women, however, separatist logic blurred. Trans women were perceived through the distortions of cis-gendered bias, and commonly characterized as men who were using disguises to penetrate women’s attempts at privacy. Some factions espoused outright transphobic violence. The issue erupted in 1973 at the West Coast Lesbian Conference, one of the largest gatherings of lesbians to date. Activist and singer Beth Elliot, a trans woman, was scheduled to perform. Elliot had held leadership positions in the lesbian-rights movement and helped to organize the conference. Nonetheless, theorist Robin Morgan used her keynote address to attack Elliot as “an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer with the mentality of a rapist.” 43 Elliot was ostracized.
To be clear, not all radical lesbians or lesbian separatists were transphobic. In 1977, when 22 signatories castigated the lesbian recording collective Olivia Records for employing Sandy Stone, a trans woman, Olivia Records published a well-argued rebuttal. It was absurd, they pointed out, to claim that Stone enjoyed male privilege; that was precisely what she’d forsaken. Besides, their priority was to treat Stone as “a person, not an issue.” 44
There is no clear record of how these debates were received in Oregon, and no evidence that trans issues ever roiled the community there. Nonetheless, any ideology predicated on exclusion begs the question: At what point does separatism devolve into bigotry?
Utopia can’t exist without a barrier — a wall, a fence, or in Thomas More’s version, a moat; Fredric Jameson describes the ideal utopian setting as “a pocket of stasis.” 45 A utopia that traffics too often with the outside world will swiftly dissolve. In Southern Oregon, the primary means of enclosure was geographic isolation.
Lesbians weren’t the first to see this area as a haven. Early travelers to Oregon habitually compared the verdant landscape with the biblical Eden, and expressed colonialist rapture in terms of rebirth — as an observer noted in 1925, “Oregon held for many minds a mystic attraction as a land of social regeneration.” 46 The region boasts a rich history of utopianism, from isolationist Christian settlements like the Aurora Colony, founded by Wilhelm Keil in 1856, to Rajneeshpuram, founded by the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the early 1980s.
Today, the Oregon utopian impulse remains omnipresent, with both conservative and liberal manifestations.
Today, the Oregon utopian impulse remains omnipresent, with both conservative and liberal manifestations. Left-leaning Portland homes may fly the flag of Cascadia, a hypothetical nation-state premised on commitment to the environment, while rightwing rural counties have become strongholds for the Sheriff’s Posse Comitatus, a movement touting local government, rather than state or federal law, as supreme authority. The counties where the lesbian lands are located rank among the most libertarian in the U.S.
This sense of Oregon as a land apart has long been used to suborn institutionalized racism. Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859 as the only state with an active exclusion law; Blacks were prohibited from crossing the state line, and those in residence prohibited from voting, buying property, or traveling. The law was explicitly linked to utopianism: “The object,” declared legislator Peter Burnett in 1844, “is to keep clear of that most troublesome class of population. We are in a new world.” 47 This history remains palpable in Southern Oregon, which is still a hotbed of White nationalism. Until the 1950s, the area’s largest cities — Medford, Ashland, and Grants Pass — were sundown towns, with posted signs warning Black visitors to leave by dusk. Even in 1992, a Black woman minister in nearby Dexter was driven out by multiple death threats. 48 No city within an hour’s drive of Rootworks is more than one-percent Black. 49
The feeling of freedom through seclusion, so vital to the country-lesbian ethos, was thus not available to all. Women of color were vulnerable in Southern Oregon. One Black resident of Golden Women’s Land, La Verne Gagehabib, recalls trips to town as ordeals of hostile staring; not far from her home were Darkey Creek and Dead Indian Road (renamed in the 1990s Dead Indian Memorial Road). When Gagehabib arrived at Golden in 1981, like many women, she fell in love with the nudity: “‘Lordess, I’m home now!’ I ran around butt-naked for months, shedding the layers of city life.”50 But the honeymoon ended when she heard that a Black man just over the state line had been shot, allegedly because he was mistaken for a bear.
This sense of Oregon as a land apart has long suborned institutionalized racism. Freedom through seclusion was thus not available to all.
In addition to the strain of being, perhaps, the only woman of color for miles around, residents found that racialized dynamics were inevitable on the lands themselves. On one hand, historians have argued that separatists should be credited with addressing issues of racial exclusion long before mainstream feminism did. 51 On the other hand, when it became clear that rectifying race-based exclusion required rethinking core tenets of separatism, the effort stopped short.
Black theorists were not especially tempted by the promise of transcendent sisterhood. The very notion, they pointed out, minimized differences between White and Black women’s life experiences. Condemning men tout court was also a problem. Black women’s alliances with Black men had been critical to Civil Rights struggle, so there was something nefarious, as writer bell hooks observed, about White separatists implying that these relationships were disposable. 52 There was also the issue of sons. To many women of color, cutting off one’s child — already vulnerable to racist violence — was inconceivable. “Our 13-year-old son,” wrote essayist and poet Audre Lorde, represents as much hope for our future world as does our 15-year-old daughter, and we are not willing to abandon him.” 53 (This note was sent to organizers of a 1979 lesbian conference that Lorde and her partner Frances Clayton had planned to attend, until they learned boys over ten were not allowed.) With characteristic clarity, the Combahee River Collective addressed separatism in their inaugural statement of 1977: “Although we are feminists and lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that White women who are separatists demand.” 54
These viewpoints were never monolithic. In her contribution to a separatist anthology, Naomi Littlebear Morena pointed out that family loyalties can protect misogyny: “me and my ‘brother’ both been screwed by the system, but when he starts screwin’ me he is the system.” 55 White separatists, meanwhile, tried various counterarguments and evasions. Separatism couldn’t be inherently racist, Bette S. Tallon argued, because it was a strategy that minorities had used for millennia to preserve their cultures. 56 Rather than address the context of American race, separatism was justified with reference to matriarchies of the ancient world. One reply to the Combahee statement suggested that the Collective’s critique was flawed because it was “totalitarian” in spirit, and thus “masculine.” 57 None of these rebuttals made separatism more appealing to women of color.
Black and Brown women who were interested in separatist rural life had problems of their own. In 1977 or early ’78, a lesbian land called La Luz de la Lucha was founded specifically by and for women of color. La Luz was on the California end of the I-5 Amazon Highway, near Oroville in the Central Valley, about 300 miles south of OWL Farm. Several of the founders had intermittently lived at OWL and advocated for their own enclave. Facts about La Luz are disconcertingly hard to find, aside from a self-published memoir by the Puerto Rican activist and La Luz resident Juana Maria Paz. Paz reports that La Luz suffered from the same issues that plagued other women’s lands, with one additional problem: White land-dykes often saw its very existence as an affront. In the early 1980s, two White women went so far as to occupy La Luz in protest; they were entitled to do so, they said, because they were oppressed as Jews. Paz objected, and they accused her of anti-Semitism. “Uncomfortable and scared,” she moved out, and no one else, it seems, ever moved in. 58 That was the end of La Luz.
There was no epic finale to the Southern Oregon land-dyke experiment, and indeed, no clear ending at all. Much of the land is still owned by lesbians, and at Rainbow’s End and Fly Away Home, women continue to live in homes they built in the 1970s. Cabbage Lane has permanent caretakers, and the Oregon Women’s Land Trust is open to visitor inquiries. The biggest threat to OWL these days is a pipeline for liquified natural gas projected to cut directly through the property.
Nevertheless, beginning in the early 1980s, an unmistakable deceleration took hold. In the American economy of the Reagan era, gasoline got more expensive and food stamps harder to come by. The logging industry, the lifeblood of every town in this part of Oregon, began to fall apart; by the mid-’90s, the local economy was in tatters. Harassment became more menacing for women on the lands. Trespassers slashed tires and stole things, and in one incident, spray-painted a swastika and racial epithets. As lesbians and gay men formed new alliances, and LGBTQ rights gained ground, separatism lost its urgency. Out in the woods and meadows, the ad hoc architectures began their return to earth. Fire and flood damage wasn’t easily repaired, and the canyons proved a difficult place to be single, to have a career, to age.
What would it mean now to collectively commit, as these women did, to a plan for living that departs so radically from the received order?
The Mountaingroves’ relationship was not invulnerable. After a decade, WomanSpirit folded, and the Ovulars ended at the same time. One day Ruth lost her temper and drove their truck into their cabin. Jean broke things off, and Ruth moved to the Northern California Coast. She earned her BA and MA from Humboldt State University — as a senior citizen, she could attend for free— finishing in 2002, at age 79. She produced a local feminist radio show and wrote a column for the Eureka Times-Standard. Her last missive, in 2009, suggests her optimism hadn’t flagged. “We are in for a change of such magnitude, we will not believe it,” she promised her readers. “A new world is coming.” 59 She died in 2016.
Jean died during the writing of this piece, in December 2019. After Ruth moved away, Jean remained at Rootworks for several decades. With Tee A. Corrine and others, she established a nonprofit dedicated to collecting the community’s history, the Southern Oregon Country Lesbian Archival Project (SO-CLAP!). The idea met initial resistance. “I am no longer a Utopian sort of lesbian,” wrote one former resident; another wondered about “raising past traumas.” 60 There was concern that the documents could be misconstrued. Archiving went forward, nevertheless, and in the late 1990s Curator of Manuscripts Linda Long at the University of Oregon’s Knight Library accessioned the SO-CLAP! materials. The archive stands now as a case study in revolution, a mix of grit and gold to be sifted for wisdom. What needs no qualification is the women’s sheer breadth of vision.