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Can single, childless, older women live better in all-female communities? asks PC

August 17, 2014
Alapine Community Association, USA: a so-called 'intentional womyn's community'

Alapine Community Association, USA: a so-called ‘intentional womyn’s community’

As most of you are aware by now, I’m ‘older’ (59), single and childless. What you may not know is that I also live in a cohousing community. A cohousing community is often defined as a self-designed collection of dwellings, probably including communal areas, conceived by a group of individuals who may well not have known each other before the project started, with express intent: they’ve come together with a shared ethos of neighbourly behaviour and a degree of mutual support in mind.
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In other European countries, Canada and elsewhere around the world, there can be state support for cohousing; but in the UK, the government won’t underwrite it, even fractionally, so the seed money must be found otherwhere: in the case of my shared home, from the stakes of those who first planned to live here bolstered by bank loans. Now it’s built and up and running, new occupants either buy their homes (whether flat or house), or rent them; we also pay a monthly charge, related to the square metreage of our dwellings, which goes towards communal upkeep (after all, we have shared, unfenced garden areas; a shared kitchen and dining room for thrice-weekly-plus community meals, if we opt for them; a shared party/meeting/social space; a shared workshop; a shared laundry; and a shared games room).

I’ve written many times here about the various ‘alternative womanhoods’ to which I belong: older womanhood, childless womanhood, single womanhood; but as yet I’ve never mused about where such womanhoods might live in order to optimise our happiness, and our sense of social connectedness and usefulness; and also, perhaps, in order to iron out the impressions of our inequality that we can suffer from in wider social groups. There’s a yearning in many of us, artificial nostalgia or otherwise, for some Utopia in which we all ‘get on’ cheek by jowl along some sun-drenched street (or compound of mud huts), having our errands done for us by accessible willing Others while we preserve the precious limits on our privacy. Although Martine, the main protagonist in my novel, lives in a highrise block, her friendships being a physically dispersed network, there are signs even in her of personal effort towards some embryonic community, somehow to be formed from among the neighbours in the flats around her.

‘The problem is to find a form of association which will defend with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone.’ (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778)

Too true, Jean-Jacques. In Norman Rush’s brilliant, challenging novel Mating (1991), the two main characters recognise that in any society some responsibilities and roles will be unpopular, if not positively repulsive – the classic being the job of the night soil man (or woman); yet in any Utopia, each individual must be able to ‘obey himself alone’, i.e., shouldn’t feel co-opted. Where I live, we try to notch up a quota of hours annually spent on workdays, when such jobs as weeding, cleaning, re-decorating, repairs, log-cutting and other such tasks are done in the communal areas; but I have to say that I wouldn’t do any, or many, of these by choice, as I have a full-time job, and also have my own flat to clean and maintain and keep tidy.

There’s a whole heap more issues than this with successfully inhabiting an intentional community. Casting around for a supportive history of all-female living arrangements, you might be tempted to glean inspiration from the tradition of convent life – for about two seconds, before you’re reminded that nunneries have long been instruments of patriarchy, ultimately subject to male domination and control, partly through such rules as silence, obedience and chastity. Yes, many convents have also been sanctuaries for single, childless and ageing women; but they have almost always had clausura, i.e. rigid separation from the rest of society, as a condition of entry – despite whatever social duties ‘outside’ (almsgiving to the poor, etc.) they might also expect of their members. (Veronika Čapská, Ellinor Forster, Janine Christina Maegraith, Christine Schneider Opava, eds., Between Revival and Uncertainty. Monastic and Secular Female Communities in Central Europe in the Long Eighteenth Century,Silesian University in Opava, 2012) Other religions though do have cohabitational groupings along gender lines – certain Buddhist men- and women-only communities in the UK, for instance – and I’m led to believe, quite successfully.

There are other examples of female communities around the world. describes the Umoja Women’s Group, a cooperative of some 46 women living near the small town of Archer’s Post in the Kenyan Chalbi desert. Here, female members work and live together, supporting themselves by making and selling tribal jewellery for local tourists. However, bitchiness, rivalry and conflict still feature in this lifestyle. lists examples of female-run communities, though few are majority or all-female. In the Kingdom of Women on Lugu Lake in China, 40,000 women live unmarried with no word for ‘father’ or ‘husband’, taking lovers at will from within the tribe. This is a matrilineal society, with property handed down through the female line and no stigma attached to ignorance of a child’s fatherhood. Sadly, the wider world has often misunderstood this system, with male outsiders arriving sometimes as sex tourists, disturbing the social equilibrium. The tribes of the Indian state of Meghalaya also run a matrilineal ship: the youngest daughter in a family inherits all property, but is also responsible for her ageing parents and any unmarried siblings. But again, this is power reversal, not an all-women’s Utopia: it’s telling that now, men’s rights groups are emerging.

The unnamed female adventurer-anthropologist in Rush’s novel does discover a predominantly female culture, run by women, at a fictional place called Tsau, in the middle of the Kalahari desert. In her notes, she describes it:

‘200 homesteads, 10 new ones under construction…. Circa 450 total population. 50 men, at most…. Children 40, up to preadolescence. All the rest women, 70 percent past childbearing age, 30 percent otherwise. Younger women known as queens…, older women aunts or aunties…: these terms used openly and not unfriendlily on both sides.’

The community tries hard to be self-sufficient, using the environment (sun, rainwater) to its benefit, attempting to create equitable systems of management, property ownership and personal wealth.

The rationale for establishing it is stated by its founder, the charismatic Nelson Denoon:

‘… despite apparent differences every society can be analyzed to show that women are in essence being shaped to function as vehicles for male imperatives and the physical reproduction of male power….[Furthermore,] because of the history of crushing and molding of women, men have no idea what women are or what they might be if they were left alone.’

The irony is that he’s a man of course, and that he lives there himself, a well-intentioned spider at the centre of his own web. As a man, together with one or two disruptive younger men who figure in the community, he grows unhappy with the way his creation is evolving (as do some women); and in the end, differences of opinion, deliberately stirred-up unrest and dramatic events affect his own ideal.

Non-fictionally, a group of older women is currently setting up an intentional all-female community in Barnet, London: is the (also non-fictional) site of the Alapine Community, which describes itself as an ‘all womyn’s intentional community’ set up on a plot of hundreds of acres of mountainous rural Alabama and inhabited by a group of women aged from 50-80, some living on-, some living off-, grid, with environmental concerns very much in mind. It’s hard to tell from their public-facing details how much conflict they’ve experienced, but it’s clear there has been some, as they’re a breakaway from the all-women’s Pagoda community of 1977, and they speak of using techniques for conflict resolution.

I come back to my own home, though. Ultimately I think I still feel ambivalent about all-women communities. They’re at root artificial, and homogeneous (excuse the male-coloured word): bubbles, scientifically induced cultures, outside mainstream society. Here in my cohousing, we hold a women’s group every fortnight whose practice of active listening I really value; we also have a mix of ages, marital and family arrangements and gender orientations. We’re probably unsatisfactorily middle-class for many tastes, despite our best intentions to the contrary.

In the end, I don’t think I want to live away from the wonderful company of the children who surround me, even though I don’t have them myself; from women younger than I am; or from men. I just want society to recognise me more for what I am, and to offer me the status and the roles that I feel I richly deserve.

This post is dedicated to Kathryn Mccamant, co-author, with Charles Durrett, of Cohousing, which, with The Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, underpins the ethos of our own cohousing community.


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