“Many women have the daydream of starting their own women’s land without ever visiting one first,” Claire Ryan, 22, points out, in the afternoon glow of Outland, the womyn/women’s land she is currently on, “It’s invisible to you until you’ve experienced it.”
Outland, a women’s land in New Mexico, United States, was founded over 30 years ago by Jae Haggard, editor of Maize, the lesbian country magazine and communication hub for women living or interested in living on Land, and her partner at the time, Lee. “There have been about two permanent residents and a very large rotating cast of women who come and go,” Claire explains, “there is a community surrounding this land, too, many women come back over and over again, but not many live here for years.” While only lesbians can become permanent residents, the land is open for all women to visit.
I asked Claire how living on Land, among other women, is different to living in mainstream society. “It’s very different,” she said, “My first experience of women’s space was Ohio Lesbian Festival in 2017, which had about a thousand women [in attendance].” The festival increased Claire’s interest in visiting women’s land projects. She met a woman there who suggested visiting Outland. “Whether you’re at a festival or on Land, the context of being in a space with only women, particularly lesbians, kind of redefines what a woman is,” Claire states, “There [becomes] this whole new concept of the word ‘woman’, because it’s used like most people use the word ‘people’.”
Woman is viewed as ‘the other’ in mainstream society, outlined in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, but that notion is not as pronounced on women’s land. “I feel like, in patriarchal society, the only time we say ‘woman’ is when we’re talking about something that we see as gendered, or about the way women [supposedly] are,” Claire says, “but, suddenly, in a women’s context, it is a very neutral word that encompasses the entire concept of humanity.”
Claire first set foot at Outland for ten days with some friends in 2018. “We didn’t want to leave,” Claire laughs, “it gave me a new perspective on how life could be. I felt like time passed differently — I was different.” Claire made a pact with friends to not use the internet while on Outland and found that it made her more present, “I think that contributed to the richness of experience.”
Keeping it Going
Outland has a library that mostly consists of female writers, which is right up Claire’s alley. “For a long time I have been a huge nerd about lesbian feminist history and probably knew more than the average young lesbian about recognizing lesbian authors on a shelf, but then to come to this library… there were walls and walls of books by lesbians and names I hadn’t even heard of.”
The experience was memorable for Claire. “Just to see the depth of what lesbians had created by, for, and about, each other left a really big impression on me.” Many of these books were not published in the mainstream, or the ones published by independent presses, weren’t necessarily remembered decades later.
While the women’s liberation movement led Jae and Lee to conceive Outland, the way the land was organised and structured was inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing’s book The Good Life, about living self-sufficiently on land. While there is “a backlog of work: every adobe casita needs to be replastered, the plumbing needs fixing, the roof needs fixing, mice get in,” Claire explains that “there’s this meaningful sense of keeping something going for the women who will come after you. The work you do on Land is very fulfilling and satisfying.”
Women’s land doesn’t involve the same capitalist alienation from labor. “We are doing work we can tangibly see the results of,” Claire says, “and you’re doing it for a culture and community you care about.” The sexed division of labor doesn’t exist there either, “anything that needs doing, a woman is going to do it. I’ve learned so much on Land I would have been daunted by… I mean the amount of power tools I’ve learned to use since I’ve been coming here! I did my second-ever plumbing repair the other day! Two years ago we replaced a whole roof!”
Girls aren’t encouraged to do DIY, or much physical labor at all, while growing up. It is daunting to start as adults, but we are fully capable. In fact, Lesbians are statistically great at DIY. “What’s also cool, being second or third generation on land, is that Jae learnt all of this on the fly, too… it’s cool to be able to learn from a woman who figured it out herself,” Claire explains. “The year we fixed the roof, there was an architect here. She was coordinating all these tasks over the summer. It was really cool to learn from a lesbian with that much knowledge! We were doing a lot of physical work together and depending on each other.”
Claire’s experience of what it meant to be a woman changed after spending time at Outland. “Some context about me is that I, earlier in my life — and mostly privately — spent a few years identifying as various trans identities and have kind of come home to understand myself as a woman — and as a lesbian — since about seventeen,” she discloses. Even after coming home to herself as a woman, Claire said, “The experiences I had that made me identify as genderqueer are still with me to some extent but I had a very powerful experience here that I took with me when I left.”
Claire got to exist outside of the social constructs of what men and women are. “It was about my willingness and ability to see myself in other women, that I think was really strongly influenced by spending a significant amount of time alongside other women who existed without reference to men.” Similar to her experience at Girl Scouts, women were no longer the second sex: “women are defined in relation to men in the world, and seeing women as masculine and/or feminine is kind of the same thing.”
Reality vs. Escape Fantasy
Living on women’s land has its setbacks. “This land is very remote, even more so than other Lands,” Claire explains. This makes finding and keeping a job more difficult, unless you have a car, because it takes an hour and a half to get from Outland to Santa Fe, the closest sizable town or city. Living with a small group of women may lead to loneliness, too, and small groups are common among women’s lands.
For these reasons and more, Claire isn’t a fan of seeing Land as an escape fantasy. “Lesbians on the internet love to romanticise cottagecore and dream of lesbian communes, when they are not [already] involved in any Lands,” Claire says, “and even radical feminists say ‘oh, I wish I didn’t have any responsibilities and could go away to women’s land’, which is so funny because there are so many responsibilities.” More women living on Land could help with the workload and Claire dreams of more women migrating to Land, “but men have more resources,” and larger, mixed-sex communes like Twin Oaks are testament to that.
Claire really enjoys Outland. She encourages other women to contemplate Land-living, but suggests visiting one first. “Not every woman wants to live in the middle of nowhere with their ten best friends and a bunch of chores,” Claire laughs, “even women who think they want to do that often don’t.” Claire suggests “focusing on what women can create together,” rather than “focusing on the absence of men,” to get the most out of contemplating living on Land.
Capitalism vs. Cooperation
Unlearning patriarchal socialization is one thing, but living on Land also requires you to analyze your capitalist socialisation. “Land is about cooperation,” Claire says. “Women on land, in my experience, have made some very bold attempts at sharing resources.” Decades ago, “there was a lot of really radical resource redistribution being attempted by older landdykes. A lot of them got burned for it and are more cautious now.” As for decision-making on Land, Claire says “it’s usually by consensus; women don’t really like hierarchy, even when it’s probably necessary, in this culture.”
Our capitalist conditioning makes its way into the way we attack labor. “There is this capitalist value of pushing yourself as hard as you can but, when I first came here, Jae asked if I was willing after every single task,” Claire points out. Much mainstream labor isn’t particularly consensual — it’s do or starve — but Claire says that, on Land, “there is an emphasis I’d never encountered before on rest in addition to work.”
There is something to be said about not reinventing the wheel and avoiding starting from scratch, when it comes to women’s land. “Without understanding trial and error, and experiences our elders have learned from, it’s invisible to you,” she explains, “it’s almost sacred to me to live on land that has had lesbians living on it for decades.” Maize’s directory is a good place to look for a Land to visit. Visiting usually requires a conversation with permanent residents first, considering you’re stepping foot in their home. Occasionally, there are Lands that are looking for new hands to take over, as well. These places exist for lesbians and welcome them.
Colonial Wilderness Myth
It’s important to check in with your colonial mentalities, too. “The concept that there is pristine, unclaimed land, is colonisation,” Claire warns. “The myth of the wilderness has been something I’ve had to grapple with in recent years,” Claire outlines, “the National Parks in the US were created by violently evicting Indigenous inhabitants. A lot of white women are going to see women’s land as wilderness to protect.” Claire reminds everyone, “I am not a part of this land, I don’t belong to it — and I don’t have the answers either — but it’s important for anyone wanting to live on women’s land to grapple with the reality that it is stolen land. The wilderness — without its Indigenous inhabitants — isn’t pristine, it’s neglected… I see a land that is missing its people.”
Claire looks to the future: “as much as the escape fantasy drives me crazy, I hope it fuels young women to go and experience living on women’s land. I would also love to see more Lands grappling with living on stolen land and becoming more welcoming to women of color.”