Women's Intentional Communities
aka: Women's Land Communities
Women’s intentional communities emerged in the context of the second wave of the women’s movement, encompassing feminist values and environmentalism, as well as the back-to-the-land, hippie, and anti-war movements. The intentional women’s land communities discussed here were located in northwest Arkansas. There may have been others in the state, but their presence has not been documented.
(There is no consensus regarding the definition and meaning of “intentional communities.” For the purpose of this entry, women’s intentional communities are defined as including a variety of communal living arrangements based on a shared set of explicit values. Intentional communities are often property based and include land trusts among other types of collective living. In the broader context of individualism, intentional communities are often viewed as countercultural.)
Although intentional communities have existed throughout U.S. history, the first women’s land communities in northwest Arkansas were created in the mid-1970s. During that time, land in rural Arkansas was relatively inexpensive, attracting to the state women and men interested in self-sufficient and sustainable communal living. While many communities were formed by lesbians, who emphasized the creation of space by women and for women only, over time some of these communities became more open to gender diversity.
The specific values that bring women together to form land communities vary from one community to the next. The overarching commonalities include the importance of distinguishing women’s communities from “patriarchal institutions” by valuing women’s contributions, encouraging women’s empowerment, and relying on consensus-based decision-making processes and non-hierarchical organization. Another common thread has been to provide space for women to take on non-conforming gender and leadership roles. Environmental sustainability and preservation also are common goals often grounded in a synthesis of radical and eco-feminist philosophies emphasizing that women should have an opportunity to “live together in harmony with the Earth, with respect toward and growing with Her and one another” (quoted in the October 1975 issue of Hard Labor).
The women’s land community Yellowhammer was established in 1974 when two women bought land in Madison County and published a call in Lesbian Connection. Another women’s community, Sassafras, composed of about 500 acres near Boxley (Newton County), began in 1972 as a countercultural community of both women and men. Over time, several women living at Sassafras became more self-identified as feminists and lesbians and decided to separate from the men; after a series of conflicts and a confrontational meeting, the men left the community. For a short time, the women’s land was operated by two collectives, the Blue Creek Tribe and the Lesperados. In 1979, some of the land was deeded to the working-class women of color. Guided by founder Maria Christina Moroles (SunHawk), a Mexican-American/Coahuileteco woman, a board of directors was established and a corporation named Arco Iris, Inc. (“Rainbow Land”) was created, with a mission of land preservation and empowerment of women and children. Today, Arco Iris encompasses 370 wooded acres and is composed of working-class women and men, their children, and allies.
In 1980, a number of women, including some who had left Sassafras, began meeting to discuss forming other women’s land communities. The women divided into two groups, one that wanted to live near Eureka Springs (Carroll County)—Whippoorwillow—and the other more centered near Fayetteville (Washington County) in rural Madison County—the Ozark Land Holding Association (OLHA).
Whippoorwillow started on about 320 acres of land just south of Eureka Springs in 1980. The land was mountainous and included a steep road down to the valley and a few outbuildings. Initially, four or five women collectively purchased the land, and at its heyday as many as ten women lived there. Struggles to pay for the land and disagreements about its use eventually led to failed arbitration and a lawsuit. By the end of the 1980s, Whippoorwillow was no longer women’s land.
In May 1981, a commitment was made by a group of women to buy 241 wooded acres near Crosses (Madison County) to establish OLHA, which exists to this day. In order to work cooperatively and to maintain the land, OLHA established bylaws and runs by a consensus-minus-one process, with meetings every four to six weeks. All decisions are based on their effect on the “triangle of interest,” that is, the effect the decision will have on the individual, the community, and the land. Memberships must be approved by the current members and can be purchased only if someone wants to sell. OLHA is considered lesbian land; no men were allowed until 1998, and then only at the main house with notification to everyone on the land. By the mid-2000s, as members aged and their needs changed, collectively agreed-upon accommodations were made to provide better services to some of the homes. While many houses still use well water or rainwater-holding tanks, several households connected to the rural water system. A few households had septic systems installed and, because solar electricity was often not powerful enough due to trees and mountain shade, some of the homes are now on rural electricity. Currently, OLHA has fifteen members, some of whom live on the land and some elsewhere.
At a 1988 retreat sponsored by the Women’s Project—a Little Rock (Pulaski County) nonprofit established in 1981 to work for social and economic justice using educational and organizing strategies to create a world free of discrimination, violence, and economic injustice—a group of women began to discuss retirement and older women’s care. From this discussion arose the idea for Spinsterhaven, a place where women can live and stay in their own homes as long as possible. Finding the land was a long and difficult process. The group envisioned an environment of about 100 acres, near a hospital or emergency facilities, with clean water, building sites, and nice neighbors. Following several fundraisers, in 1992 the group received a grant from Lesbian Natural Resources in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to use as a down payment on land. In 1993, forty-three acres were found near Patrick (Madison County), and Spinsterhaven took possession of the land in 1994. Later that year, a trailer was purchased and remodeled for housing; in 1996, the first caretaker moved there. During the 2000s, the board modified its vision for Spinsterhaven, seeing it as a future spiritual retreat center for the local women’s community, along with its use for older women’s housing. In 2014, Spinsterhaven underwent a transformation. The property near Patrick was sold, and the group purchased a house in Fayetteville, turning it into a senior women’s community center named Elder Tree.
By 2011, out of six women’s land communities created in northwestern Arkansas, three—Yellowhammer, Sassafras, and Whippoorwillow—no longer existed; one—Arco Iris—was no longer women-only land, and another—Spinsterhaven—had changed its mission. The thriving OLHA stands in stark contrast as the remaining women’s land community in Arkansas.
For additional information:
Lord, Allyn, and Anna M. Zajicek. The History of the Contemporary Grassroots Women’s Movement in Northwest Arkansas, 1970–2000. Fayetteville, AR: 2000.
McGowan, Morgan Gray. “This Is Lesbian Land: What Family Means for a Lesbian Intentional Community.” PhD diss., University of Louisiana at Monroe, 2020.
Zajicek, Anna M., Allyn Lord, and Lori Holyfield. “The Emergence and First Years of a Grassroots Women’s Movement in Northwest Arkansas, 1970–1980.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 62 (Summer 2003):153–181.
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, Springdale
Last Updated: 02/19/2020