Monday Nov 19

A Culture of Settlers White Women and the (Con)quest for a White Utopia


Herlands: Exploring the Women’s Land Movement

By Kerrwiden Luis (University of Minnesota Press, October 2018)

Editor’s Note: The women’s land movement was never large, but 50 years ago posed a powerful question for emerging movements of feminists and others on the left. The publication of Herlands offered us the opportunity to allow several voices to dialogue about their reactions to the book – and more – as Rinehart and Eversley have eloquently done.

Rinehart writes,

Land for women, for the use of all women— some land reserved for lesbians only. From the 1970s through current day, the relatively small women’s land movement is given a full qualitative, ethnographic study by lesbian academic, Keridwen N. Luis. Based on visits to several land communities and backed by many interviews, Luis is able to provide a thoughtful, in-depth and relevant treatment: race, class, disability, sexual violence, the male gaze, lesbian separatism, and gender-fluidity, among other issues. The wide spectrum of sexual politics is found here, from the second wave feminists of the 60s and 70s, to the non-binary and transgender emergence today. At times intensely nostalgic and at others fully rooted in today’s justice organizing, the realm of women’s land can be a search for utopia, often grounded in a feminist eco-consciousness.

Personally, I (Ruth) come to this review as a European-American queer cis-women who had strong emotional connections to women’s land in the 70s and early 80s. In the 70s, I identified as a man-hating lesbian separatist, but now walk with hetero-normative privilege. A mixed class, high school dropout who is now highly educated, I appreciate Luis’ use of the term “matrix culture,” rather than dominant culture. She recognizes many smaller cultural groups in what she calls “nested cultures.” Each of us usually hold multiple identities, both privileged and marginalized, yet the dominant and privileged aspects are often invisible, and perceived as normal: white, male, wealthy or upper-middle-class, young, able-bodied, etc. Luis trains her investigative eye on where the dominant culture can be invisible, which inevitably excludes and oppresses.

Women’s land is created and occupied by women away from the male gaze, coming into relationship with the “landscape [as] a teacher, a mentor, a wise crone, who provides both a space for queering our expectations of what the public and private are, but also operates with the nostalgia of home. That nostalgia can be dangerous, tying into ideas of a ‘safe community’ and the white imaginary. Yet the land, and the attachment of land-women to the land, remains primary.” Unfortunately, we cannot truly know a world away from the male gaze, as too often “women internalize the heterosexual norms of the female body and apply those norms to themselves,” as well policing gender norms on one another.

 Luis does not skirt the thorny topic and controversy around admittance of trans women to women’s land in her chapter, “We Have Met the Enemy and She Is Us: Scapegoating Trans Bodies.” She defines trans women as “people who have been diagnosed at birth as the male or masculine sex/gender, and who have changed their gender to female through behavior, dress, and sometimes also through surgery and hormones.” Judith Butler and Kate Bornstein, queer theorists, are cited in this chapter as Luis agrees with them that gender is performative, rather than essential, and cannot be precisely rooted in the biological.

As trans women are scapegoated by lesbians who would refuse them entry to women’s land, so lesbians were scapegoated by second wave white, middle-class feminists in the 70s. “Both transphobia and homophobia spring from gender discipline,” Luis reminds us, “licensed hatred of people who step outside the heterosexual hegemony of dichotomous genders.” Both transphobia and homophobia are misogyny at heart. As a gender scholar, Luis argues that “gender is necessary to personhood— when your gender is denied, so is your humanity. Thus, the debate over trans women is an epistemological war— a deep and sordid conflict of meaning making with the humanity of certain people at its heart.”

The gender fluidity we see all around us today, sparking culture wars and bathroom bills, reflects an explosion of embodied gender difference, provoking revulsion from many, but awe and wonder from others. By firmly honoring gender outlaws like trans women, Luis opens herself up to great criticism, but ultimately recognizes the brutal gender constraints that lie at the root of so much sexual violence.

Women owning and controlling their own land—for women’s community— is important resistance to the capitalist patriarchy in which we live. While Luis highlights the fact that most women’s land is dominated by white women (and recognizes the class issues that accompany the resources needed to purchase land), Mariama Eversley underscores the tension that underlies all land in this country as stolen from indigenous cultures.

Owning one’s own institutions will always empower. The early African-American leaders of the civil rights movement in this country were ministers; they were able to do the work they did, because the black church owned itself. Those ministers weren’t beholden to any corporate or government bosses. Similarly, in the 1970s, collecting $1.50/month dues from ACORN members was critical because the members recognized their ownership of the organizing.

Women’s land is a compelling attempt at resisting the capitalist patriarchy, and offering space for healing, growth and agency in spacious wilderness, “a space where women are considered full human beings without the heavy limitations of sexism imposed by the matrix societies of the United States.”

Eversley speaks,

Within the history of land movements in the United States, settler colonialism must always be examined. The practice of European settlers to invade and steal Indigenous lands, lives on as a structure of governance, as well as an overall culture of conquest within whiteness that contains its own practices, beliefs, and ways of knowing. We must beware of the repetition of settler colonialism in the (con)quest for white-utopias.

Author Luis aptly points out that whiteness as a culture has its own particularities, and practices, as well as its own ways of knowing.  In particular Luis calls out white culture as harboring a culture of avoidance and positioning itself in a privileged position of normativity. These cultural practices maintain whiteness as a culture of homogeneity as it renders itself invisible. Conflict-avoidant culture is invoked to prevent difficult discussions. Whiteness thus presents itself as “the natural order”.

In reality, whiteness functions as a vacuum, subsuming and erasing the diversity of various cultures either through the seductiveness of material gain and psychological comfort for those able to claim white identity — or through the destruction and subjugation of peoples not admitted into the white identity.

Scholars like J. Sakai have highlighted how the structure of settler colonial society rested on a thirst for land as they constructed Euro-American ideals of freedom:

What made North America so desirable to these people? Land. Euro-American liberals and radicals have rarely dealt with the land question; we could say they don’t have to deal with it, since their people already have all the land. What lured Europeans to leave their homes and cross the Atlantic was the chance to share in conquering Indian land. At that time there was a crisis in England over land ownership and tenancy due to the rise of capitalism..

The assumed availability of land is often left unquestioned in a settler society, even in leftist circles like the women’s land movement. Sakai also highlights that while the thirst for land derives from shrinking opportunities for prosperity in Europe, the solution was not seen as fighting for better conditions at home. The solution they seized was to conquer other peoples, steal their land, and to seek freedom on this conquered territory. Thus, the battle is not for justice, but the conquest for a white utopia. This coupled with stolen black labor creates a tenuous trap where freedom for some, rests on the oppression of others.

During adrienne maree brown’s session on “pleasure activism” at this years Allied Media Conference, we were guided by the voice of Audre Lorde to reclaim the erotic within political organizing. As we all devised questions, a white conference attendee posed this question, “If white pleasure is consumptive, what could happen if white people/whiteness at large learned to seek satisfaction from within? On a large scale?” Adding to her proposition, I ask, “How can white people question their longings that are presented as natural, especially when they have consumptive outcomes?”

In addition to a disruption of settler culture through reparations, I want to suggest a call for white folks to engage in ancestral work that both acknowledges their violent presence on Turtle Island (North America) as well as their histories long before they crossed the Atlantic. The continuous instinct and practice of white folks to break from the past and recreate themselves on stolen land is doomed to recreate structures of settler colonialism. In accordance with Luis’ assertion that whiteness has a particular yet invisible culture, whiteness must be examined, named, and rendered visible if we are to deconstruct settler habits like “destroying to replace”. Furthermore, the vacuum of whiteness must be imploded with histories of ancestry and a reckoning of the after-life of European ancestral trauma that is replicated through the creation and subjugation of “the other.”

Mariama Eversley is a researcher and artist currently based in London and embarking on a Masters in Human Geography and Urban Studies. Before that, she was the Living Historian at Blights Out researching the historical context of urban development, property laws, and the socio cultural repercussions of gentrification and formerly a data-analyst at the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor.

Rev. Ruth Rinehart is a queer Unitarian Universalist minister who was involved with women’s land in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She is currently working on an addictions ministry in the Denver area, fully owned and majority-funded by the residents, in another attempt to create an alternate economic model existing outside the neo-liberal capitalism that continues to concentrate wealth in the hands of so few.

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