The Rise and Fall of Arkansas’ Women’s Intentional Communities
Exhausted by a patriarchal society, women flocked to Arkansas to establish lesbian-centered communities where they worked, lived and grew food together in a radical act of returning to the land.
Editor’s Note: This story is published in The What We Carry Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.
The Ozark Land Holding Association (OLHA), founded in 1981, has a vague, mundane name. That’s entirely on purpose.
The moniker was originally intended to obscure the Arkansas group’s true makeup: a group of lesbians who owned land collectively, working, living and growing food together in a radical act of returning to the land.
They weren’t the only ones. Women’s intentional communities started cropping up around the country in the 1970s, following the Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall Riots of the 1960s. Disillusioned with American social structures, many women—mostly lesbians and bisexuals—sought to separate themselves from the patriarchy and mainstream society, rather than fight it. Instead, they wanted to create their own self-sufficient spaces.
“They [were] not interested in being a part of a patriarchal-driven economy,” says Dr. Jared M. Phillips, author of Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks. Instead, these women purchased land they’d own and inhabit together. Such communities sprung up across the U.S., from Vermont to Oregon, and at their height they numbered in the hundreds.
Arkansas, in particular, emerged as a popular location largely due to its remoteness and the inexpensive land. Such characteristics also made Arkansas part of a broader back-to-the-land movement during the era, in which urban dwellers (both men and women) moved to the state to homestead and farm. But it was the women’s land movement that proved most revolutionary.
“If we don’t separate ourselves from the dominant culture, how will we ever know what we could do?”
This question was posed by women’s intentional community member Diana Rivers in a 2017 oral history for The Outwords Archive, an organization documenting the stories of LGBTQ+ elders, and it accurately reflects the motivations that grounded the women who flocked to the Ozarks to create a new world.
The intentional communities—sometimes referred to as “womyn’s land”—that they started included Sassafras, a collective originally founded by both men and women before a disagreement resulted in it becoming women-only; Whippoorwillow, a community founded near Eureka Springs by a former Sassafras member in 1980; and Yellowhammer, founded by Trella Ann Laughlin and her lover on 80 acres bought with an inheritance from Laughlin’s grandmother. Laughlin described it as “an experiment in trying to eliminate money as a major factor in community” in another oral history for The Outwords Archive in 2017.
These spaces were explicitly non-hierarchical and typically made decisions based on community consensus. There were a lot of group meetings, recounted Laughlin in that oral history: “We voted on every single thing” (including whether or not one member could have money to buy cigarettes). Although they lived communally, women usually had their own space—land was often divided into parcels several acres large that each woman could call her own. Conditions varied from running water and electric service to solar panels and hauled water, sometimes even within the same community.
Women worked hard to manage the land. Laughlin recalls, “We could build, we could sub hardboard … we could do plumbing, we could do electrical work, we could grow a garden even on rocks.” That said, many still kept employment in the outside world, working in professions like teaching or nursing to maintain an independent existence (and keep some financial stability). Rivers wrote fantasy novels, which displayed the same themes of lesbian seperatism inherent to her life at OLHA.
Of particular importance to these intentional communities was the concept of growing their own food. To do so signified self-autonomy, separation from patriarchal society, and a profound connection to nature. Rivers, while scouting for the land that would eventually become Sassafras, said one of the key characteristics she sought was a “long growing season.” Once Sassafras was up and running, members kept gardens and bought goats. At Ozark Land Holding Association, there was a large community garden with vegetables like tomatoes and greens, in addition to individual garden plots, and some members even kept chickens. Notably, organic farming was also a common practice; one group stipulated that land “be farmed organically with no chemicals whatsoever,” as shared in Brock Thompson’s book, The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South.
In addition to the natural autonomy of growing their own food, these women believed their work cultivated a revolution beyond their insulated boundaries. They sought to use their agricultural knowledge and land-based community building to create change in their local area. “They [were] very much interested in a revolution,” says Phillips. In this way, their isolated farm work expanded into a broader form of community activism that spread throughout the region. Phillips describes how women directly engaged in or influenced by these principles sold produce at markets, promoted natural and organic foods, participated in conversations around making agriculture more accessible for women, and even founded a women’s trucking cooperative.
Although they sought to be feminist uptopias, such communities had fatal flaws. For one, they often excluded trans women and non-binary people, and they were also typically white spaces, which led to “racism that’s just inherent in having communities that are composed of mostly white women who didn’t stop and do serious thinking,” according to Dr. Keridwen N. Luis, author of Herland: Exploring The Women’s Land Movement in the United States.
Luis attributes these racial dynamics to the “normalization of whiteness that made (and makes) BIPOC women and their concerns outsiders without ‘intending’ to.” The exclusion of trans women and non-binary people, meanwhile, stems from a strong belief in gender binaries. For many community members, the goal to prove women were as strong and capable as men resulted in a commitment to gender that veered into a need for clearly defined difference, resulting in transphobia.
Then there were more practical problems: Members aged out over the decades (today, many original residents have passed or are in poor health) and a new, younger generation of queer women never materialized. Money, of course, was tight. One community resorted to government assistance programs. And there were the natural struggles of communal living among a small group of women in an isolated space, cut off from friends and family. “The realities of [women’s] daily lives filled with hardship, isolation and doing without,” which proved different than the paradise they sought to create, writes Thompson in The Un-Natural State.
For example, Thompson shares a letter sent from The Ozark Women on Land that summed up such challenges as “how to deal with each other’s bad habits like tobacco, beer, communal sloppiness, not listening, not to mention our own sexist, racist and classist actions.” According to Rivers in that same The Outwords Archive oral history, “It was not lovely feminism.”
One by one, communities died out, and the once flourishing movement dwindled.
Although the landscape looks much different, the legacy of these intentional communities remains in Arkansas. A few descendents of the original wave still exist, namely the Ozark Land Holding Association, Arco Iris (whose origins trace back to Sassafras), and The Women’s Center at Elder Tree (a descendent of an original community called Spinsterhaven).
Notably, most of these current iterations are slightly different, showcasing how their mission has evolved to stay relevant. Arco Iris was founded by a Mexican American and Coahuiltecan Native woman, Maria Christina DeColores Moroles (also known by her ceremonial names Sun Hawk and Aguila), and explicitly roots itself in Indigenous land practices—something that directly rebukes the colonialist undertones of the original women’s back-to-the-land movement. It’s also gender inclusive, rather than remaining an explicitly women’s space.
The Women’s Center at Elder Tree, meanwhile, is a center for aging lesbians. Board member Anna Linville describes the difference in her eyes: “It’s not an intentional community. It’s an intentional club of lesbians.” Although it’s not an organization still rooted in the back-to-the-land movement, that original influence remains in small ways—many members continue to keep organic gardens and cook vegetarian meals for fellow members.
And then there’s the Ozark Land Holding Association, perhaps the last such community of its kind in Arkansas. Nancy Vaughn, a current member in her 70s who has been involved in OLHA for decades, says part of the reason this community has survived when so many others have failed is because of the group’s transparency and commitment to each other, without letting interpersonal squabbles ruin relationships. Plus, it still meets a crucial need.
“I think it’s very important for those of us who are lesbians … to have a place where we can live safely,” says Vaughn. But OLHA is not free from the exclusionary practices women’s land communities have exhibited in the past. When asked if the group would accept trans women, Vaughn explicitly stated that such women could not have a penis for OLHA to truly consider them a woman and thus eligible for membership.
Beyond these direct descendants, the impacts of women’s communities from the ’70s and ’80s live on in more subtle ways. For instance, “we see it in the legacy of the organic food movement here,” says Phillips, an influence that likely extends to the origins of Fayetteville’s prominent Ozark Natural Foods Co-Op. There are also other intentional communities, founded on different sets of principles, that are emerging, such as Little Rock’s Sankofa Village, which is in the process of being founded and will focus on Black healing.
Although the movement’s heyday has long since passed, members are still in the region and remain an active part of the broader community. They aren’t engaged in the same radical back-to-the-land work, but they’re just as focused on impact.
“They’re very self reflective,” says Phillips. “They’re asking questions about how we pass on these legacies.”
Our comments section is for members only.
Join today to gain exclusive access.