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Book review: 'Herlands' provides detailed account of lands populated by women

In a new book from the University of Minnesota Press, Keridwen N. Luis looks at lands organized and populated entirely by women. The title of "Herlands: Exploring the Women's Land Movement in the United States" alludes to "Herland," a 1915 feminist novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in which explorers discover a society of women who reproduce asexually, resulting in a peaceful, egalitarian and exclusively female world.

No such miracle propelled the 1970s and '80s women's land experiments that I recalled in my memoir, "Wild Mares: My Lesbian Back-to-the-Land Life," from the same publisher. Our Minnesota and Wisconsin land projects were powered by faith in women's abilities and essential goodness. However naive, utopian, or essentialist our projects may look in retrospect, we felt we needed to situate ourselves in communities of our own making where we could support each other's strengths, knowledge and full humanity. Such support has been hard to find in the postwar patriarchy that remains highly resistant to change.

Luis analyzes the stories of veteran land women and newer participants on women's land. Today, she tells us, "there is a flourishing networked organization of such lands" — more than 100 in the United States. Women's lands have something to tell us, Luis proposes, and in "Herlands," she seeks to learn what that might be.

She finds that women's lands have made a difference in the mainstream that she calls the "matrix culture" — a concept that encompasses a nuanced interplay of the values, actions and artifacts of powerful and less powerful groups alike. She notes that references to women's land pop up not only in lesbian comics and writing, where she would expect them, but also in the broader "matrix" culture.

I particularly love her analysis of how women's community figures in the most recent "Mad Max" film, "Fury Road." The warrior heroine, Imperator Furiosa (portrayed by Charlize Theron), grew up with "many mothers" and remembers her home as a "green place" from which she was abducted to a dystopian desert ruled by the warlord Immortan Joe. "Who killed the world?" Joe's wives write on the harem wall, while he and his band of villains stand in for environmentally ruinous corporations. They hoard scarce water and battle with Furiosa and a group of heroic older women from her separatist clan.

The crones have brought a bag of sacred seeds, and as they die fighting, Furiosa persists and manages to release the water that will restore the world. Luis writes, "Women's community is suddenly everywhere — it is in the harem, it is in the history of the female soldier, and it is surviving in the apocalyptic desert with the bag of seeds that will save humanity and heal the earth."

How refreshing to see women's lands positioned as the saving remnants that we always hoped they might become! But Luis also faces uncomfortable questions such as why the land movement has been comprised almost exclusively of white women and why many land women seem reluctant to accept trans women. Luis gives needed insight into these issues and others that describe and complicate women's community. The book is an ethnography rooted in the methods and language of Anthropology — not a pleasure read unless, of course, the reader delights in complicated analysis teased out in meticulous detail.

Title: Herlands: Exploring the Women's Land Movement in the United States

Author: Keridwen N. Luis

Pages: 320

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Price: $28 (paperback)

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