There was a time, briefly, when women ruled the world. Well, their world, anyway. In the late nineteen-seventies, several thousand women in North America decided not to concern themselves with equal pay for equal work, or getting their husbands to do the dishes, or convincing their boyfriends that there was such a thing as a clitoris. Why capitulate, why compromise, when you could separate, live in a world of your own invention? On the fringes, utopian separatists have been part of the American story since at least the early eighteenth century—the Shakers, in New England; the millennial Rappites, in Pennsylvania; the Oneida Perfectionists, in upstate New York—and these women decided to turn away from a world in which female inferiority was enforced by culture and law. Better to establish their own farms and towns, better to live only among women. This required dispensing with heterosexuality, but many of these women were gay, and, for the rest, it seemed like a reasonable price to pay for real independence.
The lesbian separatists of a generation ago created a shadow society devoted to living in an alternate, penisless reality. There were many factions: the Gutter Dykes, in Berkeley; the Gorgons, in Seattle; several hundred Radicalesbians, in New York City, along with the smaller CLIT Collective; the Furies, in Washington, D.C.; and the Separatists Enraged Proud and Strong (SEPS), in San Francisco. There were outposts of Women’s Land all over the United States and Canada—places owned by women where all women, and only women, were welcome. “Only women on the land” was the catchphrase used by separatists to indicate that men, even male children, were banned from Women’s Land (and they often spelled it “wimmin” or “womyn,” in an attempt to keep men out of their words as well as their worlds). Separatists were aiming for complete autonomy, and to that end there were separatist food co-ops—such as the memorably named New York Lesbian Food Conspiracy—separatist publishing houses, and separatist credit unions. “We will soon be able to integrate the pieces of our lives and stop this schizophrenic existence of a straight job by day and radical political work at night,” Nancy Groschwitz wrote in a 1979 treatise called “Practical Economics for a Women’s Community.” Perhaps the most successful separatist venture was the women’s-music-festival circuit, with its offshoot, Olivia Records, started in 1973. (Since the early nineteen-nineties, Olivia has concentrated on the lesbian cruise and resort business.)