THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Getting Closer

Changing feminisms on a Virginia 'Commune'

by Erin West

Illustration by Anzia Anderson

published February 3, 2017


It’s 9:00 AM in Virginia. The sun has just started to dry the dewy fields of Twin Oaks, an income-sharing intentional community home to roughly 100 people. Rosie, 31, drops her three-year old, Sylvia, off at the community childcare along her morning commute, a 15-minute stroll through the woods. She’ll spend the day gathering and splitting wood for fires. It will be cold soon, and her 100-person family needs to stay warm by burning wood in lieu of gas or electrical heating.

 

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Built in 1967, this income-sharing community in Louisa, Virginia, is the longest standing of its kind in the United States. Based on the utopia described in the behavioralist B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two, Twin Oaks cites equity, cooperation, nonviolence, and ecology as its foundational principles. Due to the centrality of their social values, Twin Oaks uses “intentional community,” not “commune” to describe its system. The community’s bylaws state that it also strives to “eliminate the attitudes and results of sexism, racism, ageism, and competitiveness.” Sexism, placed first in this list of oppressions, is often given the most attention and has been combatted most directly. Twin Oaks' egalitarian policies—resource distribution, decentralized leadership, and equality of labor—function as daily resistance to gendered oppression. 

“If I weren’t at Twin Oaks,” says Rosie at daycare that morning, “I don’t know what I would have done.” As she spoke, Rosie’s eyes began to tear. Parenthood didn’t feel accessible to Rosie when she was living in Morgantown, West Virginia. Thankfully, the policies of her resource-sharing community removed many barriers—financial and otherwise—to having her daughter.

Part of what gave Rosie access to her reproductive choice is the egalitarian labor system at Twin Oaks. There, every hour of labor equals one work credit—no matter what type of labor. This means that Sunya, a member for three years who leads activities for Sylvia and the rest of the children at daycare, receives exactly one labor credit per hour worked—the exact same which Rosie will get chopping wood and which Keenan, a member for 30 years, will get for his work fixing a roof. Every community member, regardless of age, gender, skill, or seniority, is expected to log 42 hours a week (unless other arrangements are needed). Typical tasks include harvesting, maintaining the property, or working for one of the income-generating businesses, such as hammock weaving.

Twin Oaks’ radical choice to value all labor disrupts traditional categories of gendered work. Childcare, traditionally undervalued and designated to women, is compensated at Twin Oaks. In their system, each child gets a generous amount of creditable care hours over a year, which parents can portion out to other community members. Rosie can either claim labor credit for taking care of Sylvia outside of daycare hours or give credit to another member for taking care of her child. This stable, shared parenting structure also allowed Rosie to continue participating in Sylvia’s life after she and her girlfriend, Sylvia's other mother, split up. Both parents still live in the community and continue to play equal roles in Sylvia’s childhood. 

Twin Oaks has designed its policies specifically so that its members’ relationship status does not affect their security; every member receives the same resources and is assigned to a separate room regardless of relationship status. In addition, if couples apply for membership together, each applicant is considered individually. Brittany, who is 33, says that these policies add up to Twin Oaks “not giving a shit about your relationship status.” A proudly self-identified feminist, Brittany says that disrupting the nuclear family may be Twin Oaks’ most significant attempt to combat gender oppression. “Heterosexual marriage has historically been a significant site of women’s oppression in the US,” she writes in an email to the Independent, “Physical isolation, financial dependence, and societal expectations…keep the nuclear family together despite abuse.” At Twin Oaks, however, “because all material needs are granted as a basic right, a woman's security and well-being do not hinge on a single relationship with one man.”

Like for Rosie and her partner, these feminist policies have allowed for greater autonomy in non-heterosexual relationships as well. At Twin Oaks, homosexual, queer, polyamorous, and otherwise “non-standard” relationships make up the majority. (One night over dinner, Twin Oaks members chuckled when they realized no one could think of more than one heterosexual, monogamous relationship on the farm). Valerie, who has been at Twin Oaks for 25 years and enjoys letting her natural facial hair grow out, says “it’s not a coincidence that we have a feminist culture and people can choose these relationships.” 

 

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While Twin Oaks’ feminist culture opens up space for queer relationships, some members have found Twin Oaks' feminism less accepting of queer gender identities. Rachel, a 32-year old with a fine arts degree, thinks, “gender at Twin Oaks gets a ‘C.’” Rachel identifies as genderqueer (neither strictly male nor female), and believes that, “structurally, we create more gender equality,” but admits, “we are still growing our understanding of queer and trans genders, and what that means for being in community.” 

Feminism at Twin Oaks is often recognizable by “second wave” metrics: women in traditionally male-dominated work areas, serving in decision-making positions, and having access to reproductive health care. While recognizing that these long-standing goals have yet to be adequately achieved, Rachel and other members advocate for a feminist framework that incorporates a more nuanced understanding of gender. At a recent group discussion about cis-sexism (the assumption that all people identify with the gender assigned at birth), Rachel told the group that despite not identifying fully as female, “I find it easier here to round up to female pronouns.” Many attendees at the meeting commented that most Twin Oaks members, just like the majority of mainstream society, are still caught in a binary definition of men and women, male and female. At the meeting, some members discussed the complexity of a recent posting tacked up on the communications board stating, “Only 2 out of the 8 people who signed up to be planners are women, can we have some more representation, please?” One of the 6 members mentioned included Stephen, a genderqueer trans guy who was leading the discussion group on cis-sexism.

Cel, who recently moved to Twin Oaks from another community, Baltimore Free Farm, is also working to navigate the farm as a non-binary member. Cel is transmasculine and uses ‘co’—a gender-neutral pronoun that Twin Oaks created in its founding policy documents in order to avoid referencing a man or woman. On a symbolic level, Cel has created space for co’s non-binary identity within Twin Oak’s 1960’s feminist language. Though ‘co’ is familiar to members, Cel’s pronouns are sometimes an area of challenge (Cel also uses he/his pronouns at Twin Oaks). Additionally, Cel notes that co will sometimes receive comments from members that indirectly amount to: “you’re just expressing your masculine side” or “you’re just wearing men’s clothes,” and these can feel dismissive of co’s identity. On the whole, however, Cel feels positive about Twin Oaks members’ attitudes toward gender expression and is encouraged that “most people are trying,” which is “still 110% better than the outside world.”

Despite hurdles, Rachel similarly feels encouraged about gender at Twin Oaks and states confidently, “I think we’re on a trajectory of getting better.” It took them three years after moving to the community, but Rachel recently posted a card on the communications board announcing their use of they/them/theirs pronouns. So far, in-person reactions have all been positive. When asked why, during those previous three years, they didn’t leave Twin Oaks because of their inability to fully express their gender identity, Rachel said, “there’s so much good that goes on here and so much that took to build it. Among my friends, there’s definitely the feeling that this is our home and we are going to make it the best we can.”

 

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One way genderqueer members have been advocating for more complex understandings of gender is in the language surrounding Twin Oaks’ women-only spaces. Since the eighties, one level of a residential building has been reserved specifically for women residents, and women-only massage times or sauna sessions are common. In recent years, the language used for these spaces has occasionally been challenged, but issues involving how members understand gender coalesce most intensely around Twin Oaks’ annual Women’s Gathering. Every summer, Twin Oaks hosts a three-day festival that  is officially “open to all of us who are female-born and/or woman-identified.” Members who organize the event say that arriving at this specific language took countless revisions and meetings that were often contentious, personal, and emotional. When discussions around feminism and gender were most explosive, several members were left feeling estranged from each other. Valerie was involved in these discussions and became so upset by them that she decided, “I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to talk to this person as a human being.” Valerie did so, and invested in one-on-one conversations with a member who thought differently than she. Valerie was able to repair her relationship and reach an understanding with this member, in large part because they were friends who had a solid foundation after years of living and working together.

What does it mean to disagree with someone about feminism online, write a comment, then shut the computer, versus disagreeing with someone about feminism and then seeing them in the garden, taking care of their child, and sitting down with them at dinner, all in one day? Valerie says even if she strongly disagrees with a member at Twin Oaks, she’s unable to demonize anyone, “because we are so incredibly intertwined. You can’t compartmentalize, and that is part of the connection.” She attributes this to the fact that “we share income and share resources.” Interpersonal conflict is a consistent challenge that the community faces. When everything is shared amongst the same 100 people (space, food, work, decisions, romantic partners), there is bound to be friction. Twin Oaks has built-in strategies for dealing with these struggles: scheduled (and labor creditable) mediations between individuals, open community feedback meetings on a member’s behavior, and a culture of ‘telling it like it is.’ More than these specific strategies, however, conflicts that arise at Twin Oaks are most effectively mediated by nature of living in community with others. 

“It’s hard to live so closely together without stepping on someone’s toes,” Valerie admits, “so we have to find skillful ways to figure out what happens after you step on someone’s toes. The same thing goes for differences in perception and experiences of the world. I do believe that we’re making progress and we’re stumbling as we make that progress. And then we pick ourselves up again. And I think we’re not going to stop stumbling. I think we are going to keep trying to move forward.”

This may be the most invisible, yet most radical, aspect of the community: the massive possibility for friction and concurrent growth that comes with such involved interaction. 

 

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Everything considered, Cel feels largely positive about co’s treatment at Twin Oaks: “my biggest worry here is people not understanding my experience, [rather than] having people look at me and want to kill me. If that’s my biggest worry, that’s pretty good.”

Rachel agrees that Twin Oaks “is the safest feeling place that I’ve been” and feels encouraged by the fact that they’ve “seen members very, very slowly change their mind over their years here.” As of now, Twin Oaks offers a relatively safer space for women, for queer relationships, and increasingly for genderqueer and trans folks. However, this community has room to grow in becoming safer for many other targeted identities. Notably, Twin Oaks is overwhelmingly white—a fact that members are quick to acknowledge. If Twin Oaks and other intentional communities commit to growing their diversity, what might these spaces have to offer? 

Kami, a Black member of Twin Oaks, wears his dreads proudly and says that an important part of living on the farm is rarely interacting with police enforcement. Later this year, Twin Oaks may be giving a portion of their land to two Black Lives Matter organizers who want to start a separate sanctuary community for Black women activists. Additionally, as a policy, Twin Oaks does not ask members about their documentation status.

Unfortunately, not everyone who feels threatened will find moving to a commune accessible or practical. However, the conversations occurring at Twin Oaks surrounding diversity and inclusion do have relevance to groups fighting for justice elsewhere. A reoccurring attitude at Twin Oaks and elsewhere is pushback from those who say radical movements are asking for too much, too fast. At Twin Oaks, Brittany is frustrated by what she calls an “overly simplistic” understanding of feminism, and describes how some members will point to women using power tools or holding managerial positions and say, “we’ve done enough.” Brittany gets the sense that many members (especially men) on the farm see their work in fighting for justice as complete because they’ve already made the huge step of moving to a commune. Complacency frustrates those agitating for change at this income-sharing community: what can you ask of people who are already doing revolutionary work, every day, by simply existing as they are?

As many members at Twin Oaks believe, you can ask for more—a lot more. While feminists nationally and internationally are grappling with challenges to become more intersectional, the voices of those at the margins, demanding for more, are fighting to be heard. Progressive spaces and movements always have room to grow, but will they listen? Many members like to repeat, only half-jokingly, “It’s not the revolution, but you can see it from here.”

 

ERIN WEST B’18.5 doesn’t give a fuck about your relationship status.