The Van Dykes, and the generation gap among lesbians

The author on her (lesbian) wedding day

The author on her (lesbian) wedding day

Ariel Levy is now a staff writer for The New Yorker.  (When did this happen?  Why wasn’t I told first?)  Let’s face it:  The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books–they’re still Sausage Parties, but they seem to be even moreso with a vengeance in the past decade or so.  So, it’s big news that the New Yorker has hired a feminist writer to write professionally about feminism and gender issues.  Hooray! 

A few weeks back, Levy had a great article about women’s history and LGBTQ history that is a must-read for women’s history month.  She writes about a band of lesbian separatists who imagined a different kind of life and family for themselves, and lived their dreams (out of a van, so they called themselves the Van Dykes) for a few years in the 1970s on the road in North America.  It’s a familiar story to anyone with any familiarity with American utopian movements–from the Shakers, to the Oneida community, to Battle Creek, and so on:  idealism and a real hope for a different world succeeds for a while, but then fails because they lose the zeal of the founding generation and/or they’re driven apart by sexual jealously.  The charismatic leader of the Van Dykes, Lamar Van Dyke, admits that modern lesbianism seems mystifyingly conformist, while Van Dyke’s determination to live her life on her own terms elicits Levy’s admiration:

Regardless of the different people of different genders she has chosen over the years as her comrades, Van Dyke’s primary loyalty has always been to her own adventure.  A woman in her sixties who has been resolutely doing as she pleases for as long as she can remember is not easy to come by, in movies or in books, or in life.

“Your generation wants to fit in,” she told me, for the second time.  “Gays in the military and gay marriage?  This is what you guys have come up with?”  There was no contempt in her voice; it was something else–an almost incredulous maternal disappointment.  “We didn’t sit around looking at our phone or looking at our computer or looking at the television–we didn’t sit around lookng at screens,” she said.  “We didn’t wait for a screen to give us a signal to do something.  We were off doing whatever we wanted.”

I thought this was interesting in light of our ongoing discussion of Judith Bennett’s History Matters, since Van Dyke’s disappointment with the current generation of lesbians mirror’s Bennett’s disappointment with the course women’s history has taken in some respects since its institutionalization.

Although still just in her 30s, Levy has already written about her disappointment with younger feminists!  Her 2006 book Female Chauvinist Pigs:  Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture was an original, smart, and entertaining read about the disturbing extent to which young women today have absorbed the message of the broader culture which sexualizes them at an early age and encourages them to turn themselves into plastic-surgeried, waxed, and spray-tanned objects for male consumption.  Many young women believe this is “liberating,” rather than oppressive, and Levy is quite critical of (for example), breast implants at sixteen, and straight women who make out with each other for a cheering audience of drunken young men.  I saw her speak at Moo Moo U. last year–she was very lively, bright, and appeared to make a real connection with the audience.  I heard from my women’s studies-connected friends who took her out to dinner afterward that she was fun and quite gracious.

17 thoughts on “The Van Dykes, and the generation gap among lesbians

  1. I enjoyed that NYer article, too, and I;ve just ordered her book — thanks for the recommendation. Sounds like it addresses issues I’ve perceived amongst many women even in the alternative culture scenes I inhabit. I’m thinking here in particular of Burning Man, which has a highly sexualized vibe that bills itself as radical, but which I always have perceived as the most conformist and retrograde portion of the event.


  2. Sq., I think you’ll like the book a lot. I discovered that I’m an old fogey, but was comforted to see that Levy is too. I thought the book was therefore more salient–it wasn’t written by a woman their mothers’ age–more by a woman their big sisters’ age saying, “um, hello? Is this really about your pleasure and enjoyment of your body, or is it about someone else’s?”

    And, GayProf: conformity is resistance! War is peace! History is forgetting! And, we have always been at war with Oceania.


  3. There was a fairly long article in the (I think) Sunday New York Times about a month ago profiling some similar communities begun in the 1970s, mostly in the American Southeast, as their founders prepare for retirement, transition, and whatever comes after that.


  4. This was a fascinating article, and I do believe there is a significant generational difference among lesbians.
    Lesbian separatism or the ideal of Lesbian Nation was never a mainstream aspect of lesbian cultures in the 70s and 80s, but its influence was powerful.

    It was also widely trashed and attacked by straight feminists who were truly afraid of radical lesbians — because we didn’t fit in, and most of us really didn’t want to work with men or compromise with them at all.

    The New York Times had an article on lesbian separatist communities maybe a month or so ago, and this electrified young lesbians who came across it. Most young women are unaware that these communities still exist.

    I still believe that we are fighting a huge international war against the male enslavement of women. I believe porn, trafficking and the degredation of women is a billion dollar industry. I don’t see the compromises women make with men as ultimately worth doing.

    So it is important to document this aspect of lesbian nation as a welcome relief from the conformity that has overtaken all of American society. Lesbians merely reflect the life and times around them.

    Women mistakenly see too much progress, and are still unaware of the worldwide struggle over the centuries against rape, male tyranny and male HIStory.


  5. this is so timely. It seems that several of the lesbian separatist run campsites and retreat centers are on the verge of closing down due to lack of funds/lack of interest. There is one in bama that was essential to helping Gulf Coast victims of Katrina when FEMA didn’t that is on the list.

    I’ve passed Levy’s book many times in the mainstream and feminist bookstore assuming it was more of the same but to know it is actually rallying against the mainstreamers who have taken over feminist publishing with their celebration of spray on tans and preteen sex with tennis instructors makes me excited to know I can get the book readily around here. (Unlike History Matters, which is still on order)

    I’m adding it to the list.


  6. I believe that if lesbian separatist communities were widely reported on, and well known to all women, that more women would join them. Separatism has a very bad name. Women aren’t honored for wanting male free spaces and it’s not cool to say this.

    We need to honor these truly brave and imaginative women.
    I’ll check out the Levy book too. Camp Sisterspirit came to the rescue of Katrina victims, by commandeering a bus and delivering water and much needed supplies to the locals. They took charge and saved lives. Camp Sisterspirit was attacked by local men, they had their property shot at in drive by type intimidation, and we had many fundraising drives to help them maintain a viable spiritual lesbian separatist property. There are many rural lesbian separatist communities, but they are secretive. Separatism is still very much alive, and not only among older women. When you see the term “women’s” in a certain cultural context, this is a code word for lesbians.

    I suppose these communities are unknown to a lot of women, but we know of hundreds in the U.S. and Canada alone. All hard core radical lesbians I know have this passion for separatism that I believe confounds most women. It’s kind of how white people freak out at black separatist movements, for example. People who want separatism or the opportunity to leave majority-conformist land, which is American feminism these days, are many but often unappreciated.

    I think we need to take a good hard look at just how many women will need communities as they reach retirement age, and how women coming together could create incredibly great living spaces and grounds where women will feel safe, loved and free of the daily indignities lesbians often experience in the straight world even today. If you haven’t been on the receiving end of this kind of hatred and discrimination, you really don’t know what it’s like.

    Reporting and honoring the separatists, and respecting a separatist viewpoint and a radical feminist viewpoint is key to more women having true options in the world.

    I know I am happiest in women only groups, and I look for more opportunities to just enjoy the company of all women. This is still a radical viewpoint, one that makes a lot of women uncomfortable. I believe it is a valid thing for women to want freedom from men, and that our life experience should be celebrated in this desire for freedom. Separatists have always been my heroines, I love them the best, I worked with them for years, it is thrilling to be in a roomful of separatists or strong Dykes, all with grey hair and unpainted faces, always that serious direct gaze that is so classically lesbian.
    Straight women just don’t have that direct look, I can’t explain this, it is something that you see in another woman’s eyes.

    We shudder at the make up, and the more we celebrate options, the more they will be available to the next generation of women starved for heroines, pioneers, the dreamers and the visionaries.

    I’d love to see a herstorical celebration of all the lesbian separatists come online. I know I am who I am because I was lucky enough to know these women when I was younger, and they understood the struggle of a young Dyke dealing with very hateful homophobia and womanhatred. They are the true heroines of feminism, the true Amazon warriors!

    Is leabian separatist passion marginalized by mainstream feminism? What would happen if it was celebrated and encouraged?


  7. It’s a familiar story to anyone with any familiarity with American utopian movements–from the Shakers, to the Oneida community, to Battle Creek, and so on: idealism and a real hope for a different world succeeds for a while, but then fails because they lose the zeal of the founding generation and/or they’re driven apart by sexual jealously.

    Thank you for this wonderful view of lesbian separatism as one of many different utopian movements. It’s not a contextualizing I’ve ever seen done and it makes me see lesbian separatism in an entirely new light. It was a wonderful click for me. This type of thoughtfulness and insight is what I love about your writing.


  8. Emma–thanks! To me it seems obvious, though–and many others much more informed than I have made the connection between the (hetero) hippie communes and American utopians of the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Interestingly, just for fun I’m reading The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and the comparison with the Mormons is strong, too. Of all of the groups mentioned above, the Mormons are the only movement still thriving. (I think the Sabbathday Lake Shakers still have 1-2 left, but I don’t know for sure.) So it seems to me that builiding your utopian movement around two not-so-progressive or innovative ideas (patriarchal privilege and private property) is one way to ensure a movement’s survival in the United States. If you give up either one–or both–it’s curtains after a few generations, usually.


  9. I have to agree with what Satsuma has had to say. A friend who is a long-time lesbian separatist from the 60s and 70s and knows many of the Van Dykes and Gutter Dykes collectives was disgusted by the article, feeling as though it was peep-show like, yet another instance of mainstream people pimping out a movement that has nothing to do with them and that they cannot possibly know anything about. Why is a man, for example, interviewing Ariel Levy (who is not a separatist and has never lived as one)? Why is a man anywhere in this picture? How is it that the only separatist Levy could find to interview was a sadomasochist? It’s too long a topic to get into in a comment, but separatist communities that floundered — when they did — did so in large part not because of sexual jealousies but because of the way sadomasochism, in particular, divided the lesbian/radical feminist community, with fallout that persists until t his day.

    The land dykes movement is alive, well and thriving in the U.S. with over 100 womyn’s lands in existence and more every day. I own one such land. I know a woman in New Zealand who, with a female partner, owns 250 acres designated wimmin only. There are two women within a 50-mile radius of me who own and live on lesbian separatist lands. About 100 miles away is an ocean-front trailer park that is lesbians only, with just one “token het woman” in residence– she is someone’s aging mom. Susan Powter, a lesbian separatist these days, has bought an island in the Pacific Northwest intending to make it a wimmin’s land. I have stayed on wimmin’s lands, know many land dykes, and know that this is a thriving community, full of good energy. It is not a movement on its last legs. This did not come through in the article in the New Yorker.

    I also agree with Satsuma that especially as women near retirement age, more and more will be drawn to these communities. Many may well turn to them as a matter of survival.

    I certainly celebrate these wimmin and these communities. You would have to know them and what they have built. They are absolutely on the cutting edge. I stayed on one wimmin’s land a couple of years ago and was amazed by the beautiful homes, designed and hand-built by wimmin, heated by solar energy, solar heated water, composting toilets, green in truth as well as in spirit. It’s frustrating to read articles that erase this amazing work and these thriving communities. I’m not mad at anyone here, but frustrated, again, with this mainstream pimping of work that has been done by and that belongs to lesbian separatists.



  10. Woo! How exciting. I love my New Yorker, but I’ll love it more now.

    I read a book not too long ago about Victorian female friendship/eroticism/marriage that was pretty interesting. It’s called Between Women, by Sharon Marcus. I tend to consider lesbian history kind of “boring,” and parts of the book confirmed that assumption, but others were interesting. The separatism idea is interesting – I have to admit that living in a lesbian commune sounds kind of fun!


  11. I would like to show all respect due. While I know nothing personal about lgt and felt that I had learned rather a lot from the article, I was shocked to see a comment here dissing the peep show.

    Anthrophology 101, prereq for 102 requires showing enthusiasm for the subject. As I recall the NY piece, a distinct set of the Van Dykes were lesbian, because they thought they they ought to be, not because Nature called. There is kin here to the “lesbian sex show/dvd” . Get out a fresh blue book and discuss.


  12. Hi,

    These comments are a bit old but I hope that you and other posters here like Satsuma will read me.
    Unfortunately but of course for their own peace, separatist communities are secretive, but for average lesbians like myself although having been an activist in a lesbian-only feminist group in my youth, at only 17, and even if I am striving to join or to create such a community, I was really believing they did not exist anymore anywhere, and this secret has been more than a catastrophe in my own life.
    Because in the 80’s I was reading some newspapers, was it Clit007 or Vlasta, or maybe, yes certainly Lesbian Connection, can’t remember well, but a list of lesbian communities was advertised there, now these newspapers have disappeared, you see the point ?
    I have been living for almost 20 years totally isolated, only committing to lovers as to comfort me versus this lack of meaning in my life (but it was not useful!), to studies, to survival and jobs, moving countries, loosing bonds to lesbians that could have helped me to stick to my dreams, and I was feeling totally depressed because of the lack of women-only places or lesbians-only places, events, politics, other than just entertainment, where I was staying, I would name Geneva in Switzerland or worse London in UK..
    And I did not know what to do with that, I did not meet any other single lesbian who would agree with me about this lack !
    And even now, I feel I am struggling to find other lesbians like myself (I could put a word on it that was separatist).
    I quit my job some 5 months ago to think about the meaning of life and maybe to commit suicide thereafter, thanks I quit UK and could discover more political life when back in France, and once there I even began to struggle to start a visible lesbian political discussion group again like in the 80’s (anti-queer, feminist (non-mixed feminism), radical and separatist, or all that -to be) and to come in touch with what remained of activism..
    And eventually, with the help of forums, much more than with the help of the quite insignificant political movement I discovered in France, I could meet a lesbian separatist community, and some other lesbians disappointed by some kind of guru-like conflicts in this precise community but real separatists as well and good persons (totally depressed because they lost their dream and the meaning of their lives by deciding to quit the community, they were not so depressed while in the commmunity but harrassed for no reason by a nevrotic lesbian and too much was too much, and now they are frightened at the idea to start a community again because of the trauma, even if they would like to.. And even them who lived 18 years in a separatist community, they don’t know of any others, only a couple of lesbians separatists or lonely separatists here and there!!!)
    And now indeed, where are any periodical, blog, held by separatists actually living in communities, even small ones, that could make us know about them ?
    I don’t know about the existence of any community worlwide, even if I am now guessing there are a lot of small ones..
    And the best but frustrating solution I have found is to simply try to rent a house (because no money to buy) with other separatists or certainly lesbians separatists-to-be, beginning from scrap, knowing few, being supported by nobody, and in link with almost no one..
    It would already be a good start but the clock is ticking (for me at least) and this project will be less lucky if it remains isolated.
    So if you want to help me with advice, contacts, networks, here is my email,, my phone number is in the white pages directory in France, you can call me too or I can call.



  13. Pingback: Monday roundup: no more pencils, no more books edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  14. Pingback: Monday roundup: no more pencils, no more books edition | Historiann

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