More than one hundred years ago, a small group of women joined together and decided to create their own village, one rooted in relationship and guided by spirit. They weren’t the first such women-led town in the country – there was a web of sister villages throughout America, some formed as early as the seventeenth century – but Chantilly Lace was unique. Rising out of the dust of an abandoned Gold Rush era in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, a time when many women were abandoned by men seeking further adventures or widowed when husbands lost their lives in the mines, this mostly female community determined its own fate. Now the modern women (and a minority of men) faced new challenges in the twenty-first century: how would they adapt and thrive?
If this had been true, how might things be different now for all of us?
The above sets the stage for a fictional series of books I’ve been writing (the first book is complete). The locale was always going to be a small town in the Rockies (because I’ve lived there), but the broader ideas about the town’s development have been evolving steadily, especially since the last presidential election. I keep asking myself how a culture based upon principles of peace and values of belonging, established firmly upon a spiritual core, might function in our capitalist patriarchy.
How can change happen in real life if we can’t imagine it in fiction? I’m challenging myself to make it happen.
One of my first historical inspirations, even though the times were prior to capitalist extremism, was a combination of the lives led by nuns and beguines. The cloisters and intentional communities they created provided amazing opportunities for many women to live away from the day-to-day control of men (to some extent at least). The court beguinages were particularly intriguing since, although the women lived in private women-only communities, they owned property, produced commodities to sell, and provided services to people living in the cities near them. Of specific interest to me was that beguines agreed never to turn over their homes to an ‘outsider’ and that “funds from the sale or lease of these homes financed their infirmaries (also called hospitals or hospices) and other common buildings.”[i] That led me to discovering how to make a similar situation possible for my late nineteenth century founding mothers.
But what might the principles of life and government be for early twentieth century women, ones that they hoped could withstand the test of time and modernity? I’ve long been fascinated by Riane Eisler’s work and so I re-read The Partnership Way and The Real Wealth of Nations, hoping for insights I could translate into guidelines for my fictional town. If I didn’t want to resolve problems through force and domination, how might that look? Eisler noted, as one example, that instead of using “fear and scarcity as the primary motivators for work,” in a partnership system we could look instead to “stimulation of creativity, self development … and concern for the larger community.”[ii] This was great especially since Eisler also pointed out that “partnership society is not a leaderless, laissez-faire, or unstructured society.” I wanted my story to feel like it was possible and not a fantasy so every bit of practical advice was helpful.
This still seemed too theoretical, though, so as I wrote, I continued to read and research, returning to earlier materials for what I might have missed. Thanks to Societies of Peace, edited by Heide Goettner-Abendroth, and Women and the Gift Economy, edited by Genevieve Vaughan, I finally found some grounded guidelines that could be reimagined to build my fictional village. It was when I read Barbara Alice Mann’s comment — “I often wonder, however, what the U.S. would look like had the Iroquoian model been truly followed”[iii] – that I knew I was on the right track. What would women-led towns look like if they were following some of the ideals of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) such as “women alone decided the agenda of the nation” and “women held and distributed all goods and services necessary to life”?
Another pivotal source of comparisons between types of societies and their values was The Values of Belonging by Carol Lee Flinders. Flinders shifted my thinking back and forth between what Eisler had called partnership and domination to her perspective of the values of belonging and enterprise. Flinders provided a list to see her values side-by-side, noting that some of the values of enterprise don’t have to move into their extreme manifestations as domination, that these values are on a spectrum. Flinders, like Mann, found herself asking: “What would American society look like … if that fundamental shift [of what life can be like when personal liberty is not everyone’s ultimate ideal] were to begin taking place?”[iv] This was definitely pertinent to how my fictional town still needs to operate within the greater American culture of excessive materialism.
While I wrestle with creating a fictional village that might seem realistic and, hopefully, inspirational to readers, how are other women seeking to develop real communities – beyond those of ashrams or isolated intentional communities — based upon the values of partnership, peace, a gift economy, and belonging? Can you imagine a new world, or one that emerges town by town?
Darla Graves Palmer is a seeker and healer through her blogs at On the Gaia Path and HolistiCARE, and her books are available at Solitaire CARE Press and on amazon.com; her latest novel, the first in the feminist series described above, is Pie in the Sky: a Chantilly Lace novel.
[i] Swan, Laura. The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement.
[ii] Eisler, Riane and David Loye. The Partnership Way.
[iii] Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. Editor. Societies of Peace. Mann, Barbara Alice. “They Are the Soul of the Councils.”
[iv] Flinders, Carol Lee. The Values of Belonging.