Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Women's Lands in Southern Oregon: Jean Mountaingrove and Bethroot Gwynn Tell Their Stories

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Women's Lands in Southern Oregon: Jean Mountaingrove and Bethroot Gwynn Tell Their Stories

Article excerpt

THE COUNTERCULTURAL revolution of the 1960s and 1970s brought tremendous changes to the lives of women and to the lives of male and female homosexuals across the United States. Young women of the era who had been active in a wide range of social justice movements, including persistent antiwar activism and the long battle for Civil Rights, began organizing and advocating for women. Within the Women's Liberation Movement, a number of counterculture women emerged as lesbians and sought a place for themselves as part of another emerging subculture--the back-to-the-land movement. The largest congregation of back-to-the-land countercultural communes, as documented in this and other oral history projects, was (and still is) in northern California and southern Oregon. (1) Those communities, or lesbian lands, had a significant impact on the development of lesbian feminist culture during the 1970s and 1980s and were direct reactions to the mainstream culture of the previous decades. On the lands, women created countercultural material, including magazines and plays, that made them highly visible to other like-minded women. Jean Mountaingrove and Bethroot Gwynn were influential members of that movement of women who separated themselves from mainstream society and created space for international interaction and exchange facilitated, in part, by the materials that they created and distributed. Mountaingrove and Gwynn worked in opposition to a culture that denied women myriad opportunities, developing a tangible lesbian feminist culture.

In America during the 1960s, it was entirely legal for women to be paid less than men. (2) There were no women astronauts or Supreme Court Justices, and it was not until 1985 that a woman - Penny Harrington of Portland, Oregon--became the Chief of Police in a major American city. (3) Gays and lesbians were considered sick at best and criminal at worst. Acceptable treatment for gays and lesbians included electric shock and aversion therapy. Gay men and women lived "in the closet" for fear of losing their jobs, homes, and friends. Women were legally denied credit by banks, and states could still bar women from sitting on juries. (4) Terms such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, and diversity training did not exist. (5) Abortion was illegal in many states, and it was not until 1972 that birth control became legal for unmarried women in some states--although access remained limited throughout the country. (6) Lesbian lands, established by women such as Gwynn and Mountaingrove, created safe spaces for women to re-create themselves and to construct and express their new identities through art, spirituality, and other forms of creative culture. The cultural activities of the southern Oregon lesbian lands' women reached a wider audience through media networks, thereby influencing broad changes in lesbian culture. As Bethroot Gwynn explained: "Some of what we make has gone out there. Some hasn't. Some may just be in the archives, forevermore."

The history of southern Oregon's 1970s lesbian land movement serves as a microcosm for the global lesbian land movement, providing a glimpse into the lives and work of women who established and utilized transnational networks long before there were high-speed Internet or mobile telephones. Lesbian feminist activities, such as political organization and business endeavors, relied on those networks, the core of which was women's bookstores. Gwynn and Mountaingrove were deeply involved in creating and utilizing women's lands and networks during much of their lives. Here, through edited oral history interviews, they tell stories of how they were drawn to that lifestyle and work. Each is a story of self-awareness and resilience in the face of the historical injustice of systems of oppression in America--"about being in the vanguard of the vanguard," as Gwynn put it. The lesbian lands are sometimes referred to as women's land, lesbian land, lesbian separatist land, lesbian intentional community, and lesbian feminist land. …

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