Feminism at DR

DR is a community highly connected to the rest of the world despite their rural location and, as such, they are subject to many of the same cultural struggles the rest of us face.  Part of this is how to live sustainably on the Earth, and another part is how to live in harmony with each other.  Both of those aspects, though, involve alternative structures that can be built from the ground up and selectively include lessons learned from previous experiments while excluding undesirable or unfeasible aspects.  Other aspects are relatively inescapable, like the institutions of gender and sexuality.   

Women at DR opt to dress conservatively when going to the nearby grocery store because it is run by socially-conservative Mennonites who they would rather have a congenial relationship with than make the target of slut-shaming protests.  They are also subject to the expectations of more conventionally conformist visitors that pass through, living life continually with the mainstream practices of passers-through - and even some more permanent residents.  On top of it all, they live in a state where the legislature insists on going to war every session on a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.

"What does feminism mean to you?”

That’s the question asked of every potential new Rabbit this year, and an emerging theme set to take center stage in discussions of membership at Dancing Rabbit as the male-bodied cohort approaches 60% of the population.  This is, understandably, concerning to many of the people there.  Plenty of previous intentional communities have collapsed from an unbalanced excess of masculine energy and the potential negative atmosphere it creates for bringing more women (and members in general) in to the fold.  Or, at least that’s how the lore goes.  But the result has been a suspension for the admittance of new male members.

As I watch the debate unfold from afar from home in Columbia via the listserv, I see discussions from my time there re-hashed and new ones brought up.  We live in a male-dominated world, no doubt.  Men and women across most fields tend to start out on equal ground, but as they progress women tend to lose footing.  This is especially true of programming, acting, and management fields, where women are increasingly subject to a “boys club” the further the longer they stay in their jobs and the more they advance in their fields, or where structures exist which privilege men by punishing aspects of the female experience like giving birth or displaying emotion.  But women hold positions of power in the community, probably disproportionately depending on how one measures such a thing under egalitarian governance.  Emotion, at DR, is allowed and invited at public events and meetings, and feminine aspects prizes in a panoply of ways, but this does not free the community of the problems of gender norms that affect society at large. 

One of these is the male gaze, which a sort of omnipresent power dynamic wherein men are defined by society to be sexual, ever on the prowl for women who are sexy, the object of desire (Wade 2016).  Women, in this dynamic, are not thought to be sexual.  Men are not sexy.  And both lose out as men are thrust in to the role of subject and women that of object.  Men are desirers, and women are that which is desired.  You’ve heard the cultural script for this before, the one where men go on the prowl to “pick up” women at bars and women must fend them off or be selective.  Who will be the night’s conquest?  Certainly no one at DR, for they tend to resist such roles.  And there’s not enough of a nightclub scence for the script to play out. 

This dynamic is familiar and pointedly problematic for building intentional communities, not the least because it doesn’t encapsulate surfacing expressions of sexuality and a queering world that ICs tend to embrace.  Moreover, it means that women at DR are never fully freed from their role as objects to passing males who have yet to cast off every last ounce of their male privilege.  I even discovered about myself, an adamant self-described feminist, a tendency to cast too-long stares or let my eyes wander to sexualized parts of the body - a behavior I have long been socialized in to but seem to need to spend the rest of my life unlearning.  I owe a big thanks to both the men and women of DR for subtly and politely reminding me of this tendency, because I don’t want to objectify women.  I want to cast off said dichotomy for a world in which both sides of partnership can be sexual and sexy, but that world can only be built in a space of trust and security. 

On one extreme of this cultural dynamic, Sparrow related to me her story being verbally assaulted.  In between the time I spent there as a visitor and as a resident, one of the people in my visitor group returned to the community intent on eventually becoming more integrated and possibly pursuing membership.  As with many people who make their way to DR, he did so at a time of major trauma and transition in his life - in this case, divorcing his wife of three decades.  Newly single, and new the to the intentional community scene, he (as the story was told to me) on several occasions mis-interpreted his interactions with the single women at DR as signs of forwardness or flirtation when none was present.   When the women raised objections or walls in their interactions with him, he became increasingly agitated until finally lashing out at Sparrow for perceptions that she was “leading him on” or teasing him, screaming at her about being disrespected and indicting the women of DR as evil temptresses - following that well-worn cultural script of women as tricksters of sex that tease but never treat. 

Sparrow was shaken by the incident, as was the community.   DR is - or was supposed to be - at least somewhat insulated from such things.  But try as one might, only true hermitage is the escape from the dynamics of gender and power at play in the larger society.  She later related in a public meeting that she feels unsafe at night when encountering a silhouette on the paths and not being able to discern immediate who it is, which is not unlike women in big cities who fear dark alleys or unfamiliar neighborhoods and only traverse them in the safety of groups.  She likened DR to a “gated community” of sorts, one that can be selective about who they let in and who they let stay.  This comparison struck me as odd at first, but came to make sense over time, especially in reference to the growing issues around the gender balance of the community.

That gate, too, means that the community can welcome in those who are comfortable with challenging cultural norms around gender, re-thinking and re-displaying it in a multitude of ways.  For example, many of the men there wear kilts or sundresses, which are seen as highly functional clothing in the summer for their breeziness.  Women go without bras.  Tales were told to me of a kissing contest that took place the year prior to my residence, wherein two judges (one male, one female) took turns kissing everyone in the village regardless of gender or orientation.  Epidemiological concerns aside, I was fascinated by the idea.

Some lingering questions remain in my mind, though, about the issues of feminism and the gender balance.  One came through the listserv from the only gay man at the village, who noted that refusing to take male members simply because of their gender identity is discrimination in and of itself, and is incompatible with the village’s values.  Another is that the demographics of the village are heavily tilted white, well-educated, and young, yet these seem to produce far fewer feelings of potential crisis among rabbits.  Diversity is a group-held value, yet the focus on one dimension of it demonstrates the general priorities of the group, and how the values of the group reflect a narrower range than perhaps they are comfortable settling with.  There was an anti-racism reading group that met during my time there, and nearby Sandhill raised money for Native American tribes fending off seizure of their ancestral lands.  But these were externalities to collective life in northeast Missouri, and something only a part of the population engaged in.  Yet everyone could be found opining on the gender balance at one point or another.

So, in many ways Rabbits managed to engage the norms of gender.  Though they couldn’t be fully escaped, they could be captured and discussed.  To those of us not living in an intentional community but still engaged in dismantling the hierarchy of gender, the presence of all at the table of gender is a powerful practice.  If everyone makes it their business to have a stake in gender, it can be made far less oppressive.


Wade, Lisa. 2016. "Are Women Bad at Orgasms? Understanding the Gender Gap." in Gender, Sex, and Politics : In the Streets and between the Sheets in the 21st Century, edited by S. Tarrant. New York, NY: Routledge.


Zach Rubin, 2018