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The Herstory of Huntington Open Women's Land


Current HOWL collective members, from left to right: Glo Daley, - Stephie Smith, Lani Ravin, Michele Grimm and Cynthia Feltch - COURTESY OF HOWL
  • Courtesy Of Howl
  • Current HOWL collective members, from left to right: Glo Daley,Stephie Smith, Lani Ravin, Michele Grimm and Cynthia Feltch

In 1974, Carol "Crow" Cohen moved to Richmond with her husband and small daughter. That year, shortly after giving birth to her second daughter, she dialed the local "Women's Switchboard." A hybrid rape crisis hotline and general women's network, it was listed in the phone book. "Because Vermont is so small," Cohen wrote in her 2010 memoir Small Town Revolution, "I asked if there were any feminists in Richmond."

Cohen was in luck: She was directed to the doorstep of "Raven," a woman well connected with the burgeoning lesbian scene and feminist community that congregated in Burlington. Thus began Cohen's process of coming out and self-discovery, one narrative among many that define the women's movement of the era.

In many ways, the intimate social and political context that Cohen recounts in her book feels like a closed chapter of history. But one of its local legacies remains, 20 miles from Burlington: Huntington Open Women's Land.

Commonly called HOWL, the property is more or less hidden in the woods that surround Camel's Hump State Park. The 50-acre parcel spans pastures, woodlands and streams and connects to the Catamount Trail. The farmhouse, barn and gardens that make up the HOWL "headquarters" mark the terminus of both the dirt road leading there and the power lines snaking through the hills.

What is "open women's land"? While it means different things to different people, the bottom line is that anyone who identifies as a woman is welcome to visit the land and spend time living there — provided they have the guiding collective's blessing, show a collaborative spirit and adhere to certain parameters. Drugs, alcohol and tobacco, for example, are not permitted.

HOWL's website describes it as land "held in perpetuity for all women, guided by a collective, nurtured by residents and rejuvenated by visitors, all the while striving to form an intentional community on the land."

"HOWL's very precious because it still exists," said Stephie Smith in an interview with Seven Days. Smith, 73, is a registered nurse and rehabilitation consultant living in Colchester, and one of the five current members of the HOWL collective. She was recruited four or five years ago, she said, by fellow collective member Lani Ravin, 57, who works as a campus planner for the University of Vermont. Ravin became involved with HOWL more than a decade ago through Cohen.

The other three current collective members are Glo Daley, 76, of Burlington; Cynthia Feltch, 61, of Jericho; and Michele Grimm, 49, of Colchester. The small volunteer group is tasked with maintaining the HOWL grounds, finding resident caretakers to live in the farmhouse and greet guests, and, more broadly, ensuring HOWL's future through outreach and fundraising.

Of the current collective members, only Daley witnessed the birth of HOWL. She lived on the land for about two decades. In an interview at her South End apartment, Daley noted that she missed the most recent collective meeting because she and her partner were visiting Sugarloaf Women's Village in Florida. That community has served as a model for HOWL in many ways.

In the mid-1980s, a loose amalgam of Vermont women began to organize and fundraise under the moniker Help Open Women's Land. Formally, the group operated through Commonwoman, a micropublishing company that distributed a feminist newspaper at the time.

HOWL was originally envisioned as a co-op where women could build their own homesteads as part of an intentional community. But that "cost more money than anybody wanted to kick in," Daley said.

According to a grant proposal prepared for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund, an anonymous supporter purchased a 195-acre parcel of land in 1985, "holding" it for HOWL while the collective's members raised money. The women initially hoped to generate $150,000 to purchase the full parcel. They held phone-a-thons, dance-athons, movie nights and pesto dinners, according to a spring 1989 HOWL newsletter. Ben & Jerry's kicked in $4,000.

Ultimately, the lengthy proposal was rejected, though it included letters of endorsement from the Burlington Community Land Trust, the Burlington Women's Council, the Women's Rape Crisis Center and others.

"It was very rough at the start," said Daley. She wasn't just referring to the inherent struggles of consensus decision making or raising large sums of money for a utopian project. At one point, Daley recalled, squatters took up residence at the farmhouse. They refused to leave when confronted and threw things at the HOWL women. No one called the sheriff: "We were all pretty anarchistic in those days," Daley explained. But they did threaten to, and the interlopers were gone the next day.

Despite myriad challenges, HOWL was able to purchase 50 acres of the original parcel in winter 1988 to '89. A spring 1989 newsletter declares, "This is the beginning for us, and the culmination of almost four years of intensive fundraising, negotiation, arguing, crying, howling (feminist process, in other words)." Ravin said the deed claims the land "for women."

"We never called it 'lesbian land,'" said Daley. "We never wanted heterosexual women to feel bad or stay away."

When Daley's Jonesville home burned down that year, she became HOWL's first resident caretaker. "That early time was like heaven," she recalled. "I had birds flying over my bed. It was divine."

Indeed, collective members frequently note the natural beauty of the land. For Grimm, HOWL is a space to hold ceremonies for solstices and equinoxes. Over the years, it has hosted snowshoeing parties, nature walks, cross-country skiing excursions, herds of grazing sheep, wilderness skills training and writing retreats. Ravin recalled an icy cold spring mikvah — a traditional ritual bath for Jewish women — in the pond.

Anya Schwartz, 46, is an academic coordinator at the Community College of Vermont. She lived at HOWL twice, first in the mid-1990s and again from 2009 to 2011.

"Just living there was so beautiful," she said in a phone conversation. "The land is unbelievable. Women would come and stay for a day; sometimes it was a few days. There were several women who came and stayed for a couple of months each. Being able to support them in finding [the] peaceful refuge that they were seeking felt like really important work."

Currently, Schwartz is compiling a 30th-anniversary anthology of stories from women who have been involved with HOWL. "It's kind of this gem that flies under the radar, even to ourselves," she said. "A lot of intentional communities [and] women's lands sprung up, and then they died. HOWL is still here, and still pretty amazing."

Will HOWL outlive its founders, reflecting a passing of the feminist torch? As cultural understandings of feminism continue to morph and grow in the 21st century — fueled in part by a "pussy-grabbing" U.S. president — new generations have found renewed interest in the groundbreaking work of earlier ones. The now-ubiquitous "The Future Is Female" T-shirt slogan is a reproduction of a design for Labyris Books, the first women's bookstore in New York City, which opened in 1972. Documentaries such as 2014's She's Beautiful When She's Angry recount the excitement and turmoil of what is broadly cast as second-wave feminism. Another documentary in this vein, Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution, features both Cohen and Daley.

But, while earlier women's movements decidedly influence present-day feminist politics, they also exhibit significant differences. And for HOWL, those shifts translate into a question mark. "We live in a world where we don't divide things up into male and female [as strictly]," said Ravin, "and that [gender equity is] what feminists fought for."

Ravin acknowledged that it has proved difficult to find resident caretakers on the Huntington land, and that its foundational designation as a women's space can be "a limiting factor that's increasingly anachronistic." She recalls conversations with Cohen about whether discouraging men was still necessary and desirable.

Though the land remains a space primarily designated for women, in recent years HOWL has hosted all-gender events. Women's male friends and partners may visit with prior approval. "We've tried to make the definition of 'woman' as flexible as possible," said Ravin, meaning individuals are free to define themselves. "If you're a living organism," she continued, "you've got to adjust to the reality around you."

Nonetheless, Ravin wrote in an email, "we've found that many women, young and old, still appreciate, want and don't often get [to experience] women's space and women's land."

"I'd love to see HOWL stay alive," said Daley. "I'm 76, and I feel like somebody else should be taking this on."

Other collective members share a strong sense of intergenerational relationships and exchange. "This place was founded by the generation that came before us," said Feltch. "We in turn have paved the way for the generation to come after us. [We've] straddled those two times in history."

For women interested in becoming involved with HOWL, it would seem the sky's the limit. "Want to see or lead a specific event at HOWL?" asks the website. "Have a skill to share or a topic to discuss? ... We welcome your leadership and ideas."

"This collective of five people is holding [the land] for future generations," said Grimm. "We're just a blip on the radar." Whatever the future of HOWL looks like, it will likely share a key characteristic with the collective's past: Above all else, this is a labor of love.