All the Faithful Ladies

An entwined history of religious and secular women-only spaces

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in Features • Illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky

One of the earliest known examples of a women-only society comes from the Greek myth of the Amazons, the group of fierce female warriors described by various Greek and Latin historians as “killers of men,” “those who fight like men,” or “those who loathe all men.” In one telling, Amazons only left their home region of Themiscyra to have sex with a nearby all-male tribe called the Gargareans; they copulated to beget children, the males of which they gave back to the Gargareans to raise. In another version of the legend, Amazon girls had their right breast chopped off so as to more easily hold and shoot a bow and arrow when the time came. In the account of traveling Greek historian Herodotus, the Amazons washed ashore on Scythia and eventually cohabitated with the Scythians, but only the Amazons were capable of learning the Scythian language — not vice versa — so they kept their upper hand, even eventually persuading the Scythian men to flee their home country and start a new, egalitarian society with them. In most of the recordings, the Amazons are confused for men by outsiders, either because they dress like men and wage war, or because, in some versions, they literally are men, but with shaved faces and long hair to disguise them.  

The Amazons — strictly speaking apocryphal, though likely based on tales of actual Scythian women who fought and worked as equals alongside Scythian men — differed from most historical women in innumerable ways but particularly in one crucial aspect: they enforced their own segregation. In societies founded on the Abrahamic faiths, it was almost always the men who regulated women’s spaces or who determined, more broadly, where women could be present and under what circumstances. In ancient Jerusalem, for example, women who were rendered ritually impure by way of uterine blood were forbidden from entering the main sanctuary (though there was a simple purification process — immersion in the ritual bath, or mikvah — and menstruating women weren’t the only ones barred: men who spontaneously ejaculated along with lepers and other groups were also subject to purification rituals). From the skeletal rules offered in the Torah unspooled a byzantine system of religious law regarding the women’s proper place. And from this eventually emerged the barrier between men and women in synagogue (women and girls pray in a section called ezrat nashim, often translated as “courtyard of women” or sometimes “the help of women”), the codification of stricter laws concerning mikvah usage for women (with the almost wholesale elimination of such rules for men), and so on until early 1900s Poland, where, as Yentl informs us, Barbra Streisand has to dress in drag just to get into school.  

Christianity joined in the creation of such segregated spaces, in some cases taking the concept to greater extremes. Dating back to as early as the 3rd-century B.C., convents could serve as dumping grounds for those with poor marriage prospects –– many of these tragic bachelorettes were given baby Jesus dolls to nurture in lieu of their own offspring –– or they could be safe havens for women who had no interest in domestic life and wanted instead to devote themselves to scholarship and self-improvement. One woman’s convent, in other words, is another’s Themiscyra.  

In 13th-century Europe, there existed a liberal alternative to convents, communities called beguinages where laywomen of faith, known as beguines, could live and worship together without men. Unlike nuns, however, beguines entered (and exited) the orders of their own accord, and were not required to hand over dowries upon entry. Also, unlike nuns, beguines were economically self-sufficient, engaging in traditionally male mercantile activities and even real estate transactions so as to earn money to give away to the poor. Their communes were often impressive mini-cities: sprawling complexes with homes for hundreds of female residents, featuring vegetable gardens, beehives, breweries, private chapels (their pulpits were often decorated with carvings of Catholic heroines and female martyrs rather than Gospel scribes), and charity hospitals. Male visitors to beguinages were relegated to public parlors and could never sit with a beguine without a chaperone present. As beguines ministered outside their own enclaves — they tended to the spiritual needs of aristocrats and prostitutes alike—they were often seen traveling through the cities, in pairs to avoid accusations of sexual impropriety, wearing their distinctive garb, which may look almost familiar to the modern eye: a woolen garment with a beige hood, just a slightly more architectural version of the hair-covering worn by the handmaids on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Depending on how rosy-tinted your glasses are, these early women’s spaces could be considered feminist utopias or prisons of the patriarchy. Even beguinages, probably the most “woke” template on offer, were not wholly independent of men, as they usually relied on the fiscal and political protection of male bigwigs, including, in a few notable cases, King Louis IX of France. And even though beguines fought for the right of self-determination, they did also shape their practices —traveling in pairs is just one such example — in response to what remained, writ large, a male-dominated society. In other words, though quietly rebellious in their own way, the beguines did not seek wholesale reorganization of the established order, though eventually they were punished as if they had. Beginning with the Council of Vienne in 1311, the communities’ freedoms were severely curtailed, and many individual beguines were burned at the stake as heretics. By the late 16th century most beguinages had been decimated, writes historian Walter Simons in Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200–1565, and “the prevalent image of the beguine in this later age was no longer controversial or defiant, but rather that of a naïve, somewhat foolish but inoffensive kwezel [silly pious person].”  

As sex-segregated associations evolved into the modern era, they became more forward in casting their existence as a rejoinder to male behavior and policies — though this could work either in their favor or against it. In late 19th-century New York City, Jane Cunningham Croly became outraged when she and other female journalists were denied admittance to a New York Press Club dinner honoring the visiting Charles Dickens. She retaliated by starting Sorosis in 1868, considered America’s first professional women’s club. The membership was largely employed outside the home — mostly in education and literature, as those were the areas most commonly open to women at the time. They met often in restaurants that had policies against seating women unaccompanied by male chaperones, as an obvious middle finger to the patriarchy. (One restaurant, Delmonico’s in Manhattan, allowed the women to convene in a private dining room; the scandal was great for business, and in April 2018, Delmonico’s commemorated that first luncheon with a special menu by celebrity chef Gabrielle Hamilton.) Though suffragette Julia Ward Howe’s New England Women’s Club — founded the same year in Boston — allowed entrance to certain male sympathizers, most men who sought enrollment in Sorosis were sent a cheeky note apologizing to them that they hadn’t been born a member of the fairer sex. “By and by, when it has reached a proper age, say 21,” the note read, “[Sorosis] may ally itself with the Press Club or some other male organization of good character and standing. But for years to come its reply to all male suitors must be, ‘Principles, not men.’” 

It wasn’t simply that certain women’s institutions were liberating, powerful, and modern, while others were suffocating and parochial; the same institution, under the auspices of a unified philosophy, might operate both ways. The Barbizon Hotel — not the only girls-only hotel in New York, but far and away the most mythologized — opened in 1927 to provide shelter for what is advertised as “ambitious, discriminating young women” within its pink-bricked facade. Over the years, it cosseted the likes of Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, and countless hopeful models, actresses, and artists, most from well-to-do families who wanted their daughters educated and cultured but eventually wed in suburbia.  

“With mandatory teas, curfews, and chaperones, the Barbizon was like an upscale nunnery,” writes Elizabeth Winder in Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953Men were verboten except in the lobby or during evening bridge games in the lounge, a sanctioned (and supervised) time and space in which residents could flirt with suitors. Many former Barbizon girls recalled their stays as giddy and expectant; their acceptance into such a vaunted institution boosted their confidence. But as writer Gael Greene — herself a former resident — reminisced in a 1957 column for The New York Post, the place could engender a fear of the dangerous outside even as it assured denizens of their ambitions. “In those days, many young women and their parents were just riveted on the dangers and risks on every street corner in New York,” Greene later recalled. “For me, [the Barbizon] was a revelation of so many paralyzed, petrified, enterprising young women.” That is, it often succeeded in making ladies feel potent only within its protective walls. Plath was less impressed even than Greene: when writing about the fictionalized Barbizon (dubbed The Amazon) in The Bell Jar, she dismissed the hotel’s residents as entitled girls who seemed “bored as hell.” 

Though the second half of the 20th-century was a time of burgeoning equality, the creation of women-only spaces did not cease. Curiously, no sooner did one band of women successfully strongarm their way into an old boys’ club than another band hammer the last nail into the roof of their all-women’s meeting hall. In her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex, radical second-wave feminist Shulamith Firestone called for all sex-segregated institutions to be abolished (“if male/female . . . cultural distinctions are destroyed, we will no longer need the sexual repression that maintains these unequal classes”) around the very same time her colleague Alice Wolfson, pregnant with her son, was reeling at the Women’s Liberation Office’s announcement that they were banning male infants from the premises. Just three years before the 1992 opening of the first all-women’s Curves gym in Texas, the self-proclaimed oldest male social club in the world, the New York Athletic Club, begrudgingly agreed to admit its first female members. And this dual-track trend continued through the turn of the 21st-century, and up to our present day. The famously testosterone-laden Deep Springs College decided to go co-ed just as the Arete Project, an all-women’s educational summer program modeled on Deep Springs, was founded. While the New York Times lambasted a Brooklyn YMCA for its women’s-only swimming hours, across the pond the Evening Standard was publishing paeans to the ladies-only swimming pond in London’s Hampstead Heath, a public park. The Boy Scouts announced they’d admit girls, and the Girl Scouts doubled down on their mission of being a cloistered group. “We’ve had 105 years of supporting girls and a girl-only safe space,” a spokeswoman said in response to the news, citing research suggesting that’s the environment in which girls “really thrive.” 

This is to focus rather strictly on Western examples, but widening the scope to include Eastern traditions does little to help us determine with certainty whether gender segregation is largely positive or largely negative. Like Judaism, many Eastern religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, classify the woman who is menstruating or postpartum as impure or unclean. In Hinduism, women who are menstruating are barred from entering temples and kitchens (and also from having sex, wearing flowers, touching certain sacred foods, or generally touching others).  For centuries, women of menstruating age were denied entry into the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, India, because the god to whom the temple is dedicated to was celibate. The Supreme Court put an end to that practice in 2018, though devotees continue to protest women’s entry (the one dissenting judge was female).  Though there is practical gender equality in Buddhism when compared to the Abrahamic faiths, certain orthodox strains of Japanese Buddhism have harsh conceptions of women. According to an influential late 12th- or early 13th-century tractate known as the Menstruation or “Blood Bowl” Sutra, for example, women’s menstrual blood was forever defiling the earth and its rivers, which offended the Buddha and other terrestrial gods; because they were constantly racking up negative karma as a result, women were barred from entering Buddhist temples or sometimes even stepping onto the mountain where a temple was built. The famous Heian writer Lady Murasaki might have subtly skewered such nonsense in her book The Tale of Genji, which she worked on while serving as a courtier to Empress Shoshi. Like her contemporary Sei Shonagon, author of The Pillow Book, Murasaki would have been largely shielded from men, forced to converse with them through a wooden panel much like the one that divides men’s and women’s sections of Orthodox synagogues, but both Murasaki and Shonagon depict the courtiers’ section of the palace as an arena in which women wielded great power: they met illicit lovers, protected themselves from undesirable suitors, wrote poetry, and hosted literary salons.  One last example, unrelated to monthly discharge: as Geraldine Brooks outlined in her book Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran –– probably no one’s idea of a feminist movement –– had the curious and unintended consequence of, in some ways, opening the world up to young women as the direct result of more widespread gender segregation. Job opportunities for women exploded, because all-women’s hair salons, television stations, exercise studios, and more were established, and all these female sanctities required female employees; young girls from more conservative parts of Iran were able to convince their parents to let them go to university, which was now seen as a safe option because institutions of higher learning were Islamic. Not all women felt this was “progress,” though: Brooks quotes Iranian anthropologist Fatemeh Givechian’s critical paper from 1991, in which she prophesizes that, “There will emerge a dual society of male and female stranger to one another and unaware of each other’s anxieties.”   

Back in the United States, ten years before the shah was overthrown, Betty Friedan, Muriel Fox, and a group of National Organization for Women members led a sit-in protest against the Plaza Hotel Oak Bar’s men-only lunch hours. The protestors wore fur coats, but their polished outfits did them no favors: a group of waiters immediately removed their table, so they were left sitting in an awkward, empty circle before moving outside to form a picket line. The hotel ended the policy four months later. Fast-forward four decades to find the new feminist vanguard decided they’d rather eat by themselves. A high temple of 4th-wave feminism, The Wing is a social club and co-working space for women founded in New York City in 2016. Washington D.C., San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles locations soon followed, and the company has plans to expand to London, Seattle, Toronto, and Paris, where they previously tried to purchase a building owned by a mistress of Louis XIV who prohibited all males except for servants from entering. Like the Barbizon, the Wing isn’t the only all-women coworking space out there –– Allbright, a space with a similar aesthetic and a focus on entrepreneurial members, opened in London in 2018, and New York’s New Women Space is a community events center that skews leftward –– but it gets the lion’s share of media attention. In addition to providing access to desks and conference rooms, the annual dues of more than $2,000 open the door to the Wing’s “powder rooms” (stocked with Chanel cosmetics), a snack bar proffering organic cookies, a color-coordinated library of books authored by women, and a designated space where nursing mothers can pump breast milk. The Wing’s owners and founders adhere to a staunch policy of female exclusivity: even the arrival of a male plumber one afternoon was enough to warrant a warning to members. In interviews conducted around its inauguration, The Wing founders Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan lauded the special “air” that developed when no men are present — though no small amount of coverage was devoted to the premium placed by the organization on its exceedingly pleasant décor. 

But their feminine idyll was beset by dissenters almost from the beginning: in March 2018, the New York City Commission on Human Rights opened an investigation into The Wing for violating the same ordinances that fell the New York Athletic Club (the investigation has since closed). In early January 2019, a Washington D.C. man filed a lawsuit against The Wing for discrimination; in response, The Wing’s founders sent out a statement confirming their open-door policy toward transgender and non-binary individuals, in which they wrote that they had instructed staff to not “ask prospective members or guests to self-identify.” Whether this means the Wing would welcome potential cis-gender male members or guests is very unclear; it’s also been suggested the Wing was acting in response to a discrimination lawsuit. 

All of these groups — the religious, the historical, and the mythical; the enabling and the diminishing; the progressive and the conservative — feel to me entwined in one muddled narrative. Even when the ideological underpinnings are antithetical, there remains no small amount of symmetry to be found. Though contemporary initiatives to give women a private, “safe” domain away from men are often seen as empowering, while gender separation encouraged by traditional worldviews are often decried as misogynist or backward, the function of sex-separatist space does not to me seem so easily categorizable — but rather like slightly different shades of the same base color of lipstick. 

Some years ago, as a restless 20-something writer in New York, I sought — and found — a protected, nurturing sex-specific space for myself. But it was under the auspices of what many would consider fourth-wave feminism’s polar opposite: Orthodox Judaism. When I first began to explore the religion I would eventually convert to, I was not particularly compelled by the gender segregation aspect. Though there was a multitude of reasons I ultimately chose to become Orthodox, I always point to Shabbat, the divinely sanctioned day of rest, as one of my first and deepest attractions. Eventually, though, I came to thoroughly enjoy the many all-women events I had access to: I attended lectures on Biblical heroines, constructed “fruit art” to usher in the new moon, and stretched into yoga poses safe from the male gaze. The “sisterhood” groups of Orthodox synagogues organized some of these events; others were the initiatives of Chabad houses, run by members of the Lubavitch sect. Once, I attended a women’s-only supper club run by a Chabad doyenne; late in the evening, a Hasidic girl rock band — with the musical stylings of Fiona Apple and the outfits of Hollywood hipsters — performed for a crowd of whooping, boogieing, wig-wearing ladies. Called the Bulletproof Stockings (a joke about the thick tights worn by many Hasidic women), the band members only consented to perform for female audiences, in accordance with the Jewish prohibition against men hearing women sing. Even the hostess’s husband was banished to an upper floor, safely out of earshot. When men aren’t present, “the energy is totally different,” singer Perl Wolf told Vice, a quote that would not be out of place in a piece about the Wing.  

It’s easy for an outsider to assume religious adherents to separate spaces simply accept their creed’s core belief in the inherent supremacy of men and the patriarchal structure erected on that foundation. But as sociologist Debra Kaufman outlined in her 1991 book Rachel’s Daughters: Newly Orthodox Jewish Womenit turned out that religious women didn’t always see it that way. For her research, Kaufman interviewed 150 ba’alot teshuva, or “mistresses of return,” a term used to describe women who embrace Orthodoxy as adults after a secular upbringing or a long period away from religious practice. Most of her subjects came from assimilated, upper-middle-class families. A vast majority of them had college degrees, and many continued to work outside the home, even after they adopted the stringencies of Orthodox life. A number had been involved in the radical social experiments of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but eventually came to see the philosophies they once cleaved to, specifically feminism and sexual liberation, as inherently lacking because they focused on individual grievances over communal well-being. (Some also came to fear that the “free love” ethos of the 1960s was a convenient way for men to sexually take advantage of liberated sisters.) A desire for a universal meaning pursued them doggedly until they located it in Orthodox Judaism, a theology that, with its rigid codes of behavior and its lack of roles for women in the public sphere, was perhaps as far from second-wave feminism as they could get.  

Kaufman takes pains to avoid painting these women’s lifestyle choices as simply reactionary; qualms about the feminist movement alone would hardly be enough to drive a woman into the tight embrace of what her fellow sociologist Judith Stacey calls “patriarchal pro-familialism.” Instead, Kaufman allows her ba’alot teshuva subjects to frame their own experiences, and she is surprised by how often they speak of their faith as female-centric, despite the fact that within Orthodoxy, women are either legally prohibited or culturally discouraged from studying certain sacred texts, serving as judges in Jewish courts, becoming rabbis, or otherwise holding positions of communal power. In some particularly conservative sects of Hasidism, women are forbidden from driving and are forced to shave their heads just before marriage, as if they were political traitors. But the women Kaufman interviewed claimed that Orthodox Judaism supported them as women both in its theology and in its practice. How could this be the case?  

Theologically, these women drew on disparate sources to construct a picture of Orthodoxy that was strongly feminine in orientation. They cited the fact that the Kabbalistic concept of shechinah, which refers to the earthly dwelling place of the divine, was distinctly feminine. They pointed out that Shabbat is often called a “bride” or “queen.” They told Kaufman repeatedly that far from branding women as physically repulsive or inferior, the laws of niddah — the rules that govern when a woman can be intimate with their husbands, based on their menstrual cycle—gave them agency over their sexual lives and a respite from physicality in their marriage. A Jewish wedding-contract clause, some noted, even ensures that their husbands sexually satisfy them, but not the reverse. How misogynistic could such a belief system be? 

Of course, a Jewish doctrine of faith asks men to intone a daily blessing thanking God for not making them women, so by no means is Orthodoxy a specifically feminist enterprise — though perhaps not less inherently feminist than so-called Lean In feminism, which pressures women to relentlessly mold themselves in order to more successfully serve brute capitalism. More important to the interviewed Orthodox women was that they felt their society was structured to give them literal rooms of their own. One woman told Kaufman she liked to be with other women, gushing about her weekly women’s group, which featured “music, meditation, [and] group exercise.” Other interviewees spoke of what Kaufman called the “heightened air of sensuousness and intimacy” that pervades the mikvah — as strictly female-centric as space can get. Instead of being an enterprise shrouded in secrecy because women’s bodies were shamefully mysterious, it had by the ’90s become an enterprise shrouded in secrecy because women’s bodies were beautifully mysterious. Far from being punitive, modern mikvahs were more like spas, with sample-sized lotions, whirlpool baths, and heated floors. An observant woman could spend an hour luxuriating in a warm tub and filing her nails, in the blissful quiet away from her spouse and children. The one in my neighborhood has waffle knit robes and designer brand shampoo; Oprah toured it for an episode on Hasidism. (It’s also named in honor of a man.) 

These days, it’s comparatively easier to decamp for patriarchal pro-familialism, because in many cases, you can take the trappings of secular capitalism with you, from iPhones to trendy modest designer clothes. One evening, while scrolling idly through Instagram, I landed on The WELL’s account. The WELL bills itself as a “learning center” for Sephardic women (Sephardim are Jews originally from Spain and Portugal); it hosts classes on everything from water color painting to accounting to the laws of the Sabbath. Whoever is in charge of its very active social media account favors pictures of flowers and positive affirmations written in artful cursive: “Just a girl who decided to go for it,” it says on a giant pink balloon, or “I’m a woman: what’s your superpower?” It isn’t surprising that The WELL exists, but it is surprising how closely The WELL’s aesthetic mirrors the Wing’s, given the wide chasm that should separate the underpinning worldviews. The most noticeable likeness is The WELL’s logo, which looks nearly identical to the Wing’s. Leaving aside the alliterative brands, The WELL’s emblem is its name in white font on pink one Pantone shade away from the WELL’s signature color, just this side of bubblegum to the latter’s peach. The results are strikingly similar, down to the coquettish curve of the “w.”  

It’s not just Jews fleeing secular life and with its purported gender parity. In 2015, Britain was abuzz with the news that the number of Catholic women taking religious vows had hit a 25-year high. Sister Cathy Jones, of the National Office of Vocations, characterized her new recruits as similar to the ba’alot teshuva Debra Kaufman met: “The vast majority are graduates from prestigious universities with opportunities ahead of them, or those in their late twenties or thirties who discover that a career is not enough.” A spate of articles published described the bemused reporters visiting these new brides of Christ and finding something rather paradisiacal: old convents in the rolling hills of the New Forest or quaint side streets of North London with bands of merry spinsters praying, eating communal dinners, or doing crafts, even updating their own Twitter accounts (nuns on social media became such an issue that in 2018, Pope Francis issued a statement urging them to use such tools with “sobriety and discretion”). Replace “praying” with, say, “mindfulness meditation” — not such a stretch, really — and this might not sound so far off from an avowed millennial dream.  

In a convent, one British novitiate said, you can be free of society’s obsession with “money, sex and power and the games people play with them” — games, many feminists would argue, created, dominated, and perpetuated by men. The uptick was not reflected across the Atlantic at the time –– the numbers began rising again slightly later, cementing the burgeoning sisterhood as a worldwide trend –– American press still seized on the story and sought out young nuns. A number of publications ran the same series of pictures from a coffee table book about the life of a young nun: her fresh, dewy face beatific during prayer, her joyful smile as she played guitar with another young nun, her limbs akimbo as she passes a soccer ball to a sister during recreation time. “Why Would A Millennial Become a Priest or a Nun?” one breathless headline asked in the Atlantic. The answer seemed obvious. Indeed, a more recent New York Times article, about a curious project that shows millennial “Nones” –– young people who don’t ascribe to a religious tradition –– moving temporarily into a convent, a kind of spiritual Real World. Though the sisters undoubtedly towed the Catholic line on subjects like abortion and same-sex marriage, the nones were starry-eyed about their new roommates’ dedication to ritual and their activism in other areas, where their beliefs were more zeitgeist-friendly. “These are radical, badass women who have devoted their lives to social justice,” one of the nones told the Times reporter, “and we can learn from them.” 

How positive a force any sex-segregated organization or body is to any single female member depends on, among other things, how much agency she feels she’s had in choosing it. A woman who was raised religious might chafe at what she sees as the shaming and dogmatic rules of gender separation imposed upon her by her priest, her rabbi, her family, and her community; her foil, who grew up secular, perhaps would find her natural feminist birthright soulless, the specter of capitalism and its myriad self-serving agendas lurking behind every corner. Frustrated by what each woman sees as a path predetermined by external forces, she selects the alternative and declares it ennobling. 

Both would be justified in her choice. The modern secular all-women’s space and the religious women’s space are doing their individual best to carve out territory that is equal parts serene and galvanizing for members, but neither is as pure an initiative as each gives itself credit for: they exist not to fundamentally dismantle the larger patriarchal structure but as an attempt to negotiate a space within it that is palatable for women. Neither will nor can overhaul the system, as an enterprise cannot effectively serve as a force for change via separation from the framework it wishes to enact upon. On this front, contemporary women’s-only spaces are perhaps a bit more disingenuous, as they are more likely to claim larger universal systemic change as an institutional goal, or to tiptoe back from their original segregated stance when the legality or virtuosity is questioned (in response to criticisms, The Wing’s website now proclaims it “a diverse community open to all,” which means it might one day be indistinguishable from other coworking spaces like WeWork).

Is choosing seclusion, therefore, inherently conservative, even unethical? For many, the hope is that eventually all gender segregation — regardless of ideological raison d’etre — will be eradicated. One could argue that any institution enabling or enshrining segregation of any kind hinders the dream of a purely democratic future. A truly kind, just, and egalitarian society, by this logic, would have no need to divide its men and women; it should instead promote absolute equality within the larger framework. Certainly this was Firestone’s idea of utopia. A peek into other literature that envisions a perfect world — from Thomas More’s Utopia to B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two — shows most ideal futures as either deeply communist, with women toiling indistinguishably alongside men, or as deeply retrograde, with ladies submissive and subordinate to their husbands (“Both wives and children fall on their knees before their husbands or parents,” More describes a church service in Utopia, “and confess everything in which they have either erred or failed in their duty, and beg pardon for it.”) There is no space in these Edens where women can be strong, and alone. 

But two writers — not surprisingly, female ones — imagined a third option, one in which the Amazons, the ba’a lot teshuva, and #wingwomen would inevitably see their choices reflected. In 1405, as Europe’s beguinages fell, French-Italian writer Christine de Pizan published The Book of the City of Ladies, which she had illustrated and printed in an all-female workshop. De Pizan’s book opens with the heroine, despondent over having internalized society’s messages about woman’s inherently inferior nature, being visited by a group of apparitions who inform her of a plan to construct the City of Ladies, “extremely beautiful, without equal, and of perpetual duration in the world,” to be inhabited by such female luminaries as the Queen of Sheba, Mary Magdalene, and the Psalmist’s Woman of Valor. And five hundred years later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman—as radical for her day as Firestone was for hers—wrote Herland, a novel about a buffoonish trio of men who set out to explore a land rumored to be populated only by women. When confronted with a lush landscape dotted with houses as pink as the Barbizon and populated by athletic, graceful ladies, they are dumbfounded “Why, this is a CIVILIZED country!” one exclaims. “There must be men.” Though the group manages over the course of the book to send a small ripple of conflict through the territory, ultimately Herland survives as a feminist paradise; its inhabitants are able to remain innocent of the poverty, crime, and mercilessness of the outside male-dominated world. Like the feminist separatists of today, they cling to a brighter life, apart: “They had no enemies; they themselves were all sisters and friends. The land was fair before them, and a great future began to form itself in their minds.” 

Could this great future—a pure land of only sisters—ever be truly possible? Would we really want it if we could make it so? No matter the revolutionary rhetoric put forth by new gender-segregated endeavors, any project is part of this larger process of push and pull, of sorting and unsorting, of gaining strength from difference and homogeneity. The impulse to separate and the push for recombination go back as far as we can see and show no sign of abating; further challenges await as binary gender categories come more and more into widespread question. There will never be perfect No Man’s Land, but we will undoubtedly try to build one again and again. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “There is a thing of which [someone] will say, ‘See this, it is new.’ It has already been for ages which were before us.” •