Co-housing is popular again, so I read in some newspaper. And what about feminists ? Do they practice and enjoy collective living too ? What happens when feminists live together ? Is sharing a collective house an example of feminist activism, putting ideals into practice ? Do collective houses serve as a model for a future society with equally divided and rotated household tasks, an immediate support network and spaces for creativity and activism ? For me, feminist community houses are spaces to experiment with how we want to live. They can combine affordable private rooms, collective spaces shared with like-minded people and a house where feminist activities can be organised.
Because the ScumGrrrls editorial team was thinking about choosing a theme related to home for this issue and because several of us live or used to live in community houses, we wanted to include some alternative examples of how feminists live together. To make the idea(l)s of sharing a house with a group of feminists come alive in your imagination and to inspire you to perhaps try it out too, we will give you a few concrete stories of members and friends of the ScumGrrrls crew. Some of the houses that we talk about in the following interviews belong to the past while others are alive and kicking patriarchy’s ass : Dani used to live in a mixed house that turned into a women’s house in Belgium, Sari has lived in a few community apartments in Sweden, Chris spent some years in a formally squatted feminist art house in Germany and Nina currently lives in a feminist community house in Belgium. Welcome to our ways of living !
Please tell me something about the community house you live in or used to live in ? Were you involved from the beginning ?
SARI : In the 1990s, I lived in three different community ‘apartments’. All were big 6-8 room apartments in the center of Gothenburg, Sweden. First, in a leftist one that had been in existence for many years and, then, for about five years in one that I established together with some friends. These were small communities, about six people in each.
CHRIS : The house I lived in is called « Villa Magdalena K. » It is a queer-feministic coop house for female artists in the St. Pauli neighborhood in Hamburg. It was started by a group of women artists who were looking for their own place to live and work and create an autonomously run printing workshop. They symbolically squatted the city owned house for a day and then the city granted them the right to use it (almost unimaginable today). They remodelled the house for three years keeping up a women-only construction site. In 1993 the first residents moved in and it is still around. In the house there are six rooms on three levels and in the basement in what used to be a car repair shop there is a printing workshop (for screenprinting and letterpress) and a gallery and event space. I was not involved in the beginning, but I lived there between 2003 and 2005.
NINA : In the summer of 2009 the first feminist community house in Gent was started. A few feminists from Gent were fantasizing about starting a feminist community house where we could live, have meetings and organise activities. I was involved in looking for a house – and I actually first discovered the place, a beautiful old house in the center of the city, while I was on my way to a lecture about feminism – but I didn’t move in until the next summer.
Was your community house a self-identified feminist house and a women’s house ?
DANI : It was already a collective when I moved in, but only one man was left, so it evolved very ‘naturally’ into a women’s house and the man left without any problem. I wasn’t there when it started as a hetero ‘political’ collective, but I joined as a hetero and then I stayed as a lesbian. Most of the time it was a feminist house, but not all of us were so-called feminists. There were 5 of us : 2 feminist lesbians, 1 left hetero, 1 battered hetero woman, one hetero woman with child. Collective living certainly influenced everyone.
CHRIS : During my stay and even more after I moved out, the house developed from being a women-lesbian artist project into a queer-feminist artist project as people moved in who identified more as queer than as lesbian and were also close to trans* communities. There were huge discussions about whether or not the printing workshop and the event space should remain a women-only space (and that was always tied to the notion of a « safe space ») or if it should be opened up to a broader scope of queer people. I think these discussions were very common in projects that were started by lesbians and feminist in the eighties and started to be questioned at some point once the problems of clear-cut identity politics became hard to ignore. I feel like the project has had a little bit of a separatist and old-fashioned reputation, though that is probably and hopefully changing in recent years through the people who live there now and the kind of events they organize and the people they know and involve.
SARI : Our community apartment was not defined as women only or feminist, but most of us living there were women and/or feminists and about half of us were engaged in feminist activism.
NINA : It started out as a place where only women lived, but now we are 5 women and 1 man. All of the current inhabitants call themselves feminists (or pro-feminist) and most of us are involved in feminist activism in one way or another. Some of us, like me, are active members of FEL, a feminist collective in Gent and sometimes we have meetings, reading groups or lectures in our house. We have always referred to our community house as the feminist house (and sometimes de salopet or de tuinbroek, which means the overall, so-called typically feminist clothing), but because some housemates are leaving/moving away soon and it’s not always easy to find new feminist housemates, we may change how we define the house. We may have to make it sound less explicitly feminist to be able to find new women to live here, which is a pity. Still, I think it’s great to have a space where we can organise feminist activities and where feminist activism isn’t ridiculed or questioned.
Was/is your house more a place to live or a place to organise activities ? How do/did you arrange household tasks ?
DANI : Both. It was a place of experimentation and also a refuge for women who didn’t feel well. It was a good experience because of the stimuli it created and the house was a sort of mini women’s centre. We were organized, not in a very tight way, rather egalitarian : each one of us had to do the cooking and the shopping in turn, the cleaning we would do more or less together. We had a money box for our common expenses. I don’t remember any rows, only a few frictions on those topics.
NINA : Our house is mostly a place to live together. We all felt the need to live in a house with like-minded activist people who are self-identified feminists. But the house is also a space for activities of groups like FEL or meetings of leftist or ecological action groups. Moreover, I rehearse with my band in the basement and we plan to make a crafty room for creating activist stuff.
We have very good tricks for dividing the household tasks : all of us have the responsibility to clean one or a few rooms in the house or take care of the garden. For food, we use « food tickets » : when someone cooks, s/he can write it on a chalk board in the kitchen and those who want to eat what s/he cooks give a food ticket to this person, so there’s a fair rotation of cooking and eating.
SARI : Sharing an apartment was the only way to find cheap accommodation in the center of the city, but sharing, having people contribute depending on their income, buying food and cooking together also become a political act. I still think that community living is the best way of living (although I do not live that way anymore). People were not forced to do things collectively, but most of us tended to shop and cook together. ‘Sharing’ was optional. Of course, everybody had to contribute to the basic tasks of cleaning, buying toilet paper, etc. But beyond that, each one could decide if they wanted, for example, to eat with and cook for others. The level of participation could also depend from month to month.
There were few regular activities, but all the apartments did become ‘meeting places’ for all the political, cultural and social activities that we were engaged in.
CHRIS : Five women permanently live in the Villa Magdalena and there is an extra room that is offered to artist in residence from other cities or countries for up to three months. If any queer or women artists are interested they should send an email to : email@example.com. The idea is that the people living in the house are all artists and use the printing facilities or the event space in some way, but that is not always the case. I think this concept relies on a way of life that was much easier to maintain during the 1980s and maybe during the 1990s still, when it was possible to be unemployed without being bothered so much by the state employment agencies or to have some kind of part time job on the side and make enough money to mainly do your art or volunteer. It just seems like people struggle much more today and need to work professionally or to professionalize their art practice to make a living.
Women who are part of the house’s association gain access to the workshop and can use it as much as they like for relatively small fees. The event space is being used for small concerts, film screenings, poetry slams and sometimes rented out for private events.
The house is financed through the rent of the women living there (which is comparatively low for that neighborhood and the huge space), the fees for the workshop use and the membership fees of the women in the association. When I lived there, there was always the looming fear of not getting enough money though actually, as we found out later, it is set up pretty well.
We shared food and had a box of money into which everyone put a weekly amount. Cleaning was split into different tasks that rotated. There were regular « wohnfrauentreffen » – meetings of the women who lived there to discuss things that had to do with living together and everyday things and once every month there was the « werkstatttreffen » – a meeting of the whole association and all the women using the workshop, for the larger organizational issues concerning the house.
What were the advantages and disadvantages for you to live in a feminist community house ?
NINA : We have a big house so there’s lot of collective and private space. For example, I love the fact that we have a music room where my band can rehearse and there is a lovely garden where we’ve already spent lots of sunny days. In the living room we offer space for feminist reading groups and activist meetings (and there has also been one ScumGrrrls editorial meeting there !).
Sometimes there are discussions and problems in the house, but I think this is normal in any community house. We’re lucky to have a dish washing machine so we don’t have any fight over who will do the dishes ! :-) I think for me personally a community house is the best way to live and if it’s a community house filled with feminists, it’s even better !
SARI : Sharing living space is more fun, more economical - and depending on how you organise it - more ecological than living alone or in a small nuclear family. At the time I lived in a community house, I was a student, so to some extent the ‘feminism’ and ‘women’s solidarity’ of it was rather ‘theoretical’. I think I could provide and benefit from more solidarity today, when trying to balance work life and motherhood.
There were very few things I did not like. Of course, over the five years, I lived in a community apartment, we sometimes ended up renting out rooms to people who we then found out were not that great... and who took advantage of others. And, well, the cleaning was not always up to my standards... But otherwise, only good memories.
CHRIS : I was most intrigued by the printing workshop but I also immediately fell in love with the house when I first walked through it. Having grown up on a farm in a tiny village the Villa seemed to be the perfect place for me – our « own » house (thought rented from the city) with a garden and rooftop terraces, wood stoves and no janitor so we had to take care of everything ourselves. And yet, the house is very centrally located in a big city and pretty active activist and queer scenes. That it was a women’s coop house was great for me, too, since I thought of myself as queer or maybe at that point still as lesbian. I really enjoyed that the house is generally very open and communicative. There would always be housemates and visiting artists and interesting friends of the housemate sitting in the kitchen. I also much appreciated living with older women, like I did when I first moved there and listening to their experiences and points of view even though they were sometimes hard to negotiate in organizational meetings.
I absolutely loved the house and the idea of it but after a while I wore myself out with the responsibilities that came along with it. I was pretty young and did not really manage to distance myself. I think if I had had a different way of thinking about what it means to live in a collective house it would have been easier because I would have realized that a lot of the difficulties are symptomatic and can be encountered in many similar projects or group activities.
DANI : Positive : self-help groups, sisterhood on a daily basis, women’s empowerment, collective experiments, a path to lesbianism, living/sharing with kids, feminist environment as an ideal place for activists, feminist solidarity, dealing with collective art, international meeting place
Negative : we had a hard time finding women that would fit into the project, so we recruited some non-feminist women ; it was socially more mixed, but it didn’t stimulate the activities ; individualism was too strong in the end.
Some funny stories or anecdotes to end ?
DANI : We painted a big mural in the hall : each of us decided on a posture that was representative of who we were at the time ; with the help of a feminist artist. We had a lot of French, American feminists visiting, so there were a lot of parties of course. We expressed solidarity by putting up a Chilean political refugee for 6 months.
NINA : One day an ex-member of a Dolle Mina section from Amsterdam (a well-known network of rebellious feminist groups in the 1970s in Belgium and the Netherlands) passed our house. She had recently moved to Gent and noticed the posters on our walls that advertised a women’s café in Cologne. So she started talking to us and later joined our reading group. We were very excited to meet a member of Dolle Mina !
Some fun news is that the feminist community house virus is inspiring other feminists in Gent because in March a second feminist community house has been started ! Next : a feminist street, a feminist neighbourhood, a feminist city !