Skip to content

Get Thee to a City of Ladies

Community is now a wet dream or a four-letter word, but somebody has to build it

I cried over a book about urban planning. I had been packing up my things to move to Kansas City, but when I started reading Walter Simons’s Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200–1565, I realized that what I really wanted to do was move to medieval Belgium.

The Beguine communities were cities within cities, populated only by women. As women migrated from villages and the countryside into the cities to find work, mostly at the textile mills, they needed a safe place to stay outside of family networks. The Church sheltered them in these neighborhoods and provided them with nice little outfits. Poor women could live in convent-like shared houses for a tiny fee, but if you had money you could get your own private house within the community. There were a few rules. Married women couldn’t live there, and you weren’t supposed to have heterosexual contact. (Women who got pregnant were exiled for a year, which is just long enough to have a baby and leave it in the woods or in a drawer at the fire station.) Still, no one had to renounce property or take lifelong vows.

How would a non-sexist city look? A lot like a beguinage.

The beguinages, spread throughout several countries in northern Europe, were wildly popular. “Some two hundred beguinages were created before 1320,” Simons tells us, “providing housing and support for . . . several thousand” women. Historians of the past made the mistake of assuming single women flocked to the communities because they couldn’t find a husband in the era of increased urbanization and displacement. Now we realize that many of the women were there because they wanted to avoid husbands. Residents passed down their spaces at the beguinages to anyone—nieces, cousins, strangers—who might want a place outside the traditional home. One woman wrote in her will that she was leaving her space open for a Margaret of unspecified relation, “should she be able to liberate herself from her marriage and desire to live in the beguinage in honesty and peace.” (This reminds me of the time I told my sister on the eve of her wedding that if she ever wanted to leave her soon-to-be husband, my door was open to her at any time. She moved into my spare bedroom a few years later.)

What the beguinages gave to these women, other than shelter from marriage and a possible cover for lesbian co-living, was a sense of shared responsibility. Domestic services like laundry and cooking were centralized, freeing women up for their day jobs spinning thread at the mills or for leisure. Some, like Margery Kempe, had enough time to become mystics and writers. But the beguinages also provided those things that prove ever elusive outside of the heteronormative paradigm of the couple: belonging and companionship.

As I made my way through Dolores Hayden’s 1974 essay “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work,” I kept thinking that such a city—a non-sexist city—would look a lot like a beguinage.

In Hayden’s day, American neighborhoods were segregated by class, cars trumped public transportation, and family homes were designed to be isolated, private retreats. In other words, not all that much has changed. Each individual home unit is expected to buy its own “car, stove, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, washer, carpets,” instead of drawing from a pool of collective resources. And while some husbands and wives may now congratulate themselves for splitting domestic chores equally, have they hired an underpaid female laborer to help?

Our urban planners, if such a job still exists and hasn’t been outsourced to the “market,” reinforce this situation as they lay out our neighborhoods. “A ‘good’ neighborhood is usually defined in terms of conventional shopping, schools, and perhaps public transit, rather than social services,” Hayden wrote. Meanwhile, these neglected social services, which include child care, health care, mental health services, the housing of the infirm and the old, and the imprisonment of those who violated the laws of the community, are increasingly privatized and pushed to the far reaches of our cities. Housing continues to be solidly self-enclosed, creating a strict divide between public and private, and the logic of commerce shows us what’s next. As Hayden put it, “The logistical problems which all employed women” (and everyone else) “face are not private problems, and they do not succumb to the market solution.” The market has already offered us its excuse for a solution, and it looks like this: With the simple swipe of a finger, domestic workers can now be summoned to your doorstep. You can exploit a laborer without even having to speak to her.

“Community” is just everyone else knowing, or thinking they know, all of your shit.

The sick, the poor, single parents, migrants, the mentally ill, the elderly—as income inequality increases and wages stagnate while the cost of living skyrockets, more and more people will be unable to meet their own basic needs. When our planners and lawmakers and big thinkers talk about this crisis, it is often with a strange sort of calm, and usually with many mentions of “community.” Almost any problem can be chalked up to community, or rather its failures: crime, poverty, obesity, addiction, loneliness, gentrification, and even mass shootings and terrorism. When they talk this way, what, if anything, do they think that community means?

Community is a noun of the past. It is always something that we’re losing, something that was better in some far-off, unspecified time. This nostalgia is as powerful for people on the left (who yearn for a lost era of union organizing and solidarity) as it is for people on the right (who can’t stop reminding us that back in the day, middle-class people knew their neighbors and had potlucks or whatever else goes on in Ross Douthat’s sexual fantasies). “At a time when mobilities increase [and] transnational networks evolve and dissolve,” professor of urban sociology Talja Blokland writes in Community as Urban Practice, even sociologists and urban planners still think about and write about community as “the form of frequency and intensity of local ties” rather than as something dynamic and ever changing.

I understand the nostalgia. I succumb to it too. They have their white picket fences and borrowed cups of sugar; I have my medieval centers of radicalism and heresy, complete with communal property.

Even so, I believe Blokland when she writes that for community to have the power so frequently attributed to it, it must be not a noun but a verb. Maybe what we think of as community was simply the unpaid emotional and physical labor of women, as they created social networks and pathways of care that make a marginalized life survivable. Now that we think of things like community as “unpaid emotional labor,” no one wants to be the one to do it.

Idle talk about the community we’ve lost will not fix our social and economic precarity. It also won’t change the fact that what Blokland calls “boundary work” serves to warp most of our human interactions. As someone who grew up in a small town can tell you, “community” is often just everyone else knowing, or thinking they know, all of your shit, and they will exclude you for your shit. Meanwhile, some of those who wax poetic over tightly knit, disappeared neighborhoods like Little Italy in Manhattan forget to mention that such neighborhoods were enclaves of urgent necessity, shaped by ethnic discrimination and economic oppression.

If we want to live in cities that do not have their foundations in the economic exploitation of migrant labor, if we want to create neighborhoods that are a little more vibrant than three CVSs, five bank storefronts, and the only standing historical building housing a place with $18 craft cocktails and a $250 tasting menu, we should think about how to create these structurally, rather than whining about how no one knows their neighbors anymore even as we slide into our increasingly homogenized bubbles. We need less boundary work, more “bridging.”

What would it take to create a new beguinage, one not segregated by gender or race or religion? I think about this a lot. You would have to find a fair amount of money and property, once provided by the Church. More important, building a beguinage would mean letting go of things that people are taught to think they want but that rarely make them happy, like the nuclear family and total control and privacy in a domestic space. It would mean forced contact with people who are not like you. It would mean reintegrating all the people we have forced from sight, like prisoners and the poor and the mentally ill.

Do all of this, and you could turn community back into a verb. Maybe this is the kind of community that we should be dreaming of: not one that asks who is in and who is out, but one that makes itself a bridge.

I’m thinking about creating a beguinage in Kansas City. Who’s with me?