In the age of #MeToo and a renewed push for gender equality, the idea of building an all-women egalitarian society sounds like the stuff of dreams. That’s exactly what a group of feminists set out to do in northern New South Wales in the 1970s. Known as Amazon Acres, or The Mountain, it’s a remote community known for its motto ‘no men, no meat, no machines’. SBS Voices speaks to the commune’s founder Kerryn Higgs, who tells us in her own words about the pleasures and challenges of building a feminist utopia in her 20s.
It was 1970 and I was in my mid 20s, working as a history tutor at Melbourne University after finishing my bachelor degree. I wanted to be a writer more than a historian, really. And I wanted to go to London because it was supposed to be the zenith of cultural excellence, particularly for writers. Anyone who wanted to be part of the mainstream culture — people like Germaine Greer and Clive James — had moved there.
Before London though, I wanted to have an adventure. So I set off to travel overland from Sri Lanka to India through to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, completely on my own. Mum was beside herself. I have always been something of a loner, an outsider. I didn’t like frocks and make-up, I didn’t like any of it. And because of my sexuality, I was never an ordinary young girl.
On this trip, I met some young, like-minded hippies and conceived the plan of finding a remote place to become self-sufficient. This idea deepened in 1972 when I read the book ‘The Limits to Growth’, which talked about the human project and how our economic expansion would eventually conflict with ecological and resource problems. Economy versus ecology. And now, almost 50 years later, we’re really in the midst of it.
Living in London, I met two Australian women who were already heavily involved in the women’s liberation movement there. At first, I thought it was a strange idea to have women’s dances and women-only meetings. I was really green to feminist ideas and values. But when we all got back to Melbourne, I joined the movement and the radical lesbian group. It was a great relief to finally be amongst people who accepted me.
Back home in Australia, I set out on my own to find a piece of land. My goal had to do with getting together a group of women who wanted to create a functional, self-sufficient farm. And because it was so remote, it could also be a refuge for women who needed somewhere to go when they had to get away from domestic violence. This was the time when women’s refuges and rape crisis centres were being set up in the cities to help women escape from predatory men.
For months, I drove around in a Volkswagen Beetle, down the South Coast at first, then up to northern New South Wales. I found Amazon Acres, or what’s now known as ‘The Mountain’, on my 27th birthday. It was an undulating plateau of about 200 acres, surrounded by another 800 acres of steep heavily forested slopes. Little creeks ran among tree ferns. It was a beautiful place with spectacular views of all the distant ranges.
By the first summer in 1974, there were about 25 of us up there and, over the years, thousands visited. It was a moving population. Women came for a few days or a few weeks and some stayed for a longer time with me. Right in the beginning, we had no gas, no electricity, no machines. We would sleep in a sea of mattresses in the big hut, and in the morning, I would say, “Let’s dig the next bed for the garden or find a place for the orchard.”
On The Mountain, we always made a meal together in the evening and there was a period when dinner was for anywhere between 20 and 40 women every night.
On The Mountain, we always made a meal together in the evening and there was a period when dinner was for anywhere between 20 and 40 women every night. We got some terrific gardens made, so we had fantastic veggies. When the weather was right, we had big open fires and sat around and played music into the night.
At times, it felt like true sisterhood. But there were also a lot of difficulties in agreeing on things.
I was a naive, utopian type of person and I didn’t want to be the boss of anything. This means we didn’t make any official rules, so it was really anarchistic — that was one of the challenges.
There were women who wanted no men to set foot on the land, and several years later a group arrived who added meat and machines to the list of forbidden things. That was the source of the motto: ‘no men, no meat, no machines’. But those were not our founding principles. There was also considerable conflict over the strictness of the no-men rule. Some women didn’t even want to have their own son around or a male bulldozer driver to fix the road. Others like me remain happy for relatives to visit.
What I liked best about living in an all-women’s land is that there is no one who’s going to say what you said a minute ago, and be cheered for it when you’ve been ignored. No mansplaining. And there’s nobody taking over in the middle of something where you know what you’re doing.
For me, it’s not so much to do with the male gaze but being free from male dominance in ordinary situations.
For other women, it was truly a revelation of freedom. And they’re mainly women who have fought for total separatism, some having lived through considerable trauma and abuse.
These days, we have a co-operative and we meet twice a year. I don’t live there anymore, but there are women on The Mountain all the time, and others who come and go.
Australia has changed a lot since I was an isolated young person in the 60s and early 70s. I think there is still a place for all-women’s ventures. Perhaps not so much a separatist society, but a place for women to run what they run and be in charge. That’s where my focus has always been — for women to have the say and the power to do what they want.
A project like The Mountain was always going to be a challenge because we came from all different classes, different persuasions, different inclinations — the only thing we had in common was that we were women connected in various ways to the women’s movement. We paved the way, we built a comfortable communal home, and you know what? We survived.