The Beguines were women in Northern Europe who starting in the 1200s or so began to neighbor in together. They built and maintained their own homes in walled communities. They operated thriving prosperous cottage businesses in spinning, weaving, sewing, and textile handcrafts. They supported the local regions with innovative charitable works. At last, the Beguine communities were shut down by the Industrial Revolution, male craft guilds, and some persecution from religious authorities who did not favor independent women teaming up as a social force. According to The Economist, the very last member of the original Beguine tradition, sister Marcella Pattyn, died in Belgium in 2013.
But now there are women in Germany drawing on the Beguine heritage to form a secular version of community living. These are inter-generational housing developments where single women of all ages are pooling their resources to live together and care for one another.
Why can’t Americans do the same thing?
This spring, at a neighborhood church supper, I was helping the ladies in the kitchen brigade. We finished preparing dinner for the congregation, and sat down before the event for a break and a conversation.
These are active independent retired Christian women. They have raised their families, cared for their husbands in their last illness, seen the children move away, and now live alone in the family home. Each woman confided how it feels, to manage a fixed income while watching property taxes soar, and to see their old neighborhood communities break up and disappear, replaced by mushrooming multi-story apartments for young high-tech workers.
The women exchanged heartfelt questions. What about repair expenses and heating? What about the new world of break-ins and car prowling and vandalism and empty houses with squatters, on streets that used to be friendly? How does it feel to be living alone with no one to talk to? How would it feel to fall on the stairs, or get sick?
What a revelation for me, to sit there and listen to them!
How often I talk to my girlfriends, those of us left behind by the rapture, the ones who never managed to find a husband at all, and how often we confide our fear of being priced out of our little apartments. Or falling on the stairs. Or getting sick. And how many times I’ve been taught that if a woman succeeds at finding a husband, and has her own home free and clear, and raises kids to take care of her, she will always be safe and solvent and secure.
So at this church supper team, I spoke up to the women at the table.
Hello, can’t we team up on this?
What if each of these home owners takes in a mature single woman (say, me) to rent the basement? We can all pool our incomes, talent, companionship, life experience, housekeeping, hospitality skills and nurturing. Then we can form neighborhood networks to visit one another to lend a hand or just a little company where it is needed, day or night.
That’s what I spoke up and said to the women at the table.
They just stared at me. No reply.
So I finished with the dishes and took myself home to think it over.
“But Mary,” people tell me, “there are internet services for this.”
Sure, we can pay an agency to collect all our personal data on line, and to share it with heaven knows whom, and match a companion for us.
Or, we can do it ourselves. We women can organize and choose our own households, based on existing friendships.
But to do that, we women have to take other women seriously.
And to do that, we women have to take ourselves seriously as well.
After a lifetime of mothering children and husbands and bosses and dogs and yes our local congregations, we older single women are absolutely terrible at paying true deep engaged attention to our women friends and their thoughts and feelings and wishes and gifts. Or our own.
Just now for cheering inspiration I looked up OWL, the Older Women’s League, to see what they are doing about this. Well, the national (and our local chapter) are now out of business. Has the country run out of older women?
Maybe it’s time to visit Germany. Hm…