Beguine Women lived in Germany, Netherlands, and Belgium starting in about 1150; the last traditional Beguine was apparently Marcella Pattyn, who died in 2013. Beguines were single Christian women. Because there were far more single women than single men, and because convents required a high dowry, these women joined forces to neighbor in together. They built and maintained their own homes in walled communities. They were prosperous businesswomen, plying their skills in wool and linen and silk — carding and felting, spinning, weaving, sewing, knitting, dying, embroidery. Beguines were highly respected pillars of the community. They supported the local regions with money and crops, nursing, herbal medicine, shelter, and handcrafts.
The women’s autonomy, their independent communal devotions, and their personal mysticism drew persecutions from the Catholic Church. Their affluent trade was shouldered aside and ended with the Industrial Revolution and with all-male craft guilds and monopolies on the textile markets.
But now, women in Germany have re-established a secular sisterhood model of their Beguine heritage. Inter-generational housing developments gather single women of all ages, pooling their resources to live together and care for one another.
Why can’t American women do this?
That question came to mind at a local church during Lent. I was helping the ladies at a local church serve a dinner before the Lenten service. We finished cooking, and sat down for a break before serving the congregation.
The kitchen brigade ladies 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 roomy family homes. While we ate our soup, 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 safe, with neighbors who used to be friendly? How do they cope with living alone with no interaction but the internet and the cat? What if one of them fell on the cellar stairs, or got sick?
What a revelation for me. As a girl, I was programmed to find a prosperous husband, buy a home, and raise kids; the promise was that then a women would always be secure and cared for. Now as a single woman with single girlfriends, those of us Left Behind by the Rapture, who never landed husbands at all — we have the same conversations. We talk about our fear of being priced out of our little apartments. Or falling on the stairs. Or getting sick.
So at this church supper team, I asked the women some questions of my own. 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, since a bunch of these houses are near the church, we can form neighborhood networks. If one homeowner has a grandchild who needs that basement, then the renter can just move to another house within the network. Someone like me with virtually no belongings, I could move four times a year; then the homeowners could have an interesting guest for 90 days, make some cash, and then have their house back in three months. And all the while we could all visit one another to lend a hand or just a little company where it is needed, day or night.
That’s what I said to the church women at the table.
They just stared at me. No reply. Nothing.
They looked scared. Was I going to show up at the door with a bindle swag?
“But Mary,” people tell me, “there are internet services for this.”
Yes there are. We can pay a nationwide agency to collect all our personal data in The Cloud, and sell it to heaven knows whom, and choose our 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…