A still from “Womontown” showing the annual KC Pride March through the Plaza in the early 1990s (courtesy of Kansas City PBS/photo by Mary Ann Hopper)
Today, the Longfellow Neighborhood, a rectangular block of land from 25th to 31st Streets between Gillham and Troost, is desirable Kansas City real estate. Turning back the clock 30 years reveals a much different picture. Homes were significantly cheaper then and often deteriorating. Instances of violence were not uncommon. And from 1990 to 1995, the neighborhood was speckled with nearly 80 lesbian and bisexual women who had journeyed from across the country to live there.
Longfellow contained the intentional community of Womontown, spelled m-o-n because man does not exist in “womon.” This expansive band of women was independent and capable; they stood up for themselves as mainstream society pushed them to the side. Filmmaker Sandy Woodson unearthed this piece of largely forgotten history in the Kansas City PBS documentary “Womontown,” which takes viewers through the highs and lows of this novel community.
Partners Drea Nedelsky and Mary Ann Hopper founded Womontown as a haven for queer women who craved the comforts of community and the financial security of homeownership. In the 1990s, women-only households had lower earning power, and discriminatory lending was commonplace. Womontown provided the opportunity to buy an affordable home, with a group of women ready to help fix it up. Tearfully, Nedelsky explained why such a community was life changing for residents, saying, “We were not supposed to be able to have any power. We as women were always to be the victims, the ones to be used up and set aside.” In Womontown, they stepped out from under this shadow of oppression into a place of refuge and joy. Interior fissures and exterior attacks shook the community, yet the radical vision of Womontown lives on in Woodson’s documentary.
While viewers get a peek into life in Womontown, Woodson was on her own journey behind the scenes. She began in an old camper, making her way throughout the country to meet Nedelsky, Hopper and other former residents. As the story took shape, KCPBS decided to fund the project and brought on production partner Emily Woodring and consulting producer Byrdi O’Connor. Woodring rose from a position of camera person to a production partner and will continue working with Woodson on future projects.
Visiting all-women communities during her research, Woodson said she felt a weight lifted, like she could breathe freely. It also opened her eyes to worlds she never knew existed. At her core, Sandy Woodson is intensely curious. One story leads to another, and she cannot help but follow that thread. By doing so, she has come in contact with marginalized people around the country and within Kansas City who have carved their own niche. Her future projects include the history and current state of HIV/AIDS in Kansas City with a unique focus on the women, many queer, who were involved in care and resistance movements. Additionally, Woodson is working with drag kings, who can be neglected in the drag scene.
Catch the full “Womontown” documentary on kansascitypbs.org. Sandy Woodson will also be at the National Women’s Music Festival, June 30 through July 3 at the Marriot Madison West Hotel & Conference Center in Middleton, Wisconsin, for a film screening and Q&A.