In the late 1980s and ‘90s, women regularly found themselves on the outside looking in. Between the gender pay gap, a distinct lack of representation in government and federal leadership, and the inability to secure a home loan without the signature of a husband or parent, obstacles were abundant. For women — and specifically queer women — this obstruction to homeownership was one more setback to achieving independence in a male-dominated society.
But in Kansas City, there were a handful of lesbians who challenged that. Who dared to turn the system against itself.
From producers Sandy Woodson and Emily Woodring comes Womontown, a new documentary about a group of women who defied gender norms in Kansas City, transforming 14 city blocks in the Longfellow neighborhood into a revolutionary community by and for women.
Kansas City PBS will host a screening of Womontown and a panel featuring original founding members of the neighborhood at the Kansas City Museum on Thursday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m. Womontown will air Thursday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. on Kansas City PBS Channel 19.1. It will also be available to stream on-demand, the same day, at kansascitypbs.org/womontown.
“In the ’80s and ‘90s, it was still very difficult to be a woman,” Woodson said. “Let alone a lesbian. They were never safe. People would drive through these women’s neighborhoods, try to catch them on their porches or in their front yards, identify them as being gay — and out them.”
Drea Nedelsky and her girlfriend, Mary Ann Hopper, two lesbians who found themselves facing threats of violence, homophobia and misogyny, had a vision. They imagined a neighborhood where they could be themselves without fear, a place where women could walk hand-in-hand down the street without the judgments and criticisms normally encountered in the “straight world.”
To build the foundation of this planned lesbian utopia, Nedelsky and Hopper launched a nationalized, grassroots recruiting campaign. They reached out to and welcomed queer women from all across the country to Kansas City, selling them on the dream of Womontown, spelled in such a way to entirely remove the mention of “man,” and free themselves from the patriarchy in every conceivable way. Womontown charts those efforts, the neighborhood’s rise and its slow fall.
“At the time, we as women were not supposed to have any power,” Woodson said. “The system was set up in such a way that largely barred women from buying homes, from living their own independently driven lives. We were expected to be at home with the kids making dinner. These women refused and used the system to beat the system. I’m proud of their legacy and overjoyed to bring this labor of love to the screen.”
Within five years of Nedelsky and Hopper founding Womontown, 75 women purchased 28 homes and 14 apartment buildings in a seven-by-seven-block area in midtown with their life savings or loans from family members, renovating the properties and creating homes. They mobilized, electing Womontown residents to the neighborhood association, guaranteeing certain protections for the women. Rather than selling and ultimately gentrifying the neighborhood, they put down roots and hoped for something larger. Womontown’s women weren’t after profit, they were after a community.