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A Women-Only Island Sounds Nice, If You Can Afford It

two white women walking through the woods with their arms around each other
Image via SuperShe

SuperShe island sells networking and solidarity for women. But how much is solidarity worth when it costs €4,000?

From the top of Teletorn, the Estonian Television Tower, you can see Finland, just 80 km (50 miles) away. The water stretching between the two countries is dotted with islands where you can imagine hiding from the world and becoming the person you were always meant to be. Living in Tallinn, Estonia and doing stand-up comedy, I spent a lot of time island-gazing.

Across the Baltic Sea, just a bit out of view from the Teletorn, is the Finnish archipelago of Raasepori. An easy ferry ride from Helsinki’s downtown, the islands seem to belong to another time. Thousands of seabirds nest in the old-growth forest, maintained by Finland’s National Forest Service. The area’s rich history includes mining and Sammallahdenmäki, the first prehistoric archaeological site in Finland, with burial cairns from the Western Bronze Age culture in Finland.

Raasepori is a popular tourist destination, offering picturesque wooden villages and hiking, cycling and beaches. The appeal seems obvious. So when U.S. entrepreneur Kristina Roth, founder of Matisia Consultants, a consulting company on the 2015 list of 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned Companies Worldwide, learned from her Finnish fiance that one of the Raasepori islands was for sale in 2017, she bought it. And she planned to fill it with women.

Roth’s vision when she bought the island was to create a permanent home for the SuperShe Society, a project she started several years before. It began as a networking group and eventually included a lifestyle blog, events, and women-only retreats in luxurious locations like Bali. Roth was “bored out of her mind” by traditional women’s networking events and envisioned bringing together independent women for experiences that organically united them. Seeking an escape from a world filled with “tech bros,” Roth saw a chance to curate the peer group she’d always wished she had. Across the water in Tallinn, as I listened to men tell me after my comedy sets that they never thought women were funny but they guessed maybe I was okay, I could sympathize. But I found that the sort of community Roth wanted to build was only available for some.

Finland has a strong feminist history: women gained the right to vote in 1906 and the 1995 Equality Act mandated a minimum of 40% of both sexes in all publically nominated bodies, which doubled the number of women serving in these positions virtually overnight. Businesses with more than 30 employees are required to have an equality plan and to implement measures to promote equality.

I found that the sort of community Roth wanted to build was only available for some. Click To Tweet

Equality is so prized in Finland, in fact, that Roth’s SuperShe island plan generated an investigation on the grounds of discrimination, with the Finnish Non-discrimination Ombudsman Jukka Maarianvara ultimately ruling on the 4th of June, 2018 that the island resort’s policy of serving only women was legal, and opening the way for the resort to accept visitors as scheduled. The notorious Finnish bureaucracy also challenged Roth, who complained that “[her] experience as an outsider and investor in this beautiful country led me to reconsider future plans,” as “[she’d] wasted millions of euros on [Finland]. [She] had planned to make future investments in the Finnish archipelago and Lapland, but at this rate it’s not happening,”

Roth persevered, and according to the tourism manager of Raasepori, Ville Vuorelma, in an email to me on July 4, 2018, they “are really glad that [Roth] has found the unique Finnish archipelago. The Island opened on the midsummer weekend [June 23-24] and I’ve understood it’s fully booked for a quite some time, so it’s probably difficult to organize a visit there at the moment.”

A group of women sitting around a table outside
Lunch on SuperShe island, courtesy of an email to the author

Beyond simply being a woman (which includes anyone identifying as a woman, according to interviews with Roth, a policy that doesn’t specifically address those identifying as non-binary), Roth has a vetting process for those who would like to visit, and she hand-selects each visitor. “The number one, number one thing that’s important for me is that you have an amazing personality — like upbeat, cool personality — because you’re on [an] island… That’s what’s going to make it fun and exciting for everyone.” For someone who was bored in the uniculture of the bro-tech world, this is an interesting stance to take. Research shows that selecting candidates by perceived “fit” typically results in selection of those who are like the selector; by the report of one recent Super She, those visiting the island are varying degrees of successful, blonde and thin. Is that really the sole way an amazing personality manifests, and does it really sound fun and exciting?

Would-be SuperShes are invited to apply for membership through the website, with Roth personally reviewing each application. With an eye to seeing whether my own coolness credentials measured up, I applied for membership on March 14, 2018, and had my application approved April 2, 2018. In my application, I wrote that I was a stand-up comedian in the United States and Estonia and that I enjoyed making jokes for and with women and for that reason, a visit to the island would be restorative for me, all true.

However, a dazzling application didn’t mean I had immediate access to the island. Though Roth originally claimed that one-day trips to the island would be available for local visitors, as the opening date approached, no single-day options materialized. One-week reservations, at a cost of 4,000 euros ($4,669), proved prohibitive for visiting. From Estonia, with an average Estonian salary of 1,242 euros a month, a little jaunt to SuperShe would consume a quarter of the year’s wages.

By the report of one recent Super She, those visiting the island are varying degrees of successful, blonde and thin. Is that really the sole way an amazing personality manifests? Click To Tweet

They didn’t give up on me. On June 30, I received an email with an offer to take the last spot on a week-long retreat, saying it was “something wild” I could gift to myself. But alas, my budget could not accommodate the offer.

There is no question that putting money towards gender empowerment, including women’s networking groups, makes lives better for everyone. Women in male-dominated industries, like the “tech bros” Roth worked with, can be exhausted. (I should know: female comedians make up approximately 14.3% of performers and burnout is rampant.) We could all use some time on a private island, away from those who distract us or detract from us. It would be even better if there were interesting professionals there, with time to exchange ideas. But guess who can benefit most from mixing with powerful or connected women in leading fields?

Poor women.

Mentoring and being connected helps women get ahead, but most often it helps already privileged and connected women find more success. Arianna Huffington, for example, spoke at the Thrive conference in 2014, saying, “I have a group of women friends that I hike with,” Huffington told the crowd. “They were the first people I talked to about my dream of launching a blog called the Huffington Post, and one of them became my first investor.” (Huffington’s hiking buddy was environmentalist and multimillionaire Laurie David.) Women clearly yearn for this type of connection, if the 7,000 applications for SuperShe membership prove anything. But without any accommodations in place for those unable to pay 4,000 euros, this “women’s paradise” isn’t an exercise in feminist bonding. It’s a country club. Even Roth gets sick of it: most nights Roth heads to [her boyfriend’s neighboring island] for the night, returning before the SuperShes awake.

Opening a private island for you and your besties to party on is hardly a new concept; it’s only adding “no boys allowed” and calling it feminist that makes it remotely newsworthy. Positioning this as a step forward with “something to offer every woman” is borderline delusional.      

I don’t have any millionaire hiking buddies to invest in me or my comedy, unfortunately, and since the SuperShe retreat is out of my reach, it looks like I won’t be getting any soon. There are places to go in Finland for that woman-only support, though. I was lucky enough to experience it myself in March of 2016, when I attended Salin Comics Camp at Villa Salin. The Feminist Association Unioni manages the Summer House of Ida Salin, a villa once owned by a button manufacturer, and allows groups with a feminist bent to use the building for residencies and workshops. It’s not on an island, but there is a beach and of course, you can see lots of islands.

A group of women sitting around a table, working

I wrote several of my favorite jokes at Feminist Comic Camp, and met women from across Sweden, Finland, and Estonia. I felt that special sense of comradery and that unintentional exhale of relief that comes from a situation where you feel kinship with everyone there, just as Roth envisioned.

Since the Comics Camp residency was free, including all meals, though, I was able to save for additional opportunities and staying in touch with the women with whom I connected. Roth is 100% correct when she says that spaces for women to connect are both needed and rare. It is simply a shame that they are out of reach for so many, and that’s no joke.