Our Founder's Story: Nancy Nordhoff’s Legacy

In 1985, at a transformative time in her life, Seattle philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff bought a working farm on Whidbey Island overlooking Useless Bay, with a sweeping view across Puget Sound to Mount Rainier. Nancy was seeking “home,” and her intention was to live on the property. But as she walked the land, she felt it telling her it wanted to be something else: a home for more than one woman, a place for women to come and be in solitude and community.

A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Nancy carries a deep personal commitment to nurturing women, supporting their vision and raising their voices. She wants women to experience their independence, learn to trust their instincts and rely on their own resourcefulness. Living in a natural environment, close to the land, surrounded by forest, meadows and ponds teeming with wildlife, is an increasingly rare opportunity, especially for writers in an urban setting. It is important to Nancy that a woman knows how to build a fire to keep herself warm, so each cottage has a small wood-burning stove. The first fire is laid for the writer. After that, she’s on her own! These values have imbued Hedgebrook’s mission from the very beginning, and are carried on to this day.

Nancy established Hedgebrook with an original founding gift, as well as the property, cottages and other buildings. From 2003-06, Hedgebrook transitioned to its current status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit literary arts organization. Hedgebrook has continued to subsist on the generosity of Nancy’s founding gift, supplemented by a fundraising program that began in earnest in 2006, and is growing dramatically each year.

Transforming the Land

“People still laugh at me for putting in stumps and snags, but I found through the years that this helps to bring past tense into the garden… you have to bring in something of what it was before.” ~ Gene McJunkin, landscaper

Working with her friend and writer Sheryl Feldman, and a group of architects, artisans, advisors and passionate supporters, Nancy transformed the farm into a 48-acre haven for women writers. The retreat was designed with a great deal of intentionality, putting the writer’s needs and comforts at the center of the process. Six cottages were crafted in the Amish “post-and-beam” style, designed by architect Chuck Doherty (Sheryl’s son) to feature writing and reading areas, a wood-burning stove for warmth, a small kitchen and a sleeping loft, with thoughtful touches such a stained glass window to catch and prism the light, and fixtures designed by local artisans.

Nancy worked alongside the builders and craftspeople, siting the cottages herself to ensure that the writer can see the lights of another cottage through the trees at night, so she’d be in solitude, but not alone. The workers cleared paths in the woods for walking and contemplation, and installed a heated floor in the shared Bathhouse. She worked with Sheryl to develop mission and vision statements, enlist a Board, hire a staff, and develop a selection process and outreach materials.

Ripple Effect

“Hedgebrook is like a stone, sending out ripples into the gigantic pond of the world.” ~ Anjalee Banerjee, alumna

In August 1988, Hedgebrook opened to its first session of writers. Over time, more than 1500 writers have lived and worked in Hedgebrook’s cottages, generating thousands of novels, poems, plays, screenplays, memoirs, works of non-fiction. Literally millions of people have experienced the work that has been generated in our cottages. Our Farmhouse library is full of their books, and we happily promote every new release to our community of avid readers.

We call the care and nurturing writers receive in residence “radical hospitality,” since it enables a woman writer to go to the places she needs to go, however dark or challenging, to tell her story. The impact of this gift is manifold: everyone who encounters this writer and her work is a recipient of her experience—of being recognized and valued for her work.

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Global Community

Nancy’s vision has evolved into a global community of writers enriched by diversity: of culture, nationality, voice, genre, generation, perspective, religious beliefs and political affiliations. More than 50% of Hedgebrook’s alumnae are women of color, and they come from all over the world, and all walks of life. They are emerging and published, ranging in age from 18-85, and writing in all genres. And their writing is exemplary: out of our rigorous two-round selection process, and a growing international pool of more than 1,000 applicants, 40 writers are awarded a residency each year.

Hedgebrook’s commitment to our alumnae extends beyond their residency. Our public programs connect them and their work with agents, publishers, editors, producers, readers and audiences. Working with our alumnae, we produce reading series’ and professional development workshops across the country, and will be expanding these offerings globally via the internet.

Our community is also open to women writers who have not yet come to Hedgebrook for a residency, through Salons, Master Classes, Vortext at the retreat, and the workshops offered by alumnae in other cities. We are launching a New Girls Network with other like-minded organizations, to expand our offerings to an even wider community of women writers, and to join the movement for equal voice for women writers to achieve a just and peaceful world.