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Nineteenth Century Women and the Oneida Community: A Message of Egalitarianism

Nineteenth Century Women and the Oneida Community:

A Message of Egalitarianism

Background

During the early-nineteenth century/antebellum period, women of the United States had little status and relatively no rights.[1] In New England, up until the late 1840’s, married women were considered legally non-existent—their beings “…incorporated and consolidated”[2] into the legal bodies of their husbands. An antebellum woman could not own property, keep any wages/rents she might earn or sign contracts—even her children were ultimately the exclusive, legal property of her husband.[3] Although several states with laws based on French/Spanish notions of community property granted married women better property rights and circumstances—they still could not vote and their husbands retained ultimate control over their lives, as well as those of their children.[4] Into this social milieu came the development of ‘utopian societies’—which were communal living groups that chose to live in relative isolation (from general or mainstream society)—whereby they could practice unique modes of living based on religious beliefs and/or a socialist form of economy.[5] Several of these groups seemed to offer a sense of egalitarianism and equal rights for women that, as aforementioned, were not generally available to American nineteenth-century women.

Methodology

Using Wilder’s Social Movement Model, [6] I will explore/examine some of the features both directly and indirectly related to the women of the 19th century utopian Oneida Community of New York—with the purpose of assessing the general rights and other benefits provided to them. The Social Movement Model was born out of the social movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, and examines the details within the four categories of substance, style, structure and strategy.[7] Wilder suggests that these categories may be studied across a given movement’s phases over time, i.e. its incipient, organizational and terminal phases.[8] For this paper, I will be analyzing issues of structure and substance (gender equality) in terms of the Oneida Community’s ideology, communication and daily life.

Structure and Substance

The concept behind the Oneida Community –as with other utopian societies of the nineteenth century—resulted directly from a society that was swiftly developing several sub or co-cultures that refused to conform to many of the economic, religious, gender and social rigidities found within the structure of American society. Foster has noted, “…one of the most disruptive …periods came in the 1830s and 1840s, when Americans were leaving behind earlier, relatively more stable, colonial patterns but had not yet arrived at the newer, Victorian approach.”[9]

Some of the notions and fears engendered by the utopian societies within mainstream antebellum American can be seen in excerpts from an editorial regarding the Oneida Community in the New York Observer, circa 1852:

The perversion of Scripture is oftentimes so blasphemous as to chill the blood, while a    scheme of social life under the name of virtue, nay of religion, is here taught that the foulest   days and darkest places of Roman Catholic iniquity never conceived. The beasts of the field are better in their habits than these people profess to be. If the orgies of the heathen are re- enacted in the City of New York in public, they cannot fill the mind with more horror than   every virtuous person must feel when contemplating the ‘interior life’ of this Oneida Association—Loose teaching from the pulpit and the press is destructive to the principles. The only safety is in steadfast adherence to the good old-fashioned morality of our fathers and mothers, on whose principles the first half of the nineteenth century has made no improvement.[10]

In the Oneida Community (of New York, 1848-81) — the population (including the ‘sister’ communities of Willow Place and Wallingford) reached a height of 131 males, 152 females.[11] In this community, both men and women served on twenty-one committees that managed the society’s finances, amusements, arbitration, baths, roads, lawns, sanitation, educations, etc. [12] The particular faith of the Oneidans included a belief in the power of healing through prayer—and that both men and women could possess this power, as exemplified by their claim that leader/founder John Humphrey Noyes and one Mrs, Mary Cragin both demonstrated such powers.[13] Further, at Oneida women did have political/social power. As Nordhoff stated:

At the end of every year each person gives into the Finance Board a detailed statement of what clothing he or she requires for the coming year, and upon the aggregate sum is based the estimate for the next year for clothing…The women proposed a different plan…” [14]

The new clothing/budget plan put forth by the women was successfully implemented.

The Oneida Community was strongly educationally oriented—for both men and women.[15] Their instruction included courses in grammar, history, geology, French and Latin—as well as both vocal and instrumental musical training. As Nordhoff related, on many occasions the group sent some of their young women to New York to embark on special musical instruction.[16] Further, they put forth the notion that women could—and should—receive a variety of skills; therefore, many girls were taught the machinist’s trade.[17] In fact, both boys and girls were required to master several trades.

In the Oneida Community, commerce included agriculture, horticulture and lumber mills—and (later) the manufacture of traveling bags, satchels and traps.[18] Both women and girls worked in ‘silk works’ factories. Interestingly, Oneida hired ‘outsiders’ as servants to work both inside and outside their homes. For example, in one laundry there were two men and five women employees—and in one common kitchen employed seven women and three men—all outside ‘hirees.’

There were male and female Oneidans who held bookkeeping duties—in fact, the ‘head’ bookkeeper was a woman.[19] Further, the committee that appointed jobs to individuals was comprised of both men and women. It is also of note that Oneidan women managed the aforementioned kitchens.  Further still, Oneidans put their children into a community nursery—where both women and men cared for them. Also, the entire community lived in one large dwelling,

The biggest difference between the Oneidans and mainstream society was the Oneidan practice of ‘complex marriage’—which was a form of polygamy.[20] Also, in what may be the strongest suggestion of equality among the sexes was the Oneidan’s form of birth control: “Male continence.” In male continence, the male totally refrains from ejaculating—thereby assuming major responsibility for pregnancy prevention. The source for this practice (as opposed to that of celibacy) was the belief that “The primary concern of sexual intercourse as social or ‘amative’—to allow the sexes to communicate and express affection for each other”[21]–a very different view from that of mainstream antebellum America.

The Oneida Community did seem to demonstrate a true sense of egalitarianism; however, the community was not without its problems. In a letter to Mrs. Harriet Noyes, Mary Cragin wrote of one Abigail Merwin:

I spoke of her deserting Mr. Noyes as she did, without giving him any chance for explanation…the ‘stick’ with her evidently is on the point of marriage. She said that Mr. Noyes was a married man and that if he had any such love for her as was represented, it was a sin in his heart; that she had had a dear, good husband, and did not wish to extend her acquaintance…”[22] Further, as Foster observed, “…in his newspapers Noyes clearly and articulating criticized the women’s rights movement. Though he felt that the movement had identified real problems, he was convinced that is approach to changing relations between the sexes was wrong [23] (italics mine).

Conclusion

Finally, there were obvious contradictions in the practiced philosophy of egalitarianism within the Oneida community—there are no true utopias; however, in general women did seem to have both educational and civic/governmental opportunities and advantages that were surely unknown to the women of mainstream antebellum America. No society is without flaws. Regarding both the value placed and fair, equitable treatment of its female citizenry, the Oneida Community—fared much better than the rest of 19th century America.

Bibliography

Cragin, Mary E. Letter to Harriet A. Noyes. 4 May 1851. In Free Love in Utopia, comp. by George Wallington Noyes, 13:4. Urbana, IL.: UI Press, 2001.

Foster, Lawrence. Women, Family, and Utopia. (Syracuse: SUP. 1991)

G. Vale, ed. The Beacon, 1839, I.

Kerber, Linda K. & Jane Sherron De Hart. Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. (New York: OUP. 2004)

Lockwood, George B. The New Harmony Movement. (New York: D. Appleton. 1905)

Nordhoff, Charles. Communistic Societies of the United States. (Stockbridge: Berkshire House. 1875)

“Perfectionism and Polygamy.” New York Observer, 22 January 1852, XI.

Webber, Everett. Escape to Utopia. (New York: Hastings House. 1959)

Wilder, Carol. The Rhetoric of Social Movements: A Critical Perspective. (Kent: KUP. 1974)


[1] Judith Wellman, Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. (New York: Oxford UP), 200-211.

[2] Linda K. Kerber & Jane Sherron De Hart, Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. (New York: Oxford UP),

55.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] George B. Lockwood, The New Harmony Movement. (New York: D. Appleton), IX-X.

[6] Carol Wilder, “The Rhetoric of Social Movements: A Critical Perspective.” (Kent: KUP).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lawrence Foster, Women, Family, and Utopia. (Syracuse: SUP), 5.

[10] “Perfectionism and Polygamy.” The New York Observer. (New York: N.P), January 22, 1852.

[11] Nordhoff, Communistic Societies of the United States, 278.

[12] Nordhoff, Communistic Societies of the United States, 279.

[13] Nordhoff, Communistic Societies of the United States, 272.

[14] Nordhoff  Communistic Societies of the United States, 284.

[15] Nordhoff, Communistic Societies of the United States, 285.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Nordhoff, Communistic Societies of the United States, 262.

[19] Nordhoff, Communistic Societies of the United States, 279.

[20] “Perfectionism and Polygamy.The New York Observer.( New York: N.P.), January 22, 1852.

[21] Foster, Women, Family and Utopia, 81.

[22] Mary Cragin to Henrietta Noyes, 4 May 1851, Free Love in Utopia, comp. George Wallington Noyes.

(Urbana, IL.:UI Press, 2001)13:4.

[23] Foster, Women, Family and Utopia, 92.

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Discussion

One thought on “Nineteenth Century Women and the Oneida Community: A Message of Egalitarianism

  1. Very well developed analysis of the role of women in the Oneida Community.

    We are producing an interactive media project while living in an apartment in the Oneida Community Mansion House. You can see some of the results of our research by reading our blog: http://tontine255.wordpress.com

    One of our areas of interest is the experience of women in the Oneida Community, as recorded in their diaries and journals.

    Posted by tontine 255 | January 4, 2011, 3:22 pm

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