Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons

Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons

Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons

Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons

Synopsis

An examination of women's roles, family relationships, and sexuality in three unorthodox 19th-century communal experiments, with analysis of the implications such systems may have for present-day Americans concerned with the sense of crisis in family life and sex roles.

Excerpt

My interest in alternative life-styles and communal societies in America developed during the turbulence of the late 1960s. As a student at experimental Antioch College, I felt the full force of the disorder, protest, and social unrest of those years. So many people seemed to be at loose ends, looking for a sense of community and purpose but often not finding it. Was there any way out, I wondered. Had any other periods of American history been similarly confused and uncertain? If so, could we learn anything from the experiences of another time about how to deal constructively with our current concerns?

There was one period, I discovered, that seemed to display almost uncanny similarities to my own troubled era. That was the 1830s and 1840s before the Civil War. Especially in New York State, the antebellum equivalent of present-day California, an extraordinary range of religious and reform groups sought to transform society. By far the most extreme of these efforts were made by fanatical new religious movements--groups we might label "cults" today. Three groups in particular stood out--the Shakers, who created a celibate system that gave women full equality with men in religious leadership, the Oneida Perfectionists, who set up a form of group marriage or "free love" that radically changed relations between men and women, and the Mormons, who eventually introduced a form of polygamy based on Old Testament patriarchal models. Why had such groups emerged, attracted a following, and lasted at least thirty years in each case, I wondered. Eventually I became so fascinated by those . . .

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