Wednesday’s Book Review: “Women, Family, and Utopia”

Women, Family, and UtopiaWomen, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons. By Lawrence Foster. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1991. 353 pp. $37.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.

I recently reread this book by Lawrence Foster, professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I find it just as compelling today as when it first appeared in 1991. Specializing in the interpretation of the socio-cultural and religious contexts of gender relationships in the early nineteenth century, Foster emphasizes here a discrete collection of essays on this same subject and offers a thoughtful and in many cases provocative investigation into alternative lifestyles among early American communal groups.

Foster goes beyond earlier research in this work by looking at the marriage and family patterns of those three groups and how they might illuminate present concerns over gender and family relationships in society. He suggests that the unrest in the early nineteenth century prompted an intense examination of virtually every social institution of the nation. A central part of that examination revolved around marriage and family life, especially as earlier means of enforcing sexual behavior broke down in response to the pressures wrought by industrialization, western conquest and expansion, and intellectual ferment.

In religion the emphasis on millennialism and Christ’s advent prompted the development of especially radical groups. The Shaker practice of celibacy was an outgrowth of preparation for the coming millennium. Mormonism’s plural marriage system had roots in the same concerns, but was propelled more by the quest for knowledge about humanity’s state after death. The Oneida “complex marriage” system also aimed toward perfection of humanity in preparation for its encounter with deity.

After an introduction Foster included three chapters each on the Shakers and the Oneida community, each raising interesting questions and posing challenging interpretations. It is the four chapters on the Mormons, however, that made the most significant contribution of the book and offers the most insights about present concerns of patriarchy and gender relationships. Partly this is because Mormonism is a highly successful religious sect in the latter twentieth century and partly because Foster carries the story up to the recent stand of the Mormon church opposing the Equal Rights Amendment.

He finds in all of Mormon history, moreover, a greater acceptance of patriarchy and second class position for women than in the other communal groups. with the exception of allowing more than one wife for much of its nineteenth century history, Mormonism’s gender relationships were more in concert with larger American society than either the Shakers or the Oneida community. One intriguing question ( but giving a plausible answer would entail imaginative and probably counter factual investigation: did Mormonism’s acceptance of patriarchy have anything to do with its great success vis-à-vis the other communal groups?

Women, Family, and Utopia is a delightful and useful book, which adds appreciably to our understanding of these early communal groups. It is especially valuable in offering assistance in interpreting family and gender relationships. It will be fascinating to those interested in the early development of communal religions and is a worthwhile companion and sometimes counterpoint to other works reinterpreting the history of American sacred life in the nineteenth century.

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