IN 1844, my great-great-great uncle, after watching his wife give birth to one live and four stillborn babies over the course of six years, decided he had had enough of Nature, red in tooth and claw. He resolved to begin practicing coitus reservatus, or intercourse without “crisis,” as the 19th-century euphemism phrased it. The self-control required was “not difficult,” he later reported happily of his sexual experiments. He noted, in addition, that his wife’s experience “was very satisfactory, as it had never been before.”
Male Continence, the official name under which my great-great-great uncle John Humphrey Noyes would later popularize his birth control technique, had its origins in the simple instinct to spare his wife further physical and emotional suffering. But in addition to being a conscientious husband, Noyes was also a self-styled prophet of Christ’s second coming who would go on to found a utopian commune in central New York, the Oneida Community. In heaven, Noyes surmised, riffing on a verse from Matthew, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Instead, the resurrected saints were free to express their transcendent oneness through a communal sexual free-for-all. (Yes, Noyes believed in spirit sex.) Recreational, non-reproductive sex with multiple partners — including the strict observance of coitus reservatus — was the central sacrament around which social life at Oneida revolved.
Coitus reservatus stands as one of the first sustained experiments in contraception in American history, with the avowed aim of liberating women from their role as a “propagative drudge.” Over the 21-year span that it was in effect, from 1848–1869, Oneida’s practice of male continence governed the sex lives of up to 200 adults, and was remarkably effective at curbing “involuntary, unwholesome impregnation,” as the Oneida literature rather clinically referred to it. Sprung from the trap of serial pregnancy and childcare, Oneida women were suddenly free to investigate alternative identities outside the restricted roles of wife and mother. Yet the Oneida Community’s peculiar version of women’s lib was the outgrowth of a theology so off-putting and improbable that it has never fit neatly into standard narratives of the 19th-century feminist and birth control movements.
Oneida’s experiment in redefining gender roles coincided with the mainstream feminism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, among others, which culminated in the Seneca Falls Convention on the Rights of Women in July of 1848. The suffragists lobbied for women’s legal and political equality with men. Yet, as Linda Gordon has shown, these feminists never intended that equality with men should diminish a woman’s traditional duties as wife and mother. Rather, “[i]n arguing for the enlargement of [the] woman’s sphere, feminists envisaged combining motherhood with other activities, not rejecting motherhood.” Civil equality was meant to supplement and strengthen woman’s maternal destiny.
The 19th-century cult of motherhood casts a long shadow. Today, while American women enjoy (nominal) civil equality, it has proven trickier to escape from the snares of our maternal fixation. In her 2015 Harper’s essay, “The Mother of All Questions,” Rebecca Solnit ponders the disheartening frequency with which women professionals are asked, in public settings, to discuss their marital and/or reproductive status. From a request during a literary forum that she speculate on Virginia Woolf’s lack of offspring (aren’t we supposed to be talking about her art?), to one interviewer’s bald insistence that she justify her own decision to remain childless, Solnit exposes our engrained assumption that, “women should have children, and that a woman’s reproductive activities [are] naturally public business.”
It is the phenomenon that Robin Wasserman, in a recent essay on the exploding “girl” trend in film and literature, has identified as our cultural incapacity to imagine the state of womanhood otherwise than as an eclipse of self — including a sexual self — behind the roles of wife and mother (or grandmother). Reclaiming the “girl” label is a battle cry, a way for feminists to access the “unencumbered liberties of youth” that are assumed to disappear as women age. But rather than clinging to “girl,” Wasserman suggests, we need to “reclaim woman, acknowledge with language what we argue with manifestos: that womanhood can be its own liberated, self-interested state of mind.”
The Oneida communists, living in their theocratic cocoon “under the government of God” and breathlessly awaiting the Rapture, didn’t give two hoots about the civil rights of women as they were being debated by Stanton and her comrades in the secular world. What they did care about was releasing women from the assumption that bearing children and darning socks marked the outer limits of her capacities. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Oneida Community undertook a radical restructuring of the traditional nuclear family in the belief that a woman’s biology was definitively not her destiny. In testing this hypothesis, these renegade communards criticized an assumption about gender identity that went unexamined by contemporary feminist agitators — and that remains, all too often, unexamined still.
The Garden of Eden was, by all accounts, a true paradise. Adam and Eve lounged in the cool shade of the trees, eating ripe fruit as it fell into their hands. They had no pesky children to look after; no ground to till in the sweat of their brow; no shameful knowledge of their nakedness. From his earliest religious stirrings, John Humphrey Noyes was determined to get Eden back. “I have been wishing today I could devise some new way of sanctification — some patent […] for [curing] sin, by which the curse would be exterminated once and for all,” Noyes fretted in a diary he kept while he was a minister-in-training at Yale’s Divinity School. Tinkering with the Christian timeline, Noyes eventually announced that Christ’s return and thousand-year reign had already taken place in 70 AD, with the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem, and that the Father and Son were now patiently waiting for humans to ready themselves for the final annexation of earth to heaven.
Having been chased out of their hometown of Putney, Vermont, in 1848, Noyes and his band of converts eventually settled upon the wilderness outpost of Oneida Creek in central New York to found their New Jerusalem. The first order of business was to restructure completely the relationship between the sexes, and to model it on the sexual communism and freedom from shame that obtained between the male and female saints in heaven. Out went marriage and the nuclear family. Noyes envisioned, instead, an ever-accruing circle of saints living together under one roof as a single extended family. In order to recreate communism as it existed in heaven, Noyes felt, one had to “give up the old one-horse [family] wagon […] and go by the great railway-train that carries a meeting-house full.”
Noyes was fixated on the fact that, in Genesis, “in the whole of the specific account of the creation of woman, she is regarded as [Adam’s] companion, and her maternal office is not brought into view.” From this original biblical account Noyes derived his theory of dividing the sexual act into the “amative” (sex for pleasure) and the “propagative” (sex for reproduction) functions, insisting that God had clearly intended the former to take pride of place in human relations. Noyes highlighted the fact that it was only upon expulsion from Eden that woman was blighted with the curse of multiplied sorrow in childbirth, from which he inferred that, “in the original state, conception would have been comparatively infrequent.” Liberating woman from her maternal function was, for Noyes and the Oneida communists, not a feminist imperative but a matter of religion conviction.
In the middle-class Victorian United States, women and men inhabited separate spaces: women were confined to the private domestic sphere of home and hearth, while men went out to earn their bread in the public sphere. Men were encouraged to partake in vigorous outdoor exercise and sports; women, to the quiet indoor pursuits of needlework and reading. Oneidans found this state of separation highly unnatural, and sought to return men and women to “the great, golden long lost idea” of an egalitarian Eden-style partnership. The most obvious marker of this artificial separation of the sexes was women’s fashion: floor-length skirts, corsets, bustles, and hoops kept women trussed up and immobile, while their pounds of coiled and piled hair took hours of preparation. The Oneidans were having none of it. “How abusive then are the present arrangements, which confine women to the house!” fumed one communist in Oneida’s weekly newspaper. “They are adapted by nature, even better than men, to out-door employments and sports — to running, leaping, &c., — and yet they are excluded from every thing of this kind after childhood.” The women accordingly made a pact to bob their hair, and adopted as their uniform a simple knee-length dress with wide-legged pantaloons poking out from underneath. Women were liberated to join their mates in outdoor toil and leisure, “without any combs falling or frocks entangling.”
Accordingly, every task facing the community — from clearing swamps, to reaping corn, to doing laundry — was accomplished in mixed teams of men and women. “The women go out and help saw and split spokes as regularly as the men,” noted an article that appeared in the community’s weekly newspaper, and on wash-day, men cheerfully stirred the steaming vats of clothes, while women wrung them out and pinned them up to dry. Men were as likely to be found washing dishes, scrubbing floors, or tending children as they were to be found employed in more traditionally masculine tasks. Only the outside world’s “foolish, short-sighted sentimentality,” one critic observed, led them to denounce certain occupations and amusements as unnatural to the fairer sex, whether it was “to play on the violin, or to use the hoe and rake.”
The Oneidans took enormous pride in the overall health of their women, and lost no opportunity to highlight it in contrast to the state of sickly “effeminacy” that reigned among middle-class wives in the outside world. An article appearing in the community journal in 1856 reported the results of a census published in The Journal of Medical Reform, which had surveyed the health of 450 married women across the United States. The study found that on the whole, nearly three-fourths of the women could be categorized as “ill,” “delicate or diseased,” or “habitual invalids.” But sickness did not have to be woman’s inevitable lot, the journalist went on to argue. The Bible Communists were ensuring women’s health precisely by affording her “an opportunity for manly labor and exercise in the open air” and, most importantly, by sparing her the “drain on her life and vital energy” of involuntary propagation.
For Oneida’s most radical precept in tweaking gender identity was their refusal to consider maternity woman’s primary purpose in life, making it a choice, not the inevitable outcome of being born female. For the first 20 years of the Community’s existence, male members were enjoined to practice male continence so as to keep the birth rate as close to zero as possible. (This was primarily for economic reasons. Once the Community industries took off and were making a steady profit, the Oneidans suspended male continence and inaugurated an experiment in “rational breeding” to expand their numbers). At its peak, the Oneida Community comprised 200 or so sexually active adults; from 1848 until 1869, only 31 births were recorded. Some of these were accidents, while some were concessions made to older women who had joined the community without children and who desired to become mothers.
The right of a woman to choose when and if she desired to bear children was inviolable in the Community, and it was only “upon the freest consultation that children [were] begotten.” As a result, each and every child born was “desired with surpassing desire,” looked upon as “the brightest joys of life,” in contrast to the enforced maternity that held sway in the outside world. Indeed, Oneida was inundated with letters from outsiders who, having caught wind of the Community’s seemingly miraculous success in controlling unwanted pregnancies, begged to be let in on the secret. “I must tell you a sad story,” wrote one petitioner. Her daughter had married two years earlier; having given birth to first a son and then a daughter, she now found herself confined for the third time in two years. “She does not appear like the same person she was three years ago, and is looking forward with sorrow instead of joy to the birth of her child,” the letter-writer lamented. She concluded that, if only the women in the Oneida Community could experience “the miseries of married life as it is in the world,” they would be “ever thankful for their home.”
In 1872, the Oneida Community began printing a how-to manual on Male Continence, which they distributed to anyone who inquired. After Anthony Comstock pressured the U.S. Senate to pass an act calling for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” in 1873, which made it a crime to send not only birth control devices themselves, but also any written mention of birth control through the U.S. mail, the Oneidans thought it best to retire their pamphlet from public circulation. With the passage of the Comstock Law, birth control would effectively go underground in the United States for over 40 years, until Margaret Sanger’s notorious bid to open a birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916 thrust the issue back into public view.
The Oneida women’s frumpy bloomers and cropped hair, the symbol of the group’s rejection of middle-class femininity, drew particularly vicious criticism from outsiders. One irate commentator who published an 1870 screed against Noyes, impressively titled, Free Love and Its Votaries; or American Socialism Unmasked. Being an Historical and Descriptive Account of the Rise and Progress of the Various Free Love Associations in the United States, and of the Effects of Their Vicious Teachings Upon American Society, included a satirical cartoon of a male “recruit” at Oneida being ogled by its female members. The meek and bewildered prospect shrinks back in his chair as two bloomer-clad Oneida women loom over him, leering and rubbing their hands together in diabolical fashion.
The most famous American portrait of the Oneida Community as a threat to public morals and gender decorum, however, was penned by Henry James in his 1886 novel, The Bostonians. Southern gentleman Basil Ransom travels to Boston to visit his cousin Olive Chancellor, who has become a passionate supporter of the Northern liberal reform movements, from abolition to women’s rights. She takes him to a salon where he meets Mrs. Farrinder, a blowhard feminist who “lectured on temperance and the rights of women”; Dr. Prance, a “little medical lady” with an eyeglass whose feminine identity can barely be detected beneath her masculine exterior; and Dr. Seleh Tarrant, a huckster faith healer and hypnotist, with his beautiful young daughter Verena in tow.
Dr. Tarrant is a composite figure, a symbol for all that James found distasteful in the radical reform movements of the 1840s and ’50s. Tarrant is introduced to Ransom as a former member of “the Cayuga community, where there were no wives, or no husbands.” It is a clear allusion to the Oneida Community, and most critics have read Tarrant as a pastiche of John Humphrey Noyes, whom James publicly held in abhorrence as “simply hideous.” The great entertainment of the salon is to listen to the lovely Miss Tarrant, having been put into a hypnotic trance by her father, pour forth an oration on the rights of women. Basil Ransom — already half in love with Verena — looks on in silent horror.
James is hardly a novelist one would call prudish; on the contrary, his novels are remarkable for the courage and subtlety with which they explore 19th-century American sexual morality. Yet one cannot help but be struck by the intensity of the sexual paranoia suffusing The Bostonians. The novel unfolds as a desperate contest for the virginal soul of Verena Tarrant. Will she follow her father (a.k.a. John Humphrey Noyes), Olive Chancellor, and their demonic cohort of freakish, denatured women down the path to perdition, or will she be reconverted to middle-class normalcy by marrying Basil Ransom?
In the end, of course, Ransom gets his girl. But it was precisely the inevitability of James’s traditional bourgeois “marriage plot” and its narrow definition of female agency that the Oneida experiment questioned. The Oneida Community’s total lack of regard for the language of human rights and individual freedoms has made it difficult, if not impossible, to tally with standard progressive narratives of the battle for women’s rights and birth control. Yet the Oneidans’ refusal to accept even the most basic of bourgeois and liberal democratic assumptions — marriage, the nuclear family, democracy, individualism, free-market capitalism — is paradoxically what allowed them to explore territory that rights-based feminism never dared to tread. It is also what makes Oneida’s lessons worth listening to, still, today.
Perhaps it is true in history, as it is in physics, that every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction. In the end, the Oneida Community’s extravagant theological edifice crumbled at the touch of fin-de-siècle science. The third generation of communists, the group of 60 “scientifically bred” children born into the community between 1870–1880, violently rejected their parents’ wild sexual theories. They returned resolutely to monogamy and concentrated, instead, on making money for the family firm, Oneida Limited.
By the most ironic of twists, the silverware company that emerged out of the Community’s 1880 dissolution made the vast majority of its sales, from 1910 well through the 1970s, to breathless young American brides and newlyweds. Once reviled by the family as the most fallen of earthly institutions, marriage and its attendant claptrap — virginal white dresses and gleaming silver on the sideboard — was now making the family a tidy profit. Oneida passed seamlessly from being a symbol of radical sexual freedom and feminism to the sine qua non of American domestic respectability.
That this reversal should have taken place so naturally and silently is, of course, not particularly surprising. The myth of domesticity as a woman’s biological destiny is a real-life Phoenix, perpetually reborn from its ashes. It is an oppressive cycle of Eternal Return of which, given the United States’s resurgent anti-contraception climate, we should be particularly aware.