Oneida
is the most prominent of the utopian communities. Founded by John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) in 1848 near Kenwood, New York, Oneida practiced free sexual association, birth control, and eugenics while advocating abolition of the traditional family and private property. It lasted in this experimental form, under the charismatic domination of Noyes, from 1848 to 1879, when it was disbanded and reorganized into its present format of a joint stock company.
Noyes, influenced by Fourier and the Shakers, developed his ideas from Christian perfectionism. (See UTOPIAN SOCIALIST MOVEMENTS; SHAKERS.) Noyes' theology held that the kingdom of God had arrived, and traditional marriage was no longer valid. Monogamy was seen as selfish and exclusive, to be replaced by "complex marriage" in which each member of the community would be married to all other members (pantagamy). Fundamental to the practice of "complex marriage" was Noyes' invention of "male continence," a method of birth control that required that males engage in sexual activity without achieving orgasm (coitus reservatus). Noyes advocated male continence to avoid involuntary procreation but also, in his words, to stop "the drain of life on the part of man." Sex was purified and glorified in Oneida. Women's sexuality was acknowledged, as was their right to sexual satisfaction. However, sexual intercourse was intended to transcend lust, and, therefore, male continence, which required transcendental control, was more noble and unselfish.
In practice, sexual relations were regulated by the community. Younger men, not yet adept at male continence, were not allowed sex with any but postmenopausal women. Noyes generally preempted the task of initiating virgins himself. While sexual activity might begin as young as 14 for a girl, she might not have a sexual partner her own age for 10 years. Males initiated all requests for sexual meetings through an intermediary, and women, theoretically, had the right to decline, although this right was subject to communal pressures. Vigilance was exercised to prevent exclusive affections. One discontented Oneida woman stated, "It was a man's plan, not a woman's."
The community embarked on an experiment in eugenics, termed "stirpiculture," during which 58 children were born. Noyes and a committee of elders approved couples for potential parenthood. Males were chosen on the basis of religious qualifications, and women under 20 years of age were excluded. In keeping with the community's attempts to enlarge the family unit, children were to be raised communally. After 15 months of age, the child was placed in a common nursery during the day. At age 4, the child moved to a separate children's quarters. Exclusive maternal love was condemned, as Oneidans regarded it as a deficiency in spiritual development, an example of the selfish and exclusive affections found in the larger society. In a ritual attempt to control the maternal instinct, the commune once held a ceremony in which the Oneida women and girls destroyed all their dolls in a fire.
Oneida endorsed the rhetoric of woman's rights, openly espousing the cause in its publications and adopting dress reform based on the bloomer costume, but it did not believe in the innate equality of the sexes. Generally, spirituality was the basis for authority at Oneida, and the more advanced members were accorded the status of "ascending fellowship." While women could hold this status, Noyes believed males to be superior. However, attempts were made to widen the occupational roles of women, and contemporaries were struck by the roles women held in the Oneida businesses. Visitors also remarked on seeing an occasional Oneida man knitting. Generally, though, work was sexually stereotyped, and women were assigned to the tasks of housecleaning and cooking.
The end of the community came with the weakening of the elderly Noyes' authority. The stirpiculture experiment had left a legacy of patterns of familial affection, and younger members of Oneida wished greater control over sexual choices and a return to monogamy. Factions arose within the commune as attacks from the outside accelerated due to the increasing strength of the purity crusade. (See SOCIAL PURITY MOVEMENT.) Noyes suggested the process whereby Oneida ended the practice of complex marriage in August 1879. Within a year, remaining members abandoned communal property as well.
Contributed by: JOAN IVERSEN
Related Links
The Oneida Community.
Oneida Community Mansion House Historical Site.
Oneida Community Collection.
References
Robert S. Fogarty (ed.), Special Love/ Special Sex: An Oneida Community Diary (Syracuse, N.Y., 1994); Lawrence Foster, Women, Family, and Utopia, Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons (Syracuse, N.Y., 1991); Louis J. Kern, An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981); Constance Noyes Robertson, Oneida Community: The Breakup, 1876-1881 (Syracuse, N.Y., 1972).
Citation: Contributor last name, contributor first name. "Oneida." In Women's Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Helen Tierney. Greenwood Press, 2002. today's date <http://www.gem.greenwood.com>