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Gender Roles in Shaker Communities Were Complementary, Couper Phi Beta Kappa Library Lecturer Says

By Mariam Ballout '10
Posted October 24, 2007
Tags Couper Phi Beta Kappa Lecture
Author Glendyne Wergland, whose most recent book, Visiting the Shakers: 1778-1849, was recently published by Hamilton's Couper Press, presented the Couper Phi Beta Kappa Library Lecture on Oct. 23. The Couper lecture was established in 2005 to honor Hamilton alumnus Richard "Dick" Couper '44. Couper died in January 2006. This annual lecture recognizes Couper's commitment and contributions to the college and the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Each fall a distinguished speaker is invited to present topics related to the college's special library collections or to present an issue related to libraries in general.

Wergland, author of One Shaker Life was invited to give this year's talk on historical accounts of sex, celibacy and gender roles in Shaker communities between 1780 and 1870. The majority of the sources Wergland went on to reference have not been seen in print for more than 150 years. 

Wergland prefaced her lecture by stressing that she is not a Shaker, but a visitor to the Shakers who brings that awareness to her work. She said she is well aware that visitors are neither authorities nor impartial observers, but travelers who keep journals with vivid and biased descriptions. Most observers between 1780 and 1870 were male, and consequently ignored women and children. They assumed that Shakers followed traditional gender roles. Wergland acknowledged that this was true in some ways but asserted that Shaker women also yielded power over men in ways that many visitors did not see. She urged attendees to therefore take all accounts from male visitors with a grain of salt. 

When the first Shakers immigrated to New York from England with leader Ann Lee, they believed divine providence sent them two blessings. The first was the New Light Baptist Revival near New Lebanon, New York in 1779, where women led the meetings due to their gift in tongues. Wergland showed two paintings depicting an entire audience crying, shouting, fainting and languishing, struck down by God in their conviction of their own sinfulness. The second blessing was the thunderstorm in May 1780 followed by uncommon darkness. Shakers believed this extreme darkness, where they could not even see their own hands, was indicative of God's displeasure with the world. Some feared that judgment day was nigh, and many were terrified into giving their hearts to God. With the timing of this darkness at play, many began to believe Mother Ann was in fact the second embodiment of Christ, while others saw her leadership at too much of odds with gender norms. 

By considering herself Jesus' equal, Lee set the precedent for gender equality in Shakerism, Wergland explaiend. Lee reassured her proselytes that she recognized the divinity of Jesus with an analogy. "When the male head of the household was present he headed the church, but when he departed the female head stepped into the leadership role," Wergland said. This is the substitute husband theory of Mother Ann's divinity role. 

The premise of making women equal to men was radical in the 18th century, and celibacy was an integral component of that equality. Some New Lights decided they needed to be celibate to achieve salvation even before they met Ann Lee, believing that sex had caused Adam's fall and Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Still, Shakerism had other necessary attractions. According to Wergland, Ann Lee's charisma alone drew hundreds. Welcoming new followers with food and shelter, caressing arms and holding hands, Lee was genius in using the power of her touch as a successful psychological marketing strategy, centuries before it was proved as such.
By 1795 there were 11 Shaker communities in New England and Upstate New York. In exchange for confessing sins, acknowledging elders' authority, and surrendering all material property, members were fed and clothed for the rest of their lives. Many impoverished orphans and immigrants found true shelter in Shaker homes. These men and women immediately adjusted to calling each other brother and sister. 

Community teams were led by two elders and two eldresses, and all buildings had two separate doors for men and women. Wergland noted that these doors were separate but equal because they were both at the front, not men at the front and women at the side. Still, a scribe noted that by 1869 only the New Lebanon community fully supported gender equality. Some men resisted change, and ministries that wanted to minimize divisiveness could not force equality in places where the members did not support it. However, even in resistant communities, Shaker governments were governed by consensus, and because women's opinions always matter in consensus the conflict remained. 

A Canaan Shaker described a member named Evans who would assign work to others, but would not work himself. Annoyed sisters reacted by staging a walkout, pitting women against men. When the elders did not discipline Evans, sisters Hannah Bryant and Harriet Sellick told him not to take the sister's good will for granted, and physically threw him into the street. Evans was finally turned away from another Shaker community in Hancock, Massachusetts, as one of its elders felt a man the sisters turned out was "not fit to be on sacred ground." Wergland used this example to illustrate members living up to neither gender norms nor Shaker ideals. It also exemplifies how the official lines of authority were not actually the lines of authority, as the sisters were able to circumvent official hierarchy. 

Visitors described Shaker deaconesses as outgoing, friendly and helpful, and also as "pretty." While Wergland declared that she could not "wrap (herself) around the idea that Shakers would market Shakerness with attractive women," she also compared the possible practice of making attractive Shaker women deaconesses to the modern practice of hiring attractive women to work makeup counters. Visitors also wrote about the immaculate cleanliness and orderliness of all Shaker premises. 

Men and women used stairways on the opposite sides of community dwellings, and slept in chambers on the gender-specific side of the hallway. Rules prohibited men and women being alone together or touching, and members who witnessed such infractions were supposed to report them. Such rules caused many members to leave voluntarily, without being turned in. A few were expelled for fornication, and one woman who left pregnant was a blot on the history of the entire village. Interestingly, while all couples who left were not heterosexual, in thousands of pages of Shaker diaries Wergland did not find one reference to anything more than "intimate friendship" among women. 

Louisa May Alcott's mother wrote that the Harvard Massachusetts Shaker women were reserved, stiff and awkward, while the men were distinguished and confident. While Alcott may have been somewhat correct, Wergland believes it is possible that she was projecting her own life with a Transcendentalist husband on the Shakers. In a painting from 1873 called Sisters Folding Laundry, visitor J. Becker showed women in work clothes hard at work, with a man in his Sunday best stands idle. Wergland encouraged the audience to wonder what the artist may have been trying to tell us. 

Visitor accounts imply that while Shaker women worked every waking hour, some men, especially elders, had the leisure of sitting around and chatting. Still, most were diligent, as evidenced by the well-kept roads, farms cultivated better than any others around, and the "finest and fattest livestock in the whole country." Shaker women worked with the contextually uncommon luxury of sinks, pumps, industrial strength-stoves and mechanical lifts that raised wet wash into the attic for drying, all installed by brethren. Gender roles were complementary, and partnerships appeared to run smoothly most of the time. Visitors were often surprised that Shakers did not give off the slightest tangible mark of discontent. 

Still, even visitors who found the Shakers strictly moral and impressively industrious derided their style of worship. Worldly women describe Shaker women less generously than men did, finding their style of dress dreadfully old-fashioned. Actress Fanny Kemble called them ugly, while Fanny Longfellow objectified them by comparing them to jointed dolls. Such worldly women neither understood the modesty, humility and chastity in Shaker dress, nor the concept of Shaker union. 

Frederick Marriott wrote that the women appeared melancholy and unnatural, despite having all the same advantages as the men. They had exercise and labor in the open air, good food and clothing, and were not overworked, yet appeared pallid in stark contrast to the ruddy and strong appearance of the men. Wergland claimed that this prevalent cadeveric-yellow tinge could only be accounted for by tuberculosis among solely women. 

The sisters' appearance was not the only thing outsiders criticized. Congregationalists did not dance, twirl or turn in Sunday services in the 18th century, yet Shakers in the 1780s moved as the spirit moved them. Their manner of service, with groaning, turning arms, some dancing, other prostrated on the floor, was entirely new. This "enthusiasm," as Wergland put it, horrified mainstream Protestants who considered Shakers fanatics. 

Shaker women reacted to intruding outsiders in ways that would have been seriously unacceptable for women in the outside world. William Plummer wrote an account of the Shaker Sabbath in which a visitor grabbed a shaking sister and tried to hold her immobile in order to test whether or not her trembling was caused by a supernatural impulse as she claimed. Another sister whirled around him, sticking out her tongue and hissing until he left. A third account reveals a sister shouting "shoo devil" at an outsider who was bothering her. Despite their Shaker commitment to chastity, humility, celibacy and union, the sisters took full advantage of their right and ability to assert themselves. 

-- by Mariam Ballout '10







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