In the previous post, I introduced some prominent groups in the United States which practiced non-mono relationships, either celibacy or poly relationships. In this post, I will discuss how groups who sometimes had very different ideas about how to do non-monogamy became allies.
Their Rejection of Monogamy Was a Part of a Greater Context
None of these groups rejected monogamy just for the sake of rejecting monogamy – they all saw it as a part of something bigger. This was all going on as the United States was becoming an industrialized society.
Ann Lee herself, the founder of the Shakers, grew up in Manchester, England. When she was born, Manchester still had a predominantly agricultural economy, but by the time she left Manchester, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and the living conditions of the working classes was far more miserable than the lives of the townspeople Ann Lee would have known as a young girl. It has even been speculated that, due to the increasingly crowded living conditions in Manchester caused by the industrial revolution, sex became increasingly public, and problems caused by unplanned pregnancies became increasingly obvious, and that all of this might have led Ann Lee to have become more anti-sex than she might have been if she had been born a century earlier. Though the Shakers are best known nowadays for their crafts and for being celibate, there is a reason why they rejected private property, and to a large extent they were trying to create an economic model which could compete with capitalism while being much more humane. Shakerism greatly influenced Karl Marx and other communist intellectuals. In fact, it could be argued that the greatest impact Shakerism had on the world was economic (or rather, the way people thought about economics).
It was not just the Shakers – all of these groups rejected the institution of private property to some degree. Even the Mormons, who in the 20th century gained a reputation for being anti-Communist, experimented with abolishing private property in the 19th century. And all of these groups considered private property and monogamous marriage to be so deeply intertwined that one could not truly eliminate private property without also eliminating monogamy. To them, the purpose of monogamous marriage was to sustain private property over multiple generations, and to assert men’s ownership of women.
That brings us to another issue – all of these groups were much more strongly in favor of gender equality than mainstream American society in the 19th century. Most of these groups saw monogamous marriage as one of the primary ways that men oppressed women, which for them was all the more reason to reject monogamy.
I do NOT think it is a coincidence that the Icarians – the only major ‘communitarian’ group which not only practiced monogamy, but which forbade poly relationships and was also anti-celibacy – was also the only group which did not allow women to vote in community governance meetings.
Nowadays the Mormons have a reputation for sexist, but in the 19th century Mormon women had more rights and privileges in the Mormon community than most American women did in their communities. For example, the 19th Century Mormons supported women’s education, and said that if women had adequate education, they could do many things just as well as men. Mormon women could vote in community affairs, and Utah had women’s suffrage in 1870 – only one other state/territory in the USA (Wyoming) granted women’s suffrage even earlier than that. I’m not an expert on Mormon history, but I wonder whether or not it is a coincidence that they gave up the practice of plural marriage around the same time they became more supportive of capitalism and less supportive of gender equity than mainstream USA society.
(Side note: I used to think that polygyny was inherently more patriarchal than monogamy – I no longer think this. There are certain polygynous systems which are less patriarchal than certain monogamous systems – for example, the polygynous 19th century Mormons were less patriarchal than the monogamous Icarians. What matters is the details, not whether it’s polygyny or monogamy).
In addition to being concerned about economic justice and women’s rights, all of these groups also tended to support other ‘liberal’ causes of the day, especially abolitionism (that made things really interesting when these non-mono groups tried to set up communities in the South – especially if it was a community which accepted black members). Vegetarianism was also very common – for example, many Shaker communities set aside a table in the dining room just for vegetarian members of the communities – and most of the Oneida Perfectionists were vegetarians. There were even a few people who nowadays would be labelled as ‘vegans’ or ‘animal rights activists’ (most famously Amos Bronson Alcott).
So How Did These Groups Ally with Each Other?
First of all, everybody loved the Shakers. They were the oldest and most visibly successful of all these groups, and everybody wanted to copy at least some aspects of Shakerism. Sometimes the Shakers responded to this by saying “well, since you think we are so wonderful, why don’t you join us?” Obviously, some of the people who admired the Shakers did not want to, for example, take vows of celibacy, which is one reason why they set up their own communities rather than just join the Shakers.
The 18th century Shakers wanted to withdraw from the world, not participate in it. In fact, withdrawing from the world was an important strategy for them, since they were often assaulted, particularly during the American Revolution when they were often suspected of being agents of the British (in truth, the Shakers were neutral in the American Revolution, and refused to fight on the behalf of either side of the war). In the middle of the 19th century, the Shakers were much more involved in worldly affairs, for example, many Shakers were abolitionists who worked with non-Shaker abolitionists (Frederick William Evans is the most famous of the Shaker abolitionists).
These groups sometimes traded communities with each other – for example, the Harmony Society sold one of their communities (by ‘community’ I mean ‘land and buildings’ and not people) to the Owenites (who named it ‘New Harmony’). Also, when people became dissatisfied with one group, or when a community failed, it was common for them to move to a different group.
The Shakers used the Gospel of Matthew (22:30) to justify their rejection of marriage – and since they did not support sex without marriage, that also meant no sex. John Humphrey Noyes, the leader of the Oneida Perfectionists, used the very same line in the gospel as evidence of why monogamous marriage is wrong – but to him, it said nothing about sex, which meant that sex was still okay.
I find the relationship between the Shakers and the Perfectionists a perfect example of how celibate and poly groups could be allies. On the one hand, the Oneida Perfectionists, like everyone else, loved the Shakers. When the Oneida community finally dissolved, some of them chose to join the Shakers (in particular, the ones who believed that ‘special love’ was wrong thought that it was better to be celibate than to enter a monogamous marriage). Likewise, when there was an organized campaign against Oneida community, some of the local Shakers came to their defence, and one say that the Oneida complex marriage was “vastly purer than some of the most respectable marriages of today” which demonstrates that, to some Shakers, monogamy was more abhorrent than sex, and that they did not consider poly sexual relationships any more immoral/sinful than mono sexual relationships.
The Attacks Were the Same
Even though these non-monogamous groups were so diverse, many of their critics launched the same kinds of attacks on them. For example, the Shakers were sometimes accused of being harlots and promiscuous because they allowed unmarried men and women to live together (did the critics not get the part about Shakers being celibate, or did they simply refuse to believe that men and women could live together without having sex?)
Likewise, even though the Oneida Perfectionists were the most enthusiastic about having multiple sexual partners, some of their critics accused them of emasculating and reducing the sexual ability of their men (to be fair, this may have had more to do with the Oneida Perfectionists’ peculiar birth control method – which was actually as effective as modern day birth control pills at preventing pregnancy – as with the Oneida Perfectionists’ rejection of monogamy).
Often, one group was pitted against another, with rhetoric like ‘even the ghastly Mormons maintain the distinction between husband and wife, unlike free love commune over there’.
So, next time…
Though I know something about the practice of non-mono relationships in the United States in the 20th century, I know nothing about how non-mono groups with different philosophies related to each other. Therefore, I am going to skip the 20th century completely, and go straight to the 21st century in the next part of the series.