When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.
—Alexis de Tocqueville
Windward started in the mid-’70s as an anti-war protest with the goal of creating a sustainable way of living that didn’t support the military-industrial war machine. Over the years, we’ve had our ups and down as we worked out our plans, experienced how practice differed from theory, and then used what we’d learned to craft new plans.
In 2011, we reached a milestone as the last of the old crew handed off the operational leadership of the community to a new generation. Being part of the previous leadership team, I would like to claim that we survived as a community because of the exceptional quality of our wisdom and insight, but the reality is that much of Windward’s ability to survive where so many other communities didn’t came from our willingness to seek out and build on the hard-won experiences of those who traveled this path before us. By studying their successes and failures, we were able to avoid some of the perils that undermined them.
Since stepping down from a leadership role, I’ve been spending time delving more deeply into the origins of the concepts—the memes—that enabled Windward to weather the social changes of the past four decades. I’ve come to think of that research as a process of tracing the origins of Windward’s meme set. A memeology is like a genealogy, in that the further back one looks, the more ancestors one finds; some were heroes, some were fools, and lots were just people who did the best they could. Still, given enough data, key patterns emerge over time; I’m writing to share some of what I’ve gleaned from that study.
Like many other successful communities, Windward’s founding was inspired by a book that offered a vision so inspiring that people wanted to use it as a blueprint for building their own community. For Windward, that book was Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the story of a lunar colony that fights for independence. Central to the story is a polyamorous line family that manages a farm and gets caught up in the struggle. The story resonated because many of those who founded Windward identified as self-emancipated “orphans” who hungered for a family of choice, a social structure that could provide that elusive combination of security and freedom we needed in order to become more fully ourselves. The concept of the line family suggested a way to achieve that.
I’ve come to believe that the modern polyamory movement grew out of Heinlein’s work, most notably from Stranger in a Strange Land and Harsh Mistress. Some poly folk who identified strongly with Stranger went on to found the Church of All Worlds and coin the term “polyamory”; others who identified more strongly with Harsh Mistress went on to found Windward.
A key question for me was what led Heinlein to the style of relationship that we now refer to as polyamory, and perhaps more importantly, what convinced him that polyamory was viable at the community level? I found a clue in Heinlein’s reference to the similarity between Stranger’s fictional “Church of All Worlds” and the real life Oneida Community of upstate New York—a group marriage of 300 people that lasted from 1848 to 1878.
Oneida Led the Way
Of the hundreds of intentional communities founded in New England since the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Oneida Community stands out as a remarkable success. For any would-be community that’s struggled to put people first and still pay the bills, their financial success was beyond impressive. However, it was their achievements in the arena of women’s rights that I find most encouraging for those who want to create a community in which people come together as equals.
Some tangible examples of their accomplishments include the Lazy Susan—which they invented and used in their dining hall to help feed 300 people at a sitting—and non-rusting spoons and forks—which they developed to the point where Oneida Ltd. became the world’s leading producer of tableware for more than a century.
I believe key elements in their success were the advances they achieved in the quality of life enjoyed by the women of Oneida. In a time when most women spent a day a week doing laundry by hand, the Oneidans built machines that washed their clothes and dishes. Whereas in the mid 19th century very few homes had running water and indoor plumbing, Oneida even had a Turkish bath. Household chores were done by all. Breaking away from the rigid gender roles of the times, at Oneida you’d see men doing childcare and women doing manufacturing. The community was fully literate, and they even created an early form of person-to-person messaging which presaged email. They built their 93,000-square-foot residence themselves, sewed their own clothes—even made their own shoes and dentures.
In their startup winter of 1848-49, they were so financially strapped that the men had to sell their pocket watches to buy enough food to make it through the winter. By the late 1860s, the community’s annual sales had exceeded a million dollars. To put that in perspective, imagine an intentional community today growing their own food, producing their own housing, clothing, and furniture, and on top of that, creating more than $15 million worth of goods for sale!
All that would have been enough to earn the Oneida Community a place of renown in the history of intentional communities, but their monetary achievements pale alongside the degree to which Oneida empowered its women members. In the late 1840s, respectable women wore waist-length hair, a maintenance challenge which could consume an hour a day. Custom required women to wear corsets and dresses weighing upwards of 20 pounds. The women who founded Oneida rebelled against such constraints—they cut their hair to shoulder length, wore pantaloons, and got on with the effort of creating their community.
But these were just things that were visible from the outside. The community formed in a time when women were the property of their fathers or husbands, and Oneida did away with that by embracing the radical proposition that women are not property. The community even wrote and published a remarkable one-act play comparing the institutions of slavery and marriage in the 1850s by making a strong case that there was no moral difference between the two.
More than a century ago, the women of the Oneida Community women enjoyed their own sexual revolution. At the height of the Victorian age, when it was widely believed that decent women lacked sexual desire, sexual intercourse was believed to be inherently damaging to women. Well, the women of Oneida didn’t buy it; instead, they developed a form of tantric practice, later known as karezza, in which they enjoyed sexual intercourse multiple times a week in sessions lasting up to an hour each. This practice enabled women to enjoy multiple orgasms while the men practiced the self-discipline needed to not ejaculate during coitus.
A key goal of this practice was to free women from the nearly constant state of pregnancy commonplace during that time. Men who lacked the necessary skill and self-control needed to avoid undesired pregnancies were referred to the eldresses for remedial training, and none of the younger women would have sex with any man who couldn’t first demonstrate his competence to the eldresses. The Oneidans’ sexual practice was so successful that the rate of unintentional pregnancies ran around one per 150 women per year—a rate similar to using an IUD1 to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Oneida’s technique proved to be such a successful form of birth control that the Comstock Laws were passed to make it a felony for the community to publish the details of their sexual practice.
In 1878, when the community had been practicing this form of group marriage for 30 years, an independent gynecologist did a study2 of the health of the Oneida women and found “hysteria to be remarkably absent.” He also noted that “I have been told by the lady members that the practice of male continence was popular among the females.” Still, given the sex-hostile tenor of the times, the most he was willing to say in his published report was that his study of the women of Oneida found “negative evidence of harm.”
And so, when people ask the question, “Is it really possible for a group of polyamorous folk to make a go of it?” the Oneida Community allows us to confidently answer, “Absolutely, and Oneida is proof.”
Learning from the Oneida Nation
If it’s true that the Oneida Community inspired Heinlein, then this leads to the question of where did Oneida’s vision of a better way come from? And what gave them sufficient confidence in such a radical plan that they were willing to adopt it? Did they conceive of such a fundamentally different social order all on their own?
My search for these answers led me to the Haudenosaunee League, also known as the Iroquois Confederation,3 which had long embodied concepts such as equality between men and women and the empowerment of eldresses. At the time of the American Revolution, the Haudenosaunee were the most powerful military force in North America. For centuries, this defensive alliance of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes established and kept what they called the Great Peace, a confederation that ended warfare between the member tribes and successfully discouraged other tribes from attacking them.
In the early 1840s, the Oneida Nation sold most of its land to the State of New York, and three quarters of the tribe moved to Wisconsin. In 1848, the nucleus of what became the Oneida Community purchased land straddling Oneida Creek and moved there to build an intentional community in the midst of the Oneidas who stayed behind. As the fledgling community worked out their new way of life, the women of the Oneida Community were understandably influenced by the living example of their neighbors—the women of the Oneida Nation.
The first wave of feminists—women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage—grew up in the midst of the Haudenosaunee culture. The first women’s rights conference was held in Seneca Falls, New York, the heart of the Haudenosaunee. The equal status these white women wanted to acquire didn’t arise from some utopian vision, but from the recognition that legal equality, sexual autonomy, and individual sovereignty were rights that Haudenosaunee women already enjoyed. In effect, they wanted the same rights their neighbors already had and they campaigned so that some day they too could own property, have income, and retain custody of their children.4
But the women of the Oneida Community went further; they didn’t wait for the establishment to grant them equality. Inspired by the women of the Oneida Nation, they cut their hair, threw away their corsets, and got on with living the life they wanted. For example, they adopted a liberating style of dress that was a modern version of the loose tunic and leggings worn by native women. The authority of the Oneida Community’s eldresses over the sexual life of the community mirrored the authority that the clan mothers exercised over the sexual life of their tribe. If an Oneida Community woman became pregnant, the child was raised by the mother’s community just as Haudenosaunee children were raised by the mother’s clan.
I believe that the women of the Oneida Community were beneficiaries of the Oneida Nation’s matrilocal structure, a set of memes that enabled both groups of women to enjoy a degree of equality and sexual autonomy that mainstream women couldn’t imagine. Their success inspired Heinlein to use the memes they embodied to create the vision of the polyamorous line family that formed the heart of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. That in turn inspired the women who created Windward to develop an organization founded on the concept of the comadre—a core of strong, connected women surrounded by a select group of men they love and respect.
Every family’s history can be seen as a mixed record of the best that could be done at the time given the limited information and options at hand—but history can also function as a sort of operator’s manual illustrating what worked and what didn’t. When gleaning the historical record for insights and guidance about available options, it’s important to be kind and appreciate the inevitable separation between what people intend to do and what actually happened. Sometimes they got it right, and sometimes they didn’t, and sometimes they discovered new challenges they’d never imagined going in.
The impressive achievements of both sets of Oneidan women are part of the factual record, but the question of why these communities later underwent radical change is necessarily subjective. Accordingly, much of what follows is speculation offered for your consideration.
Any society that imposes passive roles has to deal with the passive aggressive behaviors that will manifest and undermine community relationships. Young women embody the power of youthful sexuality, while the eldresses embody the power of experiential wisdom. Without a stable structure that protects the interests of both groups, trust is difficult to build, and when trust is lost, communities wither and die. My analysis is that much of the power of both groups of Oneida women grew out of the strong alliance created between the younger and older women. Their matrilocal structure was effective at creating social harmony and mutual support among the women, who by acting jointly were able to appoint, control, and—when they chose to do so—“knock the horns off” the men they’d chosen to represent them.
In dyadic cultures, where people pair off as couples, there’s a tendency to look for the one person who can meet one’s every need, and there’s never enough of those to go around. In polyamorous line families such as Oneida and Windward, no individual person has to be able to do it all—they just have to be good company and pull their weight. If someone turns out to be mean, lazy, or disrespectful, the women can toss them out. In the case of one fellow who wouldn’t listen to Oneida’s eldresses, he got tossed out a second story window into a snow bank.
When forming a new community, it’s tempting to “copy and paste” some successful community’s social structure, but that’s a risky thing to do in that it’s easy to get tripped up by the unrecognized assumptions that were woven into the foundation of that community. For example, the Oneida Nation believed they were being guided by the Great Spirit, and the Oneida Community believed they were being guided by the Apostle Paul. It isn’t necessary for us to believe that either was actually the case in order to benefit from their lived experience. Regardless of the source of their inspiration, the women of both Oneidas have much to teach those who wish to lead tomorrow’s communities. Studying their successes and failures is crucial because those who wish to lead must never cease to learn.
Today, what remains of the Oneida Nation in New York runs a casino, and Oneida tableware is made in China; what factors caused such a sad transformation? My conclusion is that the key element is that both groups prospered as long as their young women maintained their alliance with the older women. When that tradition fell away, and the young women started following the romantic narrative and entering into dyadic relationships independent of the older women, their communities fell apart. Whatever the reason, that later development doesn’t diminish the magnitude of what the courageous women of both Oneidas accomplished. Their courage set a powerful example for the strong, sensual, and wise women5 of today who feel called to celebrate what their memetic foremothers accomplished, and then build on it to go even further.
Note: For those interested in studying the Oneida legacy, Windward offers three-month on-site apprenticeships; visit windward.org for details.
During the War in Vietnam, Walt Patrick got into building sustainable community as a way to protest the violence of the military-industrial complex, and served on Windward’s Board of Directors for more than 30 years. In 2011, he retired from active leadership of the community, and spends much of his time working on developing energy sovereignty based on the community-scale utilization of woody biomass; details at biomass2methanol.org.
1 Annual success rates: rhythm–75 percent; condoms–85 percent; pill–92 percent; IUD–99.2 percent; Oneida–99.3 percent; tubal ligation–99.5 percent.
2 “Gynecological Study of the Oneida Community,” Dr. E van der Warker, American Journal of Obstetrics, August 1884.
3 Whites referred to the Haudenosaunee, “The People of the Long House,” as the Iroquois Confederation.
4 See Iroquois Native American Cultural Influences in Promoting Women’s Rights Ideologies 19th and 20th of July, 1848. Hagan, Center of the American West, University of Colorado-Boulder.
5 Even patriarchal tribes such as the Blackfeet respected “manly-hearted” women who embodied the traits of “aggressiveness, independence, ambition, boldness and sexuality.” See “Manly-hearted Women Among the North Piegan.” Dr. O. Lewis, American Anthropology, 1942.