Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Hope / Hopedale

Last semester I took a course on 19th Century Unitarian and Universalist thought. I audited the course but my very generous and supportive professor allowed me to act as if the course were for credit so I could get a grade and get his feedback. For my final paper, I did primary source research into the Hopedale Community, a 19th Century Socialist Pacifist Abolitionist Temperance Feminist Christian community in Massachusetts led by Adin Ballou.

I was interested in the way that the community balanced the values of duty or obligation against the dictates of individual conscience. I was also interested in how concretely they put their feminist values into action. Like many utopian communities associated with Unitarian Universalism, they believed in compensating women for their labor outside the home, but remarkably, they also compensated mothers for the raising of infants and for household tasks. While there were gender divisions--men didn't take up pots and pans--women did assume leadership within the community and carry out work traditionally assigned to men.

Abby Price was one of their most outspoken leaders, and she had a lot to say at major national feminist conventions, particularly about the way that economic injustice led to moral ills such as prostitution. Really, really gripping stuff--ahead of its time in so many ways.

Anyway, I wanted to share my conclusion from the paper because I used it as an opportunity to diverge from the academic issues into the question of why someplace like Hopedale matters. The paper had some errors but got an A (stands for Awesome, btw). I learned a lot.


Hopedale’s Relevance Today

The Hopedale Collection of Hymns and Songs for Practical Christians contains a hymn by Abby H. Price which reads in part:

Intemp’rance be demolished,
See the light, how it breaks,
And oppression all abolished,
See the light;
Let earth’s poor sons and daughters,
See the light, how it breaks,
Drink free salvations waters,
See the light;
Come of Savior! hasten on,
Make earth a happy home.

When she prayed, “Make of our earth a happy home,” Price evoked the love of an egalitarian family as a model of hope for the wider world. Violence, domination, and individualism make for unhappy homes and unjust political systems. While Hopedale’s interpretation of these “family values” would necessarily have been challenged to include same-sex partnerships and other family structures not recognized during this time period, it is clear that the underlying foundation of love, equality, respect and mutuality are the ingredients of joyful homes and a better world.

Beyond Hopedale’s boundaries of geography and time, feminists have struggled to address inequality at all levels of human interaction. The battles that were easiest to win were those that were fought on male terms—opening male spheres to women while demanding few changes to the way women and men organized and ran their households. Feminist victories in demanding support for children and mothers would have affected women of all economic classes, but these reforms have been much slower in coming. Opposition by men to granting women the right to vote was overcome long before women earned the right to be free from violence in their homes. As a society we have yet to embrace our responsibility to children. While social safety nets do exist, they are tattered. Our politics continues to idealize an elitist construction of motherhood that encourages affluent and highly-educated women to stay at home with their children or pay for expensive private childcare and preschools, while offering shoddy subsidized childcare and demonization to poor women, judging them as bad mothers for “leeching” off the welfare system to provide for their children’s basic needs.

Contemporary platitudes claim that “children are our future,” yet today we fail to provide children with the richness of opportunity and nurturance provided at Hopedale over a century and a half ago. It is hard to imagine what it would look like if the boundary between home and workplace were as fluid as the boundaries between family and community at Hopdeale—if baby swings hung from the doorways of meeting rooms and teenagers were invested with the responsibility of providing moral instruction to younger children. It’s nearly unthinkable that mothers might be compensated by their community for the labor involved in nursing and nurturing infants. And it is considered both radical and self-serving to call for free communal childcare for all parents, in order to maximize their contributions to the broader workforce, while offering flexible hours to parents to allow them to maximize the time they spend raising their children.

Paradoxically today, all kinds of individualistic decisions are justified through reference to our children—we close our doors, buy “safer” SUVs and speak of “doing what’s best for my family.” With the best of intentions and often with painful deliberation, parents blessed with resources and therefore options are confronted with choices that force us to weigh our individual children’s needs against broader community goods. We could learn a lot from Hopedale, which did not romanticize childhood or use child-raising as an excuse for indulging in selfishness. Parents were also not expected to be any more selfless than other members of the community. They were not expected to sacrifice their own fulfillment at the altar of raising perfect children, nor to sacrifice their children in the name of personal fulfillment.

If the residents of Hopedale failed to multiply and replicate their experiment, they did multiply their beliefs through the most common means—their children themselves. While most of Hopedale’s children grew up to lead rather ordinary lives, their memories of Hopedale are among the community’s most evocative and moving documents. Some stayed in the community, others moved on. Lucy Ballou Heywood and her husband devoted themselves to the task of editing Adin Ballou’s unpublished works and distributing them to libraries around the country. Hopedale’s children kept the community’s ideas alive.

It would behoove those of us who work for justice, peace and equality to do so not only through our public efforts, but through the most basic means by which we can transmit moral lessons into the future: our children. As we face new ecological and political challenges, our children will be saddled with the work of solving problems we and our parents set into motion. On the most literal level, the future depends on the values we instill in the next generation.

As we face our future, we must recognize that individualism and freedom must be balanced against the values of sacrifice, duty, and interdependence. Children are both a physical gift to the future, and among our greatest teachers of these values. Freedom means nothing to a parent cradling an infant who is not hungry, has a clean diaper, and is not in pain. Sometimes babies cry, and sometimes we must learn humility about the limits of our power. We are humbled, and also strengthened by our children. Not only my children, but all children are a gift from God sent to teach us about sacrifice and love. We owe it to them to learn this lesson.

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