Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons

“Gentiles rush in where Saints fear to tread” might be a good summary for Lawrence Foster’s Women, Family, and Utopia. Drawing on his research published in Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981) and previously published articles, Foster looks at women in the Shaker, Oneida, and Mormon communities. Despite Foster’s efforts to provide a continuing thread to tie the theories together, the book still reads like disconnected essays.

The information is not all a rehash, though. Foster “updates” the chapters by including modern feminist jargon and trying to imagine how women of today would view the positions of their sisters in the past. With respect to the Mormons, he believes that the Church gave women liberating opportunities in the nineteenth century but is repressive today, and he attempts to analyze data according to that hypothesis. Foster, however, fails to recognize that Mormon women in the past were not as emancipated as he supposes, and he oversimplifies the complex queries female Latter-day Saints deal with today.

Yet he is willing to ask the hard questions about women in the Mormon Church, past and present, that some “inside” scholars might shy away from. Foster at least gives us a point from which to begin a discussion.

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