Women of the Wisconsin Phalanx


Holding to Fourier’s philosophy, many leaders of the Wisconsin Phalanx aimed to create equality among the sexes. However a variety of forces worked against this and in the end Ceresco’s women fared somewhat-- but not much-- better than their counterparts elsewhere in the territory.

Numerous women were attracted to the rural setting of the community because it offered the safety and cleanliness that cities could not. The high moral standards associated with the phalanx drew in families looking to raise children. Single women like Charlotte and Harriet Haven were attracted to the simplicity of frontier life and felt the phalanx offered the pioneer type of lifestyle once experienced in the American west. Other single women were attracted to the opportunity to meet like-minded bachelors.

The first women who arrived at Ceresco came to meet their husbands who left home earlier to create the settlement. While they did not hold a lot of influence over the administration of the phalanx they understood that owning of property would increase their rights. After purchasing monetary stock in the phalanx and land, they were given limited voting rights within the community. By doing so, they aimed to improve women’s rights at the phalanx and hoped to serve as an example to other women in the state searching for new liberties.

Phalanx president Warren B. Chase led these women to the Constitutional Convention of 1846 to challenge limited married-women’s property rights. They also stood for granting tAfrican-Americans the right to vote, and the abolishment of capital punishment. Unfortunately, there was not enough support for their causes within the Wisconsin Territory. Territorial laws took precedence over those of the phalanx, meaning that even if all the men of Ceresco wanted to grant women more individual rights, they likely could not. Specifically, the community was forbidden by these territorial laws from allowing women to serve on their councils and committees.

Instead of being involved administratively in the phalanx, women’s work roles were confined to domestic ones. They were expected to make housing attractive and welcoming. Their duties included cooking and cleaning and the Council specified that they be paid as little as possible .

Some became frustrated over the lack of control they had over their own finances. They were unable to receive the supplies needed for standard domestic upkeep. Most purchases needed to be approved by the Council, who had little concern for women’s suggestions even those who owned stock and land. Married women struggled to raise families under these conditions while single women were taken advantage of even more.

Single women were expected to work rather than participate at social events because they did not have family responsibilities to take care of. They still remained underpaid despite their additional efforts. Their so-called volunteering often forced them into caring for the ill citizens within the phalanx and maintaining the level of upkeep of common buildings. Although they were compassionate and willing to help, documentation suggests there was little appreciation shown to these women.

In time, both married and single women grew tired of the monotonous work they performed. Due to overwork and underpay several women and teenage girls in 1848 decided to stop coming to work in the dining hall causing strife in the community. The collapse of the dining hall system reveals just how influential females were in the survival of Ceresco.

While many factors contributed to the fall of the Wisconsin Phalanx, the lack of equality for women may have been underappreciated. In addition to other flaws, the phalanx which originally was committed to equality failed again to stand by one of its own guiding principles.

PRIMARY SOURCES

The Letters of Charlotte Mason (nee' Haven) reveals how a single woman lived at the phalanx. She details her daily experiences and also gives a slightly detailed diagram of where buildiings were located and what they looked like. There are more documents available from Charlotte Mason at the archives if you are interested. The following images each link to one of her letters.

October 16, 1848
Charlotte Haven Mason Papers,
1846-1850
Oshkosh SC 95
UW Oshkosh Archives and Area Research Center

July 8, 1849
Charlotte Haven Mason Papers,
1846-1850
Oshkosh SC 95
UW Oshkosh Archives and Area Research Center

 

Table of Contents

1. Development
2. Geography and Physical Description
3. Rules and Regulations
4. Labor
5. Women of Ceresco
6. Religion at the Phalanx
7. Demise of the Wisconsin Phalanx

Other Resources

Recommendations for Ceresco Research Questions and Projects

Annotated Bibliography