The Women of Brook Farm

Historian Marilyn Richardson and the Women of Brook Farm, March 2019

In collaboration with the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, we have created a program of readings drawn from the journals, letters, books, and interviews by some of the women who lived at and visited Brook Farm. We have presented The Women of Brook at the Brook Farm Historic Site, the Loring-Greenough House and Jamaica Plain Public Library in Jamaica Plain, and the Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church in West Roxbury. Through a grant from MassHumanities, we presented at the Cambridge Public Library on November 4, 2018 and at the Rozzie Square Theater in Roslindale, MA on March 9, 2019. Both presentations were followed by a community discussion.

The Progressive Status of Women at Brook Farm

Brook Farm was one of many such “communes” of that era, based on egalitarian principals and promising through its constitution that “all rights, privileges, guarantees, and obligations of members…shall be understood to belong equally to both sexes.” This was not fully realized (for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne was excused from milking cows in order to spend more time on his writing, while no women was excused from her menial labor). However, women and men received equal pay for their work, and women could be shareholders. While most of the labor divided on traditional gender lines, women worked in the fields during planting and harvest, and men could be found doing the laundry and washing dishes.  It was said that during the frequent dances, clothespins would drop out of the men’s pockets.  All labor was thought to be dignified.

Brook Farm women were among the first to wear pantaloons (or bloomers) for work.

Women especially found opportunities at Brook Farm for personal growth and development that were rarely available to them anywhere else in American society before the Civil War. While Brook Farmer Charles Dana may have been exaggerating when he claimed that Brook Farmers had “abolished domestic servitude,” no accounts by women have survived in which domestic responsibilities in the community are spoken of disparagingly. This is unique among the New England communities of the time.

The key reason seems to be that most Brook Farm women were single. There were only four married couples out of 70 living there in 1844. And most of the single women were young, between the ages of 16 and 22. They had chosen to be there, enjoyed the many educational, cultural and social opportunities available at the commune and in nearby Boston, and could leave whenever they wished. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, single women in America were afforded considerable freedom, while married women were “confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence.”

The women we reenact in our program are: