The Women of Fairhope. Women of Fairhope, by Paul M. Gaston. Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures, No. 25. with foreword by Wayne Mixon. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984, 143 pages).
By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Vol. 7, No. 3, 1985, pp. 38-40
The charm of Paul Gaston’s The Women of Fairhope resembles that of treasured stories. Reading it makes you wish that you could have heard the lectures on which it is based. But whatever may have been lost in the translation from spoken to written form, the haunting attraction of the lives of the women he evokes has withstood the test. The grandson of the founder of the single-tax colony of Fairhope, Alabama, Professor Gaston knew the community to which they were bound. His loving tribute to them constitutes his tribute to the values of Fairhope itself, but his choice of women about whom to write reflects a historian’s self-imposed critical distance on what must be a very personal legacy.
For, if in writing of the lives of Nancy Lewis, Marie Howland, and Marietta Jackson, Professor Gaston is recreating three lives and telling three touching stories, he is also, very gently–almost too gently–saying something about the nature, limits, and interweaving of different women’s experiences in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. None of these women would, in the normal course of events, be taken as a preeminent historical figure: none, that is, would be taken to command a place in a standard history of the period. Yet each was extraordinary
and significant, each a woman of courage, determination, imagination.
Fairhope, founded in 1894, does not figure in the familiar histories of “utopian” communities in the United States, not least because of its dates. By the time Fairhope was founded, Americans had been pouring their reformist impulses into such “mainstream” movements as populism and the Knights of Labor. And the even broader Progressive movement, with its attendant movements for social reform, was underway. Fairhope came too late to fit comfortably into the mold of utopian settlement typified by the Owenities’ New Lanark and John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida. Perhaps then, it was too practical–too insufficiently utopian. Professor Gaston is planning to tell the story of Fairhope itself in another book, and he here he drops only those portions he deems essential to his story.
Located on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, Fairhope embodied “a plan for justice and equal rights [that] emerged from the same ferment that spawned new movements in the late nineteenth century for women’s liberation.” The plan called for a proper balance between communitarianism and individualism, including equal rights for women and men. By the 1920s, among its many other attributes, it boasted a newspaper, a library, and two schools, one public, one private. Its women, although entitled to equal access to employment, appear to have followed the patterns of the larger society they were hoping to reform by example: only a shade more than one quarter of their adult numbers worked outside the home. Nor did they inaugurate any “grand domestic revolution” of the kind favored by radical reformers who sought to abolish entirely private kitchens and other arenas of women’s isolated, unpaid labor. Rather, most of Fairhope’s women appear to have favored the “social feminism” that was gaining such currency in the country at large.
The women’s Fairhope that emerges from Professor Gaston’s pages resembles nothing so much as a rarified realization of the dream of many Progressive, white, middleclass women. And even that modest, respectable dream required hothouse conditions. The women appear to have enjoyed the freedom to speak their minds without censure, to develop their physical and mental capacities, and to participate in their community as full individuals without the imprisoning dictates of gender that still curtailed the activities of many middle-class American women. Even with this freedom, the women–or perhaps the men, or the community as a whole–still held to conventional gender divisions. Fairhope offered no Fourieriste utopia of free love. The women’s freedom lay in living with one man and raising his children in economic security. Nor did these women see their own economic independence as a prerequisite for the equality they sought, however much Marie Howland tried to instruct them in its importance. They delighted in that elusive but persistent American dream of a small self-sufficient town, inhabited by contented and secure white families. They even delighted in private property, in conformity with Henry George’s single-tax doctrine, while supporting large community undertakings. This Progressive dream-down to the fragile balance between social science and William Morris-has had a tenacious career, which, as Professor Gaston ruefully avers, excluded blacks (and although he does not explicitly say so, apparently also excluded immigrant workers). It was the American dream without the “social” and “racial” problem.
Professor Gaston marvelously captures the spirit and dreams of Marie Howland and Marietta Jackson as part of the essence of Fairhope. In Fairhope, Howland, born Hannah Marie Stevens in 1836, ended a career that exemplified American reform and included “Lowell cotton mills; New York radical and literary salons; an industrial utopia in France; a rural New Jersey command post of reform agitation and happy living; a colony in Mexico devoted to ‘integral cooperation.”‘ A passionate, vibrant woman, Howland arrived in Fairhope with two marriages, varied experiences, a persisting loyalty to Fourieriste principles, and numerous writings including the novel Papa’s Own Girl (The Familistere in its third edition) to her credit. Her second marriage to Edward Howland, rather than her own employment, accounted for her financial resources and the thousand volumes that she gave to form the core of the Fairhope library. Fairhope thus crowned her career and, in important respects, embodied many of the abiding commitments that had informed her forays into other reform movements. Her experience, talents, and compelling personality earned her an important position in the colony and regular access to the pages of the Courier, of which she became associate editor. Above all, she stimulated the Fairhope women’s consciousness of themselves as women. Under her inspiration, they organized a panoply of social feminist women’s clubs, including the Ladies’ Henry George Club, the Women’s Single Tax Club, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Women’s Suffrage Society, the Women’s Social Science Club, and more.
If Fairhope provided the capstone for Marie Howland’s career, it provided the stage and substance for that of Marietta Jackson, who, born in 1864, arrived from Minnesota in 1902 with her husband and small son. She had devoted the early part of her adult life to teaching and, before arriving in Fairhope, had undergone “a conversion” after reading Nathan Oppenheim’s The Development of the Child. Fairhope provided the ideal climate and setting for the development and implementation of her passionate commitment to progressive, “child-centered” education. Not merely did she educate a significant number of children in her Fairhope private school, but she established an
outpost–and garnered important financial support–in Greenwich, Connecticut as well.
Firmly convinced that adults existed to serve the child, rather than the reverse, she held that education should facilitate gently the unfolding of each child’s unique, individual potential. Professor Gaston makes a strong case for Jackson’s integral relation to the national development of the movement for progressive education. She lectured throughout the country, frequently to audiences caught in the spell of her dynamic personality; she trained teachers; and she taught children. Resoundingly endorsed by John Dewey, among many, her work attained considerable renown, especially in those middle-class circles that would foster the development first of progressive education and later of the study and nurture of the child in general. Like Howland, she captured an important tendency in the concerns of her generation throughout the nation. Yet she apparently always understood that, however broad the interest in her work, Fairhope offered her a special–perhaps unique–opportunity to do that work as she chose to do it. Professor Gaston is especially moving in recounting the close of her career during the Depression of the 1930s: her failing ability to mobilize resources, her own failing powers, the collapse of her dream.
Yet the collapse of her dream–however poignant the individual case–consists in part in the national tragedy of the depression and in part in the inescapable individual tragedy of mortality. The collapse of the dream of Nancy Lewis, with which Professor Gaston begins, resulted from more precise and, therefore, more painful historical conflicts. Nancy Lewis never belonged to Fairhope: Fairhope grew on the ruin of Nancy Lewis’s dream. Withal, Nancy Lewis may have, in her unrecorded life, transcended greater odds and realized, however fragiley, a more impossible dream than either Howland or Jackson. For Nancy Lewis, born a slave had, together with her husband, emerged from slavery to acquire a farm–that ubiquitous but elusive goal of the exslaves as a group, that unit of private property on which the values of white Americans rested. And Nancy Lewis had lost that farm to the founding of Fairhope–that project to perpetuate the values of honest, individual property holders.
Credit accrues to Professor Gaston’s grandfather for having refused to repeat that original expropriation when, a few years after the original founding, he had the opportunity to buy the smaller farm to which Nancy Lewis, a widow, and her children had retreated. And he refused even though the parcel was needed to round out the Fairhope unit. But only God can judge the first expropriation. History is not good enough, although Professor Gaston evokes it, pointing out that, in time and place, to include blacks in the Fairhope experiment was not a real possibility, however decent the values of the founders. And, after all, Nancy Lewis and her husband had had only such title to their farm as derived from occupation and the payment of taxes. Reconstruction southerners were notoriously unenthusiastic about letting exslaves buy land outright.
Professor Gaston draws no morals, historical or other. He staunchly refrains even from the modest temptation to pull these women’s lives together, or to set them explicitly in the context of the lives of the non-Fairhope women of their generation. Yet he has offered his readers a small jewel–a series of microcosms of individual women’s experiences. And he has offered those of his readers who so choose all they need to draw more far-reaching conclusions.