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Birth rates declined rapidly in the United States between 1800 and 1900, the most rapid decades of decline being the 1840s and 50s. Most of this decline was due to more extensive practice within marriage of traditional birth control techniques -- sexual abstinence and male withdrawal before ejaculation. Calling the latter practice "male continence," one utopian community made it a central tenet of their community. A close look at the Oneida Community has much to teach us about changing attitudes towards marriage and child-bearing in nineteenth-century America.
To examine the Oneida Community's practice of male continence; to explore the Community's justification for complex marriage and the practice of limiting births; to think critically about the relationship between reproductive freedom and women's rights.
Have students read Slavery and Marriage, A Dialogue , 1850. Why did Community members criticize traditional marriage? What was their solution to the problems of traditional marriage? Why did the author argue that complex marriage would not be oppressive to women?
Closely allied to the Oneidan philosophy of complex marriage was their practice of birth control. Read "Male Continence; or Self-Control in Sexual Intercourse," 1866. How did Noyes justify the birth control practices of the community? Why did he believe male continence superior to birth control devices and other methods of limiting births? How, in Noyes's view, would male continence and the practice of complex marriage lead to freedom for women?
Continue the exploration of the Oneida Community's beliefs about birth control by having students read "The Comstock Laws," 1878. How do Oneidans view the larger society's reproductive practices? How does the author justify limiting births? What are similarities and differences between the ideologies supporting birth control in "Male Continence" and in "The Comstock Laws?"
Explore a new theme in the Oneida Community's justification of the control of births by reading part of The Strike of a Sex , 1891, by community member George Noyes Miller, written a dozen years after the Oneida Community gave up complex marriage. How does Miller justify women's limitation of births? How is his reasoning in this novel different from the previous two documents? How might different people react to reading this book at that time? Ask students to write "book reviews" of the work from one of several standpoints -- for instance, as a suffragist, as a male doctor, as a female member of the community, or as a Catholic priest.
For Further Exploration
Have students interested in the Oneida Community read chapter 4 in Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right (1976). How does Gordon situate the Oneida Community's practice of birth control within a larger cultural context?
If students are interested in the fight to repeal the Comstock Laws in the 1910s and 1920s, have them read "Speech at the Meeting Which Organized the National Birth Control League" (1915); Sanger, "How Shall We Change the Law" (1919); and Sanger, "A Birth Strike to Avert World Famine" (1920). Ask students why birth controllers in the 1920s argued for legalizing the dissemination of birth control information. What continuities do students see between these women and the Oneidans? What differences can they point out? Do either Dennett or Sanger articulate a "feminist" argument comparable to that expressed by George Noyes Miller?