A draw for many women converts during the age of the Shakers was the equality in not only leadership but in the daily life of a Shaker. Women’s suffrage began to take full effect in the 1860s and would continue to gain momentum in the public eye. Shaker culture, developed originally under the theology of Mother Ann Lee was based on equality and the idea that the nature of God was both male and female. Based on this belief, women were allowed to work in the same offices and held political/leadership positions in the communities. While most of the duties for women were held to more domestic pursuits in terms of laundry, cleaning and cooking but they were allowed to assist in the basic bookkeeping and general sales. Shaker children were taught to read, write, and basic math equations that were necessary for the bookkeeping and management of trading goods so women were well equipped to help with the financial ends of manufacturing.
“Remember the Fast that God doth require,
Let his holy word the whole nation inspire,—
‘Undo heavy burdens, relieve the oppressed,
Break every yoke,’ and your souls will find rest.”
-Hannah Brownson 1861, from the Book of Isaiah
Brownson quoted these words in a poem she published in 1861, attempting to refer to the notion that women, slaves and the poor had to be freed from their cages of societal oppression in order to be able to achieve the Shaker goal of perfection on Earth. The Shaker culture began more interested in women’s suffrage as time grew on and they created generations of Shaker women who were well educated and had vast experience in the leadership positions. The Shakers began to become advocates for not just women’s suffrage but also pacifism, animal rights, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, vegetarianism, and other progressive causes.
“[W]omen outside are asserting their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and upon all economical, social and political questions are evincing remarkable ability and skill…have not we Shaker sisters greater rights than all others, having absolute right of our own bodies, which in reality includes all other rights?”
Shaker women also held an important role manufacturing botanical medicines during the time of the Civil War when medicinal businesses were growing. They assisted in filing, corking, labeling and boxing the bottles for shipment and the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village was known to have produced 24,000 bottles of Norwood’s Tincture of Veratrum Viride, which was the largest medicinal preparations in the world at the time.
Role Differences between Men and Women
Deacons– These were male leaders in the community selected based on their believed abilities in being practical and able. They oversaw all of the men’s work in managing the mills, tending to animals, wooding cutting and all farm work. Deacons were in charge of assigning jobs to Brothers within their family.
Deaconesses– These were the female leaders in the community, chosen on the same basis of their male counterparts, who managed the communal families provisions of clean laundry, food and all necessary household needs. They also oversaw Sisters’ work in housekeeping, cooking, preserving, gardening, weaving, laundry and sewing.
Trustees- These were the Shakers, typically always men, who interacted with the World on behalf of trade and commerce. While Shaker Sisters often helped with the bookkeeping end, Brothers were often in charge of handling the face to face interactions of buying and selling goods in Worldly markets.
Elders & Eldresses-Typically two of each gender, these Brothers and Sisters were the dual leaders of the commune and oversaw all actions and decisions as they were made for the group.