The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 87, July 1983 - April, 1984

Women and Utopia: The Woman's
Commonwealth of Belton, Texas
JAYME A. SOKOLOW AND MARY ANN LAMANNA*
IN 1902 A REPORTER FOR Ainslee's Magazine INTERVIEWED MARTHA
White McWhirter, the elderly matriarch of the utopian Woman's
Commonwealth. This little-known, remarkably successful cooperative
experiment was unique in nineteenth-century America because it was
a celibate, non-Catholic utopian community owned and operated com-
pletely by women. The Woman's Commonwealth developed gradually
in the years after 1879 as a group of women claimed sanctification,
left their homes, and set up an innovative social experiment. This
feminist commune was based upon a radical variant of Methodist
perfectionism, celibacy, the abolition of the patriarchal family, and the
pooling of economic resources. Over a period of several decades, it
provided its members economic and leadership opportunities seldom
enjoyed by women.'
At the time of the interview, the Woman's Commonwealth had re-
located to Washington, D.C. About twenty years after the commune's
establishment in the small Central Texas town of Belton, the thirty
remaining members had retired and purchased a large, comfortable
#Jayme A. Sokolow is a staff member with the National Endowment for the Humani-
ties. Mary Ann Lamanna is a member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology
at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This research was partially supported by travel
grants from the University Research Council, University of Nebraska at Omaha, and
the College of Arts and Sciences, Texas Tech University. The authors would like to ac-
knowledge the helpful criticism of Jacqueline S. Reinier in preparing this article.
1For narrative studies of the Woman's Commonwealth, see George W. Tyler, The His-
tory of Bell County (San Antonio, 1936), 391-395; A. L. Bennett, "The Sanctified Sis-
ters," Wilson M. Hudson and Allen Maxwell (eds.), The Sunny Slopes of Long Ago
(Dallas, 1966), 136-145; Eleanor James, "Martha White McWhirter (1827-1904)," Evelyn
M. Carrington (ed.), Women in Early Texas (Austin, 1975), 181-190; Eleanor James,
"The Sanctificationists of Belton: A Woman's Community in Texas," American West, II
(Summer, 1965), 65-73; Ernest G. Fischer, Marxists and Utopias in Texas (Burnet, Tex.,
198o), 159-176; George P. Garrison, "A Woman's Community in Texas, Charities Re-
view, III (Nov., 1893), 28-46. While these studies are useful, they make no attempt to
link the commune with the broader issues of feminism and women's roles in nineteenth-
century America.

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 87, July 1983 - April, 1984. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117150/. Accessed July 12, 2014.