The Sisters’ Shop

Gender Equality at Mount Lebanon

Can Separate Ever be Equal?

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

One of the key tenets of Shakerism is the dualism of God as male and female. In accordance with this belief, gender equality was part of everyday life at Mount Lebanon. Shaker communities were progressive in that there was a gender balance in leadership; for every elder there was an eldress and for every deacon there was a deaconess. Despite the equality in leadership, traditional social divisions seeped in from the outside world and asserted an influence on the culture at Mount Lebanon. Brothers and Sisters practiced restrictive gender roles and the strict separation of the sexes, although relative to the dominant 19th century American culture, Shakers were notably unprejudiced.

The activities in the Sisters’ Shop provide a glimpse into the enactment of gendered labor in the community. The workshop was a two and a half story building with a traditional Shaker-style gabled roof and a central doorway sheltered by a simple hood. Within the walls of this simple frame structure, Shaker women produced impressive amounts of goods to support the community.

Glendyne R. Wergland observes in her book, Sisters in the Faith: Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes, that “the Brothers most lucrative businesses were founded on women’s labor.” While barred from the more masculine activities such as building and farming, the Sisters were inextricably linked to the success of the Brothers' business endeavors. The Sisters’ handiworks included baskets, brushes, domestic utensils, feather fans, brooms, reticules and bags, linen-drapery, knitwear, baskets, boxes, pin cushions, and various other items, yet they also found time to pick, process, and package herbs and seeds for the Brothers and to weave tape for the Brothers’ chair business. While the work was done in separate workshops, the key businesses of the Mount Lebanon Shakers benefited from the labor of both men and women.

Despite the belief in equality, the differing roles of men and women prevented total equality between the sexes. One Mount Lebanon woman, reflecting on the Brothers’ construction of a wash house in 1819, wrote, “if there had been no distinction in the sex I would have been in their midst pulling out nails in the old house or gathering up rubbish and wheeling it away.” This quote exemplifies the issue of restrictive gender roles that many scholars have noted in writing about gender equality in Shaker communities. The Sisters’ Shop of the North Family exemplifies a space in which women’s labor and shrewd business sense contributed to the wealth of the community.