The First Hippies

The new book Rebel Crossings showcases a small band of feminist utopians who came to America to try something new.

Jane Miller December 23, 2016

In 1897, Helen Tufts and Helena Born make a radical seaside fashion statement. (Helen Tufts Bailie Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College)

About 40 years ago I decid­ed to study exam­ples of utopi­an writ­ing and some real-life attempts to cre­ate utopias. I read Edward Bellamy’s Look­ing Back­ward, Samuel Johnson’s Ras­se­las, William Mor­ris’ News From Nowhere, and some of the dystopias, like Yevge­ny Zamyatin’s We. I read about dozens of exper­i­ments, in your coun­try as well as mine, in which a charis­mat­ic man (as a rule) would lead his band of fol­low­ers into some ver­sion of the wild to live his ver­sion of the good life. He usu­al­ly got tired of it after two years or so and left or was oust­ed. And I, too, gave up on the utopi­an fan­tasies and the exper­i­ments, cast down by the quar­rels and the dis­agree­ments that made these ini­tial­ly heart­en­ing exper­i­ments seem too like our own less ambi­tious lives.

They promoted the “progressive” issues of the day, from wearing sandals and “bloomers” for women, to vegetarianism and sea bathing.

Sheila Row­both­am, a social­ist fem­i­nist his­to­ri­an, is more stal­wart than I. She has made fruit­ful use of a galaxy of opti­misms. If the per­son­al is polit­i­cal” was not actu­al­ly coined by her, it’s cer­tain­ly a mantra she’s lis­tened to. In her lat­est mon­u­men­tal work of research, Rebel Cross­ings: New Women, Free Lovers and Rad­i­cals in Britain and the Unit­ed States, she fol­lows the lives and loves and the end­less­ly mutat­ing pol­i­tics and enthu­si­asms of four women and two men who sought a utopi­an way of life. Five of them hailed from Bris­tol, Eng­land, and lat­er — in and after 1890 — moved to Boston and from there to Cal­i­for­nia. In Eng­land, most of them had been involved in vari­eties of social­ism and anar­chism, and par­tic­u­lar­ly in debates about how women should achieve a sem­blance of equal­i­ty with men.

They left Eng­land for the Unit­ed States, exhaust­ed by oppo­si­tion to their ideas, par­tic­u­lar­ly to those encour­ag­ing free love and open mar­riages; and as they went they assured them­selves that Amer­i­ca would offer a wider sphere of use­ful­ness.” They went like mis­sion­ar­ies and may have been thought of as some­what patro­n­is­ing colonists, and they found it hard. Some Amer­i­cans wel­comed these high-mind­ed folk from Eng­land, but their small set­tle­ments out West drew few recruits. There was a gen­er­al feel­ing that they were unfit­ted to meet the world.” And they were. They were shocked and dis­abled by the sheer phys­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, and at least one of the set­tle­ments burned to the ground.

In Boston they’d been joined by Helen Tufts, the daugh­ter of impov­er­ished Brah­mins, who began by find­ing these unfa­mil­iar doc­trines” con­fus­ing but even­tu­al­ly became their acolyte and archivist, though she nev­er entire­ly aban­doned her ear­ly snob­beries and racism (but, then, nor did the others).

None of the six is famous, though they were all, in dif­fer­ent ways, inspired by well-known fig­ures of the late 19th cen­tu­ry, most espe­cial­ly Walt Whit­man, Edward Car­pen­ter, Patrick Ged­des and Have­lock Ellis. Col­lec­tive­ly, but also sep­a­rate­ly, Rowbotham’s six stood for and pro­mot­ed the pro­gres­sive” issues of the day, from wear­ing san­dals and bloomers” for women, to veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, sea bathing and the prac­tice of arts and crafts for their ther­a­peu­tic and expres­sive val­ue. They sup­port­ed homo­sex­u­al­i­ty in a gin­ger­ly way, and they tried to prac­tise what they preached about sex­u­al open­ness. They some­times lived togeth­er as three­somes or quar­tets and they did so on very lit­tle mon­ey. When two of the most inter­est­ing of them, Miri­am Daniell and Hele­na Born, died in their thir­ties, their two women friends moved in with their wid­owed male part­ners. There seems to have been a high inci­dence of neglect­ed chil­dren, who lat­er turned their backs on their par­ents’ way of life.

Row­both­am is good at details that illu­mi­nate her char­ac­ters: the antipa­thy that Miriam’s self-assur­ance could arouse, for instance, and Helena’s great weight of con­tained anger” despite her rep­u­ta­tion for calm prac­ti­cal­i­ty and con­sis­ten­cy. In the end, though, per­haps because of age, per­haps because they were liv­ing in Amer­i­ca, the remain­ing four moved from bet­ter­ing soci­ety to con­cen­trat­ing on indi­vid­ual free­doms and on spir­i­tu­al val­ues not so dif­fer­ent from the reli­gious ones they’d so want­ed to escape, and the love” they invoked as vital to all aspects of their lives soured, espe­cial­ly in their inti­mate rela­tions with one anoth­er. But then this hard­ly seems the moment to sug­gest that polit­i­cal ide­al­ism of any sort is easy to maintain.

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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