Sex, Politics and Housework

Book cover: Diggers and Dreamers 94/95: The Guide to Communal LivingThis article draws on research into the role of women in the English anarchist movement, part of an attempt to make sense of my own experiences as an anarchist and feminist in the 1960s and 70s. It began as part of a group project in the Anarchist Feminist History Group in the early 1980s.

It is dedicated to my research companions, Ame Harper and Sharon Roughan, and to Sheila Rowbotham, who inspired and encouraged us all.

First published in Diggers and Dreamers 94/95: the guide to communal living, 1993, edited by Chris Coates, Jonathan Howe, Lee Jones, William Morris, and Andy Wood: Communes Network, Winslow, Buckinghamshire, pp.39-45.

A longer, footnoted version of this article, called Free Comrades? Theory, Practice, and the Role of Women in English Anarchist Communities 1889-1930, was presented at the 1988 Conference of the International Communal Studies Association in New Lanark, Scotland, and has since been used as teaching material in universities in London and Amsterdam. It will be made available as a download at a future date. For more information, please contact me: judy [at]

Download: Sex, Politics and Housework is available to download as a Word document. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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Key Words: work, housework, domestic work, communal living, sexual division of labour, gender, utopian communities, politics of everyday life, anarchism, feminism, relationships, history

Notes and References →

Sex, Politics and Housework


By the end of the Nineteenth Century, most English anarchists were committed to the idea of equality but the trouble was that men’s and women’s ideas of what this meant often differed, and even where there was agreement in principle, the practice was something else. The numerous anarchist experiments in communitarian living which flourished from the 1890s onwards brought out some of the difficulties and contradictions in attempting to change what it meant to be a man or a woman. Sexual relationships and housework were particular sources of tension.

Experiments in living

 Women often took a leading role in setting up anarchist communities. What did they hope to gain? In 1912, Lily Gair Wilkinson wrote:

‘I believe that if we begin with immediate personal things, greater and greater opportunities are likely to occur … I wish to express anarchism in my life.’

She saw daily life as one form of political propaganda, and may well have been thinking of her young anarchist friends living communally in Marsh House in London.

Two decades earlier, another communal London household, Fellowship House, promised its inhabitants all the advantages and obligations of a family without any of its drawbacks, according to member Edith Lees. She argued that women should reject servitude in the home as she and her comrades did.

Men also deliberated over the role of women in such communities. In 1894 Henry Binns advertised for other people to help start a fruit-growing co-operative, but he was worried because it ‘… bids fair to become a Bachelor’s Club’, or else a group of married couples and single men. He wanted:

‘An open, honourable, honest fellowship such as we dream of and talk of … but for the most part fail to make for ourselves … But, frankly, can we trust ourselves to live above suspicions … and jealousies? And, frankly, are our women comrades fitted and ready for useful work? … We want women to help us; we cannot succeed without them; women who want to work for their own living … who are as eager to be truer women as we are to be truer men.’

On a farming holiday in an English utopian community, probably around 1910. Men and women pose with rakes and hoes. In 1897, journalist Henry Nevinson recorded in his diary a visit to Clousden Hill anarchist colony near Newcastle. After naming and describing some of the men, he wrote:

‘Kapper showed me round … The leeks, cabbages, rhubarb, celery, strawberries, roses, pansies were good … Mushrooms were supposed to be growing in the glasshouse … About 100 chickens, 20 ducks, 3 cows, 6 goats. Some rabbits, 2 horses, and a dog were the livestock: also one woman and three children.’

This anonymity and relegation of women is a recurrent feature of many records. To what extent it reflects the status of women rather than the attitudes of the (male) recorder is difficult to tell. In any case, women were frequently in a minority in the early days. Single women joining mixed communities ran the risk of social and familial disapproval and rejection. Edith Lees believed one reason why so few women were involved in the Fellowship of the New Life was that women thought that ideals of sex and class equality, moral regeneration and the simple life were all very well, but impractical.


Once they had joined a community, women often found housework was a major problem, Peter Kropotkin, whose writings influenced many early living experiments, advised the founders of Clousden Hill to:

‘do all possible for reducing household work to the lowest minimum … Arrangements to reduce as much as possible the incredible amount of work which women uselessly spend in the rearing up of children, as well as in the household work, are … as essential to the success of the community as the proper arrangement of the fields, the greenhouses, and the agricultural machinery. Even more’.

The anarchist feminist journal ‘The Freewoman’ carried regular debate on the housework question in 1911/12. One contributor wrote:

‘As a convinced feminist and aspiring freewoman, I feel that this question of housework … is absolutely fundamental … Women have no time to get free. They will only have the time when domestic work has been properly organised.’

Solutions offered ranged from machine age fantasies to schemes for collective and cooperative living. The professionalisation of domestic work was another alternative, though women who already earned their living as servants weren’t convinced that life would be much better working for a collective household than for individual employers. The simple life held the promise of less housework anyway — but what did this mean in practice?

The Clousden Hill Prospectus says that all housework is: ‘… to be done on the most improved system, to relieve the women from the long and tiresome work which unduly falls to their share today…’

What this meant in real life is not recorded, though in 1897 a visitor noted that men did the washing, women the cooking and mending. Whiteway began on communistic lines, and the women did the domestic work including washing, mending and cooking for all the men. Eventually the colony moved away from communalism – amongst other reasons, the women rebelled against doing all the washing when some of the men wouldn’t even collect firewood to heat the water. The women preferred to do housework for just one man rather than for all of them.

Three men peeling potatoes in garden, around 1917.Other early communities varied in whether men were expected to do housework. Henry Binns wrote that in his proposed colony, women would do:

‘Not ‘housework’ only… but joining us in our work as far as they will and can, and we so far, joining in theirs’

In Marsh House, before and during World War One, both sexes shared the housework, but when Tom Keell, the editor of the anarchist paper Freedom, moved in, he was exempted because his own work was more important — a recurring theme in male/female relationships. Even when the women didn’t feel that housework was more natural to them, they often ended up doing it on the grounds of efficiency, because men did it so much more incompetently. Men in men-only collectives would do their own, though some middle class men felt humiliated to be seen doing ‘women’s and servants’ work’ such as scrubbing steps. In Edward Carpenter’s homosexual household at Millthorpe, though women visitors spoke admiringly of his domestic skills, they noted that his working class lover took on the major responsibility for running the house. In mixed communities, working class women were more likely than the other women to end up doing most of the work.

Often, women did both ‘women’s’ and ‘men’s’ work, as at Whiteway where they were involved in agriculture and building. On their own, cooperatively, or as part of a family business, some would earn money by traditional female occupations such as dressmaking, weaving or craftwork. This was sometimes the major or only source of family income while the men got on with what was seen as the more important political work.

Two patterns repeat themselves: one is of women’s own political and economic contribution being undervalued — both by themselves and historians. (We hear about the men who produced the newspapers — what about the women who provided the food so they could do it?) The other is of women who were doing the domestic chores, raising children, earning money, and also participating in collective work. It is not surprising that few women had the time to engage in public political activity after having children.


Anarchists had diverse attitudes towards motherhood and childcare. Most men and many women felt that woman’s freedom meant the freedom to fulfil herself as a mother, with a natural responsibility for childbearing and often for education as well. They generally believed that women had the right to bear children outside marriage, and a few women went further, arguing for women’s right to choose to have children outside an ongoing heterosexual relationship:

‘As a freewoman, I refuse to bear children either to the state or to a man; I will bear them for myself and for my purpose … My children shall be mine for my pleasure, until such time as they shall be their own for their own pleasure …’

On the other hand, one woman wrote:

‘Men must do childrearing if they are to become complete human beings instead of mere males, if children are to have the benefit of fathering as well as mothering, and if there is to be real equality between the sexes.’

This was a rare viewpoint, though, and there is little evidence of men taking a substantial role caring for young children or of women suggesting they should do so. ‘Free motherhood’ often proved socially and materially very difficult for those who tried it, though sometimes childcare was shared with other women. Older children were seen as more of a community responsibility, and men sometimes became involved in education, though less often than women.

Anarchist women were often involved in birth control campaigns, and some practised birth control or abortion themselves. Certainly, a number of women who were sexually involved with men and wished to remain politically active chose to have no children, or only one.


An anarchist manifesto of 1895, in the one line it gave to relations between the sexes, called for independence and co-operation in sexual as in industrial and economic relations. Many early communities were modelled on single sex settlements or religious orders. As the language of universal brotherhood or fellowship implies, women did not fit easily into this model, and were often seen as a potential source of disruption. In some communities, women joined as sexual partners, not as autonomous individuals. Single women faced particular problems and pressures both inside and outside the community.

The popular view of the anarchist belief in ‘free love’ was that it meant constant orgies, and many visiting sightseers must have been disappointed. Although some anarchist men and a few women believed in having numbers of partners on the basis of sexual desire alone, for most free love meant something different: a (heterosexual) freely chosen monogamous commitment based on romantic love. If love died, in theory the partnership would end blamelessly. Unfortunately, love did not always die for both partners at the same time. Women had more to lose than men in defying sexual convention in a society in which they were economically and socially unequal as well as being expected to be responsible for children. They sometimes found that what they meant and what men meant when they spoke of love or passion were quite different. Those who didn’t believe in monogamy found sexual jealousy doesn’t go away that easily, and in practice the same old double standard of morality, one rule for men and another for women, often operated.

George Barrett, editor of ‘The Anarchist’, wrote in 1913 that the fight for the vote was progressive, but the real war for women was in the home, with men. This was a conclusion many women had already reached. As one writer to ‘The Freewoman’ acidly pointed out, while men were theorising, women were actually trying to live out their theories. They did so with varying degrees of success. Edith Lees said in later life of her experiences at Fellowship House: ‘Fellowship is Hell; lack of Fellowship is heaven.’

In urban communities, marriage or its equivalent often meant leaving. In rural communities, nuclear families tended to develop, leading an increasingly private existence within the colony. Some women, disillusioned with the gap between theory and practice, moved away from anarchist ideas altogether. But for others, however imperfect the reality compared with the ideals, the struggle for a new life was preferable to the conventional life they had left behind. They might leave one colony to found or join another, or to develop similar ideas in a more individual context. Their daughters and sons would, at least, struggle for change from a better vantage point.

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Notes and References

For more information on some of the communities discussed, see: Utopia Britannica


Guy Aldred, 1958. No Traitor’s Gait. Glasgow: Strickland Press.

Mrs Havelock Ellis [Edith Lees], 1909. Attainment. London: Alston Rivers.

Mrs Havelock Ellis [Edith Lees], 1921. The New Horizon in Love and Life. London: A&C Black.

Dennis Hardy, 1979. Alternative Communities in Nineteenth Century England. London: Longman.

Edith Lees – see Mrs. Havelock Ellis.

London Anarchist Communist Alliance, 1895.  An Anarchist Manifesto. London: Anarchist Communist Alliance.

Sheila Rowbotham and Jeffrey Weeks, 1977. Socialism and the New Life: the personal and sexual politics of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. London: Pluto Press.

Nellie Shaw, 1935. Whiteway: A colony in the Cotswolds. London: C.W. Daniel.

Nigel Todd, 1986. Roses and Revolutionists: the story of the Clousden Hill Free Communist and Co-operative colony, 1894-1902. London: People’s Publications.

Lilian Wolfe [interview], 1971. ‘Lilian Wolfe – Lifetime Resistance’, Shrew 4:4. London: Women’s Liberation Workshop.


The Anarchist, 1912-13.

Freedom, 1913.

The Freewoman, 1911-12.

Seedtime, 1890-1894.

Unpublished sources

Personal interviews and communications with Tessa Marin, Lilian Wolfe and Tom Keell Wolfe.

Henry Nevinson Diaries, Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Ramsay Macdonald papers, Public Records Office, Kew.

Labadie Collection, University of Michigan.