Gender Equality, In Theory: Sister Jane Sutton

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

This blog post is dedicated to Rebekah Roberts who sought the truth in the past, and tried to give voice to the voiceless.

In 1899, visitors from Berea arrived at Pleasant Hill for a meal.  As they began eating, they asked the Shaker “sister in charge” a series of questions to learn more about the history and beliefs of the Shakers. 

“‘How do you deal with such difficult problems as woman’s rights?’

Jane Sutton, the sister in charge, responded:

‘Theoretically the brethren and sisters are equal in all things, but practically,’ with a little laugh, ‘the brethren try to keep just a little ahead.'” (The Berea Reporter,
“Shakertown,” April 3, 1899)

Portrait of Sister Jane Sutton

As a woman in power at Pleasant Hill, Jane Sutton would know!  Pleasant Hill’s first and only active female Trustee, Jane Sutton saw the practical reality of doing business as a woman in the 19th century. 

Gender equality has always been a core belief of the Shaker faith.  Men and women were equal in all things through the Shaker’s belief in the duality of God.  This belief was manifested in the leadership and hierarchical structure of Shaker communities.  Gender equality in practice for the Shakers meant that all received an education, all could aspire to leadership roles, and all had access to the same accommodations and amenities.  Yet, the Shakers were still products of the 19th century. 

During the 19th century, men and women were thought to inhabit separate spheres in society, with women inhabiting the private sphere and men the public sphere.  Often referred to as the ‘Cult of Domesticity,’ it was believed that woman, as traditional caregivers, had control of the home, the children, and domestic affairs.  This gendered role also dictated that women had no place in the business world that existed outside of the home.  Though the Shakers practiced gender equality in their leadership structure, these traditional gender roles were still present in their distribution of labor.  Shaker sisters were responsible for cleaning, cooking, laundry, and textile production, while Shaker brethren were responsible for broom production, furniture making, tending to the livestock and crops, and other matters of industry. 

Men and women did have equal say in matters of governance at Pleasant Hill, but women did not have access to leadership in business for much of the 19th century.  Throughout the history of Pleasant Hill, there were usually two male Trustees that handled the community’s finances, legal deeds and contracts, and managed commercial partnerships with businesses of the world.  Women did have a role at the Office, but their primary responsibility was to cook and clean, and serve meals to the visiting public. 

As demographics shifted in the second half of the 1800s, however, women began to assume more responsibility based on need. Sister Jane Sutton was one such woman. 

Jane Sutton and Mary Settles standing in front of the East Family Brethren’s Shop, then being used as the
Village’s Office.

Sister Jane Sutton was born in 1832, and arrived at Pleasant Hill in 1834.  By 1868 she went to live and work in the Office.  Journal records indicate that Sutton joined Pleasant Hill Trustees on trading trips throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and oversaw the “public dining room” at the Trustees’ Office.  On Oct. 1, 1894, she was officially appointed a Trustee along with two other Shakers.  In her role as Trustee, she also oversaw the Shaker Hotel after it opened in 1897 to visitors.  By 1910, however, it appears that Sutton no longer served as a Trustee. In the contract that sold the declining community’s lands to a local businessman, Sister Jane was not listed as one of the official Trustees that signed their names to the contract.  Though she and her fellow sisters outnumbered the remaining men of the community, 10 to 2 in fact, the men took charge of this final matter of business.      

Sister Jane Sutton passed away on December 29, 1912.  The following journal entry was written in the weeks before her passing, “Sister Jane is known and loved by everyone.  She has been one of the commanding figures of Shakertown for years and is a natural leader who would command respect and a following no matter in what walk of life she had been placed.  There are many, even outside the Shaker Village, who will grieve that her firm hand is beginning to tremble with the weakness of age.”    

While gender equality was a staple of Shaker ideology, it appears in practice that such equity was often hard to obtain. Jane Sutton provides us with a glimpse into the world of nineteenth century business from the female point of view, and as she says, with a little laugh, “the brethren try to keep just a little ahead.”

Pages of a letter sent to George Bohon by Jane Sutton and Mary Settles in 1911.

Swept Away

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“These people are rich and getting richer. Contrast a Shaker broom with a penitentiary contract-labor broom. One sweeps and the other raises dust…” – “Shaker Socialism Good,” Salt Lake (UT) Herald, June 21, 1896

A flat broom press holds the bound broomcorn in a flattened position so the broom may be tied into its permanent shape.

Over the years, the Shakers and brooms have become somewhat synonymous. In many ways this makes sense: broom making was widespread in Shakerdom, and nearly all Shaker communities made brooms for use within their villages and to sell to the outside world. Just how many were made? At Pleasant Hill, for instance, Brother Francis Monfort reportedly made 25,000 broom handles in 1859 alone!

Beyond the common association of brooms with the Shakers, however, what’s the real story about the importance of brooms to the Shakers and their lifestyle? It might surprise you…

Before we go any further, we should get something out of the way. Despite the enduring legacy of this particular myth, the Shakers did not invent the flat broom. They did, however, create a flat broom press that greatly facilitated the process of making these brooms.

Begun at Watervliet, New York, in 1798, the Shaker broom industry quickly became one of the most important economic lifelines for Shaker communities across America. By the 1840s, Pleasant Hill had planted nearly 60 acres of broomcorn on their property, and they were turning out thousands of brooms each year for sale to towns and cities near and far. For most of the rest of the 19th century, Pleasant Hill found a ready market for their brooms that continued to sell for between $2 and $3 per dozen.

The interior of a broom shop at Pleasant Hill in the late 19th century. This could possibly be inside the 1815 Carpenter’s Shop – today’s Welcome Center! c. 1880-1900

Like many other Shaker-made products, there also developed a fascination with the superior quality of Shaker brooms. The quote that opens this blog post is only one of many testimonials to Shaker quality. Consider this clipping from a New York newspaper in 1842: “The Shakers for a long time almost monopolized the raising of the [broom] corn and the manufacture of brooms which…were always of a superior quality.”

An association with the Shakers, even a lapsed one, could also carry weight with consumers. One Pleasant Hill Shaker who left the community opened a broom store in Richmond, Kentucky, and resorted to a unique marketing approach: “The Shakers do certainly know how to make brooms. Mr. Spencer, being an ex-Shaker, will make you an ‘ex-Shaker broom.’ When you buy a broom, be certain it is an ‘ex-Shaker’ and then you’ll know you have got the best.”

Lars Ericson ran the broom operation at Pleasant Hill in the latter part of the 19th century. The large cylinder to the right of Ericson was used to clean broom corn prior to its use in brooms. c. 1880-1900

Although indelibly linked to Shaker economics, brooms can also be seen as a symbolic of several important Shaker ideals. After all, cleanliness was far from the demands of rogue, overzealous Shaker leaders—it was a spiritual and moral imperative that came from none other than Mother Ann Lee. “Good spirits will not live where there is dirt,” she is supposed to have famously quipped!

As it often turns out with history, what you think you know is only the beginning!

Want to learn even more about the Shaker broom industry? Come out and join our Swept Away: Shaker Innovations program on Fridays and Saturdays in January and February. Check the daily schedule for tour times!

Want to go a bit more in-depth? Every fall, Shaker Village offers broom making workshops where you make your own hand-tied brooms and take part in this traditional craft! Check our event calendar to learn about these exciting opportunities!

The Carpenters’ Shop is getting some TLC!

CarpenterShopGasStn GS

As a Shell Gas Station in the 1960s

Built in 1815 as a smith and wagon makers’ shop, the red brick Carpenters’ Shop has held a front-row seat to Kentucky history in action. It’s seen horse-drawn wagons traveling the toll road and Civil War soldiers marching into battle. It’s seen a remarkable culture built, grow, adapt, fade, restored, preserved and shared.

For more than 200 years, the building has been preserved through adaptive reuse by Shakers, rural farmers and businessmen, and early preservationists. Today, we are pleased to announce that the Carpenters’ Shop will undergo much needed preservation and rehabilitation work this spring. Over the next few months, the structure will be stabilized by the installation of a new wood shake roof; the repairing and painting of wood soffits, fascias and trim; and the repairing and painting of interior plaster, wood trim and casework.

During Resoration, 1966

During restoration, 1966

The project also includes refurbishing the building’s interior spaces to create a centralized sales and information hub for Shaker Village guest services. This center will serve as the jumping off point for the site experience and a guidepost for new programs and hospitality services. The setting will be unmistakably Shaker, thoughtful and simple, but punctuated with progressive technologies and designs that serve form and function.

Guests will have a comfortable one-stop location to check-in, purchase tickets and learn about Village happenings. In addition, new hands-on interpretive and shopping experiences will be introduced inside the space. The project continues the preservation of this important building, while creating a new level of convenience and functionality for guests and staff alike.

Starting today, guests should visit the Trustees’ Office for all of their check-in and purchasing needs. Brooms, oval boxes and other regular shop merchandise are available for sale inside the Trustees’ Office Shop and the Post Office.

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As a gift shop, 2016

Stay tuned–we’ll be unveiling the new welcome experience later this spring!


Preserve history now! Shaker Village inspires generations through discovery by sharing the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers. The National Historic Landmark preserves 34 original shaker structures and 3,000 acres of conserved land. Help us inspire generations with a tax deductible gift!