Summertown, Tennessee, USA

The Farm Midwives

Pronatalism, Midwifery, and Synergistic Marriage Spiritual Enlightenment and Sexual Ideology on The Farm (Tennessee) by LOUIS J. KERN Published in W.E. Chmielewski, Kern, L.J., and Klee-Hartzell, M., Women in Spiritual and Communitarian Societies in the United States Syracuse University Press, 1993, Sargent and Claeys, Editors. See too: our Midwifery Video.

ALTERNATIVE SOCIETIES HAVE, by their very nature, been fundamentally engaged in the social reconstruction of the self and community and in the reconstruction of emotions, beliefs and values. Such reconstructionist activity has required close attention to a wide variety of issues centering on sexuality and gender. Indeed, as Rosabeth M. Kanter has demonstrated, modern communitarian movements (post-1965) have tended to define themselves in terms of affectivity rather than of socioeconomic reorganization. Whereas "communes of the past called themselves 'societies'," she noted. "today's groups are more frequently called 'families'" (Kanter, 1972, 165).


The Farm, founded in 1971, was a largely self-sufficient, strictly vegetarian, rural venture grounded in religious communitananism. Located two hours south of Nashvllle, two miles outside Summertown, Tennessee, it was generally considered to be "the largest working commune in America" by the late 1970s (Wenner 1977, 80). As a "family monastery," its spiritual base rested on a rather diffuse, syncretistic set of principles combining Eastern mysticism, tantric telepathy, and Western spiritualism in a matrix of evangelical enthusiasm. Its guiding principles were dedication, order, and control.

The Farm's roots run back to Stephen Gaskin's days as a graduate student in semantics at San Francisco State University and to the Haight Ashbury summer of love, 1967. During this period, Stephen began to teach classes called "Group Experiments in Unified Field Theory." By 1970, he had emerged as a significant spiritual force in the Bay area (upwards of 2,000 people were attending these weekly sessions), and he was invited to speak at colleges and churches across America. The result was the "Astral Continental Congress"-a call to a spiritual revolution based on Stephen's revelations-that took the form of the Caravan, a five-month (October 1970-February 1971), nationwide evangelical tour, involving a group of converted school buses and 250 of Stephen's followers. The Caravan experience was a cohesive one for this seminal group, and shortly after their return to San Francisco, they decided to establish a commune in Tennessee.

By all accounts, the commune flourished during the 1970s. In early 1973 there were reportedly 500 members, an increase of nearly 100 percent in two years; by 1974, total population was 1,000. The Farm's population peaked in the late 1970s with 1,200 to 1,250 permanent residents and as many as 100 casual visitors on any given night. The population of the ten satellite communities that had spun off the original settlement by 1980 seems to have reached its highest level in the early 1980s, when there were an estimated 1,400 adherents in these affiliates. In the latter part of 1978 and 1979, The Farm experienced a sharp population decline; after 1983, the decline became precipitous. The population leveled out at about 200-220 by 1985 and has hovered between 250 and 300 since. Currently, the population is 280 with a rough parity of males to females.

In the late 1970s, Stephen relinquished his patriarchal position at The Farm and the community assumed a more populist polity. Serious ideological consideration of restructuring and reorganizing the community was also initiated. By 1982, restructuring had been completed, and in 1983 The Farm was decollectivized. Barter was replaced by money as the medium of exchange; The Farm was incorporated and issued stock as a means of generating capital, and all affiliated communities became independent units. In 1982, "the gate was closed," and a limitation was imposed on the length of time visitors could remain in the community. The practical effect of this policy was to discourage new members. Since 1982, only about a dozen people have been accepted into the community.

As a social entity the commune had originated with a group marriage--an extension of Stephen's marriage to a "four marriage" in 1967 and then to a "six mamage" shortly before the foundation of the community. This group marriage was considered a permanent social unit grounded in mutual commitment. And yet, within two years of the establishment of The Farm, a mixed marital system had been instituted there that included only some four or five multiple marrages. This would have meant that between 6 and 8 percent of the adult population was living in multiple marrages, and that by 1973, over 90 percent of the men and women of The Farm were living either singly or in strictly monogamous relationships. By 1975, only the original muitiple marriage remained. The original "six marriage" had become a "four marrage" by 1983, and in 1984 Stephen and Ina May Gaskin became a monogamous couple. Strict monogamy had become both the demographic norm and the ideologically sanctioned marital institution for the community.

It is important to emphasize here that The Farm was founded with the presupposition that a plural marriage system would continue to characterize its social relations. It was also an important part of early community ideology. Therefore, the initial "four marriage" structure was exported in the early 1970s to the various satellite communities established in this period. The move to a monogamous structure was largely predicated on pragmatic considerations. A public announcement of the community's commitment to monogamy was made as early as 1972, while several multiple marriages still existed. Because of their rural lifestyle and more conservative values, The Farm's neighbors frowned on a more liberal expression of sexuality, and because the community needed the assistance of these neighbors, it was thought best to conform in appearance and in public pronouncement to the prevailing norm. While a minority continued to live in multiple marriages, the community seems to have decided at this time that a monogamic social order promised greater long-term social stability, and so monogamy became an essential element of internal community ideology.

Students of historical and contemporary communes as well as members have frequently observed that the persistence of the dyadic unit has been detrimental to the development of a broader sense of community loyalty in a communal setting. Many communities have sought some strategy to wean the affections of the couple away from each other; to tame the dyadic bond; to both defuse and diffuse the erotic drive. Yet, though Stephen had earlier warned about the dangers of "being married in two" (a relation he felt all too often led to parasitism on one side and emotional starvation on the other), it was under a monogamous system that The Farm enjoyed its period of most dynamic growth (S. Gaskin 1970, n.p.).

In his earliest revelations, Stephen recognized the centrality of love as the basis for a revolutionary, affective social order. Love was an elemental natural force that bound together individual aspirations and the power of collective moral authority. It was at once a source of personal empowerment and a therapeutic tool of extraordinary social potential . It is one thing however, to talk about love as a means of individual and social salvation (a kind of generalized expression of the hippie ideals of the 1960s), and quite another to work out a system for its use as a principle of social organization . The systematization of communal affection lay in Stephen's perception of love as a mediating principle that provided access to the "astral plane" and to the "aura." In essence, love provided the essential link between the medium (telepathic "soul communication") and the message (the power of the cosmic energy that sustains the universe).

The sexual ideology of The Farm was grounded in this cosmological view. The physical world was seen as an expression of the cosmic energy force ("the juice"), and as such, it manifested a gender-based dualism. Stephen believed that male and female energy, while complementary, are different in kind, and perhaps also in intensity and in duration. For the community to exist in harmony and balance, both kinds of energy had to be nurtured, and most importantly, shared. The juice was love transmitting energy; its expression was personal and collective attention focused on interpersonal relationships. As Stephen expressed it,

"Now it ain't like you can go on your trip and freak out and hurt yourself without mattering to someone else. We are all interdependent, and we are all taking care of each other. And we have to use our good judgment and our good love and our good courage to do it. What you're supposed to do is just to love folks un-self-consciously and wholeheartedly and do not define yourself to them, but let them experience you, and don't tell them what to think about you or tell them how to treat you or anything like that. Just put it [your attention] on them and let them have some [juice]" (S. Gaskin 1980, 129).

But for individuals to be able to creatively affect the reality of their personal and social experiences, the community must find institutions that both transmit and combine energy. The institutions that embodied Stephen's religion of "energy and love that pass in the here and now" (Thorndike 1979, 42) comprised the trinity of sacraments at The Farm--sex, marriage, and childbirth. At the center of this sacramental order lay the conjugal pair. After 1972 or early 1973, the overwhelming majority of members of The Farm practiced monogamy, with prohibitions on promiscuity and premarital sex. Reportedly, there was no homosexuality, and sex with or between minors was prohibited. Divorce, though not absolutely forbidden, has been rare. In the first five years of community life, breakups averaged about one per year.

Until 1978, all artificial means of birth control were rejected (though even during this period there seem to have been some few instances of uses of IUDs) (Ina May 1975, 142) . That communitv members had no objection to birth control per se was made patent with its publication of a book on planned parenthood entitled A Cooperative Method of Natural Birth Control (1977), by Margaret Nofziger, which made their early position on contraception clear. No reliance on artificial intervention or drugs was recommended. Close attention to basal body temperature and cervical mucus discharge combined with a traditional rhythm method summed up the preferred method of contraception. But after 1978, there were no longer any community restrictions on contraception; any contraceptive means were acceptable.

Abortion was prohibited in the community and, indeed, it was widely known on the counter-cultural grapevine in the 1970s that The Farm served as a secure refuge and a supportive birthing environment for young unmarried women. A standing offer had been made to single pregnant women: "Don't have an abortion. You can come to The Farm and we'll deliver your baby and take care of it, and if you ever decide you want it back, you can have it" (Ina May 1975, 375). Between 1971 and 1979, about one hundred unwed mothers gave birth at The Farm, but only three subsequently left their babies. In addition, some three hundred women came to The Farm for natural birthings during this period (Thorndike 1979, 39).

While standards of sexual behavior at The Farm were definitely more restrictive than those of contemporary Amencan society, they did not reflect a repressive attitude toward sexuality. Stephen's epigrammatical statement to courting couples was characteristic: "If you're sleeping together you're engaged; if you're pregnant you're married" (Thorndike 1979, 39).

Sexual relations were legitimized by the community ritual of marriage, which took place before the assembled commune at Sunday morning meditation. But the sex act as an expression of love and a means of generation and sharing of "the juice" was believed to be inherently sacral. "You can feel the presence of the Holy Spirit," Stephen wrote, "while making love. You can see the presence of Divinity on the material plane because if you do it right, the person you're making love to will become so beautiful that you can see Divinity right in them" (Ina May 1975, 284). The sex act was a eucharistic experience; it provided the basis for self-transcendence.

According to Stephen, the sexual relationship also had a cosmological/ecological function. The rough, aggressive energy of the male must find its completion in the gentler, beautiful energy of the female. In Hey Beatnik, he likened these two types of energy to electrical charges. Neither should be allowed to predominate, or the ideal order of nature (expressed by the couple in microcosm) would be disrupted. In order to preserve the natural balance of energy or, perhaps more accurately, to reinstitute a balance that had been tipped in modern America toward a predominance of male energy, Stephen recommended more aggressive female self-assertion during intercourse. In practical terms, this meant that "the male should see to it that his partner achieves orgasm, and he is instructed that his own orgasm is not of primary importance" (Pfaffenberger 1982, 203). Sex at The Farm, therefore, was not solely sacramental; it was also to be pleasurable. The logic of the latter perspective was carried through to an endorsement of sexual relations during pregnancy: "Lovemaking [at this time] is okay if it's Tantric [energy channeling] and gentle" (Ina May 1975, 343).

Sexual relations were essentially a question of investment of energy; primary energy was given to the couple. As Stephen put it, "I choose to put my energy into this relationship and try to bring it to fruition, and in order to do that, I will avoid starting such other heavy relationships that they will tend to make me unable to pursue this one to the fullest. Isn't that telepathic back there in the marriage contract?" (S. Gaskin 1980, 76).

The ideology of marriage at The Farm during this period might most appropriately be called synergistic marriage. Couple love created the plenitude of communal affection, but only when it guided and channeled the erotic drives of individuals. It was through couple love that a communal "aura" was created, an encompassing, enlivening energy flow that moved in many different directions throughout the community and affectively bound each discrete individual to the whole. In a communal setting, Stephen warned, "you have to be very careful and very kind and very full of love, which means very moral about how you manage those energy relationships.... You honor other people's relationships. It's the subtlety and the depth of the way we love each other that makes it possible for us to have a lot of love and a clean mind" (S. Gaskin 1980, 77).


While sexual and marital practices provided only imperfect and sometimes grudging support for The Farm's vision of an ideal alternative lifestyle, the ultimate sustenance of communal life was the queen of the sacral trinity-natural childbirth. Birthing claimed central importance as a physical, emotional, and spiritual ritual at the heart of community life. It was a communal rite of renewal that recreated and redirected the energies of the dyadic unit and reforged its bonds to the whole. The "spiritual midwives" who guided the couple through the birth had both a hierophantic and an educative role. They stood in place of the entire community at the birthing, because only the parents and the midwives (and in a few exceptional cases, Stephen) were present during childbirth. While training the couple to achieve higher levels of intimacy and a deeper sharing of their experience, they reasserted the primacy of the community over the dyadic unit. The sanctification of the couple occurred in its reabsorption into the communal energy field. Through the transcendent, telepathic sensitivity of the process of natural childbirth, communal commitment was recreated, and the couple's consciousness was anchored in the community through the support system provided by the midwife network.

The midwife network constituted a female community that embodied community spiritual ideals and the mastery of the practical techniques of natural childbirth. The qualifications for midwives were consequently both spiritual and practical. "To be a real midwife," a community publication affirmed, "it is necessary to be spiritual. Compassion has to be a way of life for her. The midwife must be able to consider someone else's viewpoint, and in her daily life take care of those around her" (Ina May 1975, 338). The midwife also had to be married and to have had at least one child by natural childbirth. Relations with both husband and children had to be exemplary. She represented, then, an ideal type of both wife and mother. Her role as midwife required no less, for to insure the proper channeling of physical and spiritual energy at a birthing, "she must be able to teach a couple to be tantric, if they need help. To do all this, she has to really know and love her husband, be his best friend and know how to give him some [juice]" (Ina May 1975, 339).

Technical training for midwives came from two sources-texts and on the job experience. Midwives were enjoined to be avid students of an ancient feminine craft that exploited the most modern scientific and medical knowledge. The Farm midwives also learned from a local male doctor who was sympathetic to natural childbirth practices and who delivered at a nearby hospital the few community children with unusual birth complications. The normal period of training for a new midwife was between one and two years, and during this period a woman could expect to assist at about twenty-five births, assuming increasing responsibility as her mastery of basic: physical skills grew and her spiritual karma with the birthing mother intensified. During boom times, a held of a midwife team could deliver as many as thirteen babies in two weeks (Ina May 1975, 67-68, 76).

The terms most frequently used on The Farm to describe birth were sacral. As one woman described her experience: "It was a miracle. I really know in my heart of hearts that choosing to be spiritual instead of bummed out was what got me together enough to have a baby" (Ina May 1975, 58) . Another couple testified to the effect of the experience in recalling them to communal values and in renewing their marriage. Before the birth they had not been getting on too well, but afterwards, as the wife reported, "we felt literally married and quite telepathic. I saw that we could get along real well if our attention was focused outside ourselves and available to each other and not on our own desires" (Ina May 1975, 251).

Most frequently, communal testimony from the mid-1970s emphasized the role of the midwife in "straightening up" one or both members of a couple, and in drawing on the communal energy field to dissipate negative energy concentrations or "hassling." For example, one couple reported that two midwives who came to assist at the birth sensed that the couple's relationship was far from harmonious. They "started to sort out mine and Eugene's relationship pretty intensely," the wife related. "The outcome was that we practically felt like we had to start over again. They said I didn't give Eugene much real juice, that I needed to really give him some . . . and also said that I came on low key and whiney to him which made him come on macho and cold" (Ina May 1975, 267).

In another case, William, Linda's husband, was "out of sync" with the emotional energy field of the birthing, and when his wife looked to him for support he felt confused and challenged. "He got huffy with Linda,'' and when one of the midwife team pointed out the inappropriateness of his behavior, "he got angrier." William was sent outside to run off some of his aggressive energy. When he returned he was questioned by one of the midwives, who found his anger had not yet dissipated. Linda was consulted to see whether she felt his presence would be a positive one at the birth, and she concurred with the midwives' recommendation that William be sent away again. In this instance, the midwives were unable to achieve the proper emotional balance and affectional relationship between the parents, and the husband was banished from the birthing (Ina May 1975, 34-35).

The psychology of the midwives' role in maintaining adherence to the communal marital ideal through a dual process of criticism and enlightenment is clear in these examples. Focusing all attention on the baby being born reinforced the communal value of self-transcendence. Midwives routinely counseled women about to give birth to "stop being self-indulgent." The midwives also stood in the front ranks to battle against the most besetting sin that threatened communal life-becoming "attached." For an individual to become attached or selfishly fixated on some purely personal goal put a drain on the energy of the whole community. Self-absorbed obsession closed off options; it destroyed the openness that provided access both to one's own feelings and to the emotional flow of the whole community. Attachment blocked energy; it put the dyadic unit out of joint and thereby threatened communal stability. The role of the midwives in this instance was an equilibrating one.


The degree to which The Farm addressed feminist concerns agitating the outside world is a complex question. In regard to conception, its contraceptive techniques (given male subordination to the female cycle) placed control of pregnancy in the hands of women. Indeed, one reviewer of the community's birth control handbook described it as explicitly "non-sexist" (Booklist 1977, 254). Given the pronatalist position of the Community, natural contraception coupled with breastfeeding, which often continued for a year, allowed women to exercise control over their reproductive lives through limiting and spacing births. The fact that the community took in unwanted children and fostered others suggests a fundamental emphasis on the value of children but a less than maximum exploitation of the childbearing capacities of community women.

While the goals of the community can be more accurately described as restorationist than as progressive and can certainly not be described as liberationist from a feminist point of view (except, perhaps, within the sphere of the maternal), The Farm did offer women a power and a security that were often lacking in the lives of their more liberated sisters in the outside world. If the pronatalist position was central to the community, it must be seen in the context of synergistic, monogamous marriage. Women secured greater control over their heterosexual experience by way of male solicitude for their sex partners' orgasms, control of conception and thus of the timing and frequency of intercourse, and control of the physical and emotional experience of childbirth. In a culture where divorce and sexual promiscuity were the norm, women at The Farm were provided these not insignificant controls in the context of ideologically and theologically sanctioned marital stability. Although the available evidence suggests that those marriages sometimes fell short of the ideal, and although there were divorces in the community, the great majority of marriages seem to have remained stable.

The Farm, then, sought through its ideology and social organization to reconstruct gender-based power as it related to sex, marriage, childbirth, and child rearing. The community overturned the male-dominated practices of childbirth, emphasized the predominance of female pleasure in the sex act, inverted the emphasis on patriarchal models in child rearing, and moved toward a marital relationship defined in terms of fundamental female rather than masculine psychological and emotional needs. For a community led by a charismatic male spiritual figure, these were substantial achievements that might quite appropriately be interpreted as a movement toward a feminization of the social and emotional relationship between the sexes. The identity of women at The Farm was with a new order of love, mediated by the sacral female principle expressed sacramentally through sex, marriage, and childbirth. The old man (the male principle) was being sloughed off in the community's social environment. Some women, particularly the most powerful in the community, found the experience of this new social role highly invigorating and transcendent-a "stoned" experience, one "charged with spiritual energy, which raises the consciousness to new levels of perception" (Ina May 1975, 10).

Pronatalism inevitably led The Farm to a social reorganization of what Gayle Rubin called the "sex/gender system," those "systematic ways [societies devise] to deal with sex, gender, and babies" (Rubin 1975,168). While reorganization of the "sex/gender system" does not preclude and has occasionally been accompanied by changes in a society's organization of production, that has not typically been the case As Nancy Chodorow has observed, "In the modern period the development of capitalism, and contemporary developments in socialist countries, has changed the sex-gender system more than the reverse" (Chodorow 1978, 8-9) It should come as no surprise, then, that a communal society like The Farm should have found it easier to reassess and reorganize its social life in areas related to sex, birth and child rearing than in the realm of gender roles related to work

For women who found a pronatalist stance acceptable, The Farm provided a strong sense of female identity, a supportive and revered community of women (the midwives), an extended familial environment with shared child care, an elevation of status (insofar as motherhood and the domestic sphere were elevated in community ideology above the realm of the public work world), greater stability of relationships and more substantial female control of sexuality and conception But in many was these gains for women required implicit renunciation of more thoroughgoing feminist objectives through acceptance of a social order that seemed to replicate the patterns of nineteenth-century gender experience-a division (though not categorically prescriptive) into domestic and public spheres of activity and an apotheosis of the female as maternal, moral, and child-centered that reflected the Victorian ideology of the "true woman "

While The Farm's social reorganization of the "sex/gender system" was reactive to practices in contemporary American society, it did produce some gains for women who had a strong spiritual commitment to community ideology For those women who sought more progressive change, who sought transformation of the social order through a radical reorganization of gender that would potentially eliminate sexual inequality!, the direction and pace of social change at The Farm would have been sorely disappointing For women like these the path to a more thoroughgoing gender equality led back through the community gate that swung out onto a less secure and less predictable world.


Some works by Ina May Gaskin available on-line:

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