A Guide to the Woman's Commonwealth Archive, 1760-1991
The Woman’s Commonwealth originated in Belton, Texas, in the 1860s, as the Belton Woman’s Commonwealth, a commune founded on the principles of religious perfectionism, celibacy, and Wesleyan sanctificationism. The Commonwealth was primarily composed of middle-class Protestant women. Martha McWhirter, who founded a Methodist woman’s study and prayer group, had a religious vision and proclaimed that she was sanctified and encouraged other women to seek divine revelations. Many of these women had to deal with controlling husbands prone to drinking and physical abuse. McWhirter counseled these women to complete their domestic duties, but to limit social and sexual interactions with their unsanctified husbands. Eventually an alternative communal life developed, which involved women living apart from their husbands and making a living by selling eggs and dairy products, doing laundry, working as domestic servants, and running a boarding house/hotel. The Commonwealth’s membership averaged around thirty people, mostly women and their children.
The Belton Woman’s Commonwealth became administratively and financially independent by the early 1880s. Though initially the Belton community blamed Martha McWhirter for various separations and divorces, the Woman’s Commonwealth became more popular and accepted during the next two decades. In 1899 the women retired from their various business ventures in Belton, and purchased lands in Washington D. C. and Maryland. They incorporated in 1902 as the Woman’s Commonwealth of Washington. When Martha McWhirter died in 1904, Fannie Holtzclaw became the Commonwealth’s leader. The Woman’s Commonwealth endured until 1983 when their last member passed away.
Source: Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "Belton Woman’s Commonwealth," http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/BB/vib1.html (accessed May 19, 2010).
Correspondence, ledgers, photographs, journals, company records, newspaper clippings, membership lists, account books, legal documents, financial records, greeting cards, and miscellaneous printed material compose the Woman’s Commonwealth Archive (1760-1991), which documents the history, development, membership, and activities of the Woman’s Commonwealth during its years in Belton, Texas, and Washington, D.C. (ca. 1860s-1920s). Furthermore, the archive pertains to the Commonwealth’s founder and first president Martha McWhirter. The collection primarily consists of correspondence and records, dealing with the Commonwealth’s economic situation and legal issues. Additionally, the collection contains Martha McWhirter’s correspondence and a small amount of unidentified tintypes and photographs.
The collection is open for research use.
Copyright restrictions apply. Some literary rights are restricted.
Woman's Commonwealth Archive, 1760-1991, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
Basic processing and cataloging of this collection was supported with funds from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for the Briscoe Center’s "History Revealed: Bringing Collections to Light" project, 2009-2011.
Detailed Description of the Papers