Monday, March 7, 2011

Lomaland and equality

As Women's History Month commences, we can look back to a time in San Diego when women could not vote, serve on juries, or participate in many aspects of society.  Yet there was a place in San Diego where women did have quite a measure of equality, that place being the Point Loma Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society Homestead (called Lomaland for short). 

Theosophy was a movement founded in 1874 by psychic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.  This was the time of the popular spiritualism that had taken hold of the nation starting with the fraudulent Fox sisters, so the field was ripe for new seeds.  As for Theosophy, it consisted of a large set of revealed truths about the individual and the universe and according to Blavatsky was a replacement for all other religions.  Among the beliefs was equality between the sexes, with our eternal spirits being perpetually reincarnated in male or female bodies.  For these and other reasons, Theosophy held particular interest for women:
Theosophy appealed to a segment of white, middle-class, intellectual women who sought spiritual power, usefulness in the world, and greater control over their lives. Since the Theosophical Society had no ordained ministry, it opened leadership opportunities to women, "[allowing] its women and men leaders alike to travel the world lecturing and organizing. In it, women no less than men rose to the highest positions of responsibility."
When Blavatsky died, she was replaced by William Judge, and when Judge died Katherine Tingley took over.  Tingley had only joined the Theosophical Society two years previously, but she convinced the leadership that she was channeling Judge's spirit, and he was giving her full control of the organization.  Having declared herself absolute authority over the movement for life, she instituted changes such as shutting down the national branches and concentrating resources in the new national headquarters in Point Loma.  The Theosophists arrived in the late 1890's and would stay for almost half of a century, with thirty of those years under Tingley's control.  Lomaland became particularly known as a place of culture, with regular patronage of the arts and well-cultivated lands serving as an attraction for San Diego residents looking for a pleasant day out.

Lomaland operated as a commune, with the role of women different from that of general society, but not too different.  While a woman herself, Tingley had a Victorian sense of morality that colored the original Theosophical doctrine.  She believed women did belong in the home, and other than Tingley, the rest of the leadership in Lomaland were mostly men.  Yet conditions were better for women and other minorities in Lomaland, they could find acknowledgment as fully-functioning human beings, and at least sixty percent of the residents were usually women. 

In today's parlance, we would refer to Lomaland as a cult, and contemporaries looked upon it askance.  A Los Angeles Times headline from 1901 blared:  "Outrages at Point Loma; Exposed by an 'Escape' from Tingley. Startling Tales told in this City. Women and Children Starved and Treated Like Convicts. Thrilling Rescue."  Tingley sued for libel and defamation and won, but the sentiment was not eradicated.  Tingley died in 1929, just before the decline of Lomaland.  Her successor loosened her authoritarian dictates, but liberalization proved disastrous.  He brought back the national lodges for example, which took resources from Lomaland.  The uniforms and other strict rules were lifted, and the colony began to dissolve.  By 1941, there were about 130 residents left in Lomaland, most of whom were elderly.  The property moved into foreclosure and the society moved to the Los Angeles area.

What can we make of Lomaland and its morality?  As a religion with revealed wisdom, the Theosophy leadership could create rules that cut through the strictures holding society back.  As such, the commune was particularly attractive to the underserved of society, such as women.  But not all of the rules were positive and healthy, and while the status of women could be changed in the law, how do you change a universal truth revealed by spirits?   And, of course, there is the matter that Theosophy was, as a whole, made-up nonsense and adherents were wasting time in its study.  As Humanists we can recognize the good that religious orders are capable of providing, but we can also see that the associated baggage is often too great a burden.  Better to work out a morality from rationality rather than proclamation in order to create a just society that will serve all of its members.

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