Female Institution Building
The “transition period” that Stanton and Anthony invoked lasted from the 1870s to the 1920s. It was an era of separate female organization and institution building, the result on the one hand of the negative push of discrimination in the public, male sphere and on the other hand of the positive attraction of the female world of close, personal relationships and domestic institutional structures. These dual origins characterized, for instance, one of the largest manifestations of “social feminism” in the late nineteenth century—the women’s club movement.
The club movement illustrated the politicization of women’s institutions as well as the limitations of their politics. The exclusion of women reporters from the New York Press Club in 1868 inspired the founding of the first women’s club, Sorosis. The movement then blossomed in dozens and later hundreds of localities, until a General Federation of Women’s Clubs formed in 1890. By 1910, it claimed over one million members. Although club social and literary activities at first appealed to traditional women who simply wanted to gather with friends and neighbors, by the turn of the century, women’s clubs had launched civic reform programs. Their activities served to politicize traditional women by forcing them to define themselves as citizens, not simply as wives and mothers. The clubs reflected the societal racism of the time, however, and the black women who founded the National
Association of Colored Women in 1896 turned their attention to the social and legal problems that confronted both black women and black men.12
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (wctu) had roots in the social feminist tradition of separate institution building. As Ellen DuBois has argued, the wctu appealed to late-nineteenth-century women because it was grounded in the private sphere — the home — and attempted to correct the private abuses against women, namely, intemperance and the sexual double standard.^ Significantly, though, the wctu, under Frances Willard’s leadership, became a strong prosuffrage organization, committed to righting all wrongs against women, through any means, including gaining the right to vote.
The women’s colleges that opened in these same decades further attest to the importance of separate female institutions during this “transition period.” Originally conceived as training grounds of piety, purity, and domesticity, the antebellum women’s seminaries, such as Mary Lyon’s Mt. Holyoke and Emma Willard’s Troy Female Academy, laid the groundwork for the new collegiate institutions of the postwar era. When elite male institutions refused to educate women, the sister colleges of the East, like their counterparts elsewhere, took on the task themselves. In the process, they encouraged intimate friendships and professional networks among educated women.14 At the same time, liberal arts and science training provided tools for women’s further development, and by their examples, female teachers inspired students to use their skills creatively. As Barbara Welter noted when she first described the “cult of true womanhood,” submissiveness was always its weakest link/5 Like other women’s institutions, the colleges could help subvert that element of the cult by encouraging independence in their students.
The most famous example of the impact of women’s colleges may be Jane Addams’s description of her experience at Rockford Seminary, where she and other students were imbued with the mission of bringing their female values to bear on the entire society. Although Addams later questioned the usefulness of her intellectual training in meeting the challenges of the real world, other women did build upon academic foundations when, as reformers, teachers, doctors, and social workers, they increasingly left the home to enter public or quasi-public work. Between 1890 and 1920, the number of professional degrees granted to women increased 226 percent, three times the rate of increase for men. Some of these professionals had attended separate female institutions such as the women’s medical colleges in Philadelphia,
New York, and Boston. The new female professionals often served women and children clients, in part because of the discrimination against their encroachment on men’s domains but also because they sincerely wanted to work with the traditional objects of their concern. As their skills and roles expanded, these women would demand the right to choose for themselves where and with whom they could work. This first generation of educated professional women became supporters of the suffrage movement in the early twentieth century, calling for full citizenship for women.
The process of redefining womanhood by the extension rather than the rejection of the female sphere may be best illustrated by the settlement house movement. Although both men and women resided in and supported these quasi-public institutions, the high proportion of female participants and leaders (approximately three-fifths of the total), as well as the domestic structure and emphasis on service to women and children, qualify the settlements as female institutions. Mary P. Ryan has captured the link these ventures provided between “true womanhood” and “new womanhood” in a particularly fitting metaphor: “Within the settlement houses, maternal sentiments were further sifted and leavened until they became an entirely new variety of social reform.”16 Thus did Jane Addams learn the techniques of the political world through her efforts to keep the neighborhood clean. So too did Florence Kelley of Hull House welcome appointment as chief factory inspector of Illinois to protect women and children workers; Julia Lathrop, another Hull House resident, entered the public sphere as director of the U. S. Children’s Bureau; and one-time settlement resident Katharine Bement Davis moved from the superintendency of the Bedford Hills Reformatory for Women in 1914 to become the first female commissioner of corrections in New York City. Each of these women, and other settlement workers who moved on to professional or public office, eventually joined and often led branches of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (nawsa)/7 They drew upon the networks of personal friends and professional allies that grew within separate female institutions when they waged their campaigns for social reform and suffrage.
Separate female organizations were not limited to middle-class women. Recent histories have shown that groups hoping to bridge class lines between women existed within working-class and radical movements. In both the Women’s Trade Union League and the National Consumers League, middle-class reformers strived for cooperation rather than condescension in their relationships with working women. Although in neither organization did reformers entirely succeed, the Women’s Trade Union League did provide valuable services in organizing women workers, many of whom were significant in its leadership. The efforts of the Consumers League, led by Florence Kelley, to improve working conditions through the use of middle-class women’s buying power were probably less effective, but efforts to enact protective legislation for women workers did succeed. Members of both organizations turned to suffrage as one solution to the problems workers faced. Meanwhile, both in leftist organizations and in unions, women formed separate organizations. Feminists within the Socialist Party met in women’s groups in the early twentieth century, while within the clothing trades, women workers formed separate local unions that survived until the mid-i92os.18
As a final example of female institution building, I want to compare two actual buildings — the Woman’s Pavilion at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, analyzed recently by Judith Paine, and the Woman’s Building at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. I think that the origins and functions of each illustrate some of the changes that occurred in the women’s movement in the time interval between those two celebrations.
Originally, the managers of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia had promised “a sphere for woman’s action and space for her work” within the main display areas. In return, women raised over $100,000 for the fair, at which point the management informed the members of the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee that there would not be any space for them in the main building. The women’s response surprised the men: they raised money for a separate building. Although they hoped to find a woman architect to design it, no such professional existed at the time. From May through October 1876, the Woman’s Pavilion displayed women’s achievements in journalism, medicine, science, art, literature, invention, teaching, business, and social work. It included a library of books by women; an office that published a newspaper for women; and an innovative kindergarten annex, the first such day school in the country. Some radical feminists, however, boycotted the building. Elizabeth Cady Stanton claimed that the pavilion “was no true exhibit of woman’s art” because it did not represent the product of industrial labor or protest the inequalities of “political slavery.”!®
By 1893, there was less hesitation about the need for a woman’s building and somewhat less conflict about its functions. Congress authorized the creation of a Board of Lady Managers for the Columbian Commission, and the women quickly decided on a separate Woman’s Building, to be designed by a woman architect chosen by nationwide competition. Contests were also held to locate the best women sculptors, painters, and other artists to complete the designs of the building. The Board of Lady Managers also planned and provided a Children’s Building that offered nursery care for over 10,000 young visitors to the fair. At this exposition, not only were women’s artistic and professional achievements heralded, but industrial organizations were “especially invited to make themselves known,” and women’s industrial work, as well as their wages and the conditions they encountered, was displayed. Feminists found this exhibit more agreeable. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Julia Ward Howe, and Susan B. Anthony all attended, and Anthony read a paper written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at one of the women’s symposia. Members of the Board of Lady Managers fought long and hard to combine their separate enterprise with participation in the rest of the fair. They demanded equal representation of women judges for the exhibitions and equal consideration of women’s enterprises in all contests. They had to compromise some of these goals, and, equally important, they failed to heed African American women’s petitions for inclusion on the Board of Lady Managers. Thus, the Women’s Building at the 1893 World’s Fair represented a form of separatism that both demanded equal status for white women and reflected the racial exclusivity of American society.20