Historical Roots of Separatism
In nineteenth-century America, commercial and industrial growth intensified the sexual division of labor, encouraging the separation of men’s and women’s spheres. While white males entered the public world of wage labor, business, the professions, and politics, most white middle-class women remained at home, where they provided the domestic, maternal, and spiritual care for their families and the nation. These women underwent intensive socialization into their roles as “true women.” Combined with the restrictions on women that denied them access to the public sphere, this training gave American women an identity quite separate from men’s. Women shared unique life experiences as daughters, wives, childbearers, childrearers, and moral guardians. They passed on their values and traditions to their female kin. They created what Smith-Rosenberg has called “the female world of love and ritual,” a world of homosocial networks that helped them transcend the alienation of domestic life.9
The ideology of “true womanhood” was so deeply ingrained and so useful for preserving social stability in a time of flux that those few women who explicitly rejected its inequalities could find little support for their views. The feminists of the early women’s rights movement were certainly justified in their grievances and demands for equal opportunity with men. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments of 1848, which called for access to education, property ownership, and political rights, has inspired many feminists since then, while the ridicule and denial of these demands have inspired our rage. But the equal rights arguments of the 1850s were apparently too radical for their own times.10 Men would not accept women’s entry into the public sphere, but more important, most women were not interested in rejecting their deeply rooted female identities. Both men and women feared the demise of the female sphere and the valuable functions it performed. The feminists, however, still hoped to reduce the limitations on women within their own sphere, as well as to gain the right of choice — of autonomy— for those women who opted for public rather than private roles.
Radical feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony recognized the importance of maintaining the virtues of the female world while eliminating discrimination against women in public. As their political analysis developed at mid-century, they drew upon the concepts of female moral superiority and sisterhood and affirmed the separate nature of woman. At the same time, their disillusionment with even the most enlightened men of the times reinforced the belief that women had to create their own movement to achieve independence. The bitterness that resulted when most male abolitionists refused to support women’s rights in the 1860s, and when the Fifteenth Amendment failed to include woman suffrage, along with the introduction of the term “male citizen” into the Constitution in the Fourteenth Amendment, alienated many women reformers. When male abolitionists proclaimed in defense, “This is the Negro’s hour,” the more radical women’s rights advocates followed Stanton and Anthony in withdrawing from the reform coalition and creating a separatist organization. Their National Woman Suffrage Association had women members and officers; supported a broad range of reforms, including changes in marriage and divorce laws; and published the short-lived journal, The Revolution. The radical path proved difficult, however, and the National Woman Suffrage Association merged in 1890 with the more moderate American Woman
Suffrage Association. Looking back on their disappointment after the Civil War, Stanton and Anthony wrote prophetically in 1881:
Our liberal men counselled us to silence during the war, and we were silent on our own wrongs; they counselled us to silence in Kansas and New York (in the suffrage referenda), lest we should defeat “Negro Suffrage,” and threatened if we were not, we might fight the battle alone. We chose the latter, and were defeated. But standing alone we learned our power: we repudiated man’s counsels forevermore; and solemnly vowed that there should never be another season of silence until woman had the same rights everywhere on this green earth, as man. . . .
We would warn the young women of the coming generation against man’s advice as to their best interests. . . . Woman must lead the way to her own enfranchisement. . . . She must not put her trust in man in this transition period, since while regarded as his subject, his inferior, his slave, their interests must be antagonistic.11