The feminist scholarship of the past decade has often been concerned, either explicitly or implicitly, with two central political questions: the search for the origins of women’s oppression and the formulation of effective strategies for combating patriarchy. Analysis of the former question helps us answer the latter. As anthropologist Gayle Rubin has wryly explained: “If innate male aggression and dominance are at the root of female oppression, then the feminist program would logically require either the extermination of the offending sex, or else a eugenics project to modify its character. If sex­ism is a by-product of capitalism’s relentless appetite for profit, then sexism would wither away in the advent of a successful socialist revolution. If the world historical defeat of women occurred at the hands of an armed patri­archal revolt, then it is time for Amazon guerrillas to start training in the Adirondacks.”1

Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “Separatism as Strategy: Female Institu­tion Building and American Feminism, 1870-1930,” Feminist Studies 5, no. 3 (Fall 1979): 512-29. Reprinted by permission of Feminist Studies, Inc.

Another anthropologist, Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, provided an influ­ential exploration of the origins-strategies questions in her 1974 theoretical overview of women’s status.2 Rosaldo argued that “universal sexual asym­metry” (the lower value placed on women’s tasks and roles in all cultures) has been determined largely by the sexually defined split between domestic and public spheres. To oversimplify her thesis, the greater the social dis­tance between women in the home and men in the public sphere, the greater the devaluation of women. The implications for feminist strategies become clear at the end of Rosaldo’s essay when she says that greater overlap be­tween domestic and public spheres means higher status for women. Thus, to achieve an egalitarian future, with less separation of female and male, we should strive not only for the entry of women into the male-dominated public sphere but also for men’s entry into the female-dominated domestic world.

Rosaldo also discusses an alternative strategy for overcoming sexual asymmetry, namely, the creation of a separate women’s public sphere, but she dismisses this model in favor of integrating domestic and public spheres. Nonetheless, the alternative strategy of creating “women’s societies and Af­rican queens” deserves further attention.3 Where female political leaders have power over their own jurisdiction (women), they also gain leverage in tribal policy. Such a separate sexual political hierarchy would presumably offer women more status and power than the extreme male-public/female – domestic split, but it would not require the entry of each sex into the sphere dominated by the other sex. At certain historical periods, the creation of a public female sphere might be the only viable political strategy for women.

I would like to argue through historical analysis for the alternative strat­egy of creating a strong, public female sphere. A number of feminist histori­ans have recently explored the value of the separate, though not necessarily public, female sphere for enriching women’s historical experience. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s research has shown how close personal relationships en­hanced the private lives of women in the nineteenth century.4 At the same time, private “sisterhoods,” Nancy Cott has suggested, may have been a pre­condition for the emergence of feminist consciousness.5 In the late nine­teenth and early twentieth centuries, intimate friendships provided support systems for politically active women, as demonstrated by the work of both Blanche Cook and Nancy Sahli.6 However, the women’s culture of the past — personal networks, rituals, and relationships — did not automatically consti­tute a political strategy. As loving and supportive as women’s networks may have been, they could keep women content with a status that was inferior to that of men.

I do not accept the argument that female networks and feminist politics were incompatible. Rather, in the following synthesis of recent scholarship in American women’s history, I want to show how the women’s movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provides an example of the “women’s societies and African queens” strategy that Rosaldo mentioned. The creation of a separate, public female sphere helped mobilize women and gained political leverage in the larger society. A separatist political strategy, which I refer to as “female institution building,” emerged from the middle – class women’s culture of the nineteenth century. Its history suggests that in our own time, as well, women’s culture can be integral to feminist politics.7