The strength of female institutions in the late nineteenth century and the weaknesses of women’s politics after the passage of the suffrage amendment suggest to me that the decline of feminism in the 1920s can be attributed in part to the devaluation of women’s culture in general and of separate female institutions in particular. When women tried to assimilate into male-domi­nated institutions without securing feminist social, economic, or political bases, they lost the momentum and the networks that had made the suffrage movement possible. Women gave up many of the strengths of the female sphere without gaining equally from the male world they entered.

This historical record has important implications for the women’s move­ment today. It becomes clearer, I think, why the separate, small women’s group, organized for consciousness raising or political study and action, has been effective in building a grassroots movement over the past ten years. The groups helped reestablish common bonds long veiled by the retreat from women’s institutions into privatized families or sexually integrated but male-dominated institutions. The groups encouraged the reemergence of female networks and a new women’s culture, which in turn have given rise to female institution building — women’s centers, health collectives, political unions, even new women’s buildings, like the ones in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The history of separatism also helps explain why the politics of lesbian feminism have been so important in the revival of the women’s movement. Lesbian feminism, by affirming the primacy of women’s relationships with each other and by providing an alternative feminist culture, forced many nonlesbians to reevaluate their relationships with men, male institutions, and male values. In the process, feminists have put to rest the myth of female dependence on men and rediscovered the significance of woman bonding. I find it personally gratifying that the lesbian feminist concept of the woman – identified woman has historical roots in the female friendships, networks, and institutions of the nineteenth century.25 The historical sisterhood, it seems to me, can teach us a great deal about putting women first, whether as friends, lovers, or political allies.

I find two kinds of political lessons in the history of the separatist trend. In the past, one of the limitations of separate female institutions was that they were often the only places for women to pursue professional or politi­cal activities, while men’s institutions retained the power over most of the society. Today it is crucial to press for feminist presence both outside and within the bastions of male dominance, such as politics, the universities, the professions, and the unions. But it is equally important for the women within mixed institutions to create female interest groups and support sys­tems. Otherwise, token women may be either co-opted into traditionally deferential roles or assimilated through identification with the powers that be. In the process, these women will lose touch with their feminist values and constituencies, as well as suffer the personal costs of tokenism. Thus, in universities we need to strengthen our women’s centers and women’s studies programs and to form women’s groups among faculty as well as students. In all of our workplaces, we need women’s caucuses to secure and enlarge our gains. And unlike much of the movement in the past, we need to undertake the enormous task of building coalitions of women’s groups from all classes, races, and cultures.

I argue for a continuation of separatism not because the values, culture, and politics of the two sexes are biologically, irreversibly distinct but rather because the historical and contemporary experiences that have created a unique female culture remain both salient for and compatible with the goal of sexual equality. Our common identities and heritage as women can pro­vide enormous personal and political strength as long as we claim the power to define what women can be and what female institutions can achieve. I argue for renewed female institution building at this point in the contem­porary women’s movement because I fear that many feminists— faced with the isolation of personal success or dismayed by political backlash — may turn away from the separate women’s politics that have achieved most of our gains in the past decade. And I argue as well for both greater respect for women’s culture among political feminists and greater political engagement on the part of cultural feminists because we now face both external resis­tance and internal contradictions that threaten to divide our movement.

The contradictions faced by contemporary feminists are those experi­enced by an oppressed group — in this case, women — which needs both to affirm the value of its own culture and to reject the past oppression from which that culture in part originated.26 To survive as a movement, we must avoid two kinds of pitfalls. In this essay, I have concentrated on the dangers of rejecting our culture through individualist integration of the kind that undermined feminism after the first wave of political and educational prog­ress. The other pitfall is that of embracing our culture too uncritically, to the point of identifying with the sources of our own oppression. Rayna Rapp has warned that “as we excavate and legitimize women’s history, social organi­zation, and cultural forms, we must not allow our own need for models of strong female collectivities to blind us to the dialectic of tradition” in which women are both supported and constrained^7 Although we must be self­critical of women’s culture and strive to use female institutions to combat inequality, not to entrench it, at the same time, we must not be self-hating of that which is female as we enter a world dominated by men. Even as women retrain in the skills that men once monopolized — in trades, professions, and politics — we should not forsake but rather we should cherish the values and institutions that were once women’s only resources. Even if the Equal Rights Amendment someday legally mandates equality, in the meantime and for some time thereafter, the female world and separatist politics will still serve the interests of women.

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Separatism Revisited

 

Women’s

 

Institutions, Social Reform, and the