What Happened to Feminism?
My desire to restore historical consciousness about female separatism has both a personal and an intellectual motivation. As a feminist working within male-dominated academic institutions, I have realized that I could not survive without access to the feminist culture and politics that flourish outside mixed institutions. How, I have wondered, could women in the past work for change within a male-dominated world without having this alternative culture? This thought led me to the more academic questions. Perhaps they could not survive when those supports were not available, and perhaps this insight can help explain one of the most intriguing questions in American women’s history: What happened to feminism after the suffrage victory in 1920?
Most explanations of the decline of women’s political strength focus on either inherent weaknesses in suffragist ideology or external pressures from a pervasively sexist society.8 But when I survey the women’s movement before suffrage passed, I am struck by the hypothesis that a major strength of American feminism prior to 1920 was the separate female community that helped sustain women’s participation in both social reform and political activism. Although the women’s movement of the late nineteenth century contributed to the transformation of women’s social roles, it did not reject a separate, unique female identity. Most feminists did not adopt the radical demands for equal status with men that originated at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Rather, they preferred to retain membership in a separate female sphere, one which they did not believe to be inferior to men’s sphere and one in which women could be free to create their own forms of personal, social, and political relationships. The achievements of feminism at the turn of the century came less through gaining access to the male domains of politics and the professions than through the tangible act of building separate female institutions.
The self-consciously female community began to disintegrate in the 1920s just as “new women” were attempting to assimilate into male-dominated institutions. At work, in social life, and in politics, I will argue, middle-class women hoped to become equals by adopting men’s values and integrating into their institutions. A younger generation of women learned to smoke, drink, and value heterosexual relationships over female friendships in their personal lives. At the same time, women’s political activity epitomized the process of rejecting women’s culture in favor of men’s promises of equality. The gradual decline of female separatism in social and political life precluded the emergence of a strong women’s political bloc that might have protected and expanded the gains made by the earlier women’s movement. Thus, the erosion of women’s culture may help account for the decline of public feminism in the decades after 1920. Without a constituency, a movement cannot survive. The old feminist leaders lost their following when a new generation opted for assimilation in the naive hope of becoming men’s equals overnight.
To explore this hypothesis, I will illustrate episodes of cultural and political separatism within American feminism in three periods: its historical roots prior to 1870; the institution building of the late nineteenth century; and the aftermath of suffrage in the 1920s.