Institution Building and American
At the time I wrote this essay, I had begun to question liberal feminism in light of the
separatist “women's culture” of the 1970s. In the work of Emily 'Newell Blair, the femi-
nist politician who in the late 1920s reconsidered the strategy of integrating women
into mainstream political parties, I found historical precedents for applying the con-
cept of women's culture to feminist politics. I continue to value female separatism but
always with the caveats that we should distinguish carefully between women's and
feminist institutions, remain aware of the costs of racial exclusiveness, and avoid
romanticizing the past. My own revision of the argument about women's separatism,
along with references to later studies, appears in chapter 2.
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 Institu-
tion Building and American Feminism, 1870–1930,” Feminist Studies 5, no. 3 (Fall 1979):
512–29. Reprinted by permission of Feminist Studies, Inc.