I do not mean to imply that the lines on the question of separatism ran strictly in accordance with sexuality or that no other factors shaped the political practices of separatist organizing. As the evidence presented here makes clear, women with in the international women’s movement in the first half of the twentieth century formed a variety of relationships, with both women and men, and cannot easily be categorized as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” in any case. There were married women such as Carrie Chapman Catt who lived with and loved women, and single women such as Alice Salomon who lavished devoted admiration on Lord and Lady Aberdeen. Coupled women’s relationships might be characterized as lesbian partnerships, romantic friendships, loving caretaking, or some combination. In fact, given the variety of bonds, we might wonder whether internationally organized women managed to cross the boundaries of sexuality more easily than those of class, religion, and nationality. Certainly the conflicts over sexuality within the movement tended to pit “respectable” against unconventional behavior rather than same-sex against heterosexual relationships.
And even if we could divide women into neat categories, the association would not be perfect. Rosika Schwimmer, who was married briefly in her youth but lived most of her life in close association with women, grew disgusted with separatist organizing in the 1930s. Mildred Scott Olmstead, a U.S. WILPF leader who maintained an intimate relationship with a woman throughout her married life, proposed in 1934 that the international organization admit men. And the married women leaders and heterosexual renegades all continued to commit them selves to all-female groups, whatever their ideas about the proper way to organize.
Furthermore, affectional choices alone did not fashion the politics of separatism. National and generational differences, which helped to construct interpretations of sexuality, are particularly striking. European women seemed both more open to sexual expression and less interested in single-sex organizing than their Anglo-American colleagues. Although documentation and analysis of the contrast between more “sex-positive” European cultures and “sex-negative” Anglo-American societies is strangely lacking in the secondary literature, such differences are widely, and I believe correctly, assumed. Certainly women in the international organizations took this contrast for granted. Alice Salomon reported a conversation she had had with Lillian Wald, who lived in the women’s world of Henry Street Settlement in New York. Wald and another of her countrywomen opined that single life was easier for women, but Salomon thought that few German women would agree. Expressing the conviction of national differences in attitudes toward sexuality, Salomon suggested that Americans were affected by the “Puritan strain in their upbringing,” but the Americans denied it, retorting that German women were oversexed. Rosa Manus seemed to make the same assumption about “puritanical” American views when she and her parents took Carrie Chapman Catt to a show at the Casino de Paris in 1923, “a most shocking real Paris Veau de ville [sic-vaudeville] with a quantity of naked women. She had never seen anything like that, and I think it was good for her education,” Manus reported. Emily Greene Balch learned that gossip had began to circulate about an innocent young American woman working in Geneva in the 1920s, leading her to conclude that European women could not understand the peculiarly American combination of sexual restraint and an informal manner in relations with young men. And when Martina Kramers faced condemnation for her relationship with Bobbie, she noted that “nowhere in Europe, beginning with my own country, are people so convinced of my immorality as they seem to be in America. “60 Perhaps as a result, when Kramers wrote Rosika Schwimmer about this whole affair, she switched from their normal English to German.
Women in the more (hetero) sexually permissive societies and circles seemed to differ from their compatriots on the issue of separatism. Reflecting national preferences for mixed-gender groups, the president of the National Council of Women of the Netherlands explicitly associated women’s exclusion of men with the “New World.” Danish women responded to the announcement of the Woman’s Peace Party in the United States and a call for the formation of similar groups in other countries by asserting that “we preferred to work together, men and women, in the same organization.” At the 1915 Hague congress, Dutch women called for the concentration of all forces, female and male, working for peace. They noted that “a special women’s movement is not necessary and therefore undesired. The force of a movement where two sexes cooperate rill come to better results than an organization of one sex only.” Women trade unionists from Germany and Austria reIsed to send representatives to the second congress of the International Federation of Working Women in 1921, because they were “opposed to taking part in a separate women’s trade union organization” in the American fashion. And the Austrian woman who commented on the manless celebrations in the International Federation of Business and Professional Women went on to comment: “This would simply have been an unheard of thing with US.”61
Similarly, women struggling side by side with men of their ass or national group for justice or independence had reason to look critically at separatist organizing. Women committed to le powerful socialist and social-democratic parties of Europe ad particular reasons for eschewing single-sex groups, as the conflict in the International Federation of Working Women illustrates. Katherine Bompas, British LAW secretary, contrast the “older” women’s movement with the Soviet-inspired women’s International Democratic Federation after the Second World War, believed that the existing groups, by shunning affiliation with (male-dominated) political parties, had “in the yes of working women seemed bourgeois and even perhaps conservative.” In 1935, Margery Corbett Ashby reported that 1e enormous difficulties facing the nationalist struggle in Egypt “bring the men and women nearer together” and found 1e leading Egyptian nationalist movement, the Wafd, “quite progressive as regards women’s position.” A Syrian woman, speaking at the Istanbul congress of the LAW in the same year, asserted her belief in the necessity of working shoulder to shoulder with men in her country for prosperity and freedom. “The economic and political situation of my country is so desperate that it is extremely difficult for us women to give our wholehearted energies to the cause of feminism alone”.
Generational differences on the question of separatism are also striking. Young women experiencing firsthand the accelerated breakdown between female and male social spheres in the twentieth-century world challenged women-only groups more readily than their older colleagues who clung to separatist organizing. British WILPF leader Mary Sheepshanks related in
1930 that young women at a Geneva meeting of the International Federation of University Women announced that “we are not going to join any more of these women’s organizations.” In 1931, Canadian Dorothy Heneker pointed out that young European women thought that women should work with men, and the LAW Youth Committee reported in 1938 that the general feeling favored a mixed organization of young women and men. Generational, like national and class, differences on the question of separatism grew from distinctive patterns of homosocial versus heterosocial interaction, and so resistance to all-female groups came from both traditional and progressive sources.
The case of the international women’s movement in this period illuminates the paradoxes of a women’s world in an era undergoing profound change in the relations between the sexes. Internationally organized women, or at least some of them, knew about lesbianism but chose to view the same-sex relationships of their coworkers in an older frame. Single women alternated between defiance and defensiveness, suggesting that the declining social segregation of the sexes in the industrialized Western world and the more insistent labeling of women without men as lesbians or old maids made a woman’s choice of a female-or no-partner more suspicious and thus the women’s world of separatist organizations more precarious. The polarized responses to women in decorous-versus-unconventional heterosexual relationships, and the reservation of the strongest condemnation for women who challenged respectability through their sexual liaisons with men, hints at the unease that spilled over from the transformation of social and sexual relations to the process of political organizing.
The story of the international women’s movement also reveals how important it is to attend to the interaction of sexuality and politics. Conflict over sexuality and separatism added to the national, class, and generational tensions already bubbling within the international organizations and foreshadowed some of the contemporary critiques of lesbian separatism in the United States by working-class women and women of color. At the same time, the silencing of the defenders of separatist organizing may have helped to undermine the potential power of a global women’s movement in these years by questioning the validity of gathering apart from men in an increasingly heterosocial world. Whatever the case, the dynamics within the first wave of international organizing among women make clear that our contemporary struggles over sexuality and politics have a longer and more complex history than we sometimes think.