The Feminist Press: Yesterday Towson, tomorrow the world


I went to a birthday party Monday. You should have come along. Glasses were raised for the 25th anniversary of the Feminist Press, an institution that by its not-for-profit persuasion is forever poor but has greatly enriched the world of books, and thus the universe of ideas.

Officially "The Feminist Press at the City University of New York," it is housed by CUNY and also employs as a nonteaching professor the legendary Florence Howe, the press' founder, publisher and director. She was very much present, and never for a moment at rest, in the party in a corner of Washington's Union Station.

It all began in Towson. Ms. Howe was an assistant professor of English at Goucher in the 1960s and already a strong voice in the American feminist movement. In 1970, she formed the Feminist Press on a shoestring and an angry dream because established publishers proved adamantly indifferent to what she believed was important literature about, by or for women.

Today, the press' commitment is to publication of books of enduring scholarly significance, to "restoration of the lost literature and history" of women (with special attention to ethnic minorities), and to doing as much of that as possible in language that is "jargon-free." It maintains a back list of 150 titles and is producing 15 new books this year. But this is its true accomplishment: expanding what I, and you, can and do read. The Press has led; many, many have followed.

When I was young, this perception came to me: The stupidest failure of the world I knew was its underutilization of women. That abiding conviction underlies and nourishes my enthusiasm for feminism and feminist causes more powerfully even than my sense of fairness (which I believe is sound) or my fondness for women as fellow creatures (which is implacable).

My adolescence began as World War II was ending. I was emerging from infantile self-absorption during that brief era in America in which women were being utilized -- and celebrated -- as culture-saving industrial workers. There had always been recognition of powerful women, but they were brilliant exceptions, not natural members of the labor force, the race and fount of production, citizenship, leadership.

In that brief, sweet intermezzo now memorialized as the last righteous war, American women were regarded by men as dues-paying, card-carrying human beings, rather than simply (however lovingly) as ornaments, warmers and feeders. Rosie the Riveter was a genuine American hero. Not, mind you, a heroine; she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with John Wayne. And there were plenty of her.

Then suddenly: Hiroshima -- Boom! Nagasaki -- Boom! Johnny came marching home. He traded in his M-1 for Rosie's rivet gun. Rosie was out of work. Pretty quick, she was barefoot and pregnant. Baby Boom! Peace is Hell.

If the seed of my feminist consciousness grew in the rich spiritual loam of total-war solidarity and fuller-than-full employment, it was planted earlier. In my first schools, I had both men and women teachers. The women were the more imaginative, the more daring; the men the more predictable, programmed, bound by orthodoxy. There were other strong, accomplished women to be seen and heard, beyond the schoolhouse.

Soon enough, of course, my consciousness was numbed by glands and the post-war return of male dominance. But I had begun reading early, before I first went to school. In that reading, I remember searching for fully franchised women, and finding precious few.

Oh, there were women, but I found the bulk of them weirdly subordinated. That deficit dogged my reading well into adolescence: Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Damon Runyon, Saki, William Faulkner. Writers whose work I gulped, swallowing whole.

The list wanders, goes out of hand, drifts in misty memory. But I remember being aware there were precious few exceptions: D.H. Lawrence stood out, Willa Cather's "My Antonia" was a beacon. The work of Dorothy Parker and Kay Boyle didn't seem to me to declare much for or about womanhood. I didn't get to Henry James till my 20s.

Others sense the gap in very different ways. But that there was a gap cannot be disputed. And the Feminist Press has been a majestic leader in beginning to fill it.

Among the festivities Monday was a reading by Margaret Walker from her journals of the 1930s. If you don't know Margaret Walker, run out this minute and get her "How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature" (Feminist Press. 184 pages. $35 cloth, $9.95 paperback). There were readings from poems written by women in the 6th century B.C., and later, of course. There was a surging, throbbing, celebratory sense of accomplishment.

No one there believed those accomplishments suffice. But it was unanimously noted they do comprise a birth of awareness of women's writing spanning many centuries. In witnessing that, there was a certainty that though battles have been won, the crusade continues. Perhaps no great crusade is ever done, but goes on being waged eternally.

At that little gathering there was a powerful sense that the crusade goes well -- bloodless, nonviolent in the main, but no less fierce or militant for those kindnesses.

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