25 Years of Celebrating Women Authors

Imagine that you’d never heard of Zora Neale Hurston, Rebecca Harding Davis, or Jo Sinclair. Imagine that you’d never heard of any but three or four women novelists. That’s largely what the world of English literature looked like before The Feminist Press.

Founded by Florence Howe in 1970, The Feminist Press was begun as a reaction to the near total absence of published works by and about women. Howe, then an assistant professor of English at Goucher College for women in Maryland, had been trying for several years to teach what had yet to be called “Women’s Studies.” The problem was that there weren’t any texts to teach from. The Feminist Press was Howe’s activist solution: she decided that she herself would create classroom texts (and role model material) for young women writers.

Howe recalls that, in those early years, “None of us knew that there even existed this ocean of women writers. Their work had simply been ignored. In the ’60’s, you couldn’t even buy a paperback of Virginia Woolf s classic, Mrs. Dalloway.” Twenty five years later. The Feminist Press has published over 150 titles, including the first non-sexist children’s books, and the first series of non-European international women’s writing. “Many of the authors that we were the first to publish in the ’70’s are now required college reading in the ’90’s,” Howe says proudly.

In honor of its anniversary. The Feminist Press is hosting several events, including a celebration of its Midwest authors (September 30 at the Minneapolis Public Library) and a New York City “Literary Dinner Theater” hosted by Gloria Steinem (at Hunter College on October 30).

They’re also kicking off four new book series—on music, travel, peace, and Jews. The latter series, funded in memory of Helen Rose Scheuer, begins with the publication of Bella Cohen Spewack’s story of her immigrant childhood in the early 1900’s, Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side. Next in the Jewish women series will be The Mamie Papers, a fascinating turn-of-the- century exchange of letters between a young Jewish prostitute in Philadelphia and the Boston woman who mentored her. Third in line is a collection of short stories by Latin American Jews.

When asked how she feels now that the Feminist Press is 25, Howe laughs. “Mostly I’m surprised. I never thought we would keep going indefinitely. I thought other publishers would begin doing this work and we would become obsolete.” As for the future, she told me (a young feminist writer), “This could still all disappear. All these women were visible in their day, and their works were lost. They could be lost again. There’s still lots of work to be done, and young people like you will have to carry it on.”