It’s 1969. Across America, the culture wars are raging.
At Goucher College, a private liberal arts school outside Baltimore, students enrolled in an 18th-century literature class take one glance at the syllabus and promptly ask their professor: “Where are the women authors?” The professor, herself a woman, is stumped. “There are none, because I’ve not read any,” she tells them.
The stumped professor was Florence Howe, who died in September at 91, and this story, as she often explained, is how her lifelong project, the Feminist Press — now in its 50th year — was born.
Initially, Ms. Howe proposed a series of short books to be written by famous contemporary women about women of the past. She approached three separate academic presses. But when they turned her down, she went wider, even taking her idea to Bob Silvers, the founding editor of The New York Review of Books. While the people she spoke with were excited by the idea, the financial managers were decidedly not; there was, she was told, “no money in it.”
According to her lengthy 2011 autobiography, “A Life in Motion,” Ms. Howe wasted no time on disappointment, instead pivoting to publish the series herself with her husband’s help. She credits her husband with the concept as well as the name, the Feminist Press. “I could call it the Feminist Press, since he would be a part of it, and feminist was a non-gendered word that included men,” she wrote.
News of the Press spread quickly. “Word traveled very fast even though we had no fax, no email, no computers,” Ms. Howe recounted in an interview to mark her 90th birthday. I said, “If at least 25 people show up” to my house in Maryland, “and they agree to meet at least twice a month, we’ll have a feminist press.”
Fifty people showed up.
The Press’s original mandate was to unearth forgotten female writers for the purpose of academic study. “What I wanted were books that could be used in the classroom,” Ms. Howe said in an interview last summer for this story, conducted with the help of Jisu Kim, a senior staffer at the Feminist Press. “Always, that was my goal.”