Feminist Bookstores: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability By Kristen Hogan
Durham, NC; Duke University Press, 2016, 328 pp., $24.95, paperback
A Life in Motion By Florence Howe
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2011, 536 pp., $19.96, paperback
Feminist Revolution in Literacy: Women's Bookstores in the United States By Junko R. Onosaka
New York, NY; Routledge, 2006, 224 pp., $57.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jolie Braun
If there is a feminist bookstore that currently looms in the popular imagination, it’s Women and Women First—and it’s fictional. Featured on the sketch show Portlandia, for eight seasons viewers engaged with a feminist bookstore staff that took themselves very, very seriously. The show often played off of tropes about these businesses. One sketch revealed the store’s inventory to be organized in hyper-specific, esoteric categories such as “Political Cartoons – Lady Artists” and “Softball 1980-1989.” Another depicted a bookseller skeptically examining a popular new release: “That’s a top-selling author. Do we want that in here?” To which her colleague definitively replied, “No, we want bottom-selling authors.”
Today, with only a handful of feminist bookstores left in the US, younger readers are more likely to be familiar with Portlandia’s depiction than to have ever personally set foot in one. From the 1970s to the 1990s, however, there were more than one hundred across the country, and collectively they played a pivotal role in advocating for women’s literature and ushering it into the mainstream. The rise and the fall of feminist bookstores is the topic of Kristen Hogan’s Feminist Bookstores: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability and Junko R. Onosaka’s Feminist Revolution in Literacy: Women’s Bookstores in the United States. Onosaka’s work—which was published a dozen years ago and is the first major study on feminist bookstores—provides a thorough history of their emergence and evolution, who founded and ran them, and how they functioned. Hogan’s book, from 2016, aims to redefine the narrative of these businesses by highlighting the lesbians and women of color at the center of this movement and examining how the bookstores operated as sites of activism, community building, and accountability. Both offer enlightening explorations of how and why these stores succeeded (and failed) as well as a closer look at the ways in which they helped shape the feminist movement and the literary landscape.
Before delving further, some history may be helpful. By the mid-nineteenth century, with the rise of literacy rates and the growth of the publishing industry, literary writing became a viable profession in the US, and many women took up the pen as a way to support themselves and their family. Onosaka discusses how other parts of the book trade, however, required greater capital and mobility and remained more difficult for women to enter, even well into the twentieth century. Publishing, for example, was referred to as the “gentleman’s profession,” known for attracting upper-class individuals interested in the promise of prestige and cultural influence. Bookselling, too, had barriers; in 1917 a group of women booksellers formed the Women’s National Book Association after being barred from membership from the all-male Bookseller ’s League. Whose stories and experiences were deemed worth publishing and what works made their way into bookstores and the hands of readers, then, was controlled by an industry predominantly run by elite white men.
By the mid-twentieth century, cheaper and faster printing methods—such as the mimeograph machine and offset printing—proliferated throughout the US, fundamentally altering who had access to the means of production. The new accessibility of printing was a boon to the emerging counterculture and political and social causes such as the Civil Rights movement and anti-war protests. Second wave feminists, too, recognized it as an opportunity to print pamphlets, essays, and manifestos. The first copies of Robin Morgan’s anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful was published on a mimeo machine in 1970. That same year, Women and Their Bodies, later renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves, appeared as a stapled booklet on newsprint. Inexpensive and quick production also resulted in underground newspapers such as Ain’t I a Woman and The Female Liberation Newsletter as well as magazines like Off Our Backs that helped forge feminist networks by connecting likeminded women across the country.
Feminist publishing flourished during this period as well. Iconic presses such as Shameless Hussy, Women’s Press Collective, and Diana Press were founded in 1969, 1969, and 1972, respectively. Although many of them only lasted a few years, one of the most well-known and significant, Feminist Press, still thrives today. Florence Howe’s memoir A Life in Motion spans the scholar, publisher, and activist’s eventful life, but her memories of founding the press in 1970 form the spine of the book. At the time, Howe was a literature professor at Goucher College. Frustrated by the lack of available works by and about women writers for her students, she believed that a series about historical women writers written by contemporary women writers could be a step toward addressing this dearth. Her proposal, however, was rejected by multiple publishers who did not see a market for such works. At a raucous meeting hosted by Howe for her students, one suggested that the movement needed its own publishing house, prompting the beginning of the Feminist Press.
Its first release in 1971 was Barbara Danish’s The Dragon and the Doctor, a children’s book, adapted from a publication Danish discovered on a trip to China, challenging traditional gender roles. It was soon followed by small volumes on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Perhaps Feminist Press had some of its greatest impact recovering a “lost literature,” releasing once widely-circulated works such as Rebecca Harding’s Life in the Iron Mills and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper. When these reprints appeared in the early 1970s, both had been out of print for several decades, and their authors relatively unknown to modern audiences. That by 1990 they were included in The Norton Anthology of American Literature speaks to the press’s prescience and feminist publishing’s role in broadening the American literary canon and transforming college curriculum.
If the presses and publications gave a voice to the feminist movement, the bookstores provided the physical space for it. These were venues that radically prioritized the needs and interests of women. Growth happened quickly across the country. The first bookstore opened in 1970, by 1975 there were 45, and by 1980 the number had grown to 71. Reflecting on this time period, Howe recalls that “there was a hunger for our work.” Feminist bookwomen—a term most commonly used to refer to women booksellers but may also include women involved in other aspects of the book trade, collectors, and experts—stocked and promoted books by women writers, lesbian writers, and writers of color that other bookstores typically didn’t sell, and championed publications dedicated to feminist issues such as economic and racial justice. In the process they offered a new way of thinking about these texts. Hogan describes this work as building the “feminist shelf,” a term she employs to refer to the ways in which these booksellers’ efforts to discover, select, and organize their inventory created new ways to understand these works, helped establish a community of writers and readers, and served to document and disseminate feminist history. If the idea of “women’s literature” seems obvious to us today, it is largely due to the pioneering work feminist bookstores, publishers, and publications did to introduce and normalize this concept.
This network of bookstores, periodicals, and presses was a collaborative, dynamic relationship, with each component both supporting and depending on the others for success. The presses and bookstores relied on the feminist newspapers and magazines to review their books and share their information with readers. The bookstores were advocates for the presses, magazines, and newspapers, helping them find readers. In 1976 bookwoman Carol Seajay began Feminist Bookstores Newsletter (FBN, later Feminist Bookstore News). Originally intended for booksellers and then later available to all feminists working in the book trade, FBN was a powerful tool, enabling subscribers to pool their knowledge and resources and work together toward the common goal of supporting feminist print culture. Articles ranged from book reviews to bookstore profiles to pieces on programming ideas or strategies for dealing with distributors and publishers, and the content had a real impact. One notable example of the publication’s influence is that the lesbian feminist press Spinsters Ink was able to publish Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals after successfully raising the funds through FBN.
The bookstores were more than just places to buy books. They served as community and resource centers, hosting meetings and lectures, creating and distributing bibliographies on topics such as divorce and abortion, and providing bulletin boards for visitors to communicate with each other and learn about local events. They were places to meet and socialize—an aspect particularly important for lesbians who had few options for public spaces where they could be both out and safe. Hogan observes that the ambitious goal to serve as a “site of feminist education” was evident in the name of the country’s first feminist bookstore—Information Center Incorporate: A Woman’s Place (ICI)—which opened in Oakland, California, in 1970. As other bookstores sprung up across the US—New York, Cambridge, Austin, San Francisco—many looked to ICI as a model. At their best, these bookstores were a highly visible and physical manifestation of a desire for and work toward real change. According to Onosaka, “through women’s bookstores, many women found their identities, communities, and sisterhood.”
Feminist bookstores differed from their counterparts not just in the books they stocked or the programming they offered, but also how they functioned. Staff promoted works they were passionate about regardless of their profitability and allowed books they believed in to remain on the shelves indefinitely rather than returning them to the publishers after a set period, as was the common practice. For some bookwomen, these new enterprises were an opportunity to create an alternative to traditional business models that reflected their values. Many bookstores began as collectives where consensus ruled. Yet this approach presented its own set of challenges such as a heightened sense of authority but diluted sense of responsibility and slow decision-making processes. Reliance on volunteer labor was necessary but often unpredictable. Such issues eventually lead some to modify their structures. Howe remembers similar growing pains at Feminist Press. She writes, “through its first decade … [the press] was organized horizontally in a manner I would describe today as ‘creative chaos.’” Hogan notes that the mission of these stores also set them apart from other bookstores, most significantly in their commitment, evident in both inventory and structure, to working toward inclusivity and accountability. They were spaces where staff and customers could have difficult conversations about important issues and work together to create and maintain feminist ethics.
During the 1970s, the presses and bookstores both supported and benefitted from the burgeoning field of women’s studies, which grew out of a similar motivation to rectify the lack of representation in college curriculum. As with feminist bookstores, the expansion of departments across the US was rapid. Howe reports that the two existing academic programs in 1970 in the US had grown to 270 by 1976. This emerging discipline required new readings and anthologies, and some of the earliest textbooks began as course readers, such as Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s now classic This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (first published by Persephone in 1981 and then Kitchen Table Press in 1983). Many of these works were stocked by feminist bookstores and published by feminist presses or other small presses; some of Feminist Press’s books became permanent course adoption texts. Onosaka notes that today many mainstream and academic presses publish women’s studies textbooks and bookstores often have women’s studies sections, both the result of feminist bookwomen demonstrating the value and profitability of women-centered works.
Despite their successes, the bookstores remained economically vulnerable. Hogan identifies chains as the primary threat, beginning in the early 1980s. Unlike independent bookstores, chains had enough clout to be able to demand discounts and special terms from publishers. Alternatively, Onosaka recognizes a host of troubles during that decade, including a shift in the political and social atmosphere (the “backlash”) and the rising costs of books and shipping. Vandalism and harassment also plagued feminist-run businesses. Howe describes a devastating arson incident in 1982 that damaged the premises of Feminist Press and resulted in substantial financial loss. By the 1990s, chains, superstores, and the emergence of Amazon were making it increasingly difficult for feminist bookstores to survive. The closure of their primary distributor Women in Distribution in 1979 and the cessation of FBN in 2000 also were serious blows to the community. In A Life in Motion, Howe remembers that the dawn of new millennium saw major changes on the horizon in publishing and bookselling: “When the press started, local bookstores were as common as local drugstores, and we rejoiced as the some 140 feminist bookstores were founded … Who among us imagined that most bookstores would vanish before two colossi— Barnes & Noble and Borders?” Here it is hard not to think back to Portlandia’s depiction of self-serious feminist booksellers. If we consider the work they wanted to accomplish, the pressures they faced, and what was at stake, the origins of this portrayal read a bit differently.
While Hogan and Onosaka cover similar terrain, their works complement rather than duplicate, and any reader interested in the topic will appreciate both. Literary scholar Onosaka’s Feminist Revolut ion is drawn from archival research and provides a thoughtful history that demonstrates how the bookstores played a pivotal role in the feminist movement, particularly in terms of making writing about women’s experiences, concerns, and achievements not only accessible, but a priority. Readers unfamiliar with the broader context of the publishing world and book trade will find the background information useful. Hogan’s Feminist Bookstores, which is based on interviews she conducted with store founders and staff, similarly documents the achievements of feminist bookwomen, but focuses more on understanding these efforts as an extension of a set of values that prioritized resistance and accountability. She also shows that several of the bookstores were lesbian-run and identified spaces and that many of the founders were lesbian and/or women of color, disrupting the myth of the second wave as straight and white. Hogan, a scholar and librarian, has the unique perspective of having worked at BookWoman in Austin and at the Toronto Woman’s Bookstore, and at times her account is an intensely personal one, reflecting on her own experience with being part of a collective to meeting her partner at work.
Onosaka’s book closes with a hopeful chapter about the bookstores still in existence, yet it would be hard for any reader in 2018 to match the author’s optimism. Only one of the stores she mentions— Chicago’s Women and Children First—is still open. Hogan’s work is more recent, and perhaps unsurprisingly, offers a more sober view. She argues that the demise of these radical and transformative bookstores was the result of feminist booksellers sacrificing their own unique concerns in order to join in the larger movement of helping independent bookstores survive during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Consequently, the history she provides is not just a celebration of their successes but also “a cautionary tale about attempting corporate advocacy at the cost of movement accountability.” At the time, many feminist bookwomen likely saw refashioning themselves as independent booksellers as a marker of their resourcefulness and adaptability in an increasingly hostile climate. Hogan, however, contends that this decision came at the cost of their ethics-driven approach, weakening the perception of feminist bookstores as places of movement-based activism.
Despite the immense importance of feminist literature and women’s writing to late twentieth century feminism, these bookstores and booksellers largely have been overlooked in feminist histories. This may be partially due to their status in the book world; Hogan and Onosaka contend that within the book trade there has long been a hierarchy, with booksellers at the bottom. Hogan quotes FBN founder Carol Seajay, who sees this as an issue of class: “publishing books is important; selling them is beneath contempt.” Yet the stores and the women who ran them, like authors and publishers, were an integral part of the feminist print culture network, getting books into the hands of readers. What activism looks like and who gets recognized for doing this kind of labor are central to these histories, and both authors offer compelling arguments that encourage us to expand our definitions to include bookstores as part of this literary activism.
In June 2018, Portland’s In Other Words bookstore, the inspiration for Portlandia’s feminist send-up, announced that it was closing: publicity from the show had not translated to sales. According to the store’s website, reasons included “increased expenses and the lack of funds, volunteers, and board members.” Although many of the stores and the earliest presses are now gone, their influence remains, evident in some things we now take for granted, such as the wide availability of women’s writing and literature. While there is still work to be done, their efforts can be seen in some of the ways mainstream publishers and bookstores have changed in the past few decades and the ways in which today’s literary canon is a more diverse one than its predecessor. Moreover, there is little doubt that feminist print culture is thriving in other forms. Women-run small presses such as Siglio, Emily Books, Dorothy: A Publishing Project, Dottir Press, and others have emerged, taking a feminist approach to publishing. Organizations such as VIDA, People of Color in Publishing, and the Well-Read Black Girl book club and literary festival work to call out inequalities and provide opportunities, continuing the legacy of feminist accountability that Hogan recognized as central to the feminist booksellers. While the language and venues have changed, these contemporary projects are building on the groundwork laid by the second-wave feminist booksellers and publishers. Books and bookwomen remain crucial to the work of feminism. They continue to transform our culture, one reader at a time.
Jolie Braun is Curator of American Literature at The Ohio State University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her article, “A History of Diane di Prima’s Poets Press,” which used archival material to tell the story of the Beat Generation poet’s overlooked but significant publishing venture, appeared earlier this year in The Journal of Beat Studies.