An Interview with Florence Howe By Jennifer Baumgardner
In 1970, at the height of the women’s movement, the Feminist Press was hatched in Baltimore by a literature professor named Florence Howe, her husband, and several volunteers. Fifty years later, it is the longest-running feminist press in the world. In the beginning, it republished classic work that had gone out of print, not because of quality or importance, but because it was written by women—books like The Yellow Wall-Paper, Life in the Iron Mills, and collected writings of Zora Neale Hurston (I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ... and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive). Soon, the Press began publishing texts for the rapidly growing discipline of Women’s Studies, books like All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave and Witches, Midwives, & Nurses. For decades now, the Feminist Press has been housed at the City University of New York, and its offerings include translated fiction from around the world, new literary fiction, children’s books, and activist non-fiction.
I worked at FP from from 2013 to 2017. At the tail end of my tenure, I sat down with Florence at her Manhattan apartment to talk about her unique contribution to publishing and feminism. Stories tend to shift over time, not in ways that make them less accurate, but what is important to the narrator changes over the years. During our interview, Florence (then eighty-eight and now ninety) described the creation and stewardship of FP almost as if it were an accident, which is also how she recalled her work collecting the disparate Women’s Studies programs into a clearinghouse. Because I sat at her former desk for four years, however, I know how much determination went into not just starting the Press but making sure it survived. Florence’s will is immense, as is her vision. Most interesting to me, though, are the people she coaxed on to the board of directors, like her college friend Helene Goldfarb (also ninety), who remains the president of the board. Both modeled to me how much meaningful work keeps you young in mind and heart.
Jennifer Baumgardner: Give me a thumbnail sketch of your family of origin.
Florence Howe: I was born Florence Rosenfeld in 1929 and raised in Brooklyn. My father, Sam, was a taxi driver. My mother, Frances, had been a bookkeeper before they married and was a stay-at-home mom until the war, when she went to work in an airplane factory. Then she became Rosie the Riveter—they called her Rosie at work. She eventually became a bookkeeper again. She loved being independent of my father’s gambling; she didn’t have to beg him for money each night because she had her own paycheck. He was angry; he didn’t want his wife to work. But he was always proud of me, whatever I did. Typical working-class guy.
JB: What were you like as a young girl?
FH: Oh, I was sure I couldn’t do much except think. I was convinced I was ugly. My mother did that number on me: Isn’t it a pity that she has all the brains, and he—I had a younger brother who was blond—has all the looks? It harmed him, too, but to this day, I don’t think of myself as anything but what my mother called miskayt, which means “ugly person” in Yiddish. Once, I went to a therapist who made me bring in photographs of me and my brother. He said, “If I just showed you these photographs, what would you say about this little girl?” I guess I was dumbfounded. I said, “She was pretty cute.” And he said, “Why can’t you think of yourself that way?” I said, “Well, the miskayt is just too deep in my psyche.”
JB: It sounds like you got a lot of positive feedback for your intellect right away.
FH: Right away. I was told I was going to be a teacher because my mother had wanted to be a teacher. And so it was; that’s the way it went. I was very lucky to escape Brooklyn and go to Hunter College High School. I had a junior high school teacher who said if she coached me in math—which was not my best subject—I could probably pass the test for Hunter College High School. And I did. I was the only working-class kid in the school, at least as far as I could perceive it. The first thing they did was put me in “speech clinic,” because I was “speech-deficient” or whatever. They said I couldn’t speak properly because I had a Brooklyn accent.
JB: How did you do at Hunter?
FH: At the high school, I got Bs, but barely, and the only interchange I had with a teacher was not a great one. Miss Brubaker was my English teacher as a senior, and she was in charge of Annals, which was the yearbook. She said to me one day, privately, “You are the perfect B student, and I love you for it. You never miss an appointment; you’re always on time; you do your work; and you don’t have a creative bone in your body.” We had a gifted writer, even in high school, in that class: Cynthia Ozick. She got the A, and I got the B, and she never did any work for the Annals. She never had to. It was as though her creativity made her the editor—the star.
JB: You went to Hunter College. How was that experience?
FH: That was wonderful. I couldn’t do well at the high school, but at the college I was an immediate A student. I was very popular and into the student government. Before I was even a sophomore, I was head of the elections committee. That’s where I met Helene [Goldfarb, the longtime and beloved president of the Feminist Press board]. She became my kid sister, and everything I did, she did. So, because I’d been on the elections committee, she went on the elections committee. And then, the year I was a junior, I was president of the student government, and the year she was a junior, she was president of the student government. And we’ve been friends ever since. After college and graduate school, I was hired at Goucher, in Baltimore, as a one-year, temporary fill-in for somebody who was on leave. The following year somebody else was on leave, and the third year somebody still was on leave. That year, 1964, I got divorced [from second husband, Dr. Edmund Stanley Howe], and went to Mississippi to teach at the freedom schools. When I came back, I had tenure, which absolutely baffled me. Some people were really angry about this. I couldn’t figure out why I had tenure as an assistant professor.
First of all, no PhD, and I haven’t even applied for it. I think the president of Goucher was a civil libertarian who really cared about what was going on in civil rights. That’s the only sense I’ve ever made of it.
JB: Take me to the very beginnings: that meeting the Feminist Press came out of. What was going on in your life when you decided to call that meeting?
FH: After Mississippi, where students wrote such magnificent poems and even prose, I couldn’t understand why the Goucher students I had wrote such horrible, dull stuff. The only thing I had done differently for the students in Mississippi was include literature that was about black people and about freedom. We read Langston Hughes, for instance, alongside cummings and Williams.
In 1969, students in my eighteenth-century lit class said, “We couldn’t believe that you didn’t have any women on this reading list.” I said, “I don’t know any women [writers].” They didn’t know any women we could read, either. And that’s really what triggered the whole thing. I said, “Well, maybe I’ll found a Feminist Press.” I thought we’d do biographies of women. That was as far as my imagination could go.
It never dawned on me that there had been women writers who had written important books, been stars, been recognized for their writing, and then vanished. I was so ignorant that I didn’t even know that, in a sense, Austen was a contemporary of Wordsworth. When he was at university, she was at Bath—she couldn’t go to university. Even though my fields were British history and the whole history of British literature, I knew nothing about women. I approached Baltimore Women’s Liberation to help me start the press. They turned me down, but then they announced the existence of the press in their newsletter. Every little town had a feminist newsletter back then. And word traveled very fast, even though we had no faxes, no email, no computers. Word really got around.
JB: How did you know the word was out?
FH: I returned from Europe that summer and had a hundred letters about this new Feminist Press—many included donations. Some of it was cash, some of it was checks made out to the Feminist Press. I mean, it was crazy stuff! I did not deposit the money that was sent. I didn’t do anything for a while. I was furious that I somehow had a press coming to me that I had never said I would deal with. At the end of October, I wrote to everybody who had sent me a letter to announce a meeting. I told my students and a few friends, and of course everybody told somebody else. I said, if at least twenty-five people show up, and they agree to meet at least twice a month, we’ll have a Feminist Press. If not, I’ll send everybody’s money back. Fifty people turned up, and the enthusiasm was palpable.
We began with three biographies—Irish revolutionary Constance Markievicz, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Elizabeth Browning. We started on those, and there were a couple of children’s books: The Dragon and the Doctor, and Challenge to Become a Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, which was a historical book about the fact that there were women physicians as early as the nineteenth century. In fact, that book could be rescued today, probably. I must have a copy of it here somewhere. Three months into the Press, Tillie Olsen sent me a story that had appeared in The Atlantic in the middle of the nineteenth century—“Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis—with instructions not to read it at night. Of course, I read it, and of course at night, and of course I didn’t sleep that night. I just cried and cried.
FH: Two reasons: One, the story is incredibly sad, but the other is that this literature should have been lost seemed to me the most horrible thing I could think of. It was like burying a live person.
I assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that, if this had been lost, then there would be others, and our job was to find them. Immediately we had a third series, the reprint series. What I fault myself for most these days is that I was never smart enough to get grant money just for that purpose. I did try for Indian literature, and I succeeded with our work in Africa [the Ford Foundation funded the development and publication of four anthologies of literature by women in Africa], but think of all the American literature we published, rescued, and re-published. We could’ve done much, much more.
JB: Let’s recap: in 1970, you’ve accidentally, or against your will, founded the Feminist Press, discovered an emergency mission to recover a lost literature by women, and, simultaneously, you helped create what would become women’s studies. How did that last part happen?
FH: My composition classes at Goucher were becoming known as “Women’s Studies.” Now, I never said I was teaching Women’s Studies or feminism. I was teaching people how to be better writers. I insisted on that. But other people said, “No, no, you’re teaching female consciousness.” I said, “I don’t even know what that means. Nonsense.” Nevertheless, the people at College English, which was a magazine, assigned me to write about my composition course. I did, and then I had a zillion people writing to me, asking specific questions. What was the curriculum? What worked? What didn’t work? So, I wrote more about that course. I had an extraordinary work-study student named Carol Allen, who was very bright and very interested in what was happening in Women’s Studies. She decided, practically without even talking to me, to collect the contact information from the letters I was getting and put it in a chart, which eventually became “Who’s Who and Where in Women’s Studies.”
JB: What year was this?
FH: I think it was the spring of ’72. Mariam Chamberlain, of the Ford Foundation, invited me to a meeting at her office. Mariam was data-driven. She said, “I hear you have data,” and I said, “Well, if you mean lists of people who are teaching Women’s Studies.” She said, “Yes, that’s data! I’d like you to do a complete report for us, maybe even a book, that lists all the courses and where they’re taught and by whom, so that we know where our starting place is.” She gave FP $12,000 to do this. We had no computers; we did the whole thing on little white notecards, and we had to write each notecard three times because we were going to organize the information by teacher, by institution, and by department. So, it was a long and very difficult task that could’ve been done quickly, had we had even one computer.
I gathered the Women’s Studies departments and programs on a list, and for twenty years I personally updated those until we had 630 different departments. I stopped in 1992. I’m not sure if the National Women’s Studies Association continues the practice now.
JB: Mariam Chamberlain was a fortuitous and loyal friend to the Press. Tell me about the African and Indian projects that Ford funded.
FH: The Indian project began because I was on a forced Fulbright in India— that’s a whole other story. I went around to universities and asked where the women writers were. Both women and men scholars in English and in History said there weren’t any, and if there had been any, they wouldn’t be any good, so why was I bothering them? That infuriated me.
I spent two years looking for Susie Tharu. I knew such a person must exist, but nobody knew her; she was teaching at a very small university in Hyderabad. When I found her, I knew I had found gold, because she was a literary scholar who could write, who could imagine, and who was a historian. I convinced her that collecting Indian women’s writing was political work, and that it was very important. What she did was magnificent. You know, there are seventeen languages in India, and we did, I think, nine or ten. She had teams of people in each of these languages, working to find and select the texts to translate. I worked on the translations. If we couldn’t agree, we ditched that text and took another one. She eventually found 600 women writers.
These women in India did the entire project for over ten years with no money and no support. It was an enormous undertaking. At the last minute, Ford had given a small grant for the finished product. When I stopped by to deliver the Indian books, Alison Bernstein [who had taken Mariam’s job when she retired] said, “Great. Africa must be next.” I said, “Not me. These women had no support and the Press is in debt because of those two books. I’m not getting in deeper with Africa.”
Two years later, Alison called me with a plan. She gave us $50,000 to support a conference in Accra, Ghana, at the tail end of a meeting of African literature specialists, just to see whether there was interest enough in an African project. By then, several CUNY scholars of African origin had been urging me onto this kind of project. I was very reluctant. I understood that Africa was fifty-four diverse countries, and there was no way we could handle surveying that literature without massive money—especially if we wanted it to be Africans speaking, the way the Indian project really was Indians speaking. I was very clear about that. It slowed the whole project, and before it was over, Alison was not a little impatient with us. The project did take fifteen years, but I’m not sorry.
JB: Why is it so significant to the Feminist Press’s vision—to your vision—that you undertook those kinds of projects.
FH: As with our recovery of literature by American women writers and European women writers, the African project and the Indian project indicate that the story is the same for them, that each continent and country has a lost history of women writers, and that, I assume, Estonia and Latvia and all of these other countries in the world have a similar history.
In fact, the last book that I had anything to do with before I left the Press was from North Korea. Even before North Korea was North Korea, but from the northern part of the land mass called Korea. It’s a book that dates to the 1930s, by a woman that we published because a guy who’s getting a Harvard degree found it, translated it, and sent me his introduction and a copy of the translation, which was brilliant.
I really believe that there’s still much to be found. I don’t know if anybody’s looking. That’s the question.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor in chief of the Women’s Review of Books.