Reviewed by Deirdre English
When she was a young instructor at Goucher College, Florence Howe was one day angered by an "unenlightened" review of a satirical book by William Burroughs in The New Republic, and she fired off a scathing letter to the editor. At The New Yorker, the iconic Mr. Shawn read it and called, insisting that she come into Manhattan; then, he pretty much begged her to write whatever she liked for him. But Howe blew the gold-plated opportunity by penning work so analytic and un-New Yorker-ish that, as she should have known, it could never run. And so died the brilliant writing career of a woman who would instead become one of America's most staunchly independent feminist editors and publishers.
Howe analyzes her avoidance: So wounded was she by a Hunter College professor, who deemed her the eternal B student, without a "creative bone" -- best fit to support the genius of others -- that she lived out the prediction. The devaluation mirrored injuries stemming from her childhood in a "Brooklyn slum," daughter of a taxi driver and a cold, unjust mother (whom Howe nevertheless cared for through a decades-long decline and dementia, which she chillingly recounts).
Howe ascended in academia, then bent her talent and steel will to the service of women writers whom she saw as more creative than herself. Now she recounts how that work helped transform the literary canon, in no small part due to her own targeted priorities. As Marilyn French wrote, there should be an award for "giving the mute a voice, for resurrecting the dead, for valorizing the forgotten and belittled of the earth" -- and Florence Howe should win it.
She built The Feminist Press from its origins in voluntary, collective work to a small business based at SUNY's College at Old Westbury (where, full disclosure, it published two booklets on women's health care in history co-authored by Barbara Ehrenreich and myself). Later the FP lodged at CUNY and greatly increased its output. For example, its large anthology of writers in India restores a legacy going back centuries. The women of the world, she's proven, have resented their lot, documented it and fought it -- often with great wit -- almost everywhere, throughout time.
The Feminist Press' financial problems fell on her shoulders, and yet Howe also threw herself into the international movement demanding higher education not only for but also by and about women. Through her travels -- her life in motion, as she titles these memoirs -- she witnessed women's studies evolve in fits and starts across the globe, befriended remarkable teachers and supplied them with books they needed to reform their curricula. Her closest female friends in the States, too many of whom have died, including the "comic" Grace Paley and the "tragic" Tillie Olsen, be came caring intimates after marriages failed or when troubles reigned, and she returned their loyalty.
Through it all, Howe has been an activist at heart, marshalling the money she miraculously raised, the greatness she gathered, a sacrificing staff and her own enormous energies into a strategy to ineradicably improve the written record of women's past, present and possible future, one book at a time. The scheme succeeded.
Deirdre English is director of the Felker Magazine Center at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
Books mentioned in this post