Tag Archives: women’s movement

Introducing the Friedman Feminist Press Collection

Following are remarks I made last Friday at the opening reception for the Friedman Feminist Press Collection at Colorado State University, the largest collection of books in the Rocky Mountain West published by feminist presses. Providing original sources in feminist/lesbian literature and second-wave feminism, the collection archives multi-genre works by feminist publishers of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that brought women and women’s words out into the world.

I want to share these remarks because I hope that the collection will draw students, scholars, and readers to learn more about this important period in second-wave feminist history and its print movement, but also because the collection is dedicated to my friend June Friedman as a legacy to her passionate commitment to the struggle for women’s rights. Thank you to everyone who came to the opening reception last Friday. For further information or to donate to student and scholar outreach and research opportunities for the collection, readers can go to https://advancing.colostate.edu/ffp

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I welcome you all to this dedication of the Friedman Feminist Press Collection at CSU’s Morgan Library. It’s no coincidence that we’re dedicating the collection in March because March is Women’s History Month and the Friedman Feminist Press collection has much to do with women’s history, both for the books that are included and for the woman after whom it is named. Today I’d like to share with you a little bit of those histories.

When I was an undergraduate at CSU in the late 1970s, I spent a lot of time in the basement of the Lory student center. It’s been remodeled, but some of you may remember the big room at the bottom of the stairway where students could eat and study, a room that was ringed by metal cubicles that served as the offices for student organizations. I was a member of one of those organizations, The Feminist Group, a student activist group working to challenge the sexism in those early days of what was then called “women’s liberation.” I loved coming down to the office every day to debate and strategize about how we, a small group of women, could bring about social change, not only on campus, but in the world.

I don’t know what year the group started, but I do remember a framed dollar bill on the wall labeled “Won September 20, 1973.” That was the day Billie Jean King played Bobbie Riggs in a tennis match that was billed the Battle of the Sexes. I loved looking at that dollar every time I went into the office because in September 1973, I was a ninth grader in Ms. Fenniman’s social studies class. Notice I said Ms. Fenniman, because she was a feminist who brought the women’s movement into our study of contemporary social issues and often wore a t-shirt with the audacious slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

One day after our class discussed the upcoming Battle of the Sexes, the boy sitting behind me bet me that Bobby Riggs would win. I am ashamed to say that although I hoped King would win, I didn’t know much about tennis or about women athletes. If I had, I would have bet against Riggs, an aging, pompous self-promoting has-been, and for Billie Jean King, one of the premiere women athletes of her time. But instead of betting on King, I told the boy behind me that my parents didn’t allow me to bet, which was true but still a really pathetic excuse. Of course, King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. So every time I saw that dollar bill in the Feminist Group office, I remembered the importance of standing up for my beliefs, whether I thought I could win or not.

As a student group, we did stand up for what we believed in. We published a newsletter, organized women’s film festivals, and wrote guest editorials about campus safety, sexual violence, reproductive rights, gender roles, and the newly flowering field of women’s studies. We organized the first Take Back the Night March in Ft Collins, marching to jeers—and some cheers–past the shady bars downtown in the days before Old Town was re-developed. The activism of which I’m most proud was shutting down a campus Playboy Club in Ingersoll Hall, a so-called student tradition that clearly needed challenging in its sexist representation of women’s roles and rights.

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A big part of what I learned by these actions was that in standing up for one’s beliefs, an individual voice became even stronger when raised in unison with others. The group embodied the notion of sisterhood, where mutual support and trust inspired us to do things we wouldn’t have taken on alone. We became friends and activists together as we worked to change the sexism in our lives.

One of my closest friends was an out-of-state student named June Friedman. An agronomy major in the early days of women entering the sciences, June understood how gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, and glass ceilings prevented women from achieving their highest goals. With other Feminist Group members and our faculty mentors and role models, June and I worked on what was then called a “chilly climate for women” on campus. As we met in our little office in the basement of the Student Center, we dreamed of a world where women were valued equally with men. We graduated together in 1981 on the soggy field after a rainstorm at Hughes Stadium. And then, a year after we graduated, June’s life was ended by the very kind of violence against which we had marched.

I went on to graduate school, first at CSU for my master’s and then to CU for my PhD. For my dissertation, I decided to examine the books of the early women’s liberation movement, books that had influenced the times in which I had come of age. I focused especially on the development of small-scale feminist presses, publishers that arose in the 60s and 70s because, with the exception of a few high profile spokeswomen like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, few feminist and lesbian books were being published by mainstream publishing houses.

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Now I have to admit that feminism did challenge the very underpinnings of society, so it makes sense from an ideological perspective that feminist books would not be entirely welcomed. That many of the books reflected the lives and perspectives of lesbians made such books even less appealing to male publishers—and the majority of publishers at that time were men.

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But the rejection of feminist books wasn’t just ideological, it was financial as well. Because male publishers weren’t interested in feminist writing, they didn’t believe such books had a viable sales market. They were wrong, of course, and in their place, the feminist/lesbian presses began to create from the outside a growing market segment for women’s books—books that centered on the rights of women to determine their own destinies—books that began to sell decades before Oprah’s book club championed such plots. And as the feminist presses created a market for those books, the mainstream presses began to notice, so that by 1977, the year I started college, a book like Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room could become a bestseller for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, particularly in its mass market paperback form.

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But the difference between the feminist and conventional publishers was that the women’s press movement not only pushed the edge of mainstream publishing, but also formed an essential arm of the growing women’s movement, furthering activism committed to the larger political and social changes that have advanced women’s lives. The feminist presses understood that getting women’s words into print and seeing women’s lives reflected in books was liberatory. The slogan of Oakland’s A Woman’s Place Bookstore, the first women’s bookstore in the US, was “A woman’s place is in the world” and Louise Knapp, our speaker today, named her bookstore “Word is Out.” Being “out” in the world meant many things: claiming one’s sexual identity, gaining access in employment, politics, and education, and encouraging young women to think of a future beyond and beside marriage and family. Most of all, getting women out into the world meant making a difference in that world and the books carried in these bookstores helped bring that idea to life.

Similarly, I titled my dissertation Out into the World: The Print Evolution of Feminist Revolution. Here I talked about women who took it upon themselves to buy paper and ink and learn how to run off-set presses and hold women in print conferences and create distribution networks, newsletters, and catalogs and drive vans with cartons of books cross-country and open bookstores to sell the books the feminist presses had produced.

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I talked about books like Woman to Woman, the first all-woman anthology every published, printed by poet Judy Grahn and artist Wendy Cadden as the Free Women’s Press in San Francisco in 1970 on a mimeograph machine with onion-skin pages that sold for $1.50; and books like True-to-Life Adventure Stories published by Diana Press, which started in Baltimore and merged with The Women’s Press Collective in Oakland and run by women who, according to Judy Grahn, cut their hair when it kept getting caught in the press.

I wrote about Cherie Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back, recovered by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press after the white women’s press that had originally published it went into debt and out of business; and about Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, published by Daughters, Inc. in 1973, which was such a runaway bestseller, Daughters sold the paperback rights in 1977 to Bantam, a corporate publisher who by then had seen the dollar signs, sparking a debate within the feminist print movement about “selling out” and the value of mainstreaming feminist books. Some of those publishers are still with us, while others published just a few influential works, but all of those books circulated within the women’s movement and led to the changes that shape society today.

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In the process of my dissertation research, I collected books published by independent feminist presses. I found them in used bookstores, feminist publications, and a women’s book catalog called Luna Books. It became quite a collection and I realized that others could benefit from access to it. Now, almost twenty years after I finished “Out into the World,” that collection will be “out into the world” here at CSU, along with books contributed by Foula and the GLBT center, as the Friedman Feminist Press Collection in memory of my friend June.

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I can’t think of a more appropriate place for books that evoke the feminist activism June embodied. Like the courageous, generous, and adventurous women who established these presses, June lived her beliefs. She was a feminist who loved nature and books and had a bright future as an agronomist here in Colorado. We miss her dearly.

I hope you all have a chance to visit and read and use and recommend these books in the years to come. Bring your students; assign papers and projects; get other scholars interested; donate to fund outreach and research opportunities; and just come and pick up a book to experience the delightful, controversial, inspirational, and radical words written by feminist authors and published by feminist presses. I hope these books continue to bring women and women’s words out into the world, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be free.

In closing, I’d like to share another memory of June. While we were students here at CSU in the late 70s, June and I organized a women’s book group that met for potlucks in the basement apartments we rented in those days. I only remember two of the books that we read. One was The Women’s Room, which I mentioned earlier, and the other was Monster, a poetry collection by Robin Morgan, a book that seemed to bite right into the side of the patriarchy we opposed. In dedication of the Friedman Feminist Press Collection to June, here is an excerpt from Morgan’s poem “Letter to a Sister Underground.” I hope you will take it in the spirit of 1970s feminist social change in which it was written:

 

How to close such a message?

I miss you.

We are all as well as can be expected.

Hope you are fine and

having a wonderful time.

Don’t send a picture postcard when you can.

Stay hidden.

Come back to us.

We’ll join you.

Don’t accept rides from strange men,

and remember that all men are strange as hell.

Think of us sometime, my sister,

Forget us, my friend.

Watch for me when you look in the mirror;

I see you all the time.

Take care of ourselves.

See you soon.

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A Reminder of Our Rights

As we approached the rally at the capital in Denver last Saturday, the first activist we saw was a young woman standing along Colfax with the sign “My Body, My Choice.” I couldn’t take her picture with all the traffic passing, so I hoped I’d find her later as we crossed the street to the steps of the capital where the rally had just begun.

This rally was partly in support of the Wisconsin protests against their governor’s attempts to eradicate the collective bargaining rights of state workers, but it was also in support of state workers here, especially teachers, who suddenly find themselves vilified as making too much money for too little work. Anyone with children in the public school system knows how ridiculous that claim is, but in this polarized political climate, ridiculous claims are floated everyday as justification for the erosion of the middle class and the removal of a safety net for the poor, all to the benefit of corporations and moneyed interests.

Although some of the organizers were in their 20s, most of the people at the rally were middle-aged or older, people who have been fighting these same battles since the Reagan administration and before that, the Vietnam war. We’ve chanted “Whose Rights? Our Rights?” and “Ain’t No Power like the Power of the People” a thousand times but still the struggle over social justice continues. Now the right wing is using the economic crisis—brought on, as one poster reminded us, by the financial sector, not by teachers—as an excuse for the kind of social and economic engineering they’ve wanted all along. It’s easier to take away worker’s rights when jobs and money are scarce.

Organized just three days before, the rally was mellow, with most of the 3000 of us realizing that more rallies are undoubtedly to come. One Tea Party-type tried to argue the benefits of union-busting from the capital steps and was escorted to the sidewalk below by the police. It didn’t stop his tirade, though, as others gathered around, more for amusement than for conflict. The police hovered nearby but nothing got out of control and soon folks tired of the guy’s rant and wandered away in the sunshine.

Another rally and march were starting just after the one for workers’ rights, this time for women’s reproductive rights. As one speaker explained, the same people who want to curtail our rights to collective bargaining also want to curtail women’s rights over our own bodies. The assault on Planned Parenthood funding already shows that not only the right to choose a legal abortion but a women’s access to family planning, birth control, and reproductive healthcare are threatened as well. This rally featured a younger crowd and I was glad to see young women speaking out for their rights.

After running into old friends and wondering how much it would take to stop this class war on the poor and middle-class, we went to the used bookstore near the capital, as we generally do when we’re in that neighborhood. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular but let myself, as I often do, come upon a book serendipitously. That day I found The Birth House by Ami McKay and started reading it on the bus ride home. Unlike a lot of fiction that I run across, I didn’t get bored in the middle and skip to the end but read it straight through because its story spoke not only to the importance of the rally for reproductive rights but to all collective struggles against domination and injustice.

McKay is a US writer living in Nova Scotia who discovered that the house she had rented had at one time been a birth house, or maternity home, for pregnant women to have their babies safely delivered by a midwife. McKay made a documentary about the midwife and the birth house but then wanted to fill in the blanks that history had left ajar.

I’m always interested in stories about midwives, birthing, and women’s health communities so I was drawn to this story for its historical as well as fictional aspects. My grandmother’s cousin Daisy was a midwife who ran a maternity hospital in northwestern North Dakota where both my mother and her oldest sister were born. (Their middle sister was born at home during a blizzard when getting to town was impossible.) My own daughter’s birth was supposed to be a homebirth, but given her month-late arrival, the midwives accompanied me to the hospital instead.

The Birth House is set at the beginning of the 1900s in a small coastal town where the joint efforts of the insurance and medical industries are attempting to convince women that midwifery is backwards and dangerous. The main character, Dora Rare, is a seventeen-year-old girl who is apprenticing with the elderly midwife who delivered her and serves as the primary healer in the community, never charging for her assistance but living on the gifts of food, wood, and help offered in appreciation for her skills and care.

Miss B’s training helps Dora understand that women must listen to their own hearts: “Woman’s got every right to look after herself. . . . Only the woman knows if she’s got enough love to make a life.” When the new male doctor in town tries to turn women against the midwife to the detriment of their health and their children, young Dora must make choices about her own future.

Other conflicts arise with family and the law, taking Dora to Halifax and Boston where she learns about the struggles of women to vote and to control their own lives. Home again, she draws together the community’s women to protect their rights to natural birth through valuing women’s knowledge and friendships.

The Birth House is a beautiful rendering of women’s commitments to each other in the service of caring for their families while knitting together the larger community. But it’s also an important reminder of what life could be like without control over our own bodies. In the novel, the women draw wisdom from the past to create the future they want for themselves. In today’s struggle over reproductive rights, I hope that women my age will help young women like those at last Saturday’s rally do the same.

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Filed under women's writing