Florence Howe: accidential activist

March 10, 1993|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

NEW YORK — If her husband at the time hadn't strenuously objected, would the "mother of women's studies" programs in this country have become a buyer at Hutzler's department store instead of a professor at Goucher College?

If male colleagues hadn't been rude and condescending, would Florence Howe have become a feminist when she did?

If mainstream publishers had been willing to accept writing on women's issues, would Florence Howe have founded the first feminist press?

These delicious ironies/twists of fate have brought Ms. Howe to where she is today: director/publisher of The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

The phones ring frequently. The room, behind the CUNY chancellor's print shop, is warm and windows are open, bringing traffic noise from 94th Street. Shelves of books line one wall and framed photographs cover another.

She talks in her second-floor office on New York's Upper East Side about events that got her started in Baltimore.

Ms. Howe returns to Baltimore to speak Saturday to the Hunter College Alumni Association of Baltimore on the 35th anniversary of the chapter, which she founded. She's a 1950 graduate of the Manhattan school.

Her Baltimore beginnings go back to 1957.

She and Dr. Edmund Stanley Howe had been teaching at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. When they got married, the university asked him to leave, citing a nepotism rule. He got a "very good job" at the Psychiatric Institute of the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

"By then, I had a teaching job at Hunter but I had to say 'no, thanks' and . . . go with him," Ms. Howe says. "In Baltimore, I couldn't find an academic job.

"I frittered around for a year trying to work on my dissertation, then I took a job as a trainee at Hutzler's," she says. "I was promoted rapidly and probably would be there still because I liked it. For two years, I was an assistant buyer in better sportswear. I was asked if I wanted to be a buyer, but my husband said no. It would have involved travel and he wasn't too keen on it. At that point, William Hedges at Goucher offered me a fill-in job in the English Department. I stayed 11 years."

By the time she left in 1971 for the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, Ms. Howe, who is white, had taught in a Freedom School in Mississippi, adopted a young black girl and returned with her to Baltimore. She also had divorced Dr. Howe and three years later married Dr. Neil Lauter of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (they divorced in 1982); had gotten arrested in an anti-war demonstration (the judge threw the case out after she spent a night in jail); and had become a "feminist activist" and helped found Feminist Press.

"If anybody had asked me in the '60s if I was a feminist, I would've said, 'Don't be silly,' " she says. "I probably didn't know what [feminism] was. When the women's movement started, I said they were selfish. We needed to stop the war in Vietnam and end discrimination against black people. I didn't understand the big picture for a long time. I didn't understand that all these things need to be worked on at once.

"A whole lot of things came together in 1969. The Modern Language Association appointed me to the chair of the Commission on the Status of Women. I wasn't a feminist . . . I was interested in the curricula."

She surveyed more than 5,000 English and modern language departments about women.

"Men were very suspicious of me, men who were in charge," she says. "They treated me rather shabbily and that made me ask questions. I think I became a feminist long before I was ready to be one."

The Feminist Press came along in 1970, started with "$100 somebody left in our mailbox" and operated out of her big yellow house in Mount Washington. The founders were frustrated that big publishers show no interest in feminist issues. The books, printed as money was raised, were stored in a garage in Columbia.

"I founded Feminist Press along with a dozen other people [including Dr. Lauter], none of whom wanted to keep it in Baltimore when I left. They insisted I take it along.

"I would say we started what has become an avalanche of the rediscovery of women writers. We're not the only one who does this now."

The Press' goal is to publish 10 books a year. Eighty percent of its income comes from sales and other 20 percent from gifts and grants.

Meanwhile, the first three of those rediscovered works still are in print.

"The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first was published in 1892 as the secret journal of a woman institutionalized for a "nervous condition." The short book, which has a 1973 lengthy afterword by Elaine R. Hedges, director of women's studies at Towson State University, has sold 200,000 copies. "Life in the Iron Mills," a novella by Rebecca Harding Davis, dates back to 1861 and was the first "real book," the Press published, Ms. Howe says.

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