As we look for solace in these horrific times, and as we round out Womxn’s History Month, the Feminist Press just may be exactly what we need. For the past fifty years, it has been a microphone for the marginalized and a beacon of hope for its readers.
The Feminist Press was founded in 1970 to fill a void. Its mission was to recover, and shine a spotlight on, severely overlooked writing by women and it quickly became a cornerstone of second wave feminism. In its early years, the Feminist Press reprinted works by Zora Neale Hurston and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It helped disseminate texts by Grace Paley and Barbara Ehrenreich, which became the building blocks for women’s studies.
A nonprofit based at the City University of New York, the Feminist Press exists at the intersection of literary excellence and activist education. (On a personal note, the Feminist Press was one of the first publishing internships I’ve ever had, and it was where I was introduced to the potential overlap of art and social activism.) Over the past five decades, its mission has expanded from trailblazer and founder Florence Howe’s original vision—to publish more writing by women—by bringing into its scope the writers who explore the many intersections and definitions of feminism. As it stands today, its goal is to publish books that “ignite movements and social transformation. Celebrating our legacy, we lift up insurgent and marginalized voices from around the world to build a more just future.”
In recent years, the Feminist Press has actively turned an eye on emerging writers, particularly with the introduction of the imprint Amethyst Editions, a platform dedicated to queer writers who tell genre-bending and experimental stories. (The imprint was started by artist and writer Michelle Tea.) Additionally, in 2016, the Feminist Press launched the annual Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, which will publish a debut work by a woman or nonbinary person of color every year. (This prize was inspired by a remarkable novel the Feminist Press first published in 1970, Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner, which documents the hardships faced by an African American family in 1930s Harlem.)
From a children’s book that encourages curiosity about your body and sexuality to a play that interrogates rape culture, this awe-inspiring feminist publisher—the longest-running of its kind in the world—has never shied away from the hard-to-talk-about topics. This year, the Feminist Press is celebrating half a century of groundbreaking, glass ceiling-smashing work. Here are a few of the books that I hope will speak to you during these dark days.
Your Art Will Save Your Life
No matter what is happening in the world, in your community, in your household, it’s up to you to move ever toward a joy-filled and satisfying life, whatever that means to you.
This is a love letter to artists. It is part practical guide, part meditation on what it means to be an artist. If you have ever wondered whether or not you should go back to school to pursue your writing, if you have ever doubted that you are worthy of an artist grant, this is the book for you. If you have writer’s block, if you have imposter syndrome, this is the book for you. If you are still finding your footing at the intersection of your art and your pull towards political activism, Beth Pickens sees you and wants you to start exactly where you are. A consultant for artists and arts organizations, Beth Pickens believes the treasured role of art in her life is “to make me want to be in the world at its worst and embody a deeper experience of life at its best.”
She wrote this book after the 2016 election, as a response to clients and friends wondering if they should stop making art. (Spoiler alert: the answer was no.) There are two points in particular that really stuck with me: “Anger isn’t action and misery isn’t solidarity,” and “A joy-filled life leads to sustainability in social-justice work.”
Now, in 2020, we stand at the precipice of another presidential election. And, of course, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. The core of this book still rings true. Take care of yourself, find joy, organize your communities if you can, and, yes, keep making art in times of crisis.
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…
Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Alice Walker
I love myself when I am laughing … and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.
It is because of renowned writer and social activist Alice Walker that we know the name Zora Neale Hurston. In the 1970s, Alice Walker discovered her unmarked grave and devoted herself to bringing this fierce writer out of obscurity. (This Zora Neale Hurston Reader, reissued in January, was originally published by the Feminist Press forty years ago. It is, of course, still incredibly relevant today.) Here we have a comprehensive introduction to one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Culled from her impressive oeuvre, we have articles, essays, snippets from her autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road), and excerpts from her most influential novels (Their Eyes Were Watching God and Moses, Man of the Mountain). Basically, it’s everything you need to become acquainted with this powerful voice. (I recommend the piece “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” which implores the publishing industry—and readers across the nation—to stop pigeonholing writers of color and to “realize that the minorities do think, and think about something other than the race problem. That they are very human and internally, according to natural endowment, are just like everybody else.”)
In her new introduction, Alice Walker echoes this cry, framing the anthology as a portrait of a writer who is important—not only as a black writer or a writer of the Harlem Renaissance—but as an artful writer who deserves to be recognized on the merit of her work: “I think we are better off to think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period—rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be.” (By the way, thanks to Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston’s headstone now reads: A Genius of the South.)
The Riot Grrrl Collection
edited by Lisa Darms
Here are some of our souvenirs from a bold experiment, the cursive letters we turned into knives in the 90s.
What strikes me most about this archive is the very fact of its existence. Though Lisa Darms’ introduction situates you a little in the scene (1989 to 1996, starting in Olympia, Washington and sprawling out through “the real underground”), she mostly throws you in to the deep end to explore the feminist punk movement for yourself. She writes, “This book aspires to get some of the collection—in facsimile, and without interpretation—to an even wider audience.” Without interpretation being the key phrase. The Riot Grrrl Collection is a raw history, a first-hand account, and a work of art rolled into one. Inside this book, you will find flyers, letters, song lyrics, pages pulled from zines that were passed from hand to hand. You will find manifestos and confessions, long-held secrets about assault, declarations of love, and advice columns on masturbation. The collage that awaits you does not require justification. It does not ask permission.
This vital work preserves and celebrates a key part of the history of feminist activism and encourages readers to launch their own revolutions. Its ethos hinges on empathy. I think often of this snippet and hope it’s something we can all carry with us: “Stop the J word jealousy from killing girl love. Encourage in the face of insecurity.”
edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
My idea of home is a verb. Home is a straining toward belonging.
“Go home!” Yes, we Asian-Americans know the invective well. (See also the less aggressive but similarly offensive: “But where are you really from?”) This incredible anthology, compiled in collaboration with the Asian American Writers Workshop, responds to that racist demand by presenting the many definitions of home. Inside, you’ll find Viet Thanh Nguyen building a house of language and storytelling, Esmé Weijun Wang seeking solace in food (her descriptions of Taiwanese beef noodle soup will make your mouth water), Alexander Chee’s first foray into the West Village in the 1990s, T Kira Madden heating up Campbell’s soup and taking care of her mother. In essays, poetry, and short fiction, these writers of the Asian diaspora defy stereotype and demand to be seen.
At a time when certain news outlets choose to make Asian-Americans the face of the coronavirus (hello, this is not the representation in mainstream media we were asking for!), when the president of this country insists on calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” this anthology has never felt more necessary.
Witches, Midwives & Nurses
Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English
Women have always been healers.
There’s an old riddle that goes: A boy and his father were in a car crash. The father dies on impact, but the boy is rushed to the nearest hospital, where the doctor steps back, aghast, and says, “That’s my son!” How can this be? The oh-so-clever answer, of course, is that the doctor is the boy’s mother.
It probably won’t surprise you that the majority of doctors in America are men, while the majority of people who work in the health care industry are women. This is, unfortunately, the word association that society teaches us: Doctor to Man, Nurse to Woman. But it wasn’t always this way. Women have been healers and midwives and pharmacists long before the establishment of the medical-industrial complex as we know it. (And they have served their own communities, the ones disenfranchised by the ruling class: their fellow women and the poor.) So, what happened? Witches, Midwives & Nurses tells the story of the rise of the male medical professionals, the way they edged the women of the Middle Ages out through charges of sexual crimes, claims that they gained their healing powers through relations with the devil, and literal witch burnings. It is a unique sliver of history that acts as a microcosm for the way women have always been edged out of things.
This horrifying and fascinating history of women as healers was first published by the Feminist Press in 1973. Since its original publication, this gem has catalyzed significant changes in the women’s health movement. It advocates for the significance of midwives in America. It invites readers to think differently about the role of nurses in the medical field. It is a reminder of all that’s changed, the progress we’ve made, and the distance we still have left to go.