THE BLOG

Do We Really Need a Feminist Press?

09/13/2013 01:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013
  • Leora Tanenbaum Author of "I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet"

Yes, we do.

Founded in 1970 by Florence Howe, the Feminist Press is an independent, nonprofit publisher with an illustrious history. In its earliest years, a husband legally could rape his wife, a pregnant woman could be fired for being pregnant, abortion was illegal, and workplace sexual harassment was rampant and accepted. In this environment, Howe recovered "lost" literary works by Zora Neale Hurston, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and others to show the toll of sex discrimination and the complexity of women's lives -- and also to give voice to what was possible. At the time, the Feminist Press was radical and cutting-edge: no one else cared about these literary treasures that are now on every feminist intellectual's bookshelf or e-reader.

But in 2013, when many authors writing in print on feminist themes -- Toni Morrison, Hanna Rosin, Sheryl Sandberg -- are courted by mainstream publishers, what role does the Feminist Press still serve?

With a new publisher and executive director, Jennifer Baumgardner, the Feminist Press is about to become more relevant than ever before. Baumgardner intends to expand beyond the traditional mission of publishing -- producing books and delivering them to readers. Her goal is to transform the Feminist Press into a nerve center for feminist work that includes books as well as grassroots activism.

Baumgardner, born the year the Feminist Press was created, is the author of six books, including Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics and Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, co-authored with Amy Richards and a staple in gender/women's studies curricula. She is also the documentary filmmaker of I Had an Abortion and It Was Rape. Her newest work, forthcoming in October, is We Do! American Leaders Who Believe in Marriage Equality, an anthology edited with Madeleine Kunin, former governor of Vermont. Baumgardner has been the keynote speaker at over 250 colleges and universities. Together with Amy Richards, she created a feminist lecture agency, Soapbox Inc., which has become a cornerstone of feminist intellectual life. (I have been fortunate to be dispatched by Soapbox to college campuses across the country to speak about my own work.)

I first met Baumgardner 18 years ago, when she was an editor at Ms. and I was a freelance writer. She quickly rose to become a central figure in third-wave feminism.
Glamorous but unpretentious, sharp yet diplomatic, her eye on the big picture as well as the details, she evokes Gloria Steinem from her 1970s aviator-glasses days. In her new perch, she is poised to usher in new ways to think about feminism. I met up with Baumgardner at her Feminist Press office, housed at the City University of New York, all blond wood desk and crammed bookshelves, to talk about the value of feminist publishing.

Why do we need a separate feminist publisher?
It's true that most publishers publish feminist books at this point, and most famous feminist writers publish in mainstream houses. But the Feminist Press still has value for a variety of reasons. One is that feminist institutions such as Ms. magazine and the National Organization for Women are important because of their history, energy, and gravitas. This is true also of the Feminist Press. Many authors want to be part of this press. They feel a personal investment with us because of our history. We have a credibility and authenticity that is valuable to both writers and readers.

Over the years we have published books that have become feminist must-haves: But Some of Us are Brave, edited by Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith; Witches, Midwives, and Nurses by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English; and Pussy Riot!: A Punk Prayer for Freedom. There are some important cultural figures, such as the artist Karen Finley and the performer Kathleen Hanna, who make a significant contribution to culture and who have a big fan base, yet they are esoteric in some way and therefore they don't fit in with a mainstream house. Being published by the Feminist Press frames and underscores their significance; if their books were published by Random House, they would get lost in the shuffle.

We also have an international presence. We publish a lot of important books in translation that have a feminist story and that other American publishers don't pick up -- for example through our four-volume Women Write Africa series. We were the first American house to publish and support Zoe Wicomb, a South African novelist who just won the Windham Campbell Prize at Yale University. We also publish the interdisciplinary academic journal Women's Studies Quarterly.

What is the definition of a feminist book?
Either the author identifies as a feminist, or the subject matter speaks to current feminist concerns, which are really broad yet still very marginalized.

The Feminist Press publishes a lot of queer titles. I think that feminism is inextricably linked with LGBTQ concerns. There's a lot of crossover in terms of the questions we ask about identity that come from the LGBTQ movement. What's interesting too is that LGBTQ is ascendant as a movement while feminism is not. There was a time when feminism was more ascendant and queer movements were more marginalized. But that has been reversed. So instead of people talking about and caring about abortion and contraception, they are talking about and caring about gay marriage. As feminists, we get energy from our historic linkage to the gay rights movement. These issues are part of our feminist values.

How will you change the Feminist Press, and how will you keep it the same?
We'll keep publishing cutting edge literature and activist books that are beautiful as well as inspiring. My goal is to raise the profile of the press through panels, conferences, symposia, and events -- activist projects -- so that more people know about us. The people who already know about us tend to be passionate supporters, but many have not heard of us. I'm organizing a conference next month about slut-shaming, which will take place at the New School and which is cosponsored by the Feminist Press. I want to do a panel connected with Orange is the New Black. Some amazing feminist conversations have come out from watching the show, and it's the first time I'm aware of that an actual trans actress, Laverne Cox, is playing a trans woman, the character Sophia. I am working to put together some of the actors, including Laverne Cox, together with a prison rights advocate and Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic of The New Yorker, as the moderator.

Why would a publishing house put together conferences and panels?
We want to be a hub for feminism as opposed to just a small independent literary publisher. Books are powerful because they are little packages of ideas. When you open a novel, you enter a world; when you open a work of non-fiction, you can have a life-changing experience. We want to have an effect on culture, and books are significant cultural objects of course, but it's the ideas that are most important. There are different ways to represent and to package those ideas. Books are read one at a time by individuals, while events are communal. So these events broaden the ideas. They will be opportunities leading to books that we will publish, or they will be opportunities to promote the books that already exist.

You have been called a "third-wave" feminist. What does that mean to you, and what wave are we in now?
For me, "third wave" feminism indicates that I was born into a world with feminist expectations, as opposed to women of the second wave, who already were adults, many of them married and with kids, when they became feminists.

Some people say that we are now in a fourth wave, which is defined by social media. Because of social media, we have new ways of creating community and sharing information. I would add that even more profoundly, what's different today is that people tend to look at gender on a continuum and at sexuality as complex, and people recognize that we all have masculine and feminine parts. A third element today is that young people are living in a post-9/11 generation. I think that their ideas about freedom are different as a result, and their blitheness about being constantly on-line and findable is a feature of that new reality. Feminists today identify with Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins' use of intersectionality as a primary way of understanding feminism, as opposed to identifying "Women's Issues."

Many feminist ideas have not yet become well-known, and we can be a leader in that area. For example, on Twitter there's been this really intense and interesting conversation around #solidarityisforwhitewomen, which has included voices that criticize mainstream American feminism for not taking into account white racial privilege. Transforming that conversation into a book is the kind of thing we can do and that would have tremendous value. In the context of this new period within feminism, there are still so many important books that have not yet been written, and that we intend to publish.

New titles recently published by the Feminist Press include The Riot Grrrl Collection, edited by Lisa Darms; Return to Lesbos by Valerie Taylor; The Feminist Porn Book, edited by Tristan Taormino, Constance Penley, Celine Parrenas Shimizu, and Mireille Miller-Young; Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom; and I Still Believe Anita Hill, edited by Amy Richards and Cynthia Greenberg.

Leora Tanenbaum is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Feminist Press.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post omitted the names of several coeditors of The Feminist Porn Book. The book was coedited by Tristan Taormino, Constance Penley, Celine Parrenas Shimizu, and Mireille Miller-Young.