Category Archives: Women’s Lives

More from Women in the Literary Landscape

women-in-the-lit-landThere’s no use in avoiding the topic that has taken over the news in the last year: the revelations that sexual harassment is a common occurrence for women. It can prevent women from moving forward in their careers and lives and it’s a phenomenon that’s ingrained in a number of cultures, making women an underclass. The result of the squelching of women is that we all lose the benefits of their contributions. I feel similarly about lack of opportunities for both men and women who live in places and cultures where they are denied opportunities. We are a much poorer society for those losses.

Women in the Literary Landscape tells the stories of women who succeeded, not the women who didn’t. Would the book have been more expansive if women hadn’t had to overcome so many obstacles? Is there another book to be written about the talented women who failed to achieve their ambitions or never made the attempt? _Probably yes to both those questions, but we didn’t write that book. So here’s another great story from the book that we did write, about young women who were exploited by factory owners but made time to educate themselves, write, and support each other.

“Women from all classes of society were hungry for education and culture.  The textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, would seem an unlikely place for an educational movement to develop, but there was an intense desire for intellectual stimulation among the women mill workers.  Thousands of young, unmarried women, most between the ages of fifteen and thirty, but some even younger, were recruited from New England farms and lived in boardinghouses, often working thirteen hours a day at their looms.  But in winter, work was limited to the briefer daylight hours, and many used this leisure to learn by candlelight.  Throughout the 1830s and 1840s they formed study clubs, read serious nonfiction, learned foreign languages, and attended lectures and cultural events.  They even published the magazines Factory Girl, Operative Magazine, and Voice of Industry, allowing their ideas for better working conditions to circulate among the New England textile mills.

“One of the most articulate of the mill women was Lucy Larcom, who began working in Lowell when she was eleven years old.  During her ten years in the mills, she wrote poems, songs, and letters describing her life, some of which were published in the Lowell Offering, a monthly literary magazine.  She went on to teach at the Wheaton Female Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, and helped found the Rushlight Literary Magazine, a student literary magazine still in existence.  From 1865 to 1873 she was an editor at Our Young Folks, one of the first magazines for children.  Her poems were widely published in her lifetime.  One of Larcom’s most significant contributions was a memoir, A New England Girlhood, which is still an important resource for historians.  The nostalgic memoir and her 1881 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Among Lowell Mill Girls,” are worth reading in any era.”

 

 

Librarians and booksellers in revolt

booklegger001In the late 1960s and early 1970s the countercultural movement, in its  anti-establishment wisdom, pushed librarians to question library-work-as-usual. For example, librarians began to investigate–and change–the way things were named in our catalogs, making subject headings more authentic and relevant. (Now, of course, keyword searching, tags, and other techniques have made all that head-banging work almost irrelevant.) Since the library profession is largely female, Second Wave Feminism shook things up as well.

Women in the Literary Landscape, (the Women’s National Book Association publication I helped write), showcases those changes in the library, bookselling, and publishing worlds. I remember, as a young librarian in the 1970s, seeing the magazine Booklegger, put out by Celeste West, Valerie Wheat, and others. It would be correct to say that the scales fell from my eyes. I was working at that time for what was considered a very progressive library system but Booklegger and the subsequent book of essays, Revolting Librarians, went much farther in their efforts to disrupt complacency. They wrote, for instance, about libraries needing to provide access to non-mainstream literature, specifically, the little magazines and alternative newspapers that were expressing views not otherwise heard. The Berkeley Barb, East Village Other, and the LA Free Press, to name just a few of the more well-known publications, offered alternative ideas, opinions, and local news, addressing populations that were then mostly invisible. An article titled “I Never See Him Come Into the the Library Much Anymore” skewered the lack of a customer service focus in reference work.

There was countercultural change in the bookselling business as well. Below, from  Women in the Literary Landscape, are a few paragraphs about the feminist bookstore movement.

“Women opened bookstores that served as gathering centers for book discussion, self-help groups, meetings, and performances, with chairs and tables to sit at and bulletin boards to advertise local events. The bookstores stocked non-sexist children’s literature, lesbian fiction, books that portrayed nontraditional families, writings on women and violence, and as women’s history developed into an academic discipline, they were sources of feminist scholarship. They were also safe spaces for women leading nontraditional lives. Publishers, ever conscious of the marketplace, recognized that these bookstores meant there were new opportunities in the field of feminist literature.

“In the 1970s and 1980s there were at least one hundred feminist bookstores around the country. The first two were Amazon in Minneapolis and ICI in Oakland. They were soon followed by New Words in Boston, Bookwoman in Austin (Texas), and Charis in Atlanta, among many others. Carol Seajay, one of the founders of Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco, started the Feminist Bookstore News, creating a way for the bookstores to exchange news and ideas. In 1994 there were still one hundred feminist bookstores, but by the late 1990s with the arrival of chain bookstores and online sales, the number declined, and by 2014 there were only fourteen.”

I still have my copy of the first issue of Booklegger (that’s the graphic at the top of this post). It’s an artifact from an earlier era, but the energy that fueled it never goes out of style. For more information about the indomitable Celeste West, click here.

Madge Jenison and the Sunwise Turn

Sunwise Turn memoirLast week I wrote about the book I co-authored, Women in the Literary Landscape, which contains an overview of the role of women in various fields related to books. One of the joys of doing the research was discovering Madge Jenison, known as a “minor novelist” and the co-owner of the Sunwise Turn Bookshop, which opened in New York City in 1915. Madge wrote a memoir about her bookselling experiences, called Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling. Her personality shines through on every page: warm, buoyant, idealistic and exuding positive energy. Jenison felt that putting the right book in the hands of the right reader might just save the world. One of my favorite lines from the memoir is, “Books– do I made too much of them?”

In 1915, women were opening bookstores all over the U.S. and running the bookselling departments in department stores. For much of the 20th century, department stores believed that selling books raised the tone, made the store appear more like an intellectual endeavor rather than just a temple of of commerce and brought in more educated and wealthy customers. In the early years of the century bookselling was deemed a suitable profession for women (more about that in another post). Here’s a paragraph from Women in the Literary Community about Jenison.

“In 1916, friends Madge Jenison (1874-1960) and Mary Horgan Mowbray-Clarke opened a bookstore on 33rd street near Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan called the Sunwise Turn Bookshop. The unusual name came from Celtic belief that following the motion of the sun brought good fortune. As Madge wrote in her 1923 memoir Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling: ‘Our theory was that we meant to sell books in a more modern and civilized way than they were being sold, and carry them, if the powers were in us, into the stream of the creative life of our generation.’ With the judicious use of paint, pillows, upholstered chairs, and hangings, they created a cozy place for readers and book buyers. Theodore Dreiser was the first author to give a reading; other well-known authors followed, and exhibits by avant-garde painters and sculptors soon rounded out the picture of a welcoming bookshop dedicated to literature and the arts. The Sunwise Turn quickly became a well-known gathering place for artists and writers who were interested in the modernist movement. Peggy Guggenheim was an intern in those early years; she found her calling as an art collector there (as well as her first husband).”

This sounds to me like Jenison and Mowbray-Clarke were ahead of their time, creating a welcoming space that allowed readers to browse, talk to staff members knowledgeable about books, and soak up culture. Sound familiar?

For a fun article on little (in size) bookstores and how they survive today, there’s a recent article in Publishers Weekly “Behind the Counter at America’s Smallest Indie Bookstores.” 

Women in the Literary Landscape

Women in the Literary LandscapeI’m a member of the Women’s National Book Association, formed in 1917 by a group of women booksellers in New York when the all-male American Booksellers Association (ABA) refused to admit women. Those women booksellers were not to be put off; they  formed the WNBA, which celebrated its centennial last November. Of course, a short time after the WNBA, the ABA came calling, asking for a merger of the two organizations. The WNBA politely refused, specifying the value of a separate women’s group.

In November, 2017 when the WNBA centennial was celebrated, there were twelve chapters around the country, doing just fine, thank you. From the beginning, the organization was not limited to booksellers, but to any woman who was involved in the book world: authors, editors, publishers, librarians, printers, literary agents…you get the point. Membership for the past twelve years has changed my life and I hear that comment from members all the time. As a networking and professional development organization, the WNBA creates connections among members in many ways, fostering careers and friendships.

All this is preliminary to letting you know about the book that was published in conjunction with the centennial: Women in the Literary Landscape: A WNBA Centennial Publication. It contains a history of the organization, but more to the point, most of the book is taken up with an overview of women in the literary world in the U.S. from colonial times to the present with social-historical underpinnings.

I was asked to be the editor of the book, but ended up as one of the main contributors. It was a collaborative project that took more than two years. At the start, I searched for other works that had linked all these literary fields–the due diligence part of the process. There were none that I could find. To clarify, no one had written about people in all these fields in one place. I realized that our project that would have real value in the study of women’s place in the literary community. This was thrilling. We began the research and writing.

We asked Doris Weatherford, U.S. women’s historian, to give us a basic narrative. Doris provided a wonderful history going back to colonial times and through the Progressive Era. With that backbone about the women who were movers and shakers (many now forgotten) as printers, publishers, and writers, along with Doris’s insightful comments about social and political history, we were off to a great start. I added information about booksellers, librarians, editors, and publishers, and brought the narrative up to 2017. In each historical section we featured exceptional women and information about what the WNBA was doing in those years.

The book was published in March, 2018, although we had advance copies available in time for the centennial celebration, held at Pen + Brush Gallery in New York  in November. Our publisher is C&R Press, a small independent press that was happy to make our book their first nonfiction title.

More about the book and the women who feature in it in subsequent posts…especially about the woman on the cover, Madge Jenison.

 

The books we’ve read

I subscribe to LitHub, which offers–in the way we read now–daily snippets of literary news and links to full articles. I scan the snippets and usually click through to one or two articles of moderate interest, but sometimes there’s a real winner and I keep that issue in my inbox because it’s too good to relegate to the trash. One recent keeper is a piece by Penelope Lively, one of my favorite novelists, about the books in her personal library. People who interview writers, often ask about what books the writer has on her nightstand or what books or authors are favorites. I must confess, that for the most part I’ve lost interest in the answers. The books on my nightstand are often pretty strange–the results of reviews that caught my eye–and often get returned to the library skimmed or unread. A large group of books I’ve bought with enthusiasm live under the nightstand in a sort of low priority limbo. Recently someone asked for the title of my favorite book and I froze, thinking that the only way I could answer that was to compile a list of all the books to which I’ve given 5 stars on Goodreads. I figure I’m not unique and writers answering those questions are not providing insightful information.

Then there’s Penelope Lively. Her article appeared in Granta and she titled it “Books Do Furnish a Room,” a nod to the 10th volume in Anthony Powell’s classic series A Dance to the Music of Time. Lively writes not about what’s on her nightstand, but about the books she’s bought and read over the years and that still live on her bookshelves. In her “mildly book-infested home…the shelves say something about the person who has stocked them.” What we read, of course, furnishes not just our rooms, but our minds. She writes about how the nonfiction shelves reflect her interest in Egypt, where she spent her childhood; English history and archaeology; and science among other subjects. Although her novels are set in contemporary times and plumb the depths of human relationships, they are literally and metaphorically informed by her wide-ranging reading in those areas.

My library doesn’t contain as many books as Lively’s. As a librarian I learned to weed vigorously. I do still have most of a shelf of Greek and Roman literature from college that I can’t part with as well as Pauline Kael’s complete reviews, but I tend to think of my local library as a convenient extension to my collection. And I do have a hand-written list of all the books I’ve read, going back to somewhere around ninth grade. That’s something I treasure as much as the books themselves. Here’s the link to Lively’s Granta article, worth reading for her lovely, graceful style. https://granta.com/books-do-furnish-a-room/

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life by Vivian Gornick (Yale Univ. Press)

Emma GoldmanI’ve read about Emma Goldman in passing and wanted to read more about this feisty anarchist, “Red Emma,” a woman reviled, jailed, and ultimately deported from the U.S. in 1919. Vivian Gornick’s compact biography, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, is part of the terrific Yale Univ. Press’s Jewish Lives Series.

Goldman was born in Lithuania in 1869 and came to Rochester, New York as a teenager to live with her older sister; the rest of the family joined her a year later. She was desperate to accomplish something, to change the world, and was galvanized by the Haymarket Affair, a workers’ protest in Chicago that was disrupted by an anarchist’s bomb. It was a defining moment in U.S. labor history and she wanted to be part of it.

Goldman, too volatile and rebellious for her family, left home with her sewing machine and a few dollars, headed for New York City’s Lower East Side, where she found radicals of every stripe meeting in the cafes. The very first day, she met her soulmate, Alexander Berkman, the first in a series of lovers, mentors, and partners. She became a fiery, riveting speaker, traveling around the country talking about worker injustice.

Gornick gives us the outline of the life Goldman led in service to the anarchist movement, but what’s so fascinating about this biography is the insight Gornick offers into Goldman’s motivations and personality. Unlike most biographers, Gornick is right there with the reader, commenting on Goldman’s behavior, adding asides, and digging, digging, digging into who Goldman was, why she acted as she did; all the messy contradictions of her life (and loves). The energy of Gornick’s writing is terrific; a great match for Goldman’s single-minded drive to change the world.

Fierce AttachmentsIn conjunction with Goldman’s bio, I read Gornick’s own memoir Fierce Attachments, probably for the third time. Each time I read it, I’m hooked again, drawn into her childhood world and tangled relationship with her mother. It’s a feminist classic for good reasons, but also a startling evocation of the conflicted, haunting relationships we have with our childhood influences.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

This is part two of a trilogy, The Neapolitan Novels, and after I read the first book, My Brilliant Friend, I kept my eye out for The Story of a New Name. Ferrante writes with incredible energy and passion about two friends: Lila (sometimes called Lina) and Elena, growing up in a neighborhood of Naples. Ferrante’s psychological insights about the nature of friendship drive this riveting story.

The first novel starts in the 1950s, with the two girls in elementary school, where they are drawn together by their academic brilliance, but driven apart by the competition between them. The story is told by Elena, who often has difficulty understanding why her volatile, ambitious friend behaves the way she does. That often puts the reader in a knowing position, watching and waiting for the proverbial other shoe to fall. The two novels are filled with the details of life in their poor neighborhood; all Elena’s and Lila’s friends want to do better than their parents, but they are often stymied about how to make that happen. Opportunities are just opening up after recovery from World War II but for the women it’s still difficult to believe they have choices beyond marrying early and having kids. Elena wants more and fights for the chance for education and a career; Lila wants more as well, but takes a different, more traditional road. She can’t extricate herself from the old expectations and this has devastating consequences for everyone who comes in contact with her. She’s a force of nature and one of the most fascinating literary characters I’ve encountered.

Warning: book two has a cliffhanger ending that brings the reader up short. After spending time with these characters it’s hard to wait for the final volume. I’m haunted by both women–Elena’s choices, Lina’s increasingly desperate decisions.