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A Life in Motion

Florence Howe’s life has been one of movement, action, and more than a mere impulse or inclination to make change. She created a freedom school during the civil rights movement, refused to bow to academic heavyweights opposed to sharing power with women, and founded the Feminist Press at a time when books for and about women were few. Sustained by her friendships, including those with iconic writers like Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and Marilyn French, she traveled the world as an emissary for women’s empowerment. This memoir spans her eighty years of personal struggle and professional triumphs. Rich with anecdote and historical detail, A Life in Motion provides a rare, insider’s view of one of the most exciting periods in recent history.

Paperback, $24.95, 588 pages, April 2011, ISBN:978-155861-697-4, The Feminist Press at CUNY

Hardcover Special Edition, $100.00, 588 pages, April 2011, ISBN: 978-1-55861-746-9, The Feminist Press at CUNY. This special limited hardcover edition is signed and numbered by the author.

"A Life in Motion is almost literally what (Howe)'s led since the late 1960s, traveling around the country and the world to do research, to network, to coordinate the research of others, to raise money for the Press—she's a regular feminist dervish . . . . Those who want to know where feminism came from and where it's going ought to read it."—The Promiscuous Reader, This Is So Gay

"As a detailed history of some inner-circles of modern American feminism, this memoir is of value to historians; for women of any age, who know ‘the personal is political,’it’s a must read."—Jewish Book World

"Howe has been as activist at heart, marshalling the money she miraculously raised, the greatness she gathered, a sacrificing staff and her own enormous energies into a strategy to ineradicably improve the written record of women’s past, present and possible future, one book at a time. The scheme succeeded.”—Ms. Magazine, Deirdre English, director, Felker Magazine Center, UC Berkeley

“A frank, engaging memoir by Feminist Press founder Howe about growing up poor, smart and determined . . . A valuable chronicle of a life devoted to ideas and social justice.”—Kirkus Reviews

“In this bold and courageous memoir Florence Howe transports us across class, gender,and race divides—in and out of love, deprivation, and tragedy—along her activist journey toward profoundly creative work. Everyone concerned about global feminism, women’s contributions, and humanity’s future will be enhanced and enchanted by A Life in Motion.”—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I and Volume II

"Out of the pain of childhood, the deprivation, the want, comes the story of a woman's endurance, the voice of a self searching out worlds in which to be, a tale told with startling honesty by one of the founding figures of the US feminist movement, giving us the treasures of a history that might otherwise have been lost."—Meena Alexander, author of Fault Lines

"A Life in Motion is no less than the inside story of the birth of women’s studies as a discipline, the rise of an international feminist movement, and the role of women in publishing and education. Florence Howe triumphs with this sharp and compelling memoir."—Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association

"Honest, brave, frank to the point of bluntness, engrossing, this memoir offers an extraordinary history of one woman’s life—Brooklyn-born, Jewish, New York feminist intellectual, and international role model and publisher. This deeply feeling memoir moves all of us, bound in inextricable humanity, on toward the struggle for social justice to which Howe has devoted her life."—Shirley Geok-lin Lim, author of Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands and Walking Backwards; professor, University of California, Santa Barabra

Prologue: Memory, History, and the Missing Creative Bone

As a book editor, I have usually urged writers to begin by explaining why they have written their book. What was their goal? Who was their inspiration? And, at the same time, I have also suggested that, in a concluding piece, perhaps they would like to explain whether they have accomplished their purpose. No matter that I knew the formula: I could not at first clarify the ingredients of my own book. No matter how I shook the contents, I could not then pull out a narrative line that moved from one year to the next. When I hired a professional consultant who had once been a notable editor, she said that I had to write either an “autobiography” or a “memoir.” Since I was in my late 70s when I met with her, she thought I didn’t have time enough to write an autobiography, for that would entail years of research., but perhaps I could write a memoir simply from memory, that is, if I could write. There, then, was one of the nubs: Could I write? Was I a writer?

But setting aside that question for a moment, as I explained to the consultant who knew nothing about me, I had two quite different kinds of stories to tell, and for one of these I did have rapid access to “research”—in my files of correspondence, records of meetings, and 40 years of lengthy journals, typed often daily at home and written in notebooks when I was traveling in the years before computers. Thus, for the story of the Feminist Press, I had historical documents in hand along with my own contemporary perceptions, year by year, day by day. I could write an account of the 40-year history of an institution I had helped to found and had stayed with to the present moment. And I had many reasons for wanting to write that history.

So why not simply write a history of the Feminist Press?

Because there were other questions I longed to name, to unravel, even if I could not always answer them neatly. One might call this the “back story”: Who was this person who helped found the Feminist Press, and than stayed with it for 40 years? Why did I have a few very sharp memories and so many blanks? Why was my life so affected by moves—from school to school, from home to hospital, from a working class Brooklyn household to an upper East Side Manhattan high school, from plebian Hunter College to waspy Smith College. Why could I not part with my childhood desire for a loving family? Why, though I left my first three husbands, did I not want to lose the fourth, though I knew he was not always as loving as the others? What motivated my life?

Like many young women of the fifties, I wanted marriage and a family. The first mystery, therefore, is why I heeded my Hunter mentors whose advice sent me away from those goals. My uneducated father understood that, when he told me I would never have “a normal life.” Though I didn’t believe him at the time, I never forgot his prediction. He was right, of course.

Janet Zandy, my dear friend and the first reader of this book, a professor of English at Rochester Institute of Technology, saw as inspiration for my life the motto of Hunter College: mihi cura future—the care of the future is mine. As a wise theorist of working class life, she saw that the experience at Hunter fortified my childhood battle against my mother’s insistence that nothing can be changed, and her certainty that a woman had to “get used to” living in some measure of misery. She had endured misery, and, she was saying, so would I. From my earliest drafts, Janet surmised—and I acknowledged—that Hunter opened my eyes to the world and all of its possibilities for movement and change.

In the early 1990s, Janet wrote to ask me whether I’d like to contribute an essay to a volume she was preparing called Liberating Memory: Our Work and Our Working-Class Consciousness. She wanted me to write about my origins and how they were connected to the Feminist Press. At first, I was dubious about her theory—and I told her there was no connection. At the same time, I told her that, because I was depressed about my mother’s Alzheimers, I had begun to write a portrait of her life in the hospital. “Send me what you’ve got,” Janet said. And from there, she encouraged me to write a bit more about my mother in other times, including her visits to the Feminist Press office. Before I had finished the essay, it was clear that, indeed, there was a connection, though I was still puzzling it out. So Janet was right, too.

But what was not part of that essay—and the puzzle—was the entrance into my life of Tillie and Jack Olsen, the working class parents so different from my own. In 1971, I was 42, when I first visited them in San Francisco, and Tillie was 59, Jack 60. They were the first to hear the stories of my family, and the first to provide some comfort, some kindness to soothe the raw grief I could feel about my childhood miseries, my father’s death, my mother’s stingy ways. And I vowed then that, if I ever wrote a memoir, I would dedicate it to them. Publicly, I always cite Tillie as responsible for the most important aspect of Feminist Press work—the gift of her “reading list,” which led to the discovery of specific “lost” women writers, and the reshaping of the American literary curriculum. But I have not cited her for mothering me through various crises of my personal life and my life at the Feminist Press. She and Jack were for many years the people I went to for advice and comfort.

The only advice Tillie offered that I ignored was that I had to make time for writing. She told me that the ease and fluency with which she could write when she was young was no longer available to her even in her sixties. Again and again, she told me I was a writer. Again and again I didn’t believe her. I could write, I said, only when I had to give a lecture or even an informal talk. I could write only to assignment. Even as I began to work on this book perhaps for the tenth time in the last two decades, one question haunted me: can I write? Am I a writer? Do I actually have a creative bone?

I never told Tillie the bone story. I felt too silly about it. How could a high school teacher’s view of me have controlled my view of myself with such power as to supplant rationality? I need to tell that story here, for it, too, is part of the back story. In high school English classes, I rarely got more than a “B” for my essays. But one teacher singled me out, perhaps as we worked on the senior yearbook at Hunter College High School. Miss Brubaker. She told me one day that she was pleased to see me, and she continued, “You are efficient and reliable, the perfect ‘B’ student. You don’t have a creative bone in your body.” I knew what she meant, for wasn’t the future writer Cynthia Ozick in my class? I heard Miss Brubaker’s statement as a compliment and also as a powerful diagnosis. I knew that all the “B” grades I had had through high school English signified the absence of that creative bone.

As a college freshman, I took that bone business seriously. If I had no creative bone, how I could I take creative writing in college? Barely a year later, when an “A” in freshman English at Hunter College placed me automatically into creative writing, I petitioned the chair of the department to be released from the class. She said that no one had ever done that before. I explained about Miss Brubaker and my petition was granted. As an English major I avoided creative writing and honors, for I would be an English teacher like Miss Brubaker.

But an English professor and the president of Hunter College changed all that. Astonished that I could clearly discern William Blake’s cosmology, professor Hoxie Neale Fairchild suggested that I ought to be heading to graduate school. I, too, was astonished, but continued on my path to high school teaching. A semester later, after his seminar’s concluding session, President George N. Shuster took my future into his hands, assuring me that he would write for me and Professor Fairchild as well. I must, he said, go to graduate school. They were both convinced by my ability to write literary essays. They saw me as a college professor, and fifteen years later, I was an instructor in English at Goucher College in Baltimore, teaching young women how to write essays.

One day early in 1963, I did something most unusual. I wrote a letter to the New Republic protesting an unenlightened review of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, a novel I had read because of my interest in satire. My brief, scathing letter was printed in the next issue.

A week or so after the letter had appeared, I received a note on small New Yorker letterhead from William Shawn, a name that then meant nothing to me. Dated January 11, 1963, it read: “Your letter in the January 12 issue of the New Republic was extremely interesting, I thought. It occurred to me that you might do some work for the New Yorker one day. I’d certainly be delighted to hear from you any time.” The note was signed, “Best wishes, William Shawn, The Editor.”

I answered a week later, mentioning my work on Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts and my interest in utopian satire. I concluded: “I should be glad of an opportunity to swing a light cudgel in favor of the moderns: News from Nowhere to way out there.”

Some days later, on a Wednesday, when there were no classes, the phone rang at home. A woman’s voice said, “Mr. Shawn would like to speak to you.”

Then a soft voice asked, “Would you come to New York to see me?”

I wasn’t sure I could do that, since I was in the midst of a semester of teaching.

“Perhaps you could come up on a Wednesday,” the soft voice persisted.

Two weeks later, I entered the New Yorker’s offices and was shown in at once to see Mr. Shawn. He was a small man with a pink bald head and a very kind pink-cheeked face that matched his soft voice. I thought of the great white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. He told me he had read my letter in the New Republic and that he knew from reading it—especially from its final sentence—that I was a writer. Before I could deny that fact, he said next that he knew I had a drawer full of poetry or prose that he would like to see.

I was mystified. I was also flattered that he had admired my letter, though I could not remember its final sentence. The letter had come out of the anger I had felt about the review. I said as much, and then I added, feeling a bit ashamed, that I had nothing to show him.

“Oh,” he said softly, “I knew you would bring nothing with you.” He knew, he said, exactly the kind of writer I was. But perhaps I would now trust him and show him my work. I could return next week or I could mail manuscripts to him. I felt acutely embarrassed. I began to regret that I had nothing to show him.

Some weeks went by. Again I took the train to New York. Once more I sat in his office, this time comfortable enough to consider the dynamic between us: I was a fragile egg he was being careful not to crack. He would warm this egg, make this egg comfortable, assure this egg that she could produce the literary work he wanted. Was I certain that I had nothing else in my desk drawer? No poems? No stories? No essays?

Then he brightened: “Would you like to work at the New Yorker as a fiction editor?”

“Oh, no,” and I was more than shocked. I felt terrified. “I love teaching. I couldn’t leave Goucher and my students.”

But Mr. Shawn was not to be put off. “Would you like to write fiction reviews for us?”

“Why, yes.” I felt that this was the least I could do. “But on what?”

“You may choose anything you like. Look at Publishers Weekly and see what’s coming up.”

I chose Iris Murdoch’s seventh novel, The Unicorn, and Mr. Shawn was pleased. I said I needed several months, since I thought I had to read or reread the first six novels before I could write about the seventh. It never occurred to me to read New Yorker reviews as part of my preparation. And so I wrote what might have suited a graduate course in fiction—nine-tenths analysis and one-tenth narrative—rather than the New Yorker’s formula, which was almost the reverse. I received a $300 check and a short note from Mr. Shawn dated May 24, 1963: “A check for your fine piece on Iris Murdoch. I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to publish this one, and I’ll be in touch with you further on it. Meanwhile, I wanted to get the check off to you.”

The essay was never published. Two years later I knew I had disappointed his belief in me one more time, when, instead of writing my own “Letter from Mississippi,” as he had requested, I invited a man I thought I was in love with to write with me. The manuscript was promptly rejected and I never heard from Mr. Shawn again.

Now I am far older than he was then. Can it be that I feel the old war inside me: Miss Brubaker’s praise for my missing creative bone versus Mr. Shawn’s certainty that I had one. Though I became a writer of essays, I usually blamed history for that, not creativity. I wrote what had to be said. But this book has brought back the old fears. I long for Mr. Shawn’s confidence, his blessing on this manuscript. I want to bless him for inventing creative bones for me that I need to believe in now.

Growing older changes little. Life intensifies or merely continues. When I was fifteen, I said I was sixteen. At thirteen, I became eighteen for a summer. Over the past twenty years, it’s been a habit I’ve reprised. As soon as I touch a birthday, I move on to the next. No surprises, I seem to be telling myself. I’m prepared. And of course, I’m shedding some things as I add years and maintain habits of body and mind.

And this book? It’s been eleven years since I first began, in Bellagio, to write large sections of my early life. Why have I not finished before now, or even attempted to publish what I had written?

I never felt it was welcome. Certainly I had little faith in the literary value of my prose. Perhaps I measured myself too closely against my friends, Kate Simon, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Marilyn French. I lost confidence in my story. After all, I was only one of many who began to teach differently in the 1960s, to focus on women’s lives, history, or literature. I was part of a surging movement that eventually claimed the name women’s studies.

Why now?

Now it seems urgent to write for a world that has forgotten how it was only forty years ago. If I don’t write it now, no one will have this story. No glamour. Lots of grit. And many people to be honored in the telling.

Fifteen years ago, when the National Women’s Studies Association and then the Modern Language Association invited me to give talks, I chose the theme of amnesia, the loss of historical memory, the assumption that the past doesn’t matter. I called this a root cause of ignorance, and a very dangerous disease for a young movement. I had recently reread Maria Mies, one of the great European theorists of the women’s movement. Again and again, she wrote, even in the past hundred years, as women have raised the same questions, taken up the same issues, they have not had as weapon the historical memory and analysis that might have allowed them to progress more quickly in the struggle for women’s liberation. They have, she wrote, “not been able to appropriate” history. They have not been able to integrate “into their collective consciousness…those changes for which they have actively fought, such as the woman’s vote.” Thinking about Maria Mies reminds me that history is still our most important weapon. If we have it these days, unlike the days of our suffragist sisters, it is because of women’s studies, and because women have been willing to write memoirs like this one.

Even as I typed that sentence, I felt the foolishness rise in me: How could I not have followed my own edict thirty years ago when I reacted in anger to the “boys” of the sixties who were publishing memoirs depicting “the movement” as dead and departed. Their movement did not include the flourishing women’s movement. When friends suggested that I write “my version,” I said I wasn’t important enough, but that I would publish a series of memoirs by women whose consciousness—about race or gender or class—had changed them and turned them into change-agents. I did that through the 1980s and into the 1990s, and in one sense this memoir, therefore, continues that stream.

But I fear that I’ve waited too long, that there is too much to tell inside the covers of one brief book. So I have had to leave some things out and only glance at others, in order to include a rendering of the theme that has filled my life from its earliest days to today. Moving both literally and figuratively--from a working class neighborhood to an upper middle class high school; from a city college to an elite campus; and from my middle class home to the basement of a Mississippi church—has marked my life, perhaps preparing me for the national and international travels that begin half a lifetime ago and that continue even today.

Half a lifetime ago also I began to see the Feminist Press as a way into a lost history, when Tillie Olsen gave me a copy of Life in the Iron Mills, a novella first published in 1961 and lost until that moment in 1971. My beloved Hunter College professor Hoxie Neale Fairchild had told me twenty years earlier that women writers were not important enough to study. Today, a decade into a new century, I tell the story of how it all came to pass, not only to honor those who came before me, but to amuse and to teach all who may follow.