activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press

Florence in Words

Ice-skating Number Two

February 25, 2014

Tags: Olympics

I’ve waited a bit to write about the final women’s ice-skating competition, to let it all sink in, perhaps. And I was rewarded by another glimpse of the Russian youngster, Adelina Sotnikova, who won gold, this time more relaxed, more beautiful to watch as she danced gracefully with a yellow banner. This performance seemed very different from the one scored for her winning gold. That night my impression was of her energy, her bursting into jumps endlessly, and though I was not counting, she did jump more than she needed to, as I learned from the newspaper accounts, which reported that she had deliberately—and with forethought—racked up more points than her competitor, the regal Uma Kim from South Korea, who had seemed unbeatable to me.

And so I have read carefully—and tried to ingest—the information about how such competitions are scored, and how a clever skater, energetic and without falling, can in a sense manipulate the scoring professionally, even honorably, by squeezing into her choreography several more than the required jumps, especially difficult jumps in a series. Perhaps it is better to have the details of scoring schemes rather than “impressions.” Still, it’s never going to be “clear,” is it?

Uma Kim, who is a mature woman, and a “lady,” said she was satisfied with second place, and that she would skate in competitions no more. Adelina, we may be sure, will be back next time, perhaps along with her compatriot, Yulia Lipnitskaya, whose performance was exquisite the first time I saw her, and similarly strong in the finals, except for her fall. She seemed artistically perfect, and her blurring spins unmatchable even by Adelina.

And the others. I thought Caroline Kostner from Italy, who took the bronze, skated beautifully to “Bolero.” Similarly, the two Americans, who wound up in 4th and 5th places, skated well, though they could not match the scores of those who had gone before them. Even Mao Asada from Japan could not beat the opening scores of the three winners.

Here’s a postscript that has nothing and everything to do with the Olympic ice-skating I have been enjoying. I went last night to the movies for the first time since the surgery in mid-November. I went with Louise Meriwether to see one of the Academic Award nominated films, “American Hustle.” I disliked it from its opening scenes and continued to regard in amazement its status as worthy of a nomination. I thought it lacked anything that one could point to as worthy of remembering. Actually, I had a feeling rare for me in any performance: I wanted to leave at once, and would have, were it not for Louise. And her story is emblematic of what I am trying to say. She had seen it, but didn’t remember it until the opening scene of a man pasting on his toupee, and then she gasped and said she had seen it. I would have left with her, but she insisted on staying so that I might see the film.

So we stayed and I continued to feel that I was watching some of the ugliest aspects of our American culture, and to no point: nothing but lying and cheating, even when intentions are allegedly to catch liars and cheaters. And all revealed as ugly, so ugly as to be hopeless for a viewer like me, who can only turn away and say, why, why, why must we make heroes out of villains? And I have not mentioned the twenty minutes of ads for newer films, all violent, if not brazenly murderous, seemingly even more unredeemable than “American Hustle.”

So I went home and turned on “The Red Shoes,” an old film that happened to be a Saturday night special choice of Turner’s Classic Movies, and it was redemptive, cleansing for me. To recognize meaning, to see beauty, to hear music, to marvel at dance: all immensely pleasurable, enduring in memory, never tiring to see again and again.

Moira Shearer’s dancing reminded me of the ice skating, and I went from there to watch Adelina and others skate with pleasure.

Olympics skating at Sochi 2014

February 20, 2014

Tags: Olympics

Gracie Gold
Yes, I have been watching the Olympics, and not only my favorite ice-skating stars. Some of the skiing has also caught my attention, the slopes terrifying, even from my couch. I continue to admire the resilience of skiers who are not put off even by a seemingly bone-breaking fall, and go on the slopes again. Other aspects of the games seem both frightening and still more impenetrable to me—variations playing on the edges of danger, and sometimes, as in the narrow speedway for one or two hurling bodies, the skill capable of winning gold seems totally impenetrable to the (ignorant) observer. From time to time, I watch and wonder especially when ice skating is not on.

Men’s skating proved the most shocking event, and not only because the Russian star, Evgeni Plushenko, who had led easily with at the beginning of the games, could not, in his second short program, move for the pain he felt. He left the ice, and then sent a formal notice of “retirement.” His first short program, in my view, was one of the most beautiful performances I have ever seen. It made the question—“Is figure skating an art or a sport?” irrelevant. Who could have known that, even then, his body was in pain. He seemed perfection. But what made the evening of his retirement still more shocking was that the three excellent skaters who followed him onto the ice, seemingly unnerved by the opening for gold of Plushenko’s departure, all fell—uncharacteristically—on their first jump. The first skater fell so hard that his body banged into a wall and lay inert for more than a few seconds. Then he rose, wobbled a bit, and finished his program—along with many other jumps—amazingly well. Well, I thought, his was a reaction to the Russian star. But the two who followed him—I wish I had notes before me—also fell on their first jumps, and then continued.

As I watched the ice-dancing, I thought about the skills of the Americans, and admired the Canadians and the others. It’s a far different skill or sport or art from the ice-skating single performances with their death-defying jumps that used to be simple axels and now require four twists or at least three in the air before coming down with elegance—and popping up again for at least one more jump, if not two. Ice-dancing requires two people to move in harmony not only clasped to each other, but, with far more difficulty, separately, “side-by-side.” I can’t help wondering how couples learn to do this beautifully. Do they count? Have they watched themselves filmed? How many hundreds of repetitions does it take to work out one minute of such complex movement? Viewed from my couch, the skaters seem relaxed, the movements easy. This evening, there were no falls, only perfection. And the two Americans, still in their teens, who have been dancing together since they were children, are they not perfection to watch?

I think back to the first night of ice-skating, when I watched the women’s short program and saw the American Gracie Gold for the first time in Sochi. Her performance was perfection. She is 19 and at her first Olympics. From where has she acquired not only the perfection of performance, but the poise, even seemingly comfortable poise? And then, the Russian fifteen-year old, Yulia Lipnitskaya, appeared for the first time, slight, short, hair tightly braided to her skull, a seemingly fragile figure. The jumps were birdlike, graceful, but what was unmatchable were her spins, so rapid and agile as to become a blur even on the screen. And one could only think: at fifteen? How could that be? (More to come.)

And for me, the question: why do I enjoy, even “love,” ice skating when I have never worn a pair of skates. Even when I roller-skated, I never “danced.” Is it like the ballet, like diving, sports or arts that demand grace of movement, even perfection, none of which I have ever had? Is it totally inexplicable? A pleasure not in my own body, no, not at all in my own body. But a pleasure in my being? What does that mean? What is being? Does it all go back to the idea of beauty, and the associated idea of pleasure in beauty?

I am thinking back to the first night of ice-skating I watched, the women’s short program, when the young American whose name is “Gold” skated for the first time with a perfection perhaps no one could have predicted, since it was never clear that she should be at the Olympics on the U.S. team to begin with. But that night in Sochi, she was perfection, and of course, forever that performance will be viewable whatever .

Alternative Careers—Then and Now

February 11, 2014

Tags: Feminist Press, MLA

In January, at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, several panels were organized to discuss the profession’s current quandary: that the production of graduate students does not match the availability of entry-level professional appointments. I compared my own path 60 years ago with that of new doctorates today. This is a version of that talk.
In 1951, I went to the University of Wisconsin/Madison on a teaching assistantship meant to last for five years and to include the writing of a dissertation. I left after three years because of a husband who was a failure at graduate school and who insisted that I leave as well. This, as I have told countless young graduate students, was a mistake I should not have made. Though I have had a rich teaching career, and though I was granted tenure at two academic institutions, and though I have published significantly, I missed several opportunities because of the missing doctorate.
In 1970, when The Feminist Press began, I was a tenured assistant professor at Goucher College, without a Ph.D. I had been there for eleven years when, in 1971, I was invited to move as a full professor with tenure to the College at Old Westbury. I was also invited to move the Feminist Press with me, since no one in Baltimore wanted to house it there, and since the young, new President at Old Westbury thought it would prove important. It’s a long story, and I tell much of it in my memoir, but for this essay what is important to note is that I never planned to have an alternative career. I loved teaching and had not yet found my niche in scholarship, though I had been the person to open Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts at the Berg, and might have had a career working on Woolf.
By 1985, when the Press moved into Manhattan, renamed The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, the work of managing it was so demanding that I had to give up teaching altogether, though I did not give up writing and work relevant to MLA members. In the 1990s I edited another version of No More Masks! the ground-breaking anthology of women poets first published in 1973 with one of my students, Ellen Bass, who has become a significant poet.
In the second half of the 1980s and into the 1990s, and even after retirement in 2000, I spent my literary energy and skills on two enormous projects: the rediscovery of Indian women writers in two volumes called Women Writing in India; and the rediscovery of African women writers in four volumes called Women Writing Africa. These volumes confirm and extend the original revelations with which the major work of The Feminist Press began: first, that women in the U.S. and the world over have been writers since the beginning of time, and second, that their work has been excluded not only from students’ curriculum, but from any acknowledgement of its existence, not only in the U.S. and the West, but everywhere in the world. I understand now that the work of The Feminist Press has been to reclaim that heritage and history. And clearly, this work has been and continues to be significant for the work of the Modern Language Association.
But unlike my first 50 years in the MLA, academe no longer can provide work for all of its doctorates in the modern languages. That’s the bad news, and none of us knows whether this is a permanent condition, or a temporary aberrant like those we endured during some periods in the last century. I am pleased to be able to describe one small remedy, the Public Fellows Program begun three years ago by the American Council of Learned Societies. This past year, twenty new doctorates in language and literature applied for two-year fellowships at a living wage to work for non-profit institutions in need of such specific skills as the ability to think and write clearly.
At The Feminist Press, we now have one of these fellows on a two-year appointment to us. Nino Testa is a graduate of Miami University who recently earned a doctorate in English at Tufts. His part-time work at Tufts’ Women’s Center was responsible, he has said, for allowing him to think outside of an academic teaching job. As a graduate student, though he enjoyed teaching and scholarship, he also enjoyed working with people and he found administrative work especially challenging. As I interviewed Nino for this paper, I found him clear-headed about the skills he has accumulated from his academic work, his scholarship and teaching, which make him suitable for a variety of other kinds of work. He cited his writing skills, and his ability to figure things out on his own—a result of his dissertation research—as well as his critical thinking.
At the Feminist Press, he is to focus on the work of development, which means fund-raising. He’s pleased because he has had no experience in this area and he knows that it is very important to non-profit organizations both large and small. He is very realistic about the future. He considers himself very fortunate to have been chosen for the two-year fellowship, enjoys being in the midst of a Graduate School environment, and working with a small but highly-committed staff of publishing professionals. Certainly, I would claim that Nino Testa represents, for MLA, one vision of the future.

Retirement, Part Two

February 10, 2014

Tags: retirement, Gloria Bonder

As part of the program of the Women’s Caucus of the Modern Language Association, I agreed to speak about retirement. And I did so by turning to a friend about whom I’ve written before. This is what I said publicly, but to the blog-readers I want also to note that the friend I am writing about is on her way from Argentina to visit me once again.
Gloria Bonder and I met in 1980 at the UN conference in Copenhagen. She was in her late thirties, and I was just past 50. Both of us were engaged in women’s studies in our own countries and also in the wider world of UN world policy. Our relationship has continued through the thirty-five years since then, as Gloria has become the inventor and director of a huge Latin American on-line graduate program in women’s studies, aimed at officials in business and government, both male and female. Two years ago, she came to visit me in New York with a new agenda: Approaching 70, how can she change her life, she asked? She is finding it more difficult to work her twelve to fifteen hours a day, often seven days a week. She feels tired. She would like to have a different life. What should she do?
What to tell her? For me, I told her, retirement has not been a solution. For some people like me, retirement may need a different approach. I learned this slowly, over the past fourteen years. In 2000, fourteen years ago, when I was 71, I decided it was time to retire. I had been with the Feminist Press for 30 years as its vision-maker and its administrator. The job had become too large for one person, I thought. Not only was I tired; I was also aware that the world of publishing was changing rapidly, and I knew that I didn’t want to be the person to move the Press into the digital world.
Instead, I proposed that I would retire to work full-time on the grant-funded Women Writing Africa, a multi-volume research and publishing project I had helped begin in the middle of the 1990s that was to produce four huge published volumes, none of which was yet ready. And so my proposal was accepted. By 2001, for example, I was traveling for the project to Senegal in January; Uganda and Morocco in April; and then to Bellagio, Italy, in September to meet with the West Africans, who had completed their volume’s collection phase and needed to work on translation, headnotes, and Introduction.
In addition, that year I seemed to have endless energy for travel. I spent three weeks in China beginning work on another book project. I also traveled for pleasure and also to see friends who were ill or failing, all the while editing the final texts for the Southern African volume. Today, I am amazed to note that that life of travel and editing continued for the next four years, and of course, as I think about it now, I was never really “retired.” I had simply arranged for myself another kind of work, very difficult work, but very rewarding. I must mention at least the chief ingredients of this work: collegial relationships, interesting texts, and a shared sense of making history with these volumes.
The work was interrupted just as we had begun on the Northern volume, when the Board of Feminist Press asked me to return as Interim Director, which I did for a year. Then, when I assumed I would “retire” again, the new director asked me to stay on as Publisher, since she knew that the Feminist Press needed two people at the helm. I stayed for two years, continuing my work on Women Writing Africa, perhaps somewhat more slowly than I would have liked. But yes, you see the point I am about to make: I was still not really “retired.”
In 2008, Gloria Jacobs, the Feminist Press’s director, gave a party for me in June, officially designated as my “retirement” party. I was then 79, three of the four African volumes had been published, and the fourth one was in press. So what was I to do next? I began working full time on the memoir that had simmered on a back burner for at least a dozen years and before then in my imagination’s back burner. As I try to reimagine those two years, what comes to mind are the several long weekends I worked with Janet Zandy, whose intelligent criticism sustained my need for a work-relationship. Writing is lonely work, I learned, especially when it is full-time.
What have I discovered? For people like me, retirement is a problem to be overcome, not a solution at all. I didn’t solve the problem creatively because I didn’t recognize its parameters or anticipate the symptoms it might rouse. I didn’t think about it —or even recognize it as a problem—until recently.
This is what I told my friend before she went home:
1. Do not leave your job; redefine it.
2. Cut your hours, cut your pay, but keep a significant portion of control over the workplace or your work in it.
3. Take a vacation, even a month-long one, and return refreshed.
Perhaps this advice will be useful only for people who have founded start-ups, new programs, or who are in charge of work important enough to allow them to follow my suggestions. Perhaps this advice will matter to people who have been, like me workaholics, people who, as Marilyn French used to say, “never learned to play.” For her, she said, work meant you were alive.
I used to tell my students—who for more than a decade were women and who, in the sixties, didn’t think much about work—that they needed both love and work. Growing older does not reduce or eliminate those needs. They are simply more difficult to fulfill.
Even as I prepare this for my blog, I am awaiting the arrival of Gloria Bonder. More when I’ve talked with her about her future retirement plans.

An Out-of-Body Experience after Surgery

February 3, 2014

Tags: surgery

My knee-replacement surgery was scheduled at the Hospital for Special Surgery for Wednesday afternoon, November 13, 2013. Two weeks earlier, I had spent a long day in the building for a series of tests and preparatory seminars, and I could see that the hospital was located right on the eastern edge of Manhattan, facing the East River. Only for one moment did I wonder whether I would awaken in a room with a view of that river, for I feared the surgery so much that I hardly expected to wake up at all.

The first few days were and are still so confused in my mind that I cannot write a coherent sentence about them. A sharp memory begins one night—perhaps the second, perhaps the third night after surgery—when I remember being handed a small paper cup containing five differently colored pills. I remember swallowing all five of them at once, with one swig of water, without asking not only what they were, but why I had to swallow them. Instead I lay down and seemingly went to sleep. There was no light in the room.

Then, suddenly, I was awake and knew only a feeling of terror. I began to tear at the brace strapped to my (surgical) leg. I tore off a piece and threw it on the floor, and then tore off another piece. I was conscious of deciding that I would not be confrontational. But I wanted to free my leg so that I could run out of the room. I needed to escape. For I moment I thought I was a small child.

But then I was older, alone, on an urban corner brightly lit by neon signs and with people rushing by, no one noticing me. What was I to do? Where was I to go?

My roommate heard something she called “moaning,” and so she called the nurse, who came in and asked if I had been dreaming. I said the brace on my leg was hurting me and I remembered the pieces I had torn off. The nurse readjusted the brace and I went back to sleep.

In the morning, I remembered the episode but told no one. I wrote what I could remember in the small notebook I had taken with me. Writing, I remembered the hospital I had spent nine months in when I was nine years old. There I was alone in a huge room holding eight beds, all but mine empty. Large glass windows filled two sides of the room; on the third side a glass wall allowed visitors to wave their silent greetings twice a week. Was I reliving that experience, trying to escape from it? [See my memoir for an account of the childhood experience.]

Or was I simply traumatized by the surgery and the drugs I had been given? I wrote this the next morning:
The fires were burning
Though there were no fires
The river was running
Though there was no river
On a neon-lit street
Dark bodies rushed past me
Whom should I tell?
Who would help me?
How to stop the bodies running past me?

Select Works

"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
Lecture delivered by Florence Howe on January 8, 2011, at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention
“It is impossible to imagine women’s studies without Florence Howe. Myths of Coeducation shows her vision and courage, insight and dauntlessness.”–Catharine R. Stimpson, Rutgers University
A revised and expanded edition of the classic groundbreaking anthology of 20th-century American women's poetry, representing more than 100 poets from Amy Lowell to Anne Sexton to Rita Dove.

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