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Florence in Words

Ode to Elizabeth Janeway

Elizabeth Janeway
Dear Elizabeth, in whatever heaven you now dwell, forgive this forgetful woman, who still lives on a planet spinning its way to doom. Yes, I haven’t thought of you recently, though on my 85th birthday, I did think for a moment about the party for your 80th. But this week, a brief sentence in a relatively brief obituary for your son, Michael, roused me instantly. Even before your death in 2005, Michael had been for me your “good” son, since he made generous, annual contributions to The Feminist Press in your name. But on April 18, his obituary contained the following sentence, which I know he would not have approved. The offending sentence: “His mother, the former Elizabeth Ames Hall, was a novelist.”

Forgive us all, dear Elizabeth, forgive even the young writer of Michael’s obituary. You were never known by your maiden name. And in your day, you were a famous lady, even more famous than your famous husband, and perhaps both of you more famous than your sons.

Elizabeth Janeway was the author of six novels and five volumes of political feminist prose. In the last decades of the twentieth century, she was, along with Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Grace Paley, a leading feminist speaker and writer, appearing on thousands of platforms on campuses as well as before city audiences. Her New York Times obituary, published on January 19, 2005, describes her “as a best-selling novelist in the 1940’s and later [as one who] distinguished herself as a critic, a lecturer and an early advocate of the women’s movement.”

All of her novels, published between 1943 and 1959, were written during the period when she was rearing two sons, a full decade before the women’s movement began in the late 1960s. One of them, Daisy Kenyon (1945), became a film starring Joan Crawford. Apparently abandoning fiction, in 1971 Janeway published the first of five volumes of feminist nonfiction, Man’s World, Women’s Place: A Study in Social Mythology. All of her titles are telling: in 1973, Women: Their Changing Roles; in 1974, Between Myth and Morning: Women Awakening; in 1980 Powers of the Weak; in 1982, Cross Sections: From a Decade of Change.

When we met in the late 1970s, I expressed interest in one of her fifties feminist fiction which was set in the thirties, because Feminist Press had a fiction series about the thirties in the U.S. But not until 1987 did I persuade Elizabeth to allow The Feminist Press, by then “at the City University of New York,” to republish her 1953 semi-autobiographical novel, Leaving Home, for which she wrote a preface and Rachel M. Brownstein, then a professor of English at Brooklyn College/CUNY, wrote an afterword. The New York Times book reviewer in 1953 had called it “A novel of new detachment and keen objectivity that is a delight to read and re-read, for its subtle, ironic implications.” Yes, this was the way—in the fifties—that one could pay homage to not-in-your-face feminist fiction.

And she, immensely modest, writes in her Preface: “Though it was written in the fifties, Leaving Home is indeed a novel about the thirties….The choice was a while in coming. I was still uncertain about the date of the novel even while I was thinking out its opening scenes. Perhaps I should say that I can never plan a work of fiction to its end. I have always started with a character or two caught in a fix of some kind. It may be large or small, but working to solve it sets the plot in motion and permits the people involved to flesh out into human beings whose actions and ambitions will direct the ‘story line.’”

Important to note, Elizabeth Janeway was also a member of the Board of Directors of The Feminist Press, and as such, part of my daily work life. Before she had agreed to come onto our Board, she had insisted that, as publisher, I had to agree to give at least token advances to authors of one hundred dollars, since she was also president of the Authors Guild. At the tenth anniversary of the Press, in 1980, she was the first to raise her glass of champagne to toast, “Here’s to the next ten years,” something I had not even begun to consider. Several years later, she opened her elegant eastside town house for a Feminist Press fundraiser at which Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen spoke and read to several hundred paying guests.

In 1993, at the home of psychologist Sue Zalk, the Vice President for Student Affairs of the Graduate Center/CUNY, and the Secretary to the Board of the Feminist Press, we gave a party to celebrate Elizabeth Janeway’s 80th birthday.

Dear Elizabeth, you were the life of that party, full of energy and joy. Today, I can comfort myself by remembering your life and your work, your certainty that The Feminist Press had a future and your willingness to be part of it. Thank you, Elizabeth, for filling our lives with good sense.  Read More 
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