NEW YORK (AP) — Florence Howe, an activist, educator and major contributor to American literature and culture who as co-founder of the Feminist Press helped revive such acclaimed and influential works as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills,” has died.
Howe died Saturday in Manhattan, according to the Feminist Press. She was 91 and in recent years had been treated for Parkinson’s disease.
“Florence Howe was a visionary with extraordinary literary taste, an ear for transformative ideas, and a steely focus on feminism and social justice,” Linda Villarosa, chair of the Feminist Press board, said in a statement. “Like me, people across several generations can thank Florence for opening our eyes, uplifting our voices, mentoring us as writers and scholars, and training us to step into her shoes.”
A native of New York City and a civil rights activist in the 1960s, Howe and her then-husband Paul Lauter founded the non-profit publisher in 1970, and dedicated themselves to introducing readers to overlooked and socially conscious works of literature, by women of the past and present. The Feminist Press would prove an invaluable resource and ally for the emerging Second Wave feminist movement, and for the emerging field of women’s studies, which Howe also helped promote though chairing a Modern Language Association committee on women in education.
“A decade ago, it (women’s studies) had no name. A few academics around the country labeled a segment of their freshman composition courses ‘growing up female’ or taught part of a sociology course on ‘gender,’” Howe, who had taught at Goucher College among other schools, wrote in a 1976 essay in The New York Times.
“The teaching of women’s studies has several goals: to raise the consciousness of students about sexism in the curriculum and in the wider society; to compensate for the omission of women from the curriculum; to encourage research, and to recover the lost or neglected history and culture of women.”
One of the Feminist Press’ most notable releases was “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” First published in 1892 and narrated by a woman confined by her husband because of “temporary nervous depression,” Gilman’s story became the Feminist Press’ most popular book, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Another prominent release, “Life in the Iron Mills,” was first published anonymously in 1861 and brought to Howe’s attention by her friend Tillie Olsen.
“I met Tillie in the early 1970s and she handed me a dog-eared copy of ‘Life in the Iron Mills,’ Xeroxed. What happened was she said to me, ‘Read it, but don’t read it at night.’ And, of course, I read it at night. I could not go to sleep. First of all, it makes you cry. Secondly, I kept thinking if this was lost forever, there must be more lost forever,” Howe told The Associated Press in 1995.
Other notable Feminist Press releases included Agnes Smedley’s working class novel “Daughter of Earth,” Paule Marshall’s debut book, the novel “Brown Girl, Brownstones,” and, with financial support from Toni Morrison, a volume of Zora Neale Hurston’s work that Alice Walker edited. Howe also reissued Olsen’s “Silences,” a landmark study of the books that didn’t get written by women and the working class; feminist poetry collections originating everywhere from Vietnam to Italy, and poems, prison letters and other writings by the Russian dissidents Pussy Riot.
Writing in The New York Times in 1985, former National Endowment for the Humanities chair Joseph Duffey called the Feminist Press “an editing and publishing enterprise that has, perhaps more than any other institution, helped to recover and make available a legacy of writing by and about women in American history and scholarship.”
Howe was born Florence Rosenfeld, and later took the last name of Ed Howe, another former husband. She was long interested in literature and in social justice, whether studying English at Hunter College and at Smith College or volunteering to register Black voters in Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964.
Howe started the Feminist Press, now based at the City University of New York, by accident. She had been living in Baltimore in 1970, and teaching at Goucher, and had an idea for a series of essays by contemporary writers about notable women in history. As Howe told the AP, she was turned down by three publishers because they thought the project would never make money. She then asked for support from a local feminist organization, Baltimore Women’s Liberation, which mistakenly believed she was starting a publishing company. Howe was inundated that summer with letters, and contributions to “The Feminist Press.”
“There were little checks — one dollar, two dollars, about a hundred dollars in all,” Howe said. ” I just simmered and simmered until sometime in October I mimeographed a long piece of paper saying the Feminist Press doesn’t exist, that this was a fantasy of Baltimore Women’s Liberation.
“I sent copies to all the people who had sent letters, with or without money, saying The Feminist Press doesn’t exist, but it may exist if a certain number of people, 20, come to a meeting and at least 12 agree to meet monthly. About 30 turned up.”