Founding Feminist

Florence Rosenfeld Howe, MA ’51, publishes a sweeping memoir

by Christina Barber-Just

Florence Howe

Florence Rosenfeld Howe, MA ’51, holds her own among modern feminists. A leader of the women’s movement, she is a creator of the women’s studies discipline and founder of the Feminist Press, which has published more than 300 books in its forty-year history—and claims to be the longest surviving women’s publishing house in the world. Now, at age 82, she can add autobiographer to the list. Her memoir, A Life in Motion, is just out from her own press, and Kirkus Reviews is calling it “a valuable chronicle of a life devoted to ideas and social justice.”

As a publisher, Howe says, she tells memoir-minded people to “do it at 50; you can always add a postscript later.” But she did not take her own advice, and the result is a 587-page book that spans eighty years and took two decades to write. Why so long? “I put everything else before this,” Howe says. “I was very uncertain of myself and my ability to be a ‘writer.’ I was always measuring myself against writers I had been publishing”—writers like Doris Lessing, Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and Marilyn French.

Howe has published hundreds of essays, but writing her life story was, well, a different story. Her crisis of confidence gradually subsided, however, and by the end of the writing process, she says, she felt like an author for the first time ever. She has even started a new book, tentatively titled What I Left Out, and she remains actively involved in the Feminist Press at the City University of New York, where she is publisher/director emerita. “I’m the sort of person who needs to know there’s something useful I can do every day,” she says. “I need work to feel alive. It’s very important to me.”

 

Howe muses on Smith, life, and feminism today

Smith

It was an “extraordinarily broadening experience” for her. She’d never been away from New York City, and had never lived in an environment so different from her social class. She hardly ate during the first week because she didn’t know which utensils to use, and she couldn’t even identify all the foods. Still, she had to eat on campus because she had no money to eat anywhere else. Howe lived in Fort Hill with a Finnish roommate. She was the only Jew in the building, and the atmosphere was anti-Semitic. Her housemates were mostly physical-education majors from wealthy families in the South. They were rowdy, played hard, and had a lot of fun. Howe, who wasn’t sports minded, took pleasure in her bicycle and her books, and today she credits the grand Fort Hill with engendering her lifelong love of beauty and her appreciation for gardens, harmonious home furnishings, and proportions.

Her 82nd birthday

Howe planned to celebrate her 82nd birthday over the course of two nights in March. The first night, she was to see a performance of the Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. The play is “age appropriate for me,” she says. The next night, she planned to give a potluck-style party for friends with March and April birthdays. “New York doesn’t have potlucks, but I’ve decided to break that rule,” she says. “It’s a birthday party for everyone.”

Normalcy

Howe’s father predicted Howe wouldn’t have a “normal” life. It’s not that she didn’t want one—she wanted babies, wanted a family—but her father’s prediction turned out to be true. Her four marriages ended in divorce, and she didn’t have any biological children, although she did adopt a daughter. “Certainly I was a failure at marriage,” Howe says. “My marriages didn’t work for me, and not for my partners either.” But there’s no point in being unhappy about it, she says. “I feel blessed by the life I had and continue to have. I’m quite accustomed to being alone, and that’s a good kind of life too, provided one has a great many friends.”

Her legacy

Founding the Feminist Press is generally acknowledged to be Howe’s most significant professional accomplishment, but Howe herself thinks teaching was the most important thing she did. She taught some 1,000 women students at Goucher College, and says good teaching is “the most important thing anybody can do.” She would claim one other professional accomplishment: women’s studies. “The voices of half the population were missing, and those voices mattered,” she says. Howe sees her legacies as not only the Feminist Press and women’s studies but also—and especially—“the importance of history and literature to an understanding of the past as a way to move from the present to the future.”

Her book title

“It took me forever to get there,” Howe says. Her initial inspiration came on a visit to Maine’s Monhegan Island, where she got lost on a dirt road. It was boiling hot, and Howe had no water and no hat. “Why am I so extraordinarily happy?” she asked herself. “This is crazy!” In that moment, she realized she’s always happy when she’s on the move. So she considered calling the book Moving, but her friend Janet Zandy suggested In Motion instead. Then, at a Smith event, Gloria Steinem ’56 came up with A Life in Motion. “She’s really good at titles,” Howe says of Steinem, whom she counts as a friend.

Feminism today

“Every generation’s going to have to do it over,” Howe says of women’s rights. She draws attention to the fact that abortion rights are being challenged in more than half the country, and good medical care for women is at the bottom of the list for industrialized nations. This state of affairs saddens and disheartens Howe but doesn’t surprise her. “If you know about movements, then you know it’s just normal. Nothing lasts that doesn’t take some energy to hold onto.” Young women, she says, are going to have to fight the battle again. The good news is that today’s young women are smart and feisty, Howe says. The bad news? “What Marilyn French called ‘the war against women’ continues.”

Feminist presses

The saddest story of all. At one time there were around forty feminist presses in the United States and forty more internationally, but they “really have vanished from view,” Howe says. It’s an ongoing challenge just to keep the Feminist Press itself on the radar screen. Its staff is half the size it once was, and its books haven’t been reviewed in the Times for almost a decade. Still, its mission to find lost writers is unwavering, and Howe points out that there are many countries in the world whose work the Feminist Press has not yet touched.