Early in 1971, a few months after The Feminist Press had been founded at the end of 1970, the writer Tillie Olsen gave me a worn copy of a novella that had been published anonymously in an 1861 issue of the Atlantic, then the most prestigious literary journal of its day. Olsen had found this story at the end of the 1920s in an Omaha, Nebraska, second-hand bookstore. Its characters – dirt poor, young Welsh immigrants working alongside poor Black people in Wheeling, West Virginia, a divided border state during the Civil War – convinced the precocious teenager that ordinary people’s lives might appear in great literature. More than 40 years later, reading Emily Dickinson’s journals, Olsen found a reference to this story and the name of its writer. Not surprised to find the writer a woman, Olsen searched for records of her life and read all she could find by Rebecca Harding Davis.
When I read Life in the Iron Mills, I knew at once that this was great literature, a novella as rich as Olsen’s own Tell Me a Riddle or others I had read and was teaching by Anton Chekhov, Richard Wright, or Katherine Mansfield. I knew also that if this magnificent story had been “lost” for 90 years, much more must have also been lost. Olsen offered to write a “Biographical Interpretation,” and the small volume appeared in 1972 as “Feminist Press Reprint No. l” – those words appeared on the cover.
Thirty-five years later, and with Olsen in early mid-stage Alzheimer’s, I want to emphasize the contribution she has made not only to the Feminist Press as a nonprofit publishing house, but to the entire field of literature world-wide. Even while we were working on Life in the Iron Mills, Olsen gave me Daughter of Earth by Agnes Smedley, which we published in 1973. Both books are still among the Feminist Press’s best-selling titles; they are also used in college courses in history and literature. With her gifts, Tillie Olsen changed the mission of the Feminist Press forever. Since 1971, we have published hundreds of “lost” women writers, not only Americans, but women from every continent in the world.
Florence Howe is emerita professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and emerita publisher/director of The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. She has published more than a dozen books and over 100 essays. She holds many honors as well as six honorary doctorates, the most recent from the University of Wisconsin/Madison. Currently, she is co-director of Women Writing Africa and text editor of the four volumes emerging from that project. She is also writing a memoir.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Florence Howe." (Viewed on March 4, 2015) <http://jwa.org/feminism/howe-florence>.