Beginning her academic career as an instructor in English at Hofstra College in Hempstead, New York, in 1954, Florence Howe gradually became aware of the dearth of women writers in the canon. In the early 1970s, she founded the Feminist Press to bring to light the literature created by women in the past and the work being done by contemporary women writers. Thus began a long and fruitful relationship between the Feminist Press and the emerging women’s studies field across the country. Eventually, Howe branched out, publishing the works of women in India and the African countries.
“The chief editor, fund raiser, cheerleader and occasional staff photographer” is the way the Chronicle of Higher Education described Florence Howe’s work at the Feminist Press. She has made the publishing company her life’s work.
Early Life and Family
Florence Howe was born on March 17, 1929, in New York City to Samuel and Frances (Stilly) Rosenfeld. Her father was a taxi driver and her mother a bookkeeper. She received her B.A. from Hunter College in 1950 and her M.A. from Smith College in 1951. She then did graduate study at the University of Wisconsin from 1951 to 1954.
From 1954 until 1957, Howe was an instructor in English at Hofstra College (now University) in Hempstead, New York. During part of that time she was also a lecturer in English at Queens College. From 1960 until 1971, Howe was assistant professor of English at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.
The Feminist Press
In 1970, while Howe was at Goucher, she founded the Feminist Press. Six months later, she and the Press moved to the College at Old Westbury, a campus of the State University of New York (SUNY).
Dedicated to making available the works of women writers, the Feminist Press quickly became a valuable resource and a voice of change. Its first publication was a children’s book about a little girl who wanted to be a doctor, but its specialty soon became reprints of the works of little-known women writers. In 1973, Howe edited, with Ellen Bass, the landmark anthology of women’s poetry No More Masks. Its influence on the literary world and on women was immediate and profound. The press has also published a number of “readers” focused on various women’s issues or groups of women. One of the most important of these is All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (1982), edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith.
Howe has written several books, including The Conspiracy of the Young (1970) and The Impact of Women’s Studies on the Curriculum and the Disciplines (1980), both coauthored by her then husband, Paul Lauter. Her essays were collected in a book entitled Myths of Coeducation: Selected Essays, 1964–1983 (1984). She has edited a number of anthologies in addition to No More Masks and has herself been included in several others.
In 1985, Howe became a full professor at the City University of New York. She had no teaching responsibilities but was instead charged with running the Feminist Press. In the 1980s, Howe and the Feminist Press began working with women around the world, supported by grants from the Ford Foundation and the United Nations. In 1991, the Press published the first volume of Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, which was followed by a second volume in 1993. This work also led to Women Writing Africa, which was published in four volumes, by region, between 2003 and 2009. For these important works, Howe traveled extensively to meet with writers, translators, and scholars, funded largely by the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1993, a second edition of No More Masks was published by HarperCollins. Again, Howe edited the volume and wrote the introduction. For many who had long awaited the book, it was somewhat disappointing. One reviewer noted that Howe’s selection of poems was “surprisingly narrow” and that those poems which were chosen did not usually demand much of the reader. Still, even this critic conceded that “Howe’s material is so rich that she can’t help but hit the nail on the head some or even much of the time.”
In 2000, Howe retired as publisher/director of the Feminist Press, but she went back in 2005 while the Press looked for another director, The new director, Gloria Jacobs, took over in 2006, but she asked Howe to stay on as publisher until 2008. At that point, Howe retired again to work on her memoir, A Life in Motion, again supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. The book was published by the Feminist Press in 2011.
Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ellen Coughlin quoted Howe’s own summation of her work at the Feminist Press. “I don’t think there’s a lot of magic in it. What matters is finding someone who thinks about publishing in a somewhat different way from traditional publishers, and I think I do that. I don’t think of publishing either as money making for the moment or as noise making for the moment. I really think about publishing in relation to learning and consciousness over the long haul, and what is needed to make something that represents more accurately the world we live in.”
Florence Howe passed away on September 12, 2020.
Almost Touching the Skies: Women’s Coming of Age Stories. New York: The Feminist Press, 2000).
The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers, Vol. 5 of The Women’s Studies History Series. New York: The Feminist Press, 2000).
Women’s Studies, A World View. Women’s Studies Quarterly (2001).
A Life in Motion. New York: The Feminist Press, 2011).
Bekker, Karen. “25 Years of Celebrating Women Authors.” Lilith (September 30, 1995).
Coughlin, Ellen. “The Chief Editor, Fund Raiser, and Cheerleader of the Feminist Press.” Chronicle of Higher Education.
Oktenberg, Adrian. “Smashing the Mold Straight Off: Feminist Poetry Now.” Kenyon Review (June 1, 1994).
Who’s Who of American Women (1996).
“Florence Howe.” Veteran Feminists of America. Short autobiographical piece accessed 4/6/2020 at http://www.veteranfeministsofamerica.org/legacy/florence%20howe.htm
“Founding Feminist.” Christina Barber-Just. Smith College Alumnae Spotlight. Accessed online 4/6/2020 at https://alumnae.smith.edu/spotlight/founding-feminist/