Florence Howe, ‘Mother of Women’s Studies,’ Dies at 91

Florence Howe, a key architect of the women’s studies movement and the founder of the Feminist Press, a literary nonprofit dedicated to promoting social justice and amplifying overlooked voices, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 91.

The Feminist Press confirmed her death in a statement. Ms. Howe, who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, had been in hospice care with Parkinson’s disease, which was diagnosed in 2017.

When Ms. Howe began teaching in colleges and universities in the 1950s, women’s studies was not an established academic discipline. In fact, it was rare to find a course catalog or syllabus that mentioned scholarship by women at all.

With the Feminist Press, founded in 1970, she sought to diversify the materials used in schools around the United States and beyond. She and her husband, Paul Lauter, were professors and knew firsthand that there was a gender gap in the books being taught.

“I was teaching women’s studies at Goucher College in Maryland at the time, and there weren’t enough materials,” Ms. Howe told The New York Times in 1972. “The publishers I spoke to all said, ‘Wonderful idea, but there’s no money in it.’”

Mr. Lauter suggested that they publish the books themselves and came up with the name the Feminist Press. “It sounded magical,” Ms. Howe said.

The Feminist Press began as a modest, D.I.Y. endeavor. Board meetings were run out of the couple’s big yellow house in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Baltimore. And when Ms. Howe left Goucher for the State University of New York College at Old Westbury (now SUNY Old Westbury) in 1971, she brought the publishing house with her; the college, on Long Island, had agreed to house and support it.

More than a decade later, Joseph Duffey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that the Feminist Press had “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.”

Authors whose titles have been published or republished by the Feminist Press include Zora Neale Hurston, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Willa Cather, Alice Walker and the members of the Russian feminist performance group Pussy Riot.

“I would say we started what has become an avalanche of the rediscovery of women writers,” Ms. Howe told The Baltimore Sun in 1993. “We’re not the only one who does this now.” The article called her “the mother of women’s studies.”

Florence Rosenfeld was born on March 17, 1929, in Brooklyn to Samuel and Frances Rosenfeld. During the Great Depression, her father abandoned his dream of opening a home-furnishings store and became a taxi driver to support the family. Her mother was a bookkeeper until Florence’s birth and later worked for an aeronautics manufacturer. She hoped that her daughter would become a teacher.

The family, including a son, Jack, moved frequently in 1930s for financial reasons — to Hoboken, N.J., the Bronx and elsewhere in Brooklyn.

In 1943, Florence was admitted to Hunter College High School in Manhattan, ranked among the top public schools in the country. She graduated early and enrolled at Hunter College, “the place in which I learned to think,” she wrote in a memoir, “A Life in Motion” (2011).

Her activist spirit was also ignited as a Hunter undergraduate. She formed an interracial and interfaith sorority with friends and was elected student body president. She studied English with the intention of teaching in the public school system, but was encouraged by a professor and Hunter’s president to pursue a master’s degree, which she earned at Smith College. In 1951 she went on to study for a doctorate in English at the University of Wisconsin.

Within six years she married three times and took the surname of one of those husbands, Ed Howe. She married Paul Lauter in the 1960s; they divorced in 1987.

After three years of study at Wisconsin, Ms. Howe moved back to New York to teach at Hofstra College (now a university) and Queens College. She moved to Baltimore in 1957 and eventually joined the Goucher faculty.

Baltimore had by then become starkly divided along racial lines, with many white middle-class residents leaving for the suburbs. In 1963, Ms. Howe joined students in organizing a protest demonstration against a segregated movie theater near Morgan State College, a historically Black institution.

The next year she traveled to Jackson, Miss., as a Freedom Summer volunteer to help register Black voters. She was given the task of opening a Freedom School for Black children in the basement of a church and ran it with a staff of six college students.

There, Ms. Howe met Alice Jackson, a 16-year-old who made such an impression on her that she persuaded Alice’s parents to let their daughter travel to Baltimore to attend school there. “I think I was a hard worker, but I was also fearless,” Alice, now Alice Jackson-Wright, said by phone on Sunday.

Though Ms. Howe did not formally adopt Alice, she became a second mother to her. In addition to her, Ms. Howe is survived by Ms. Jackson-Wright’s two children and four grandchildren, who knew Ms. Howe as Baba.

By 1969, Ms. Howe was frequently invited to speak on feminist subjects. In a talk titled “Should Women Read Fiction?” she criticized the fate that male authors often prescribed for female characters: marriage, death or some combination of the two.

In 1970, the same year the Feminist Press was founded, Ms. Howe was appointed chair of the Modern Language Association’s Commission on the Status and Education of Women in the Profession, which sought to advance the study of scholarship by women and elevate female faculty members. In those conversations, whether she knew it or not, she was beginning to promote a growing discipline.

“A decade ago, it had no name,” she wrote in The Times in 1976. “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.’”

“But now,” she continued, “in the wake of the women’s rights movement, women’s studies has taken its place in the curriculum and seems to be thriving.”

Starting in the late 1970s, the Feminist Press began publishing its “Women’s Lives/Women’s Work” series, on the history of female labor. In 1982, the press released the “Everywoman’s Guide to Colleges and Universities” in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The book provided statistics about rape reporting on campuses, information about child care for student mothers and gender breakdowns of faculties.

Image“A decade ago, it had no name,” Ms. Howe wrote in 1976. “But now, in the wake of the women’s rights movement, women’s studies has taken its place in the curriculum.” 
Credit…www.feministpress.org

In 1984, Indiana University Press published “Myths of Coeducation,” a collection of essays by Ms. Howe on the rise of the women’s studies movement. The next year, she stopped teaching at Old Westbury to run the press full time out of the City University of New York. Though she continued to be designated a professor of English, she had stopped teaching regular courses.

Ms. Howe received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Fulbright Program, many of which supported her efforts to broaden the Feminist Press’s reach internationally.

Beginning in the early 1990s the publishing house went on to release collections of women’s writing from around the world, including “Women Writing in India,” “Women Writing Africa” and “The Defiant Muse,” a collection of Vietnamese poems.

“When you read the riches within these covers, you’ll know that a Western male bias has left all of us culturally deprived,” Gloria Steinem wrote in a blurb for the India collection.

Ms. Howe began blogging in 2010, albeit somewhat confoundedly.

“I need to be discreet and yet open,” she wrote in her first post. “I need to be clear and yet mysterious. I need to be cheerful, even funny. And most of all I need to be read, and what do I know about who might want to read my blog?”

She began to share details about her aging and health, including her Parkinson’s diagnosis.

The Feminist Press continues to publish out of CUNY, under the leadership of Jamia Wilson. In 2020 it is celebrating its 50th year.

Leave a Reply