Howe, Florence 1929-
HOWE, Florence 1929-
PERSONAL: Born March 17, 1929, in New York, NY; daughter of Samuel (a taxi driver) and Frances (a bookkeeper; maiden name, Stilly) Rosenfeld; married third husband, Paul Lauter (a professor), 1967 (divorced, 1987). Education: Hunter College, A.B., 1950; Smith College, A.M., 1951; graduate study at University of Wisconsin (now University of Wisconsin—Madison), 1951-54.
ADDRESSES: Home—201 East 87th St., Apt. 11 D, New York, NY 10128. Offıce—Feminist Press, 311 East 94th St., New York, NY 10128.
CAREER: Hofstra College (now University), Hempstead, NY, instructor in English, 1954-57; Queens College of the City of New York (now Queens College of the City University of New York), Flushing, NY, lecturer in English, 1956-57; Goucher College, Towson, MD, assistant professor of English, 1960-71; Feminist Press, Old Westbury, NY, founder and president, 1970—, codirector, 1982-86, director, 1986—; State University of New York College at Old Westbury, professor of humanities and American studies, 1971-87, coordinator of women's studies, 1971-74, chair of American studies, 1975-76; City College of the City University of New York, New York, NY, professor of English, 1987—. Teacher at Freedom School in Jackson, MS, summer, 1964; director of Project in the Teaching of Poetry for Goucher College and Baltimore Public Schools, 1967-71; visiting professor at colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, including University of Utah, 1973 and 1975, University of Washington, summer, 1974, Free University of Berlin, summer, 1978, Oberlin College, fall, 1978, Denison University, spring, 1979, University of Alabama, summer, 1979, and City University of New York, 1986-87; faculty exchange scholar at State University of New York, 1975; scholar in residence at Miami University, 1978; Drushal Distinguished Professor at College of Wooster, spring, 1980; U.S. delegate to UNESCO World Conference on Teaching and Research about Women, 1980; organizer, chairperson, and lecturer at conferences on women in the United States and abroad; has served as advisory board member to education institutes and organizations, including Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Center for Self-Reliant Education, and University of Arizona's Southwest Institute for Research on Women. Executive committee member of board of directors of the National Council for Research on Women, 1983-85.
MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America (chairperson of commission on the status of women, 1969-71, and of division of women's studies, 1978-83; second vice-president, 1971; first vice-president, 1972; president, 1973), National Women's Studies Association (founding member), Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowship, 1971-73; elected to Hunter College Hall of Fame, 1973; Ford Foundation fellowship for the study of women in society, 1974-75; Fulbright Scholar Award to India, 1977; honorary D.H.L. from New England College, 1977, Skidmore College, 1979, and DePauw University, 1987; Mellon fellowship from Wellesley College, 1979; Mina P. Shaughnessy Medal from Modern Language Association of America, 1982-83; travel and lecture grant to Japan, India, and West Germany from U.S. Department of State, 1983.
(With husband, Paul Lauter) The Conspiracy of the Young, World (New York, NY), 1970.
Seven Years Later: Women's Studies Programs in 1976: A Report of the National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs, The Council, 1977.
(With Paul Lauter) The Impact of Women's Studies on the Curriculum and the Disciplines (monograph), National Institute of Education, 1980.
Myths of Coeducation: Selected Essays, 1964-1983, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1984.
Female Studies II: An Anthology of Sixty-six Syllabi and Bibliographies (monograph), Know, Inc. (Pittsburgh, PA), 1970.
(With Carol Ahlum) Female Studies III: An Anthology of Fifty-four Syllabi and Bibliographies (monograph), Know, Inc. (Pittsburgh, PA), 1971.
(With Ellen Bass, and author of introduction) No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women, Anchor Press (New York, NY), 1973, new edition, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.
(And contributor) Women and the Power to Change, McGraw (New York, NY), 1975.
(And author of introduction, with Nancy Hoffman) Women Working: An Anthology of Stories and Poems, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1979.
(With Suzanne Howard and Mary Jo Boehm Strauss, and author of introduction) Everywoman's Guide to Colleges and Universities, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1982.
(With Marsha Saxton) With Wings: An Anthology of Literature by and about Women with Disabilities, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1987.
(With John Farragher) Women and Higher Education: In Celebration of Mount Holyoke's 175th Birthday, Norton (New York, NY), 1987.
(Editor) Tradition and the Talents of Women, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1991.
(Editor, with Jean Casella) Almost Touching the Skies: Women's Coming of Age Stories, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor) The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor to books, including Somebody Turned on a Tap in These Kids: Poetry and Young People Today, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1971; The Politics of Literature, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1972; Academic Women on the Move, Russell Sage, 1973; Sexism in School and Society, Harper (New York, NY), 1973; Women on the Move: A Feminist Perspective, Know, Inc. (Pittsburgh, PA), 1973; And Jill Came TumblingAfter: Sexism in American Education, Dell (New York, NY), 1974; Who's Who and Where in Women's Studies, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1974; Portraits of Chinese Women in Revolution, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1976; The Frontiers of Knowledge, University of Southern California Press, 1976; Changing Lives: Life Stories of Asian Pioneers in Women's Studies, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Editor of phonograph record Tough Poems for Tough People, Caedmon, 1972. Contributor of numerous articles and essays to periodicals, including American Scholar, College English, Colloquy, Contemporary Literature, English Record, Harvard Educational Review, Kansas Teacher, Liberal Education, Ms., Nation, New York Times, Phi Delta Kappan, PMLA, Radical Teacher, Saturday Review, and Today's Education. Editor, Women's Studies Quarterly, 1972-82; member of editorial board of Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1971—, SIGNS: Women in Culture and Society, 1974-80, Journal of Education, 1976—, Correspondence of Lydia Marie Child, 1977-81, and Research in the Humanities, State University of New York Press, 1977-80.
SIDELIGHTS: Feminist Florence Howe is a longtime advocate of educational and social reform. A professor of English at the City College of the City University of New York and a past president of the Modern Language Association, she is also a respected scholar and historian. For much of her career, however, Howe has been an outspoken critic of the academic system, arguing that the college curriculum is biased in favor of men and should be expanded to include courses that address the activities and interests of women. To this end, she has lectured widely and written extensively about the need to institute courses in women's studies as a basic part of the college curriculum. In addition, Howe is founder and publisher of the Feminist Press, an editing and publishing concern that, according to Joseph Duffy in the New York Times Book Review, "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's interest in feminist educational reform was influenced by her involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In her 1984 collection of essays, Myths of Coeducation: Selected Essays, 1964-1983, Howe explains that her experience as a Freedom School teacher in Mississippi during the summer of 1964 changed her life and set her on a path of social and educational activism. As one of several hundred volunteers recruited from the racially mixed, campus-based civil rights organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Howe worked with black children and teenagers in the schools, leading discussions and activities that examined the status of blacks in American society. The stated purpose of the Freedom Schools, reports Howe in her essay "Mississippi's Freedom Schools: The Politics of Education," included in Myths of Coeducation: Selected Essays, 1964-1983, was "to provide an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives, and ultimately, new directions for action." The SNCC, aware that schools for black children were inferior and served only to perpetuate the subordination of blacks in society, hoped that the program would encourage participants to view themselves more positively, to register to vote, and to enroll in previously all-white segregated schools—in short, to demand the rights guaranteed to all citizens but granted only to whites. Through this experience, Howe came to view educational reform as a necessary first step in effecting social reform. For, she asserts in her essay, "our schools are political grounds in which our students begin to learn about society's rules" and "if we wish to alter our students and our society, we must alter our schools."
Howe applied the lessons she learned from her summer in Mississippi to her fight for educational reform for women. As an assistant professor at an all-women's college during the 1960s, Howe had already begun to incorporate literature for women into her English courses, and as the women's movement spread through campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she increasingly wrote and lectured on feminist issues. She argued that, like the black students in the Freedom Schools of the 1960s, women needed to begin questioning and challenging the assumptions of a society—and an educational system—that viewed them as subordinate to men. She was particularly concerned with the status of women in higher education. Noting that women's achievements fell noticeably behind men's on the university level, Howe argued that the college curriculum is geared toward men because of its male-centered perspective in such areas as literature, history, sociology, and psychology. "The implicit curricular message to women students is thus simple," wrote Howe in an essay in Myths of Coeducation, "men work, write, and make history, psychology, theology: women get married, have babies, and rear them."
In order to alter what she considers an unfairly structured educational system, Howe, like many other feminists, has advocated the inclusion of women's studies into the college curriculum. An interdisciplinary program comprised of such courses as women's literature, health, economics, and history, women's studies has proliferated on campuses since the 1970s. Howe described women's studies as "the educational arm of the women's movement," and she hoped that such programs will not only increase the number of women in higher education, but will transform the male-centered curriculum to one that also represents women and minorities. The impact of such a change, Howe asserted, will not only raise women's status in the university, but in the society at large. Additionally, she noted, courses that focus on women "begin to restore a lost feminist history and culture, a tradition and an ancestry necessary for human dignity."
Indeed, Howe's abiding concern for restoring the lost scholarship of women is reflected in her founding of the Feminist Press in 1970. Dedicated to publishing works by women authors of the past and present, the Feminist Press is a nonprofit, tax-exempt educational organization whose aim, wrote Howe in a note from the publisher in the press's catalog, is "to change the education of girls and boys, women and men, through the publication of new kinds of books that would be educational for both teachers and students." She added, "we are especially eager to reach teachers and students, and thus add to the classroom the 'lost' literature and history of women." Margaret Sanborn, writing in Publishers Weekly, noted that "although there are many feminist presses now, the Feminist Press has become established over the years as a prime source for the lost history and literature of women." As publisher, Howe also edits and has been president of Feminist Press since its founding. Additionally, Howe conceived and coedited Everywoman's Guide to Colleges and Universities, a survey of the opportunities and services available to women at nearly six hundred institutions. Writing in Publishers Weekly on the thirtieth anniversary of the Feminist Press, Robert Dahlin commented that the publisher has also been a leader in publishing lesbian books: "While its focus has not been predominantly on lesbian-oriented books, the publisher has nevertheless been a pioneer in the field. 'Restoring lost lesbian writers has always been a distinct part of our publishing mission,'" Howe explained to Dahlin. She also told Dahlin that "As a policy, we don't publish an anthology if it doesn't contain lesbian pieces."
In 1973 Howe edited one of her most important works, No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women, a collection Marilyn Hacker described in the Nation as a "germinal anthology." Hacker found that No More Masks! had "made nonpolemical discussion of contemporary women's poetry academically and critically legitimate." Howe edited an expanded edition of the anthology in 1993.
In 2000 the Feminist Press published an anthology edited by Howe, The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers, which gathers together first-person accounts detailing the political motivations behind the founders of women's studies programs in American colleges. As Cynthia Harrison noted in Library Journal, "We learn that from the beginning, feminists taught about hierarchies of gender, race, and class and developed new teaching strategies to undermine the traditional authority structure inside the academy." These commentaries by the academics who pioneered women's studies are especially valuable to preserve now. Writing in Booklist, Mary Carroll explained that "the pioneering academics who made a place for women's studies on some 615 college and university campuses are drawing close to retirement. Some, honored in this collection's dedication, have already died."
Throughout her more than thirty-year career, Howe has worked to reform those institutions that traditionally have excluded women from their ranks. Her contributions in the field of women's studies and feminist scholarship remain unparalleled and have made her a unique and valuable voice in the American feminist movement.
CA interviewed Florence Howe by telephone on June 18, 1986, at her office at the Feminist Press in New York City.
CA: You have been, as "American Women Writers" says, "a national leader in the field of women's studies and one of its best informed historians," doing yourwork not only in the classroom but also as editor, publisher, writer, and lecturer. Do you still think of yourself, in all of these pursuits, chiefly as a teacher?
CA: One of your primary long-term goals in women's studies has been to get women's history and literature integrated into the basic curriculum. To what extent do you see that happening now?
HOWE: To a surprising extent, especially in American literature and in American history. Books by and about women writers are being used more frequently in traditional American literature courses, for one thing. For another, though we haven't done a survey, we have at least an impression from talking with hundreds of faculty members that many English departments now have at least one course called "American Women Writers," and some departments have six or seven. But it's the initial introductory courses and some of the major courses that I was always most concerned about.
CA: Can you envision a time when women's lives and histories will be so truly integrated into the standard curriculum that the need for separate programs of women's studies would be eliminated?
HOWE: I don't see any way in which they will be eliminated. In part this is because, no matter what we do, we still have a two-thousand-year written history of separation, and that has made for very different patterns in men's and women's lives. So even though some of the curriculum will be comparative, some of it will be and should be separate. For example, [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge and [William] Wordsworth are approximately the same age as Jane Austen, and they lived in the same small country in Western Europe at the same time, and yet they led very different lives. It would be rather strange to see them in the same course, even if they wrote in the same genre. Finally, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson have more in common with Jane Austen than do Wordsworth and Coleridge. So my sense is that whatever happens, we will be teaching some courses in the tradition.
The same kind of comparison is true in this country. Willa Cather is certainly a daughter of Sarah Orne Jewett, and she needs to be seen in that line of writers. There are several dozen women writers who read each other, and not only United States writers; women in this country read writers in English wherever they were. They wrote to and about each other and out of their streams—as did male writers. We always took for granted that, as T. S. Eliot told us in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," male writers wrote to and for each other. So did women writers. I think we'll have those separate histories therefore. As for history qua history, in the classroom and the textbook, I think we're going to continue to have separate and together histories. And I don't see any reason not to. I think it's quite interesting.
CA: In the introduction to No More Masks!, published in 1973, you spoke of the "new breed of conscious feminist scholars—historians and literary critics—who must review and restore our literature." Are there special diffıculties in finding and restoring that literature?
HOWE: Not really, unless you count the quantity as a special difficulty. I find it wonderful and even amusing. No one predicted how much there was, and there are vast amounts. Some presses are now talking about one hundred women novelists before Jane Austen, which is very startling. At the Feminist Press we continue to publish what we believe is of high literary quality. We're very choosy. There's lots and lots to choose from.
CA: Besides high literary quality, are there other criteria you apply in deciding what works to publish?
HOWE: Availability. That is, the context needs to be still important to a contemporary audience. Usability in the college classroom is very important to us because we publish forever and not for a single year or a couple of years. And availability means to us not only the classroom but the trade bookstore.
CA: Are there new writers—female or male—whose work you particularly admire for its treatment of women?
CA: Some of those are black writers, of course. In the introduction to No More Masks! you wrote of black poetry: "The black tradition is distinctive, and only in the recent poems of young white women have we begun to feel something of its effects." Do you think that influence has increased since 1973?
HOWE: Oh, yes, even on white male writers in general. At the time I wrote that, I don't think it had crossed the consciousness of many males that black women writers were so important to us. I think it's quite obvious that everyone is aware of how important black women writers are now in the United States.
CA: Your ambition to be a teacher was fostered by your mother, but your work in that direction was for a long time shaped and swayed largely by traditional male-oriented beliefs and social conditions. Do you see young women today making choices as if they were bound by the same strictures, despite some very real strides toward independence we've made in the last two decades?
HOWE: Some are clearly affected by what's happened in the last twenty years. Others, depending on where they've gone to school and the kinds of courses they've had, might be me back in the fifties. The picture is very mixed, interestingly mixed. In fact, the latter kind, if they go on to graduate school or if they go to work, can't help but bump into their other kind, so that I think the prognosis is relatively cheerful. We have four interns here at the Feminist Press. They're from Wesleyan, Hunter, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Cornell. And they all chose us. They could have gone to other places. They are very sparkling, bright; they've all had women's studies and they really know our books. They are all twenty years old, more or less, and delightful. I wasn't so bright at that age.
CA: Do you find women in higher positions in colleges and universities being more supportive of women in lesser positions now than was the case when Women and the Power to Change was published in 1975?
HOWE: Oh yes, I think so. I think people still complain because they expect all women to be supportive of other women, and they're not. But I think there are more who are, and who are conscious of why they should be.
CA: From 1969 to 1971 you were first chairperson for the Modern Language Association's Commission on the Status of Women. Since that time you've served in other important capacities in the MLA [Modern Language Association], including a term as president in 1973. What kind of progression have you observed in that organization's attitudes toward women in academic positions and the teaching of women's studies?
HOWE: The new executive director of MLA is a woman, Phyllis Franklin. That's the first time in the history of the association. I was the first woman president in modern times; there had been two, I believe, in the first twenty years of the century and then none until 1973. Since then, I think men and women have had about the same number of years as president. Besides the fact that there's a female executive editor now for the first time, I think the board of directors and the editorial board of PMLA continue to have at least fair representation of women, forty to sixty percent.
CA: Since 1977 you've been an international spokesperson for women's studies. How does the situation with women's studies in other countries compare with that in ours?
HOWE: Very favorably in some places, and just getting started in others. I can think of few countries in the world in which there isn't some degree of enthusiasm and at least some beginning. At the World Conference on the United Nations Decade for Women in Nairobi [Kenya] last summer we did twenty sessions called "Women's Studies International." These were workshops and panels. And we had requests from women in Paraguay and from Uruguay and Uganda for assistance in starting women's studies programs in those countries. Those were the most astonishing to me. There are very active women's studies programs in the Sudan already, at the National University at Khartoum, and in countries like Japan, for example. In India, to name another, there are very, very active women's studies associations, national associations of academics, and many programs.
CA: You've written about how your own consciousness as a teacher was changed by your experience as a Freedom School teacher in Mississippi in 1964. Do you have what could be called a specific philosophy of teaching?
HOWE: Probably, but I don't know how to express it briefly. I think it would have to do with enabling students to understand their history, their identities, and to learn therefore from their strengths and abilities. Somehow to convince students that they have the power to learn is probably the first job of the teacher.
CA: That Mississippi experience also paved the way for your feminist consciousness, you've said, which was somewhat more delayed because of your dedication to the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement.
HOWE: And also because of the ignorant way in which I was educated. That is, I knew nothing about women's history. I didn't even think in terms of women having any particular history, never thought about gender as an item that was a factor. I certainly thought about class and race, but not gender, although when I was a little kid my theme song to my mother constantly was, "Why do I have to do this and Jackie [my kid brother] doesn't?" And when she said, "Because you're a girl and he's a boy," I would always say, "Unfair" and she would say, "Well, who said anything had to be fair?" But very explicitly men did certain things and women did others because it was an Orthodox Jewish household. And my mother was a slave to all that, even though the reason she wanted me to be a teacher was that she had not been allowed to be a teacher because teachers were men, not women. My rabbi grandfather could not imagine a woman as a teacher.
CA: Looking back on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, do you think they were particularly good training for the women's movement?
HOWE: Yes, they were essential. We know that the nineteenth-century women's movements did not spring out of nowhere. They sprang out of great religious revival and out of the abolitionist movement. That's where women got their training and their ideas for activism. No movements spring out of themselves. Movements always learn from other movements. They learn even simple things, like how to do a mailing. Even the idea of having a movement has come from somewhere.
CA: In the preface to Myths of Coeducation you referred to the young woman you taught in Mississippi who became your daughter. Did you actually adopt her?
HOWE: Yes, informally. Her parents handed her to me, blessed her and blessed me, and we went off together for many years. Her parents are now dead and she has two children. She's a lawyer and lives with her lawyer husband in Stockton, California. Her two children are a boy, who is named Jackie after her favorite sister Jacqueline, and girl, who's named Florence after me. The girl is five and the boy is ten. It's lovely.
CA: In your writing you've referred several times to the unfinished Ph.D. From this vantage point it doesn't seem to have handicapped your career. How do you feel about it now?
HOWE: I should have done it. It has and it hasn't handicapped my career. When people have wanted to avoid hiring me, they have pointed to that. Although I'm not overwhelmed with grief about it, I feel I was misguided in general and I'm sorry I didn't finish it for many different reasons, not the least of which is that I was on to a very good thing in relation to Mrs. Dalloway very early, long before the revival of interest in Virginia Woolf. No one has done what I was trying to do. It's still in a drawer, and I may do it in my sixtieth year.
CA: Leaving alone the question of how you can possibly do everything you do, I'll just ask how your time is divided now among your professional activities?
HOWE: Mainly I'm at the press. I'm the president, and now that my partner, Maxine McCants, has left, I'm the full-time director and publisher.
CA: What about teaching? Are you doing any now?
HOWE: I'm not doing any classroom teaching right now. I do some lecturing and some workshops, and of course those are really teaching.
CA: As founder, president, and chief administrator of the press, what do you feel proudest of in its work since the beginning?
HOWE: What we started talking about early in this interview, the rediscovery of lost women writers.
CA: Do you see, by and large, a healthy self-concept among the women you're in contact with now?
HOWE: Indeed. One could always want more, but compared to what I remember of myself, compared to what I remember even of Goucher students in the early sixties, before the women's movement, these are women with a purpose and with a sense of their own futures as working persons and their efforts—difficult, still quite difficult—to balance a personal life and professional life.
CA: What do you feel is the most urgent priority in education today with regard to women?
HOWE: Ah, there are many. One is still dealing with that whole question of the male bias of the curriculum. We've made a start, but a start is hardly the whole curriculum. We have miles and miles to go.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Howe, Florence, Myths of Coeducation: Selected Essays, 1964-1983, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1984.
Booklist, May 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Almost Touching the Skies: Women's Coming of Age Stories, p. 1639; October 1, 2000, Mary Carroll, review of The Politics of Women's Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers, p. 295.
Feminist Press Catalog, 1987-88.
Library Journal, September 1, 2000, Cynthia Harrison, review of The Politics of Women's Studies, p. 224.
Ms., September, 1973; September, 1979.
Nation, December 27, 1993, Marilyn Hacker, review of No More Masks!, p. 810.
New York Times, December 31, 1970, Will Lissner, "Language Unit Elects Women's Liberation Leader"; July 11, 1975, Judy Klemesrud, "New View of Women and Power."
New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1985.
Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995, Margaret Sanborn, "The Feminist Press at Twenty-five," p. 39; May 22, 2000, Robert Dahlin, "Turning an Energetic Thirty," p. 55.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1976.*
Howe, Florence, publisher comments in Feminist Press catalogue, c. 1986.