Feminist publisher, former O. Westbury and Hofstra prof Howe dies

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Florence Howe, founder of the Feminist Press and a former professor at SUNY Old Westbury and Hofstra University, has died at age 91. (Photo courtesy of Feminist Press)

Florence Howe, a key figure in the women’s studies movement, a former professor at SUNY Old Westbury and Hofstra University, and founder of a long-standing nonprofit publishing house known as the Feminist Press, has died.

Howe, who was receiving hospice care for Parkinson’s disease in a facility on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was 91.

Born in Brooklyn in 1929 as the only daughter of Samuel and Frances Rosenfeld, Howe’s family frequently moved throughout her childhood, staying at varying times in the Bronx; Hoboken, New Jersey; and other areas in Brooklyn.

She graduated early from Hunter College High School and completed her undergraduate work in English at Hunter College, where she would serve as student body president and assist in founding an interracial and interfaith sorority. Howe would then receive a Master’s degree in English from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

After studying for a doctorate for three years at the University of Wisconsin and taking the name of her then-husband Ed Howe, Howe went to work at Hofstra College, later Hofstra University, in Hempstead in 1954, while at the same time lecturing at Queens College.

She would leave Hofstra in 1957 to serve on the faculty of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

It was here while living and working with her third husband, academic Paul Lauter, that Howe found a lack of published work by women for her classes to cover, and sought to find a way to make the works of women writers available and accessible.

“There weren’t enough materials,” Howe told The New York Times in 1972. “The publishers I spoke to all said, ‘Wonderful idea, but there’s no money in it.’”

Lauter then suggested publishing the books themselves and came up with the name Feminist Press. The nonprofit publishing house’s first few meetings took place in the couple’s living room, and its first printed work, published in 1971, was Barbara Danish’s “The Dragon and the Doctor,” a children’s book about a female doctor and a male nurse working together to help an injured dragon.

Howe laid out her vision for the Feminist Press in a letter to the editors of the New York Review of Books published in 1971, writing that the Press sought “to help reconstruct the history of women and to provide some alternatives to the kinds of books available for children.”

“The Feminist Press will publish a series of biographical pamphlets about women or groups of women—feminists, workers, writers, revolutionaries, artists: Constance de Markievicz, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Marianne Weber, and others,” Howe wrote. “We are also planning a series of reprints of forgotten but important works by such women writers as Rebecca Harding Davis, C.P. Gilman, and Agnes Smedley. And we will issue a series of children’s books designed to counteract the sexual stereotyping to which American children are subject.”

Under Howe’s tutelage, the Feminist Press would publish works by authors like future Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker, O. Henry Award winner Grace Paley, and Ghanian education minister Ama Ata Aidoo. The Press would also take interest in republishing stories by women in the last two centuries, including “Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis, who died in 1910; “I Love Myself When I Am Laughing,” a collection of works by Harlem Renaissance poet Zora Neale Hurston; and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story about women’s mental health written by 18th-century author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which would become the Press’ best-selling work.

1971 also saw Howe bring the Press to the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, now SUNY Old Westbury. The school agreed to house the publisher, and the Feminist Press was based out of the institution for 14 years before Howe moved it to the City University of New York in 1985, where it remains today. Efforts to reach SUNY Old Westbury for comment were unavailing.

During her career, Howe also served as president of the Modern Language Association and consulted with numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to her work at the Feminist Press, Howe authored or edited more than a dozen books and over 120 essays featured in publications such as the Harvard Educational Review, the Nation, the New York Review of Books, and the Women’s Review of Books, as well as in a variety of anthologies.

She would divorce Lautner, now a professor at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in 1987. In blog posts on her website and her 2007 memoir “A Life in Motion,” she refers to Alice Jackson-Wright, who studied under her at Goucher, as her daughter. She is survived by Jackson-Wright, her two children, and four grandchildren.

The Feminist Press, which continues to be based in Manhattan is led by executive director and publisher Jamia Wilson, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Regarding her work, Howe is quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education as saying she didn’t think of publishing “either as money-making for the moment or as noise making for the moment.”

“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,” Howe said. “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.”

No memorial services have yet been planned.

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