The Women’s Canon & the Clash of the Women’s Presses

Women’s best-sellers were wildly uneven in the 20th century. There was Looking for Mr. Goodbar, a novel about a one-night stand that ends brutally; Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the famous novel that spawned the phrase “the zipless fuck”; and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, which explores the effect of the Women’s Movement on an older married woman who returns to college and her fellow students.

But as far as I was concerned, only a bubblehead would want to be a prom queen, so why would anyone want to read Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen

Then years later, I learned that two of my friends had been prom queens.  They were smart, wonderful people… I suppose whatever they did was all right … but why would they participate in such sexist rites?

Everything was chaotic and characterized by rapid change in the late 20th century. Your friend could be a prom queen one decade, the editor of a scholarly journal the next, and then a radical who organized a women’s health clinic.  

Women were hardly a silent majority – they were vocal – but  women’s literature was not read seriously at American universities until the 1960s and ’70s, when the spread of Second Wave feminism led to the grudging hiring  of women professors in male-dominated humanities departments. The canon expanded to include women,  among them Virginia Woolf,  Kate Chopin,  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jean Rhys, Nora Zeale Hurston, and Toni Morrison.  Quite seriously, there were no women writers taught in the 20th-century literature classes when I first began at the university.

What did it mean to be a feminist at that time?   Well, we didn’t have many role models. One of the most influential women in my life was Carol, a friend’s mother who was a graduate student and T.A. in American Studies, and then became a professor. Occasionally my friend passed on advice from Carol, especially when I was in a dicey living situation with my mostly absent dad.  Carol urged me to move with her family to the city where she had been offered a teaching job. I did not go, but I probably should have! Anyway, I am grateful for Carol’s  kindness, for being invited to gourmet dinners,  and for her husband’s gentle humor.  

And then there were the radical politics: when she and her husband hosted  NUC meetings in their living room, my friend and I couldn’t help but overhear juicy tidbits on anarchy, collective living, nonmonagamy, and university politics.  

And I must add that Carol’s bookshelves were equally important to me: I borrowed The Golden Notebook, The Feminine Mystique, a historical novel about Disraeli, and many, many others. 

One wonders:  with all my feminism and consciousness of women writers, why did I go into classics?  It’s because I’m a language nerd, of course.  But in my classical studies, there were no women writers except Sappho and Sulpicia, and only two women professors per department (at the universities where I studied anyway).

Afterwards, during my years as a cranky private school teacher,  I rejuvenated myself on weekends by  devouring women’s literature.  I read my way through  Colette, Elizabeth Bowen, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Laurence, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Tallent, and Elizabeth Taylor. Were they in the canon?  Well, I was on my own, and they were in my canon.

What do bookish spinsters do with their free time? Well, before I got married, I volunteered at a women’s bookstore. I had always wanted to be a bookseller, but I must admit it was dull.  Scarcely anyone came in, and hardly anyone bought anything. In fact, I was reminded of Linda Radlett’s stint at the communist bookstore in Nancy Mitford’s comic novel, The Pursuit of Love:  no one bought anything until Linda substituted best-sellers for the communist pamphlets. And then her friends came and chatted.  Finally the store made money!

Well, like Linda, I did have a male friend who came in to chat:  he recommended several women science fiction writers, among them C.L. Moore and Joanna Russ.  The store  didn’t stock them, but he was ahead of his time.  Joanna Russ’s books are considered classics now, and C. L. Moore was one of the first women who wrote SF.

It was also at the boring women’s bookstore that I became familiar with small presses.  We stocked several titles by the  Feminist Press, which was founded in 1973, including  Zora Hurston Neale’s I Love Myself When I Am  Laughing… , Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, and  Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. 

And then there were Viragos, a press founded in 1970, which popped up in the U.S. in the ’80s .The American editions, published by Dial Press, had black covers instead of green, but were equally attractive. 

And the green British Viragos began to crop up at used bookstores:  I probably own fifty Viragos, but there are hundreds!

I must admit, Virago is my favorite small press, but I am also a fan of Persephone, founded by Nicola Beauman in 1999. Persephone specializes in middlebrow interwar fiction, and I love Rachel Ferguson,  Dorothy Whipple, and Monica Dickens.

There may have been rivalry between Virago and Persephone: years ago in The Guardian, some Virago associate said sneeringly that  Viragos never went below “the Whipple line.” We all love Dorothy Whipple, and we’re grateful to Beauman for crossing the line.

And now I must mention a phenomenon unique to our century: two men have become publishers and/or editors of middlebrow women’s fiction presses.  These well-known bloggers, Furrowed Middlebrow and Stuck in a Book, are both experts in middlebrow women’s fiction, and have found a niche in publishing.   The Furrowed Middlebrow imprint publishes light novels by D. E. Stevenson and Stella Gibbons but also neglected classics by  Doris Langley Moore and Rachel Ferguson.  Simon at Stuck in a Book is editor of the British Library Women Writers Series.  He has published my favorite novel by Rose Macaulay, Dangerous Ages, Penelope Mortimer’s Home (a brilliant novel!), and has reissued one of my favorite Viragos, E. H. Young’s Chatterton Square.  

Both the Furrowed Middlebrow and the British Library Women Writers series are excellent, and I don’t want you to think I am in any way critical.  But I have an awkward question to ask.  Where are all the women?  Why don’t they have the spunk to start their own imprints or publishing companies?  

Really, ladies, put your backs into it!  I’m saying this for your own good.  You’ll regret it if you don’t take a chance.

In the meantime, kudos to Furrowed Middlebrow and Stuck in  a Book!

10 thoughts on “The Women’s Canon & the Clash of the Women’s Presses”

  1. The women have a hard time being accepted and you can’t take money down off trees. But this is a wonderful account of an individual woman’s relationship to the women’s movement and women’s literature. In the 1970s and 80s in Italy a series of astonishing masterpieces by women were written; non-fiction greats still teaching us from England; tales from Ireland; and the first of the Annie Ernaux’s ….. Maybe I’ll write my next Austen reveries blog on my trajectory: not as interesting or contemporary forward thinking as yours.

    1. Furrowed Middlebrow and Stuck in a Book seem to have “piggybacked” on established presses by selling their women’s lit concept to them. Very smart of them. But, yes, it could be hard to raise the money if one struck out on one’s own, yet people do it.

      I do look forward to reading your blog on your relationship to the women’s movement and women’s literature. I do believe much has changed for the better, but there may be something about society right now – the arts ruined or at least wounded by the pandemic – that rips the idealism right out by the roots.

  2. Rupert Heath, the founder of Dean Street Press died unexpectedly last week. His wife had died a month before. No more Furrowed Middlebrow. Very sad. I love those books. He was only 55.

    1. Cynthia, How tragic! For now, at least, we can still buy Furrowed Middlebrow titles, and let’s hope he’ll find a future home.

      Meanwhile, it’s time for women to start women’s small presses again! It is a disgrace that there’s so little activity on that front.

      1. They announced that there won’t be any new books but that they’ll continue to keep publishing the ones they already have.

        1. Thank goodness! I do enjoy those books and am glad they will still be available. I do hope Furrowed Middlebrow will find another publishing platform, too.

  3. Such an interesting post, really enjoyed reading it!
    I will say, when British Library first approached me to be series consultant for their new women writers series, I did have the thought – should I, as a man, be the one doing this? In the end I said yes because the idea excited me so much, and I had spent years of my life researching the area – and we made sure to have women write all the forewords – but it did/does feel very slightly uncomfortable. But, of course, we celebrate these marvellous women writers rather than the series consultant, anyway.

    Thanks for the very kind mention 🙂

    1. Simon, you’re doing a stunning job with that series and who could be more qualified? I bought three of the series at the British Library last year! I love having nice editions of Rose Macaulay and Chatterton Square.

      I do wonder what the women in publishing are doing, but I didn’t mean that as a criticism of you or Furrowed Middlebrow. Gender is more fluid these days anyway.

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