Published About, By, And For Women

Digital Journal, August 5, 2009.

About two years prior to the start of World War I, the NYT published a brief, yet riveting, news under the “London Literary News” section of its book reviews.

It was dated October 20, 1912 and read thus:

A new publishing firm has come into existence, which calls itself The Happy Publishing Company. Its members are all women. No male members are eligible, since the object of the firm is to deal with books that are written, printed, and published by women. The Happy Publishing Company’s first venture is a volume of love stories!

This was a rare instance of an early 20th century feminist press and its success was a flash in the pan.

50 years later, coinciding with the women’s movement of the mid-1960s, women’s publishing houses began to burst on the horizon of the Western book industry.

Their beginnings were wobbly; their presences, faint; and their futures, uncertain at best.

The Rise And Fall Of Early Feminist Presses. 1969 was an eventful year in the American calendar—a time of cultural frenzy, social fervor, political uproar, scientific leaps. It was the year of the Woodstock and the Stonewall Riots—both of which took place in New York.

It was the year the first two humans set foot on the Moon. It was the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was also the year America’s first feminist press came to life. Writer and poet Alta Gerrey started the Shameless Hussy Press in 1969, in Oakland, California.

Though a shoestring operation, it was an influential outfit. It was instrumental in the setting up of some of the earliest feminist/lesbian presses, among them, the Diana Press, which opened in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1972 (but was vandalized) and Daughters Inc. (which didn’t outlive the demise of its founders).

These publishers, in turn, fostered the growth of “women’s bookstores”—stores that sold only women’s books and catered to a female clientele. An example is the New Words Bookstore.

From The New York Times:

New Words began in 1974 by promoting and selling little-known books from women’s presses and by stocking pamphlets on subjects related to women. It expanded from one room in a converted Victorian house to several rooms in the house and added sections on Latinas, Jewish women and transgender issues. However, after a nearly 30-year run, it buckled under the pressure of stiff competition from big chain bookstores like Barnes & Nobles, Borders, and online retailers like Amazon.

There were 120 feminist bookstores in North America until the 1990s, half of which closed by the early millennium, said Carol Seajay—who published Feminist Bookstore News for more than two decades—in an interview with The New York Times.

Others were luckier. The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, also a product of the Swinging Seventies, is alive and kicking today.

The Voice Of Zubaan. While in the West, especially in the U.S., the period between 1970s and mid-1990s, saw an explosion of feminist publishing houses and bookstores, countries like India fell outside the pale of the women’s lib movement.

The Zubaan logo is a bell-metal figurine of a woman, with stretched earlobes, a band of heavy necklaces, draped in a corrugated, knee-length costume. She’s sitting upright, reading a book. At first blush, it comes across as un-Indian, for it has none of the expected accessories of a traditional Indian woman. It appeared to me as being of Masai origin, a Kenyan nomadic tribe. But it’s not African. It’s inspired by the sculptures crafted by the tribal population of Bastar, a district in the Indian heartland, known for its ace metalworking skills.

Considering that India, at the time, not only had a deeply conservative social milieu, but also that its publishing industry, in general, was in its infancy, it’s remarkable that two women set out, in 1984, to start India’s first feminist press, Kali for Women.

“When co-founder Ritu Menon and I started Kali, there were no women’s presses and barely were there any women in publishing, other than those in clerical positions. Kali for Women was the first and only women’s publishing house in India,” said founder Urvashi Butalia, in an e-mail interview.

Industry insiders, skeptical of the enterprise, asked whether “women could write” and were capable of running a business, and if, at all, there was any use in publishing women authors, she added.

The two founders believed passionately in their cause and had clever ideas, but very little capital.

To keep a rather risky business venture afloat, they began selling rights to Western publishers, especially in Britain and the U.S., and often, but not always, to feminist publishers.

They also did something else differently: they didn’t follow the early Western feminist publishers’ fad of reviving “lost” (“lost” to history, since their works never saw the light of day) women writers.

Instead, their focus was finding the new female voices and putting them down in ink, so to speak. Their strategy paid off. They endured.

In 2003, the founders went their separate ways. Butalia went on to set up Zubaan Books and Menon, Women Unlimited.

Zubaan is an independent, non-profit publisher that publishes books about women; written by women, in India in particular, and South Asia, in general; for anyone who’s interested in women’s literature.

Like its predecessor, it continues to publish scholarly works, but it’s also branched out into the literary genre. It brings out original English fiction and non-fiction as well as English translations from vernacular Indian languages.

In 2004, editor Anita Roy was brought on board to set up an imprint for young readers called “Young Zubaan.”

Around 2005, Zubaan entered into a commercial partnership with Penguin India. By tapping into its editorial and marketing resources and its distribution network, it hoped to give its authors an exposure to a wider audience; and its books, a sales boost.

Zubaan brings out roughly 20 new titles a year. It has about 80 authors on its academic list and 50 on the trade list (that includes fiction, biographies, trade non-fiction, and “Young Zubaan”).

Today, India has three other women’s publishing firms: (1) New Delhi-based Women Unlimited; (2) Kolkata-based Stree; and (3) a small one in the southern Indian state of Kerela (which, interestingly, has the highest literary rate in the nation.)


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