If there were any doubt that the Feminist Press of the City University of New York is changing, one need look no further than its 40th anniversary celebration earlier this month at Joe's Pub in New York City with Push author Sapphire, performance artist Karen Finley, PopAction choreographer Elizabeth Streb, hip-hop performer Toni Blackman, and singer/songwriter Justin Bond. This eclectic group of women and a self-proclaimed “tranny witch” represent the new face of FP and of feminism.
“When I came [in 2006], one of my goals was to make sure we were reaching a new generation of feminists,” says Gloria Jacobs, who was hired as executive director after serving as executive editor of Ms. magazine and as a consultant for the United Nations, where she wrote and edited several reports on the status of women around the world. For Jacobs, gender equality and social justice are linked. “Gender equality doesn't mean anything if it's just about women,” she says. “If you really believe in these values, you cannot be a racist; you cannot ignore poverty. Feminism is about making this world a better place.”
Under Jacobs, rather than shy away from the word “feminist” in its name, the press has embraced it. “I think it's important that people see what feminism is,” she says. “There's a huge generation of young women who believe they should have equal pay and promotions and share in running the home. Feminism is also about being proud of your body and being free sexually. And we're there to provide books that are fun, interesting, and provocative.”
To meet that goal, a year and a half ago Jacobs hired former Seven Stories editor-in-chief Amy Scholder as editorial director. She also focused on creating a new database and a Web site geared to younger feminists. The newly launched Feministpress.org has a hip, contemporary feel, with bright orange and pink graphics and YouTube videos. Under Jacobs, FP has also embraced e-books, and it WSQ digital journal has done well. Now the press is looking at breaking down big books to sell in discrete segments of digital content.
That does not mean that Jacobs has abandoned the vision of press founder Florence Howe, then an assistant professor of English at Baltimore's Goucher College. FP works closely with CUNY and is located in the heart of the school's graduate center. As Jacobs sees it, “It's a symbiotic relationship. We bring authors and ideas, and in turn get the benefit of the work they do to reach out to students. Although we're independent, nevertheless [the word] CUNY is on every one of our books.”
But Jacobs has broadened FP to encompass books for men and women inside the classroom and out. Industry watchers have noticed a change. “The Feminist Press continues to surprise us with books that redefine what it means to be a feminist,” says agent Charlotte Sheedy. “There's a real sense of forward thinking in how they're looking at women's issues,” adds Consortium president Julie Schaper.
Certainly FP's increased emphasis on contemporary writers and recent classics, rather than rediscovered works from a century ago or more, has also played a part. Last fall, the press launched a Contemporary Classics series with Ann Jones's Women Who Kill (originally published in 1980). In May it will add the reissue of poet June Jordan's 1971 YA novel told in black English, His Own Where. In addition, a higher percentage of FP's 20 to 25 books a year is made up of new works like Julie des Jardins's The Madame Curie Complex and Riverbend's Baghdad Burning.
Booksellers appreciate the initiatives. “They have an exciting and cohesive list. I look with positive anticipation at their new catalogue,” says Chris Doeblin, co-owner of Book Culture in New York City, whose store mounted a display to support the anniversary. Says Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women & Children First in Chicago, Ill., “The covers have really improved, and they publish some great writers from other cultures and writers in translation.”
Although Jacobs has a significantly larger budget than the $100 in donations that enabled Howe to start FP, money continues to be a concern. The event at Joe's wasn't just a celebration but a fund-raiser. Despite the fact that 2009 was a rough year, Jacobs thinks a turnaround has begun. “There's no question in my mind that we have the resources to survive.”
FP's Bestsellers with Sales over 150,000
|Source: Gloria Jacobs|
|The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, intro. by Elaine Hedges|
|Brown Girl, Brown Stones by Paule Marshall|
|Witches, Midwives, and Nurses by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English|
|Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English|