In this post, and in a few follow-up posts, I’m going to look at the publishing history of some primary sources from the feminist movement(s) of the 1970s. It may well be that “book history” is not quite the same thing as “intellectual history” or the “history of ideas.” But when I am trying to hammer out my own ideas about the ideas I encounter on the page, it sometimes helps me and always cheers me to pay some attention to the page itself, which is as much a manifestation of human thought as the words upon it.
Do the words upon the page mean something different when I have a better sense of the history of the page itself? Sometimes they do. But even when my expeditions into the material world of texts don’t yield findings that are significant to my project (significance is never absolute; significance is only assessed in relation to something else), the excursions themselves are always pleasant. So come along with me and let’s see where the path takes us.
The first source I want to look at is the groundbreaking anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (1970), edited by Robin Morgan.
This book is no longer in print, but I found a used copy online – a hardback copy. When I posted a pic to Facebook, my friend Monica Mercado, who teaches women’s history, was surprised to see the book in hardback. When she teaches the history of second-wave feminism, she points to Sisterhood Is Powerful as an example of the explosion of feminist texts published in paperback, making key ideas and expressions of the women’s liberation movement broadly accessible and easily affordable for a burgeoning audience of women readers who were educating themselves and each other about the feminist movement.
The history of Sisterhood Is Powerful as a mass-market paperback is a history of ideas that caught like wildfire, of a movement that exploded onto the scene and reached women in all walks of life.
But what is the history of Sisterhood Is Powerful as a hardback, and how is that edition of the book connected to the paperback edition?
The anthology was published simultaneously in hardback and paperback by Random House and its paperback imprint Vintage. According to their respective copyright pages, the Vintage paperback edition came out first (September 1970), followed by the Random House hardback (first printing: October 1970). But the advance publicity for the book apparently focused on the hardback edition.* In an August 17, 1970 feature article in the New York Times, “Women’s Lib Wooed by Publishers,” Grace Lichtenstein noted that Sisterhood is Powerful would be published as “a hardcover anthology,” while a similar project, Women’s Liberation: Blueprint for the Future, would be coming out in paperback.
Lichtenstein noted that booksellers were reporting “brisk” demand for works dealing with the women’s movement, and some Manhattan bookstores were even setting up special sections on feminism. “Apparently,” Lichtenstein observed early in the piece, “like student protest, black history and American Indians before it, the women’s liberation movement is about to have its ‘season’ in book publishing.” Indeed, a spokesman for William Morrow told Lichtenstein that Shulamith Firestone’s forthcoming work, The Dialectic of Sex, was to be “our major nonfiction for the fall.” Big houses and serious presses were putting their prestige behind “women’s lib” – or recognizing that a new work in that booming genre could enhance their prestige, market share, and bottom line.
But note some of Lichtenstein’s concluding paragraphs:
Regardless of how the spate of feminist books and magazines sells, male editors who have had to work with movement writers agree it has been a harrowing, yet rewarding, experience.
‘We fought, and of course they accused me of being a male chauvinist,’ said a laughing Erwin Gilkes of Basic Books, who is working with Misses [Vivian] Gornick and [Barbara K.] Moran [on another hardcover anthology, 51 Per Cent: The Case for Women’s Liberation]. “And I still am. One doesn’t undo 2,000 years of history. But boy, am I learning!”
Some women’s liberation books are selling despite what seems to be a lack of enthusiasm among the publisher’s sales representatives, most of whom are men, and bookshop owners. “We found a lot of resistance in the trade,” said a publicity director who did not want to be identified. “Some of our men find the subject distasteful.”
The man who reviewed the book for the New York Times may have been phased by the subject-matter of the anthology; but he was more bothered, it seems, by the price. John Leonard reviewed Sisterhood Is Powerful for the Times (“Adam Takes a Ribbing; It Hurts,” Oct. 29, 1970), along with The Dialectic of Sex, Women’s Liberation: Blueprint for the Future, and (oddly) Don’t Fall Off the Mountain by Shirley MacLaine.
Leonard led with the MacLaine book and explained his rationale for grouping it with the others:
Why include Shirley MacLaine’s autobiography in a round-up review of the latest texts on radical feminism? Because Miss MacLaine – and it is the style of this newspaper to use ‘Miss and ‘Mr.’ – deals with herself as a person, not a victim, not an abstraction. Her accommodations to stardom, marriage, motherhood and the mysterious East don’t add up to an argument or a slogan; they add up to something like a poem…
The aside about house style was, one supposes, a little dig at feminists’ concern for the ways in which language perpetuated patriarchy and imperiled women’s personhood. On the contrary, Leonard suggested, MacLaine is fully a person because she did not view herself as “a victim.”
Leonard spent three paragraphs on MacLaine, three on Shulamith Firestone (“a sharp and brilliant mind,” but one whose hostility to the nuclear family distressed him), and one paragraph on Sisterhood Is Powerful and Women’s Liberation:
‘Sisterhood’ is considerably better, if considerably more expensive, mostly because it includes Naomi Weisstein’s classic ‘Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,’ a devastating critique of sex-bias in experimental psychology.
That sentence intrigued me – partly because I misread it at first. I thought Leonard was saying that Weisstein’s essay made Sisterhood considerably more expensive, and I wondered why that was so. But Leonard was saying that Weisstein’s essay made the anthology better than Women’s Liberation. But once I had properly parsed that sentence, I had solved one mystery only to confront another: how had Weisstein’s essay, originally read (per the copyright notice) at the American Studies Association at UC Davis on October 26, 1968 (Sisterhood 228), become a “classic” by 1970?
That’s a question I’ll explore in the next post.
*The records of Random House have found a home at Columbia University. The 556-page finding aid includes a number of entries for the anthology – mostly, it seems, editorial correspondence with Robin Morgan. But it’s possible that there would be some discussion of publicity strategies in the collection.