U.S. Intellectual History Blog

America’s Working Women: A New York Story circa 1973 (guest post by Susan M. Reverby)

Note to readers: we are pleased to publish this guest post by Susan M. Reverby, Marion Butler McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas and Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.

America’s Working Women: A New York Story circa 1973
by Susan M. Reverby

Publishing a history book these days by a commercial, not university, press usually involves a fulsome proposal and an agent. Not so in 1973 as publishing houses began to realize that women’s history was the new and upcoming field.

I was working in New York City then as a radical health activist/writer, having barely finished my MA in American Civilization (as it was then called at NYU) over a protracted four-year slog. I had been trained as an undergraduate in labor history when almost nothing on women was available. But I had started to work in this area and realized my friends teaching workers had only xeroxes to use. So I thought a collection of documents would be great to have.  I mentioned this my friend, the late Ros Baxandall who was then doing primarily daycare work and starting to teach at SUNY: Old Westbury. We put a group of documents together and thought about what to do next.  In my fantasy was John R. Commons’s multi-volume Documentary History of American Industrial Society that had been started in 1910, but did almost nothing on women.

Enter my friend, tax preparer/novelist Susan Lee who lived on the sixth floor (and I on the fifth) of a walk up in what was then known as the South Village (now Soho).  She knew this editor at Random House named Toni Morrison because Toni collected the paintings of one of Susan’s friends and we had all met at his showing at the Whitney. “Send the idea for the book to Toni,” Susan Lee advised. “Remember we met her at the Whitney.”

So I think I wrote a brief letter, explaining our ideas. Toni was then editing books on black experiences, and had just done Angela Davis’s memoir and a huge collection called The Black Book.  Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was out and Sula was in the works. Then as a fluke I appeared as a “health consumer” on Barbara Walters’ TV show then called “Not for Women Only.”  Toni caught the segment and somehow thought I was a TV persona.  Linda Gordon, an old political friend from the women’s history network, came to town from Boston and mentioned to Ros that she was thinking of a similar book. In the spirit of sisterhood, we asked if she wanted to join us. At that point, Ros was ABD, I had barely finished an MA, and Linda had a PhD in Russian history and was teaching at U/Mass Boston.

We sold the book to Toni after a brief meeting.  I doubt our credentials would have gotten us anywhere in a university press world, but Toni could do what she wanted as an editor. For an advance of $5000, I got half and with my unemployment insurance went off to live my back-to the-land fantasy on a 68 acre farm in Joetown, unincorporated, in West Virginia .  Linda and Ros toiled away in Boston and New York.  I made forays to archives in Washington, New York and Pittsburgh, carrying the xerxoes in a boy scout backpack onto baby planes as I flew in and out of West Virginia. All the xeroxing to send to my co-authors was done in the local bank’s back room since that was the only xeroxing machine in a twenty-mile radius.

Fast forward to 1975. The book is pretty much done, I’ve gone back to graduate school in Boston to get my PhD.  Linda and Ros negotiate the title for the book with Toni, who wants to call it Reapers, Weavers, Makers of Life. I get called and throw a fit.  “It sounds like a Bruegel painting,” I declare, “and besides mostly men did the weaving in the mills. It is inaccurate.” So Toni yells at me and says “Quick come up with another title then.”  So we finally agreed to America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, less elegant perhaps but accurate.

Toni gets the last laugh. Without consulting us, she picks the cover: a singular woman shoeing a horse.  There is nothing about this in the book…but Toni said in interviews she was always interested in the singular and the women who get away.

We got the zeitgeist and the book was extremely useful to others beginning to teach women’s history.  Linda and Ros would do a second edition in the 1990s, and this time they picked the cover of women in the mills.

Moral of the story: who knows?  It was a different time.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Just a quick note of thanks to Susan for sending this. This morning, when I posted a link to Facebook for my post from earlier today on the publishing history of that 1970 AHA paper, Susan asked me if I’d be interested in a great New York story of how she and her co-authors managed to land this book publishing deal with Toni Morrison at Random House. I told her that if she sent it to me I would run it in a New York minute. She is a quicker draw than I am. But I’m so glad to be able to share this account with our readers.

    Folks, there’s an awful lot of history, an awful lot of “backstory” that may in fact end up being the story for someone down the road, that needs to be told and shared so that it’s not lost entirely. If you’ve got some history to pass along — especially some history of the historical profession — I am here for it, we are here for it, all. day. long. All y’all senior scholars and emeriti: write it up, please. We will run it, we will read it, we will use it.

  2. This was an incredible read. Thanks to Dr. Reverby for writing it for us–and it points to the importance of getting people from marginalized groups in the world of publishing! And as LD said above, there have to be more stories out there like this, and we can’t afford to lose any of them.

  3. Robert, you are so right. This story shows how Toni Morrison’s work as an acquisitions editor mattered for so many reasons, for so many stories and story-tellers.

    Right now I’m taking a close look at fictional portrayals of professors/academics (broadly construed). Still in the 19th century, and at this point still looking at British novels. I’ve written up a brief post on Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor at my blog — the first novel she wrote, but published posthumously, and less read, less known, less liked than Jane Eyre — and Eliot’s Middlemarch is next. Discussion of the obstacles facing women as authors or as intellectuals in their time is well-trodden ground (though Mary Anne Evans herself had little sympathy for “mind-and-millinery” authoresses!), and it’s easy enough to buy into a whiggish narrative of progress, fueled perhaps by the internet, that such obstacles — for women, for writers of color, for writers from disadvantaged backgrounds, for queer authors — are now all part of the past. “The internet” hasn’t made gatekeeping obsolete; in some ways, perhaps, it has made it more automated, more efficient, more scalable. But it still matters who’s at the acquisitions desk, who’s at the podium, who’s on the admissions committee, who’s standing at the lectern in the classroom, who’s on the tenure committee, who’s sitting around the seminar table.

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