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“We Couldn’t Get Them Printed,” So We Learned to Print: Ain’t I a Woman? and the Iowa City Women’s Press

From: Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies
Volume 34, Number 2, 2013
pp. 186-221 | 10.1353/fro.2013.0012

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Introduction

The November 1971 issue of Ain’t I a Woman? (AIAW ?) includes a small notation on the back page: “This was to be a twelve page paper, with four pages of medical self-help material on menstrual extraction. However, we couldn’t get them printed.” Finding a printer to print the four pages of medical information, which included photographs demonstrating cervical self-examinations, steps for conducting a breast self-exam, and information about menstrual extraction (a procedure developed by feminist activists for early-term, self-administered abortions), proved difficult. Archival copies of the issue include eight pages of the regular issue and four pages of the medical supplement, indicating that at some point the collective did, in fact, find someone to print the offending images. Although the paper was printed, the incident galvanized Iowa City feminists. Members of the AIAW ? collective and other local feminists mobilized, and their rage about the situation spawned the founding of the Iowa City Women’s Press (ICWP ).

Together these two feminist collectives—AIAW ? and the ICWP —were active in Iowa City from 1970 until 1985. The collective published AIAW ? from June 1970 until May 1974, although with an occasionally irregular publishing schedule. ICWP operated from 1972 until 1985, training and employing women as printers and binders. They were local organizations but networked with other feminists throughout the Midwest and nationally. Despite the wide circulation of both groups’ publications, Iowa City receives little attention both in works chronicling feminism’s national history and also in the growing literature about feminism in particular locales. This article, though, does not merely add another site of feminism to the historical record. As Anne Enke, Nancy Whittier, Stephanie Gilmore, and Winifred Brienes have demonstrated, local feminist histories can dramatically alter the history of the women’s liberation movement (WLM ) and offer new insights about the lasting effects of feminism. Feminist print culture during the 1970s and 1980s was a vibrant site of feminist activism and continues to be an important and powerful legacy of the WLM with journals such as Ms. Magazine, Calyx, and Sinister Wisdom still publishing and books like Our Bodies, Ourselves revised and updated regularly. While offering insight into the politics, practices, and ideals of feminists in a particular place, print cultures also reveal the dynamic and wide-ranging networks that were vital to sustaining feminism as a movement and political identity. Therefore AIAW ? and ICWP provide important records of feminist praxis on a local and quotidian scale and offer a map of feminism’s breadth from a geographically marginalized perspective.

Using archival sources, this article elaborates histories of AIAW ? and the ICWP through close readings of the material productions of both feminist collectives. Taken together, these histories provide a narrative to rethink feminist histories of the women’s liberation movement. These groups, particularly in the context of the broad-based feminist organizing in Iowa City, demonstrate the vibrancy of the WLM outside of the traditional urban centers. In addition, by engaging with feminists outside of Iowa City, both AIAW ? and ICWP formed a hub for feminist communications activities.

The histories of AIAW ? and icwp, moreover, map different relationships in the early 1970s between lesbianism and feminism. Narratives about splits between heterosexual feminists and lesbian feminists dominate many histories of the WLM , but in Iowa City lesbianism did not create a visible split among feminists. Rather, concern with lesbianism was both present in the earliest organizing and persistent over time, and activists were able to negotiate conflicts to keep feminist organizations intact.

Further revealing the limitations of dominant frameworks, AIAW ? and the ICWP demonstrate that feminists’ theoretical and political investments cannot be neatly contained by categories of feminism like liberal, conservative, Marxist, radical, and socialist. Instead Chela Sandoval’s feminist taxonomy—equal rights, revolutionary, supremacist, separatist—proves most useful to understanding these groups’ practices. Sandoval theorizes that “these [feminist] ideological positions” kaleidoscope when a “fifth differential mode is utilized as a theoretical and methodological device,” particularly concerning the activism of women of color. Although the collectives of AIAW ? and ICWP primarily were composed of white women, similar differential modes of consciousness emerged within these two collectives from a materialist and semiotic analysis of their print...



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