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  • The Women in Print MovementHistory and Implications
  • Trysh Travis (bio)

Writing ten years ago in the newsletter of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, Leslie Howsam observed a fascinating tautology shaping the field of book history. Scholars looking to understand the human agency that animates the communications circuit through which books take on life, Howsam noted, had discovered "women at every node of the cycle and at all periods in history, from the printers' widows operating independently of the craft guilds of early modern Europe to the avid readership of romance novels." Unlike older fields, whose entrenched chauvinism meant that their gaze had to be wrenched off of men and onto women, book history had a certain level of gender consciousness built in to it. The result was scholarship that cataloged, even celebrated, "outstanding anomalies in a cultural field dominated by men." But the effect of this attention to exceptional women, Howsam argued, was counterintuitive. Ultimately, it reaffirmed the degree to which "what [Lucien] Febvre and [Henri Jean] Martin called 'the little world of the book' has been a male domain." Laudable attention to the presence of women had not translated into a feminist book history.1

Howsam's brief analysis demonstrates one of the essential insights of feminist scholarship: talk about women is not necessarily talk about gender as a form of power that structures and delimits experience.2 Some key works of book history, of course, do pay that kind of attention to gender—Janice Radway's Reading the Romance (1984), Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word (1986), Kate Flint's The Woman Reader, 1837–1814 (1995), Nicola Thompson's Reviewing Sex: Gender and the Reception of Victorian Novels (1996), to name just a few, explore the way that reading both reflects and helps to constitute not merely gendered identities, but a whole social order. Similarly, books like Mary Kelley's Private Woman, Public Stage (1984), Susan Coultrap-McQuin's Doing Literary Business (1990), and [End Page 275] Catherine Gallagher's Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace (1994) center on questions of gender and power; all explore the ways women authors have negotiated access to the public sphere by toying with the gender roles and expectations that help constitute a fundamentally male-centered world.

Interestingly, however, this canon of what we might call a feminist book history concentrates primarily on women readers and authors, not on the workings of the communications circuit that transforms manuscripts into books and brings them to market. While books by Sharon Harris, Jayne Marek, and Patricia Okker have explored the way ideas about gender informed the work of women periodical editors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we have yet to see comparable scholarship on how gender norms—for men as well as for women—have shaped editorial practice within book publishing.3 And while there have been studies of women paper makers, binders, and printers, they have been fairly strict in their historical focus—finding evidence of women's presence, reconstructing their work and relationships, writing them into the record. The desire to document women's presence in the book trades has meant that attention to gender as a form of power has usually been limited to noting that the trades were male-dominated.4 A review of the literature on women in publishing confirms Leslie Howsam's thoughtful insight: excepting some canonical works on female reading and authorship, book history scholars have done an exemplary job of locating women, but lagged behind when it comes to theorizing gender.

To address this imbalance, this essay offers an account of the Women in Print Movement, a group of late-twentieth-century "book women" whose labor in the realm of print production was intimately connected to their analysis of how gender and power shaped "the little world of the book."5 A product of Second Wave feminism, the Women in Print Movement was an attempt by a group of allied practitioners to create an alternative communications circuit—a woman-centered network of readers and writers, editors, printers, publishers, distributors, and retailers through which ideas, objects, and practices flowed in a continuous...


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pp. 275-300
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