The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said Alice Jackson-Wright, a former student whom she had long considered her daughter.
As publisher of the Feminist Press, Ms. Howe was a leader of the second-wave feminist movement that began in the 1960s, when women built on the suffrage movement to seek equality in the workplace, at home and under the law. In printing books by and about women, her publishing house spurred the development of women’s studies at a time when such programs scarcely existed on college campuses.
“She was creating an opening for hundreds of women writers and thousands of readers, both women and men, by the revolutionary idea that women’s words should not be confined to letters and diaries, but should be out there changing the world,” feminist activist Gloria Steinem later wrote.
Colleagues called Ms. Howe “the Elizabeth Cady Stanton of women’s studies,” likening her to the 19th-century women’s rights leader. But Ms. Howe said that she was initially more interested in the civil rights and antiwar movements, and recalled viewing early feminists as “selfish” while teaching English at Goucher College in Towson, Md.
“We needed to stop the war in Vietnam and end discrimination against black people,” she told the Baltimore Sun in 1993. “I didn’t understand the big picture for a long time. I didn’t understand that all these things need to be worked on at once.”
Her views began to shift after she taught at a Mississippi Freedom School in the summer of 1964 and started to consider the possibility that America’s schools were failing many of their students. A few years later, she was appointed to lead a Modern Language Association commission that surveyed more than 5,000 university departments about the status of women, ultimately finding salary differences and other gender inequalities.
“Men were very suspicious of me, men who were in charge,” she later said of the survey. “They treated me rather shabbily and that made me ask questions. I think I became a feminist long before I was ready to be one.”
Determined to teach feminist books at Goucher, she realized there weren’t many to put on the syllabus. So she traveled to New York in 1970, pitching publishers on the idea of printing more. “Wonderful idea,” she was told. “But there’s no money in it.”
Returning home, she launched the Feminist Press later that year at the suggestion of her husband at the time, English and American studies scholar Paul Lauter. “He thought of the name the Feminist Press — and it sounded magical,” she later told the New York Times.
The press’s first title was a picture book, “The Dragon and the Doctor” by Barbara Danish, about a female physician. In time came works by Zora Neale Hurston, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Grace Paley, Ama Ata Aidoo, Paule Marshall, Shahrnush Parsipur and many others.
From the beginning, Ms. Howe focused on “the amplification of marginalized voices,” said Jamia Wilson, the current publisher and executive director of the Feminist Press. She added by phone that Ms. Howe, the daughter of working-class Orthodox Jews, “had a global vision around feminist publishing, and one that was inclusive along racial and class lines.”
“You can see that in the books that I came up on,” Wilson said, recalling early years spent reading Feminist Press books such as “I Love Myself When I Am Laughing” (1979), a Hurston reader edited by novelist Alice Walker, and “But Some of Us Are Brave” (1982), a scholarly anthology that helped galvanize Black feminist studies.
Ms. Howe also partnered with poet Ellen Bass to edit “No More Masks!” (1973), considered one of the first major anthologies of American women’s poetry. “There was a wealth of poetry written by women, but unless you knew what to look for and how to look for it, you wouldn’t easily find it,” Bass said by email.
Schoolteachers, parents and tutors wrote in with requests for new Feminist Press titles, including for books about female doctors or lawyers. Suggestions also came from authors such as Tillie Olsen, who proposed that Ms. Howe reprint “Life in the Iron Mills,” a realist short story by Rebecca Harding Davis that was first published in 1861.
The book was the first of several classics reissued by the press, including “The Yellow Wallpaper,” an 1892 feminist story by Gilman that sold several hundred thousand copies.
By 1985, educator Joseph Duffey wrote in the Times, the Feminist Press had, “perhaps more than any other institution, helped to recover and make available a legacy of writing by and about women in American history and scholarship.”
In Ms. Howe’s view, the press had also — fortunately — spawned a legion of imitators. “I would say we started what has become an avalanche of the rediscovery of women writers,” she told the Sun. “We’re not the only one who does this now.”
Ms. Howe was born Florence Rosenfeld in Brooklyn on March 17, 1929. Her father was a taxi driver, and her mother was a bookkeeper who encouraged her to become a teacher. After taking a citywide exam, she enrolled at exclusive Hunter College High on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
At 16, she entered the college itself, graduating in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in English. A professor there told her that women writers were “not important enough to study,” Ms. Howe later recalled, but also urged her on to graduate school. She received a master’s degree from Smith College the next year and studied for a PhD at the University of Wisconsin before dropping out at the insistence of her second husband.
Ms. Howe had married for the first time at age 19, to a man she identified only as M. in her memoir, “A Life in Motion” (2011). Over the next decade she married several more times, including to Edmund Stanley Howe, a colleague at Hofstra College (now a university) on Long Island.
She taught there and at Queens College in New York before moving with Edmund Howe to Baltimore, where he had a teaching job but she struggled to find academic work. After a year, she joined Hutzler’s department store as a trainee.
“I was promoted rapidly and probably would be there still because I liked it,” she later said. When her husband objected to her becoming a buyer at the store, a position that involved travel, she went back to academia, accepting a “fill-in job” at Goucher College.
Her time at the school was accompanied by a period of personal upheaval. She and her husband divorced, and in 1966 she began a roughly two-decade marriage to Lauter. While teaching in Mississippi, she also became close with one of her students, Jackson-Wright, who was then a 16-year-old known as Alice Jackson.
Ms. Howe became her “second mother,” Jackson-Wright said, but never legally adopted her. She survives Ms. Howe, as do Jackson-Wright’s two children and four grandchildren.
By the early 1980s, Ms. Howe had become something of an international spokesperson for women’s studies, lecturing on the field at conferences around the world. She championed the discipline while serving as president of the Modern Language Association, published the academic journal Women’s Studies Quarterly and argued that the field raised awareness about sexism and compensated for the relative lack of women in the curriculum.
“Florence was both an innovator and an institution-builder, giving stability and permanence to her innovative ideas,” women’s studies scholar Catharine R. Stimpson said in an email.
Ms. Howe participated in editorial meetings at the Feminist Press well into her 80s, and took the publishing house with her after joining the faculty of the State University of New York at Old Westbury and later the City University of New York, where she taught until retiring in the early 2000s. The press remains based at the school.
“What matters is finding someone who thinks about publishing in a somewhat different way from traditional publishers, and I think I do that,” she once told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “I don’t think of publishing either as money making for the moment, or as noise making for the moment. I really think about publishing in relation to learning and consciousness over the long haul, and what is needed to make something that represents more accurately the world we live in.”
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