Florence Howe has led an audacious life: she created a freedom school during the civil rights movement, refused to bow to academic heavyweights who were opposed to sharing power with women, established women’s studies programs across the country during the early years of the second wave of the feminist movement, and founded a feminist publishing house at a time when books for and about women were a rarity.
Sustained by her relationships with iconic writers like Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and Marilyn French, Howe traveled the world as an emissary for women’s empowerment, never ceasing in her personal struggle for parity and absolute freedom for all women.
Howe’s “long-awaited memoir” spans her ninety years of personal struggle and professional triumphs in “a tale told with startling honesty by one of the founding figures of the US feminist movement, giving us the treasures of a history that might otherwise have been lost” (Meena Alexander, author of Fault Lines).
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I speak for my grandmother. I don't know what that means or why I typed that, but that is what I thought as I sat down at the typewriter today, facing Third Avenue. ... I wanted to write more than I wanted to eat.
Journal, January 16, 1983
At eighty, I am as invisible as my maternal grandmother was on the streets of Brooklyn in the early years of the twentieth century. I think of her as I board a bus midmorning, filled with old people like me, anonymous, dressed in comfortable clothes, all but one or two clearly not headed to an office job. When someone stares at me, I know it's because of the white streak in my dark hair, and sometimes a woman will ask whether I have dyed my hair white for effect. No, I say, the white has been there since I was fourteen. I dye the rest of it. Once, a young black woman with a streak of white told me that hers "came" from a great aunt. I tell interested people that my grandmother had such a streak, though I don't mention that her head had turned snow white even before I was born, when she was perhaps in her late thirties.
When I went white in my midforties, I thought I'd dye my hair till I was sixty, then at sixty decided that seventy would be the right time to stop but put it off once more. And now I've stopped thinking about giving up the white streak in my dark hair.
Certainly, it's not convenient or economical. So it must be vanity and the occasional pleasure that comes from a particular kind of recognition. Old acquaintances recognize me, often saying, "You haven't changed a bit." Even Goucher College students I taught in the 1960s will recognize me, some on the streets of New York City, some in rarer places like a retreat outside Delhi in India or at a conference in Washington, DC. Certainly, my hair allows me to feel the connection to Sarah Weiss Stilly, the grandmother who loved me unconditionally and who left me when I was seven without notice or explanation. Surviving that inexplicable loss — and the one that followed — only deepened my connections to her.
I never called them Sarah and Max. To me, they were Baba and Zaida. Baba came to the US in 1894 as a twelve-year-old in the company of her father; their goal was to earn and save money enough to pay for the passage of her mother and six younger sisters. Her father had worked in the Kiev garment trade and quickly found work in Lower Manhattan as a skilled cutter. She worked fourteen factory hours at unskilled tasks at first, then at a machine, six or seven days a week. Because she was small for her age, she could be popped into a barrel and covered with cloth whenever inspectors came round to look for children. When her sisters and mother arrived two years later, she continued to work — on "waists" in a shop near the one where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would occur — so that her mother might stay at home and her sisters might be enrolled in school where they would learn English. When I knew some of them, their voices were "American," but my grandmother spoke English only haltingly and with a thick accent. With her, I spoke only Yiddish until I began school.
My mother always said that Sarah was very beautiful. I have inherited her broad forehead and the white streak. I remember a stout, white-haired woman with warm and enveloping arms. I think of her as stout and old, though she was only forty-six when she died.
At sixteen, she attracted a new and cultured immigrant, Max Stilly, nearly twice her age, who had been born in Safed, Palestine, and had trained as a rabbi. At nineteen, he had left a wife and two small children behind to earn money presumably to support them. He traveled, somehow, mainly on foot, from Palestine to Europe, along the way picking up companions from whom he learned to peddle costume jewelry. Perhaps he stayed long enough in Germany to learn the language, for I have his Cassell's New German Dictionary (1894), on the flyleaf of which, in a tiny crabbed hand, he wrote out in English a translation, "And Joshua spake out unto the Priests saying, Take up the Ark of the Covenant...." Ultimately he settled for a decade of peddling in Scotland and came to New York with a Scot's brogue and enough money to invest in a small shop, selling costume jewelry. When he met Sarah, he seemed affluent enough to take on a wife. He married her without a word about that other family in Palestine.
I have their wedding photo, both of them elegantly dressed, standing stiffly before the camera. Max wears a shiny top hat and formal morning suit with satin lapels, a small orchid on one of them, and a thick watch chain visible through the slightly open jacket. He is more robust in figure than when I knew him but no more than five inches taller than his tiny bride. His dominant facial feature is a thick, angular mustache with twirled ends. Sarah is holding Max's limply hanging arm just at the elbow. In her other hand, she holds flowers. If Max looks a bit glassy- eyed, she looks the stern taskmaster, her mouth thin and her jaw set. Her long dress and the train draped alongside her right foot are white and patterned in some fashion, perhaps of embroidered cloth. The long veil has been thrown back over her shoulders.
Who can say whether or not they were well matched? From the point of view of her family, he was a rich man, English-speaking, and successful. And she could escape the factory life. But what were his motives? Certainly, she was beautiful, but I have long puzzled not only about Max's choice of an illiterate woman but also about his not teaching her to read and write Yiddish, let alone encourage her to attend English-language classes at night school. Literate in several languages, why did Max not teach his wife? Did her illiteracy serve another purpose, for Max was still corresponding with the other woman he had left behind?
Within the first decade of the twentieth century, Sarah and Max had three children, the last of whom was a girl: my mother, Frances. When his shop failed, Max tried selling life insurance for Prudential. But long before I was born, he had turned to his linguistic talents and original training and had begun to prepare young boys privately for their bar mitzvahs, perhaps at the rate of as little as twenty-five cents a lesson, clearly not enough to feed a family. Secretly, to augment their tiny income, my grandmother sewed for other people when Max was out of the house, hiding her work and even the sewing machine in a trunk. When my uncles were teenagers and left school for work, they gave their mother part of their wages. They advanced rapidly, so that I always knew them as different from us since the floors of their living rooms were covered in carpet, not linoleum.
While my mother often talked about her childhood poverty, saying that her most memorable Chanukah present was an orange, she never blamed her father for not supporting the family properly. She admired him, his learning, his collection of Hebrew books, his immaculate and well-groomed self. Nothing was too good for Max. She would not blame him for forbidding the college education she craved so that she might become a teacher. She thought he was generous to allow her to attend a high school business course, to which secretly she added Spanish. She knew, and perhaps she was pleased with his attention, that Max had plans for his daughter. Since his sons had escaped his control, he expected the more malleable Frances to bring a young rabbi into the family.
For five years, Frances lived at home and worked as a bookkeeper, giving half her salary to her mother. During those same five years, Max brought home young men with scraggly beards barely off the boat, barely English-speaking, as prospective husbands. When she talked about this part of her life, my mother grew animated, enjoying the memory of her open, sarcastic rejections of these young men. She praised her father for allowing her to marry a rabbi of her own choosing. Max never tired of the search.
But perhaps in unwitting retribution, Frances suddenly chose my father, an uneducated, un-bar-mitzvahed New York Jew who had arrived at the port of Baltimore minus a father, in the arms of a mother who then spent her young life sewing buttonholes, throughout another marriage, two daughters, and more widowhood. Sam had begun his working life at eight, climbing a store ladder like a small monkey to fill orders for a busy shop on the Lower East Side. Even as an overweight, middle-aged taxi driver, still poor, now gambling and losing, he enjoyed making me laugh with him about his comic portrait of the lithe figure who had hoped to seize an opportunity as nimbly as he could reach for the correct saucepan. He had tried to go to school at night, but gave up long before high school. He supported his sisters through high school.
Sarah attended her daughter's wedding ceremony, though Max did not. I was born nine months and one week later, shattering my mother's plans to continue working and, with the income from Sam's new pushcart, to save enough money to rent a small shop. They had hoped they'd both staff it: she on the business end, and he the stock and sales. The news about Frances' pregnancy, combined with a severe pushcart fire, quashed the couple's plans. Sociable, ambitious Frances was now at home with a colicky baby and no money; Sam, who knew only house furnishings, went from job to job. They landed in Hoboken for a year of isolation too extreme for her to bear. When Sam lost that job, they had not even enough money to ship their few belongings, and they decided to separate.
When I was two, therefore, Sarah took my mother in and took care of me so that my mother could find a job. Sam had returned to his mother in the Bronx, who was living with her daughters. Perhaps Sarah suggested they meet and try to reconcile their differences, for Sam visited on several Sundays, when Sarah and Max walked out with the baby carriage so that the couple might have some privacy. Frances had already survived an illegal abortion, but when she got pregnant again, she agreed to go on with the marriage.
Early in 1932, they moved into a large apartment in the Bronx along with Sam's family, while Sam began to drive a taxi nights. Frances functioned as a housekeeper for her mother-in-law, her two sisters-in-law, one of whom had married by then, and all of whom went to work. She made five beds each morning, cleaned the apartment, did the laundry and dishes, shopped for food, and cooked dinner for six each evening.
"You loved having all those people fussing over you," she said once, describing that time. "They were happy with the arrangement, but I wasn't."
She resented being their housekeeper. Perhaps they didn't thank her enough. Perhaps she was lonely, since Sam worked nights and she had only his mother and sisters for company, and they had not become friends. When they talked about their working lives, what could she say? Her only talking point was her daughter's cleverness. She liked to tell me how cleverly bilingual I was one evening at the dinner table, when Uncle Sam, who found my lisp amusing, invited me to identify a spoon he held up. Unexpectedly, I said, "leffeler," the Yiddish word for spoon, and everyone laughed. My mother's way of seeing the incident suggests how out-classed she felt in the company of her in-laws.
"You fooled them all," she said, perhaps wishing she could do the same.
But I think of them as my first audience, for I expect I liked the friendly laughter that made me feel clever.
Perhaps it was during those few months — for the first time without the worry about money and her husband's lack of a job — that Frances had the time to consider why I would not eat. So one day she began to read to me from the back of the Rice Krispies cereal box. As she read a story, I opened my mouth to the spoon, chewed, and swallowed. She found other things to read to me, and eating became reading time. Perhaps she read some of these stories enough times that I could then begin to say them with her or even to read them with her. Perhaps that is the way I learned to read. By the time I was three and a bit, just before my brother was born, I could read these stories for myself.
Shortly after my third birthday, Frances told Sam that she had found an apartment near her mother and she wanted to be her own housekeeper. In June, two months before the new baby was due, they moved into a tiny three-room apartment, a block from Sarah and Max, at 1675 Sterling Place between Ralph and Buffalo Avenues, on the edge of Crown Heights, but more properly in Brownsville, also a Jewish ghetto. The ground-floor apartment was especially narrow, since some of its space was used as an entryway for the three-story tenement. The apartment opened into a narrow, windowless room that had two doors. The one on the left led into what was supposed to be the "front room" or living room, but my parents used it as their bedroom and kept the dark shade on the window down all day. The other door, in the middle of the opposite wall, opened on a room that could hold a cot and a crib. This room had a window from which one could see the neighbors across the yard who lived in the back apartment on the ground floor.
Through most of the 1930s, working-class people could save two months rent by moving each year and gaining what were called "concessions" from landlords needing to see their buildings filled. Frances knew that they could have the apartment for a year with a concession of two months rent. She wanted that apartment, but I expect she knew she could make the same deal with other landlords from year to year. Once I came of age, I attended a different school almost each year of my first six in school. We moved in and out of 1675 Sterling Place at least three times. Because we moved each year, we made no friends. Baba and Zaida anchored our lives.
My brother, Jack, was born when I was three and a half. Months before that birth, when I fell ill with lobar pneumonia that turned into pleurisy, the doctor advised that I be separated from my pregnant mother. I lived for weeks in my grandmother's bed, where I was expected to die, for a high fever sent me into a deep coma that lasted ten days. Perhaps Sarah's nursing saved my life. Certainly she was the only person who believed I would live, or so she told me afterward, again and again, when she apologized to me for cutting off almost all my hair, which had become too matted for combing. So certain had she been that I would survive, she had used a precious dollar to buy two little china dolls to give to me the second I opened my eyes.
A few weeks later, when the new golden baby boy was born, I became totally Sarah's child, for Jack was everything I had not been and Frances was fond of comparisons. He was blond and with a perfect olive skin and brown eyes. He was also chubby and ate all given to him. He smiled a lot, and when his baby teeth came in, they were straight and strong, not crooked and cavity filled like mine. I was still, at three and for years afterward, undersized, underweight, my thin body disgraced by a head of limp dark brown hair that had to be cut in bangs to cover the birth scar on my forehead. Told my teeth were a disgrace, I never smiled broadly so that my teeth could be seen. I didn't laugh easily for the same reason. Even before I began school, my mother sang an especially hurtful litany: "Isn't it a pity," she'd say happily, "that he has all the looks and she has all the brains?"
After my brother was born, I was still constantly in my grandmother's house or in her care, feeling loved and only mildly curious about the new baby. But before long, I understood that the baby had changed my position in the family. While my mother had always claimed, in my hearing, that I had been a "difficult birth," describing her first sight of me as a horribly mauled, bloody, screaming thing she wanted out of her sight, and complaining about her months and months of suffering with a colicky infant who was very fussy about food, she might have also assumed that her body was partly responsible. Never did she mention the shift in medical practice between the two births. In 1929, she was helped to rid herself of breast milk so that she could bottle-feed me in comfort on a rigid schedule, no matter how loudly I screamed; in 1932, she was told to breastfeed on demand.
On my fifth birthday, in March, the new baby was nineteen months old, and I was still spending most of my time with Baba. Perhaps to compensate for her focus only on the new baby, perhaps remembering the small china dolls Baba had given me, my mother decided to do something special for my birthday. She took me into a large toy store and asked me to choose a doll. I remember walking through the aisles, knowing exactly what I wanted and then seeing it: a doll that looked as real as a baby with short, curly red hair all over its head. It would be, I remember thinking, my own little boy baby to cuddle, and it came with a bottle, the sales person said, into which you could put water and the baby would "wet," and you could change his diaper. She, too, thought the baby was a boy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Life in Motion"
Copyright © 2011 Florence Howe.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Also by Florence Howe,
Prologue: Memory, History, and the Missing Creative Bone,
I - A Family Girl,
Chapter 1 - Two Mothers,
Chapter 2 - Two Fathers,
Chapter 3 - Learning About Class at Home and in School,
II - The Care of the Future,
Chapter 4 - Studying the Future — Hunter College and Smith College,
Chapter 5 - College Teaching: Learning to Be an Activist,
Chapter 6 - Marriages, Yes, All Four of Them,
Chapter 7 - Daddy, I Never Called You Father,
Chapter 8 - Another Kind of Mother — and Grandmother,
III - Work That Changed My Life,
Chapter 9 - Becoming a Feminist,
Chapter 10 - Practicing Feminism at Home and Abroad,
Chapter 11 - Founding the Feminist Press,
Chapter 12 - Moving About the World for Women's Studies,
Chapter 13 - Growing Pains at the Feminist Press,
Chapter 14 - Moving into CUNY,
Chapter 15 - A Heroic Decade — The 1990s,
Chapter 16 - Retirement and Return,
IV - Friendships into Family,
Chapter 17 - My Mother, the Survivor,
Chapter 18 - Sustaining Friendships,
Chapter 19 - My New York Family of Choice,
Epilogue: Bellagio, the Creative Bone, Doris Lessing, and Homespace,