In the early 1970s, a trio of young, wild-haired women – Harriet Spicer, Carmen Callil and Ursula Owen got together in London to launch a feminist publishing house. They chose the name Virago – meaning ‘a fierce or abusive woman’ according to the dictionary. The munched apple logo on Virago’s book spines became synonymous with women who – from Eve onwards – have wanted to taste forbidden fruit, a biblical reference echoed in the pioneering British feminist magazine at the time, ‘Spare Rib’. The Women’s Press came along a few years later, its name, and distinctive logo – an upturned iron – played on the idea that ‘women’s work’ is domestic and mundane. Another important publishing house, Pandora, promised to lift the lid and unleash women’s words upon the world.
During the next decade, a plethora of feminist publishing houses sprang up across the world: Spinifex in Australia, Flora Nwapa and Co and Sritti ya Sechaba in South Africa, Domes in Japan, Cuarto Propio in Chile, Le Fennec in Morocco. And in South Asia, Simorgh and Shirkat Gah in Pakistan, Asmita Women’s Publication House in Nepal, and Stree, Asmita, perhaps most notably, Kali for Women in India.
It is no coincidence that many feminist publishing houses have double-edged names. Co-founders, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, were all too aware of the dual nature of their chosen goddess: a force for destruction and for creativity, Kali is synonymous with feminine energy. Twenty-five years back, the word ‘woman’ was no longer an ideologically neutral noun: it came loaded with political edge. And not to forget that all-important little world in the middle: ‘for’. This also carried a dual meaning: ‘intended for’ a female readership, but also, crucially, ‘in support of women’: Kali was not just a publisher of writing by women, it saw itself as part of a political movement.
The Kali logo was conceived and designed by choreographer and artist Chandralekha. In the words of Ritu Menon: “When she put the crescent moon and a bindu of a sun on the logo she designed for Kali, nothing could have been more obvious—or iconoclastic. ‘She wears the sun and moon on her forehead like her ornaments,’ Chandra said. No matter that many people mistook the sun for a bindi… we knew that it signified the power of the sun, what [Chandra] referred to as the fire of consciousness.”
In 2004, Ritu Menon set up her own publishing company, Women Unlimited, and Urvashi Butalia established Zubaan. “The word means, literally, tongue or language,” she explains, “but it’s particularly associated with women’s words. We liked the connotation of ‘begumati zubaan’ – the idea of ‘women who talk too much’ really appealed to us.”
The ‘F’ Word
The rise of feminist activism and the rise of feminist publishing were inextricably intertwined: the one fed and fuelled the other. New areas of academic interest grew up: women’s studies courses demanded books that they could teach from, the books that resulted from new areas of research found hungry readers. Magazines and journals like Manushi, Stree Sangharsh (Hindi) and Stree (English) and Baija, as well as newsletters and informal publications flourished.
For feminist publishers, it was not just about publishing women who otherwise might not otherwise make it into print. Part of their agenda was to mine the past, to recover documents, lives, points of view and stories that had been sidelined and passed over. The absence of women’s experiences in traditional histories was glaringly obvious. “One of the most important books for me,” says critic Nilanjana Roy, “is Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence (2000). By telling the stories of women’s experiences of Partition, she reminds us just how much male history leaves out. It’s extraordinary.” Another landmark publication was Susie Tharu and K. Lalita’s monumental two-volume anthology Women Writing in India: 600BC to the Present (1993), the first time that women’s writings from across the subcontinent from so many different languages and across such a huge historical spread had been collected together.
Documenting and analysing the women’s movement was another key part of feminist publishing. Radha Kumar’s excellent book, The History of Doing, an illustrated history of the women’s movement in India, was published by Kali in 1993 and has been in print ever since. Zubaan has been collecting, archiving, displaying and disseminating campaign posters and women’s artworks from the 1970s to the present for their Poster Women project.
Nilanjana Roy also singles out two autobiographies: Baby Haldar’s A Life Less Ordinary (published by Zubaan), and Nalini Jameela’s Autobiography of a Sex Worker (published by Tranquebar in 2007). “Both these books are personal narratives that really go against the mainstream. The stories of domestic workers or prostitutes are so often reported from the outside, but with these two books we really get a sense of their own voices. Reading these books, you get a tremendous sense of agency.”
Susan Hawthorne, director of the Australian feminist publishing house, Spinifex singles out Vandana Shiva’s Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development, as a book that has made a lasting impact. Published by Kali in 1989, it was the first book to seriously tackle ‘eco-feminism’ – opening up a whole field of study. “It’s the job of feminist publishers to keep on anticipating issues,” says Women Unlimited director, Ritu Menon. “the critical importance of religion and its relationship to women and development rights; the importance of the environment, of censorship, of partition.” Books like Shiva’s were ‘ground-breaking’. When Butalia first suggested that she write on ecology, Shiva protested: “’I’m not a writer, I’m an activist!” To which the publisher shot back, “Writing is a subversive activity, too, you know.”
By the 1990s the publishing world, like the world around it, was undergoing a seachange. Women’s studies courses had become part of the mainstream academic curricula, many of the fights for gender equality and against discriminatory practices had been won (at least in theory), women were becoming more and more visible – in the public spaces that had previously been seen as a male domain. Writers like Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri enjoyed massive commercial success, and mainstream publishers are, naturally, keen to publish them. The Orange Prize for fiction by women was castigated as a ‘sexist prize’ (A.S. Byatt) and was dubbed ‘the Lemon prize’ by novelist Auberon Waugh when it was first set up in 1996, yet it has survived and thrived. A glance at the winners over the past few years – Marilyn Robinson, Rose Tremain, Chinamanda Adichie, Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith, Lionel Shriver, Anne Michaels – is sufficient justification alone.
At the Jaipur literary festival recently, novelist Anjum Hasan was asked whether she was a feminist. “Only to the extent that any sensible person is,” she replied.
So is there still a need for feminist publishers? Hasn’t the battle been won?
Take a look at any mainstream publisher, and you’ll see a large proportion of their list authored by women. You’ll see a large proportion of their workforce are women too – although far, far fewer in the traditionally male departments like sales and production and far, far more in the ‘softer’ more empathetic roles of editorial and publicity. More and more of the top slots are now occupied by women – in mainstream publishing houses like Random House, HarperCollins and Scholastic – as well as a slew of smaller independents such as Tulika, Yoda, Tara books, Blaft and others.
When faced with this question at the Jaipur Literary Festival recently, Butalia put it like this: “As feminist publishers we were always struggling at the margins to find a place in the mainstream. Now, we’re struggling in the mainstream to find a place for the marginal.”
Susan Hawthorne calls it a “complex dance” between the margins and the centre: “Feminism has been declared dead time and again – but we are still here – and wave after wave we return. So continuity of feminist voices – whether through publishing or through blogs, conferences, local organising etc remain terribly important. What publishing does is to give those more temporary efforts some permanency.”
Ritu Menon puts it even more strongly. “The need for feminist publishing is much greater now than it was twenty-five years ago. Feminist thinking has been so subsumed in the mainstream that it is almost as if we’re back in the pre-feminist era: it has been divested of its political edge.” She points out that none of the issues have gone away – domestic violence, female infanticide, dowry have, if anything increased. “Feminist publishers have always been about challenging the status quo: the mainstream is about maintaining the status quo.”
Is there still a place for feminist publishing in today’s world? “Absolutely,” says activist and film-maker Vani Subramaniam. “The question is how do we push the boundaries? What kind of women are still not being reached, or not being read? How do we find space for those stories, for those voices? This is where feminist publishers come in – it’s not something we can expect mainstream publishers to address.”
Looking back over the past quarter century, it’s clear that things have much changed, and changed for the better. But perhaps we should take a longer view – back to the 6th century BC to be precise – and wonder how far we have really come when a Buddhist nun, Sumangalamata, wrote lines that strike a chord in many women’s hearts even today: “A woman well set free! How free I am, / How wonderfully free, from kitchen drudgery. / Free from the harsh grip of hunger, / And from empty cooking pots, / Free too of that unscrupulous man.”