American author, publisher, literary scholar, and historian, Florence Howe (born 1929) was a nationally recognized leader of the contemporary feminist movement.
Florence Howe was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 17, 1929, to Samuel and Frances Stilly Rosenfeld. Her father, a taxi driver, and mother, a bookkeeper, instilled a love of learning in Florence. Frances Rosenfeld encouraged her daughter to pursue a teaching career.
In 1943 Howe was one of the five young women from Brooklyn, and the only one of non-middle-class background, to win a city-wide exam to attend exclusive Hunter College High School. In 1946, at age 16, Howe entered Hunter College. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1949. The literature faculty, dean of students, and college president encouraged Howe to take graduate courses in literature and become a college professor. After receiving a BA in English in 1950, Howe attended Smith College and earned a MA in English in 1951. She continued graduate work at the University of Wisconsin in art history and literature until 1954.
Howe's academic education, however, left the role of women in society unquestioned. Her transformation into a widely acclaimed scholar and feminist leader is discussed in many of her writings, which are often autobiographical. It paralleled the civil rights, anti-war, and women's movements of the 1960s.
By 1960, after teaching at Hofstra University and Queens College in New York, Howe was an assistant professor of English at Goucher College in Maryland. She taught writing and literature at the private women's college, but it was her work teaching underprivileged Afro-American female students in a Mississippi Freedom School in summer 1964 that led to a reappraisal of her education and the education that young women, white and black, were receiving.
Howe analyzed women's education and discovered it had harmful cultural and political effects. She concluded that its lack of concern with women as contributors to the professional and political arenas had detrimentally influenced women and society. The upbringing of young women compared to that of young men became a major theme of her numerous essays, many of which were reprinted in textbooks on education, politics, and literature.
Howe's book Myths of Coeducation, Selected Essays, 1964-1984 (1984) includes her first major essay, "Mississippi Freedom Schools: the Politics of Education." Written in 1964, published in Harvard Educational Review in 1965, and reprinted in textbooks, it describes the events that turned her into an activist and made her connect the issues of race, education, and politics. Another essay, "Myths of Coeducation, " written in 1978, discusses how women's education "functions within the patriarchal limits of the society in which it exists."
Howe's dedication to feminism was based on wanting "knowledge that is accurate and honest, which omits no essentials—like the history of half the human race in making a judgment about an age and civilization." Of equal concern was her desire to help shape the lives and opportunities of both men and women. She stated, "What you learn in school is not a joking matter. It forms an invisible network of belief—interfaced by the networks of church and family and now the media—that may blind us or may free us to see." She called for men and women to become reformers, to question the underlying assumptions forming their lives and work, and to become freer as individuals and thus contribute to a freer civilization.
To implement her beliefs, Howe helped found The Feminist Press in late 1970. Her goal was to provide texts for teaching about women. The Feminist Press published books and educational materials to help change the "content and focus" of all levels of classroom education. These materials included modern women's studies, rediscovered feminist literary classics, and curriculum guides. The Feminist Press publishes Women's Studies Quarterly and AFFILIA Journal of Women and Social Work, both pioneering feminist journals.
President of The Feminist Press from its founding, Howe also edited the Women's Studies Quarterly from 1972 to 1982. She was elected president of the Modern Language Association in 1973, where she held other important positions. Between 1964 and the mid-1980s she wrote essays and authored or edited 13 books and monographs. She received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from New England College in 1977 and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Skidmore College in 1979. During November and December 1977 Howe was in India on a Fulbright award; in May 1980 and again in April 1985 she was a U.S. delegate to UNESCO World Conferences on Teaching and Research about Women. She received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, a Mellon Fellowship, and a U.S.I.S. (Department of State) travel and lecture grant to Japan, India, and West Germany. Additional grants for writing and directing projects published by The Feminist Press acknowledge her valuable contributions to women's studies.
Howe lived in New York City where she successfully pursued goals established in the 1960s. She also lectured on college campuses across the country and for national organizations, and remained on the staff at State University of New York (SUNY) as professor of humanities in 1987. She was an U.S. Department of State grantee in 1983 and 1993.
Her publications include co-editing (with Marsha Saxton) With Wings: An Anthology of Literature By and About Disabled Women (1987); Traditions and the Talents of Women (1991); and No More Masks (1993).
The best sources on Florence Howe's career and philosophy are her own writings. She is included in American Women Writers, A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present (1980), Vol. 2: Who's Who of American Women 1985-1986 and in Contemporary Authors, Vol. 109 (1983). Several New York Times articles from the 1970s give insight to her impact and approach. These include: "Language Unit Elects Women's Liberation Leader, " by Will Lissner (Dec. 31, 1970) and "New View of Women and Power, " by Judy Klemesrud (July 11, 1975). □