Kristen Hogan, who worked at BookWoman in Austin and at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, is Education Program Coordinator for the University of Texas Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Her new book The Feminist Bookstore Movement:Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability traces the feminist bookstore movement’s rise and fall, showing how the women at the heart of the movement developed theories and practices of lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability that continue to resonate today.
In your book, you discuss the rise of feminist bookstores in the 1970s and 1980s. You also note that feminist bookstores are often overlooked in the histories of feminist movements. What work did these bookstores perform that people might not realize or acknowledge?
This question is difficult to answer because there is almost no writing available about the movement work of feminist bookstores, so almost all of feminist bookwomen’s work is not widely known. I want to get to this answer through the question: how was this history erased from public feminist memory? This question was really the start of this project; my partner and I, bicycling around Austin in the 100F summer, talking about why feminist bookstores are important. Really, it was a question I couldn’t answer then. We could feel it, but the only language we had access to was in unsatisfying phrases like “supporting women’s businesses” and “making feminist literature visible” (and sometimes not even that).
Through my research, I could see a turn happening in the bookwomen’s work in the 1990s, as a group of white feminist bookwomen focused on working with general independent bookstores on surviving the changing book market, a focus that required spending less time and attention on movement-based accountability. These dispersed sites of a collective radical movement reframed their identities as businesses, and that’s how most people see them today.
Before the mid-1990s, feminist bookwomen were doing amazing literary activist work. They supported authors, advocated with publishers’ representatives, waged letter-writing campaigns, and shared other strategies for convincing publishers (who told the bookwomen more than once that “this women’s thing is kind of over”) to publish feminist literature and keep it in print; basically, we wouldn’t have had feminist literature in the way we did in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s – and, as a result, through to today – without the advocacy of feminist bookwomen. What I think is even more important than that little-known literary activism is that during that groundbreaking work they spent a lot of time talking with each other about how they did that work: who was working in and running the bookstores, who was being supported to go to the conferences, who felt welcome in the bookstores, whose books were supported and whose weren’t – basically, how did the bookstore collectives talk about and address queer and racialized power dynamics to interrupt unearned privilege. For example, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore intentionally shifted from being a white organization to one that prioritized the work and voices of women of color, and, in collaboration with local Indigenous activists on their board and in other organizations, set a standard of not carrying books by white people about Indigenous people’s experiences. This is the kind of movement work that interrupts capitalism and is not visible through the “women’s business” framework available today.
What are some of the biggest accomplishments of the feminist bookstore movement?
For me, the biggest accomplishment of the feminist bookstore movement is a practice of feminist love that is vital for today’s antiracist feminisms. In my communities I hear many people – my colleagues, my students, activists in my city – talking about how scary it can feel to talk about our differences and ourselves in our movements today. Folks fear being called out and excluded from our movements; some people say nothing because they can’t say it perfectly. At the same time, people dismiss criticism or calls to use different vocabularies, claiming this “call out culture” shuts down dialogue. The feminist bookstore movement is a connected series of moments of relationship building, being called out, and trying again. In the archival material – collective notes, issues of the Feminist Bookstore News, letters – and in interviews, bookwomen shared the painful moments of failure and how they learned from these failures. Bookwomen’s responses to the lockouts, boycotts, and arguments that happened in the bookstores, models accepting being called out as an act of love and relationship building.
While many women met each other and became lovers at feminist bookstores, when I say feminist love, I don’t mean (only) romantic love; rather, feminist love is a longing for each other and for justice. In the bookstores, feminist love is, essentially, a practice of lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability that makes connections with each other more possible. I describe lesbian antiracism as a practice of antiracism developed in multiracial conversation that draws on lesbians’ experiences of sexism and heterosexism as interconnected and rooted in racism; all three of these systems must be taken apart in order for any one of them to be dismantled. Usually run by lesbians, feminist bookstores were a massive case study in lesbian-framed collectives.
As spaces of feminist and lesbian relationship building, these bookstores were purposefully not efficient businesses. In the 1970s in Portland, Oregon, the women of A Woman’s Place shut down the store for a week, in partnership with the Black Women’s Rap Group, to have conversations in the community to demand an end to racist interactions at the local women’s bar. This interconnection of feminist love and lesbian antiracism is what I see as the best of the feminist bookstore movement, the framework I take with me into my everyday.
You talk a lot about the accountability that feminist bookwomen shared. What do you mean by accountability, and why was it important to the movement?
To answer this question, I want to share the story behind the photograph on the cover of the book. In the 1980s, readers of the transnationally circulated Feminist Bookstore News (FBN) asked for news of a lockout at ICI: A Woman’s Place in Oakland. Though this lockout, a painful break in the collective, had been covered in other movement papers, feminist bookwomen wanted to hear through the FBN what this meant for bookstores as movement sites. Two collective members changed the locks on four other members. The Locked Out Four, Keiko Kubo, Elizabeth Summers, Jesse Meredith, and Darlene Pagano, were building a practice of coalitional feminism, informed by Bernice Johnson Reagon’s talk at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival, a talk the bookwomen circulated on cassette tape. The four described themselves as Asian, Black, Italian, and Jewish, and used collective meetings to share a framework they were learning with each other for antiracist feminism. Through mediation, the store was returned to the Locked Out Four on the condition of rotating leadership. This account in the FBN was one of many stories of bookwomen engaged in difficult conversations about power, privilege, and oppression within the bookstores and the movement.
Bookwomen redefined power structures in these movement organizations, grappled with representation and appropriation in authorship, redefined book sections, and advocated outside of the bookstores for change in other local and national organizations. Along the way, bookwomen wrote to the Feminist Bookstore News to share their strategies, how they learned to recognize and be accountable for unearned privilege, and how they built alliances across difference. As bookwomen across the world read their copies of the FBN, these shared stories set a standard for ethical movement-based practice that evolved in conversation on these pages and at international gatherings. This accountability was the success of the feminist bookstore movement.
Feminism, as you describe it in your book, isn’t a push for women’s “equality”—rather, it’s a jumping-off point for a code of ethics based around social justice. In particular, you speak a lot about lesbian antiracism. Why were feminist bookstores a good platform for this type of intersectional activism?
The sustained conversation of this movement, and the work of the bookwomen changing themselves and their spaces over 30 years, makes the feminist bookstores, collectively, a place where we can see the development and evolution of lesbian antiracism, feminism as a queer antiracist project for social justice. More than 100 bookstores subscribed to and followed the Feminist Bookstore News. The energy of this publication as an organizing force meant that bookwomen could hold each other accountable by writing letters to be published in and shared through the FBN, meeting together at the International Feminist Book Fairs and Women in Print gatherings, and organizing actions together. In this way, over time, bookwomen learned from each other and grew their practice over time.
Through the creation of book lists and section titles, bookwomen framed and continued this conversation; this framing changed the way readers understood the books they found at feminist bookstores. For example, Audre Lorde reading at a fundraiser for Labyris Books in New York in 1976 to the bookstores raising money in 1980 for the publication of The Cancer Journals to the later 1980s when Kate Rushin, author of “The Bridge Poem,” worked at New Words Bookstore in Cambridge where she created the women of color book section, where M. Jacqui Alexander found Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. In Pedagogies of Crossing, M. Jacqui Alexander writes about that moment and how finding Bridge in the women of color section shifted how she understood the book and feminist dialogue. I use the term the feminist shelf to describe not just a shelf of feminist books, but the full story around that shelf creation and how it changes our lives: the cycle of advocating for literature, critically choosing and arranging books, changing the way readers understand those books, receiving and sharing feedback about accountability for those choices, and building relationships differently because of the new vocabulary developed along the way.
There were 130 feminist bookstores at the movement’s peak, but in the 1990s, they began to face serious challenges. What factors led to the decline in feminist bookstores?
I think the story people think they know about what happened to the feminist bookstores is that online bookselling put feminist bookstores out of business; instead, the details of that time show feminist bookwomen deeply involved as activists in the fight against chain bookstores’ and big publishers’ illegal deals that put independent bookstores out of business, and, as an effect of that focus, a devastating shift of feminist bookwomen’s focus away from lesbian antiracist feminist movement work.
In the 1980s, as chain bookstore industry share grew, independent bookstores began to close. At the same time, feminist bookstore numbers were increasing. This moment when independent bookstores are closing and feminist bookstores are opening suggests a correlation of feminist bookstore survival not with industry economics but with the strength of feminist movements.
By the early 1990s, the pressure of chain bookstores on independents had reached a crisis point. Independent bookpeople successfully organized to urge ABA to sue chain bookstores and big publishers for illegal deals that created an unfair market advantage for the chains. Feminist bookwomen were key players in this action. Mark Avin Domnitz, president of ABA at the time, remembers that the feminist bookwomen were “a force to be reckoned with.”
As this group of white bookwomen worked successfully to try to extend independent bookstores’ survival, they turned away from a dedicated focus on practicing antiracism and accountability within their collectives and communities. This shift changed the shape of feminist bookstores from movement institutions to movement-based businesses. That loss, for me, is an important lesson for movements: attempting economic survival at the cost of movement frameworks leaves us with neither. This turn in the 1990s erased from public feminist memory the radical successes of feminist bookwomen in lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability that came before.
Farida Akhter, founder of Narigrantha Prabartana, the feminist bookstore in Bangladesh, defined her bookstore as successful “not because it makes money, but because it contributes to The Movement both locally and internationally.” I want to acknowledge both the important work of bookwomen in the fight for independent bookstore survival and the fact that bookwomen’s powerful legacy for today’s feminists is not a small business plan. Feminist accountability and lesbian antiracism is the legacy and success of feminist bookstores at their best.
The epilogue to your book is titled “Feminist Remembering,” and you make it clear that feminist work lives on in today’s social justice movements. How do contemporary conversations (like #BlackLivesMatter and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen) change how you understand the work that feminist bookstores did?
In the preface of the book I write that I see the Black Lives Matter movement, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, and Indigenous feminist writings against settler colonialism as contemporary feminist practices of accountability and ethical solidarity. For me, feminism is always about this work of accountability and solidarity, and my book is my attempt at sharing tools for doing this work.
In the book, I’m interested in part in how feminist bookwomen supported feminism by holding white women accountable. While the bookstores were, significantly, vital sites of women of color feminisms (and document the work of feminists of color in the 70s and 80s, decades in feminism often mistakenly depicted as primarily white), at their height, the bookstores were also explicitly places where white women – working in the bookstores and visiting the bookstores – learned to be accountable for their unearned privilege and to engage in lesbian antiracist feminist practice. Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza created Black Lives Matter to revision the Black Liberation Movement as explicitly interconnected with queer and feminist practice; the Black Lives Matter movement is by and for Black people, and other people of color and white people are (differently) called to account by Black Lives Matter. Mikki Kendall created #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen to call out white supremacy in contemporary feminism. Enakshi Dua and Bonita Lawrence hold contemporary racial justice and feminist movements accountable for settler colonialism. These are vital movement tools today and doing different work, work that threads through, for example, Black feminist movement organizations. For me, the histories of and vocabularies developed by (sometimes failed attempts at) transracial alliances within the bookstores are both connected to histories of and tools for being accountable to these contemporary movement conversations.
This book discusses many different facets of the feminist bookstore movement and its broader relation to social justice. What’s the biggest thing you would want a reader to take away after reading this book?
Part of my work in this book is sharing pieces of my own memoir of my writing this book and learning to understand this history. In the epilogue, “Feminist Remembering,” I’m working through story to model my process of learning from this history and how I incorporate it into everyday action in my life. I hope to inspire readers, too, to see and use this history of lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability.