Note to readers: we are pleased to publish this guest post by Susan M. Reverby, Marion Butler McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas and Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.
America’s Working Women: A New York Story circa 1973
by Susan M. Reverby
Publishing a history book these days by a commercial, not university, press usually involves a fulsome proposal and an agent. Not so in 1973 as publishing houses began to realize that women’s history was the new and upcoming field.
I was working in New York City then as a radical health activist/writer, having barely finished my MA in American Civilization (as it was then called at NYU) over a protracted four-year slog. I had been trained as an undergraduate in labor history when almost nothing on women was available. But I had started to work in this area and realized my friends teaching workers had only xeroxes to use. So I thought a collection of documents would be great to have. I mentioned this my friend, the late Ros Baxandall who was then doing primarily daycare work and starting to teach at SUNY: Old Westbury. We put a group of documents together and thought about what to do next. In my fantasy was John R. Commons’s multi-volume Documentary History of American Industrial Society that had been started in 1910, but did almost nothing on women.
Enter my friend, tax preparer/novelist Susan Lee who lived on the sixth floor (and I on the fifth) of a walk up in what was then known as the South Village (now Soho). She knew this editor at Random House named Toni Morrison because Toni collected the paintings of one of Susan’s friends and we had all met at his showing at the Whitney. “Send the idea for the book to Toni,” Susan Lee advised. “Remember we met her at the Whitney.”
So I think I wrote a brief letter, explaining our ideas. Toni was then editing books on black experiences, and had just done Angela Davis’s memoir and a huge collection called The Black Book. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was out and Sula was in the works. Then as a fluke I appeared as a “health consumer” on Barbara Walters’ TV show then called “Not for Women Only.” Toni caught the segment and somehow thought I was a TV persona. Linda Gordon, an old political friend from the women’s history network, came to town from Boston and mentioned to Ros that she was thinking of a similar book. In the spirit of sisterhood, we asked if she wanted to join us. At that point, Ros was ABD, I had barely finished an MA, and Linda had a PhD in Russian history and was teaching at U/Mass Boston.
We sold the book to Toni after a brief meeting. I doubt our credentials would have gotten us anywhere in a university press world, but Toni could do what she wanted as an editor. For an advance of $5000, I got half and with my unemployment insurance went off to live my back-to the-land fantasy on a 68 acre farm in Joetown, unincorporated, in West Virginia . Linda and Ros toiled away in Boston and New York. I made forays to archives in Washington, New York and Pittsburgh, carrying the xerxoes in a boy scout backpack onto baby planes as I flew in and out of West Virginia. All the xeroxing to send to my co-authors was done in the local bank’s back room since that was the only xeroxing machine in a twenty-mile radius.
Fast forward to 1975. The book is pretty much done, I’ve gone back to graduate school in Boston to get my PhD. Linda and Ros negotiate the title for the book with Toni, who wants to call it Reapers, Weavers, Makers of Life. I get called and throw a fit. “It sounds like a Bruegel painting,” I declare, “and besides mostly men did the weaving in the mills. It is inaccurate.” So Toni yells at me and says “Quick come up with another title then.” So we finally agreed to America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, less elegant perhaps but accurate.
Toni gets the last laugh. Without consulting us, she picks the cover: a singular woman shoeing a horse. There is nothing about this in the book…but Toni said in interviews she was always interested in the singular and the women who get away.
We got the zeitgeist and the book was extremely useful to others beginning to teach women’s history. Linda and Ros would do a second edition in the 1990s, and this time they picked the cover of women in the mills.
Moral of the story: who knows? It was a different time.