When I was in college back in Santa Cruz in the 1980s, there was a women’s poetry collective known as Moonjuice that held poetry readings and self-published their own poetry anthologies. That is how I became acquainted with the wonderful Maude Meehan, whose book of poems Chipping Bone I loved. When I was looking for Ellen Bass’s poem Then Call It Swimming to post here last year, I found it in one of the Moonjuice anthologies still on my shelves.
A couple years later, the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society came out with their first book of erotic short stories. Around that same time, the Women’s Songbook Project in Berkeley published the anthology Out Loud: A Collection of New Songs By Women. If I tried to recall all the grassroots women’s publishing projects I have come across from that era to this, I could go on for pages. In fact, just a couple weeks ago a friend sent me an announcement for a new anthology of women writers she’d been published in.
During the 70s and 80s, the idea of ordinary women writers getting together and publishing their work when no one else would was no longer a groundbreaking thought. Now it is even less so, with desktop publishing, scores of vanity presses, millions of women blogging, and compilation sites such as BlogHer popping up all over the net.
Still, ’twas not ever thus. So when I had the opportunity to review Diana Robin’s fascinating history Publishing Women: Salons, The Presses, and the Counter-Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy, I jumped at the chance. And I am here to tell you, women back then had way fewer options for publishing than we do today. Why, it turns out that in the 1500s there were no women’s erotica anthologies at all!
Publishing Women is one of those rare works that investigates a previously overlooked subject with exhaustive, original research, and manages to synthesize the information in a way that is scholarly and coherent, with a narrative that is engaging for a general audience. Diana Robin highlights the vibrant groups of women writers that emerged in the Renaissance period across several Italian cities, and the network of publishers, printers and agents who had a hand in producing and selling their books.
Because of these women and their male colleagues, for the first time in Europe’s history women’s writing made it into the public sphere. Women established literary salons, published their own anthologies, and promoted religious reform in Naples, Rome, Florence, Vienna, and Siena. For anyone who is interested in book history, the appendices Robin includes are invaluable: an index of all the authors, editors, publishers and dedicatees of the anthologies; a physical description of the anthologies, many of which have not been published since the Renaissance; and a chronology of the key events in the history she describes.
Predictably, this movement provoked the ire of the Church. I won’t give away the story, but let’s just say the Council of Trent and piles of burning books were involved. But that was not the only problem that beset these literary women.
By the 1570s, war, plague, typhus, as well as Church-led persecutions left the Venetian publishing world a shadow of its former self. It would take a new generation of writers and publishers, working under very different social strictures in the 1580s and 90s, to revive the literary culture and in some instances reprint the writing of these early women writers.
This book illuminated for me a period of European history I knew nothing about, and ultimately left me feeling hopeful. Against all odds, creativity erupts. Groups coalesce, people figure out how to work together, movements form, cultures shift and change. Sure it all eventually dies, but even for movements such as these, left in tatters with only one or two copies remaining of many volumes, all it takes is one intrepid researcher with patience and a keen eye to make it live again.