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riding the roller coaster of feminist publishing in Canada

by May Lui | August 16, 2007

Feminist book publishing in Canada began, as many feminist organizations did, in the 1970s. The act of publishing books by, for and about women empowered feminist authors and writers at the time.

It also inspired and motivated feminists involved in the mainstream publishing industry in Canada, and women who had been shunted to the margins, our issues not taken seriously, and not seen as topics for publishing. As well, with few exceptions, the only places that would publish lesser-known or emerging feminist writers were feminist presses.

Women wanted to see their experiences, their theory, their stories, and their poetry in print.

Back in those days, publishers who changed this landscape included:

  • The Women’s Press,
  • Press Gang Publishers,
  • gynergy,
  • les éditions du remue-ménage, and
  • Inanna Publications, founded in 1978 and housed at York University since 1984.

Then came:

  • SisterVision Press in the mid-1980s,
  • Second Story Press, which branched out from The Women’s Press in 1988,
  • Green Dragon Books,
  • in 2000, Sumach Press branched out from Second Story Press, and
  • Demeter Books in 2006.
feminist publishing: riding the roller coaster

Beth McCauley worked with The Women’s Press way back when. Now works with Sumach Press. Beth describes how the 1970s and 1980s were a heyday. There were lots of government grants, providing crucial seed funding for a publishing house to start up, as well as a much more generous annual granting system then there is today.

“There was a specific audience for feminist books back then,” says McCauley, who goes on to describe life before big-box stores – and before feminism became more accepted by the mainstream.

Of course, like the evolution of the Canadian feminist movement itself – and very much reflecting the history of women's bookstores in Canada – who was thought of as a feminist by the new publishers was too often limited to mostly white, heterosexual and middle-class women.

As with the movement, this attitude shifted dramatically in Canadian feminist publishing over the middle-to-late 1980s and early 1990s.

SisterVision Press – which, sadly, has not been operating for some years now – produced dozens of incredible and important works by, at the time, not well-known writers who have since broken through to the mainstream. Many other phenomenal women of colour writers first started publishing thanks to this press.

Some women who found community and an audience through SisterVision:

  • Dionne Brand
  • Himani Bannerji
  • Afua Cooper
  • Althea Prince

Another publisher, Press Gang, was instrumental in bringing the works of Lee Maracle, Chrystos, and many other women poets and writers to readers.

unfortunate changes
  • Press Gang Publishers declared bankruptcy back in 2002.
  • The Women’s Press, inactive for some years in the 1990s, was bought out by Canadian Scholars’ Press in 2000. It has had no active titles since the fall 2006 season. Renee Knapp, former Marketing and Promotions Manager of The Women’s Press, had “great hopes” for the press at the time. “[I]t was considered controversial that a male-headed publishing company had purchased the Women’s Press back list, but I was also aware that no one else stepped forward to buy it,” says Knapp. Renee and others did a great deal of work to gather feminist-minded staff at the press to build back the community. Sadly, they faced the reality of working for an employer who favoured quick sales of books of lower quality than a slower sales curve of progressive feminist theory over time. Feminists became demoralized and began to leave the press.
  • gynergy press, an exclusive East Coast women’s press, was bought out by Ragweed, a general East Coast publishing house, which was subsequently bought out by Balmur Book Publishing, a joint venture of Balmur Entertainment and Stoddart Publishing, based in Toronto.
what survives into the future
  • Sumach, Second Story, Green Dragon and les éditions du remue-ménage.
  • Renee Knapp now works for Demeter Press, founded in 1998. It’s a feminist publisher with a focus on mothering issues, sprung from the Association on Research on Mothering.
  • Inanna Publications publishes academic texts, as well as excellent poetry and fiction anthologies – featuring such authors and academics as Bonnie Burstow, Angela Miles, Njoke Wane and Farzana Doctor.
where Canadian feminist publishing is going

What does the future look like for feminist publishing in Canada?

The challenge is to be creative, in all aspects of the work. Moving to a more inclusive feminism is crucial, and addressing issues that all women face – such as racism, poverty, housing and employment struggles – are all a part of the feminist agenda, or should be.

With mainstream university presses now publishing feminist theory and women and gender studies textbooks, and the reality that you don't necessarily have to be Margaret Atwood or Alice Munroe to be published with a mainstream publishing house, new ways to reach feminist audiences must be found.

Feminist publishers in Canada seem to find specific niches.

Some examples are:

  • The education niche is where you’ll find Green Dragon, with their visual productions like the History of Women in Canada poster.
  • Specific annual publications, such as day books, that women remain loyal to for years (Sumach Press produces The Woman’s Daybook, Second Story produces A Woman’s Agenda).
  • Second Story carries a number of educational children's books.
  • Sumach Press has published a wide range of topics and titles, ranging from fiction, wonderful feminist mysteries, as well as academic thesis topics that are of interest to many women.

Says Renee Knapp, “So, despite the fact that Women’s Press may be on the back burner (for now) – there are still amazing feminist publishing companies springing up in Canada. I certainly plan to spend the rest of my life working hard in Canadian feminist publishing and I have no intention of standing by and watching feminist publishing crumble under the shaky thumb of boring, middle-of-the-road, capitalists.”

Finally, feminist publishers have the important responsibility of documenting the history of the women’s movement in Canada for all of us – those of us who were there (and still are), and for generations coming up behind us – to know what’s been accomplished. And what still has to be done.

A good example of this is the new publication D is for Daring by Gail Vanstone (Sumach Press, September 2007) – the first published history of Canada’s only feminist filmmaking studio.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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