“Feminist” in 2013 isn’t exactly a compliment. At least, not to celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and others who deny any connections to the word or its movement in public statements. Ironically, if it weren’t for feminists, none of these young women be able to earn the incredible sums of money they do each year. Felice Newman, publisher of Cleis Press since 1980 and an author herself, wishes to change the modern day attitude regarding feminism as a naughty word.
You started out as a poet. Who are your favorite poets? What about female poets?
My favorite poet is Mary Oliver—though I am excited to have discovered Richard Bianco, Obama’s 2013 inaugural poet, who wrote so eloquently of our one, shared world. I would think they they would like each other, too.
Back in the 1970’s, you started a small feminist publishing company. What kind of materials were submitted to you then? What impressed you with some manuscripts that made others churn?
I was a cofounder of a very tiny feminist press, Motheroot Publications, in the mid-70s. We asked Adrienne Rich for permission to print a small chapbook of an essay of hers that we loved, Women & Honor: Some Notes on Lying. We kept that little chapbook in print for many years, first through Motheroot and then Cleis. I admit to not really remembering what our slush pile looked like back then. But I can tell you that when Cleis Press started in 1980, we were most impressed with books that spoke authentically of women’s lives from the first person point of view. Books that gave testimony to women’s experiences, both struggles and victories. The first book we ever published right from the slush pile was Voices in the Night: Women Speaking About Incest. This was before The Courage to Heal, and there are nothing, absolutely nothing on the subject. We sold many many thousands of copies of Voices in the Night.
Do you think it is possible to embrace women’s traditional roles and feminist ideals at the same time? Can these two worlds work together in one’s personal life or entertainment?
I love this question! There is abosolutely nothing wrong with sex roles—as long as you have the freedom to choose the one(s) that resonate for you. As Adrienne Rich once said, and I may be paraphrasing, “There’s nothing wrong with privilege…as long as everyone has it.”
Let’s assume a man or woman is new to reading LGBT literature. Which books should he or she pick up within the lesbian catalog?
Within the lesbian catalog: First, the Best Lesbian Erotica series. If you want to know what makes a lesbian a lesbian (!), start with erotic stories like those in the Best Lesbian Erotica series. After all, this is where you will find women writing unabashedly of their desire for and experiences (both real and imagined) of sex between women. Then, I’ send that reader right to my book, The Whole Lesbian Sex Book: A Passionate Guide for All of Us. There is no better guide to lesbian and bisexual women’s sexuality. I say that as both the author and the publisher—and as a reader of books about sex. The reason I wrote this book is that I had been waiting years to receive such a book proposal. It never happened. I know the book was needed, so I decided to write it myself.
For straight people, why might they too be interested in reading LGBT books? Some people seem embarrassed being seen near the aisle.
Well, LGBTQ books speak authoritatively and authentically about sexuality and gender. It’s hard (even today) to sift the good info from books which really pander to the shame-based, sex-negative status quo. So I would encourage everyone to look to LGBTQ books for a fresh take on their own sexuality. After all, as humans we have far more in common you we may think.
What is the worst thing someone ever told you about your books? How did it make you feel great? Because criticism sometimes does that to you, leading you on a power trip when you know you’re doing something right enough to be controversial.
There was a time when some feminist publishers and some feminist booksellers were quite dismissive about what Cleis did, because they considered erotica and sex guides as not a politically legitimate contribution, to say the least. During their own leans times, they would say, well, of course YOU’RE doing okay, you publish sex—as if we were exploiters cranking out crap for money. We were doing better than many of our sister publishers, but we think it’s because we were publishing books people wanted to read. And doing it well. And respecting the varied reading interests of our audience.
What do you see as the parts of life in America where women are most oppressed? Outside this country, which countries in your opinion need progress?
I’m going to speak about America and not other countries, simply because it’s so easy to point to other regions for examples of oppression. Women are oppressed in the US because as long as we are on the defensive regarding access to contraceptives and abortion, we will spend much energy and money trying not to lose what we’ve already gained, with not enough resources left over to push forward on basic issues like income equality. Women still don’t earn as much as men.
Do you think feminism is still around anymore or was it something that ended in the 90’s?
Feminism is definitely still around, though perhaps some people don’t want to label themselves with the word “feminism.”