April 8, 2014—Feminism is still a hot topic of conversation, but the discourse—and its outlets—has changed dramatically over the last century. Bookstores were frequently a central hub for local and national activity during the height of the Second Wave in feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, but a freelance writer working on a story for Bitch magazine, Rhian Sasseen, recently found that only nine stores identified as feminist bookstores remain in the United States.
One of the first and most remarkable feminist bookstores was Cambridge’s own New Words bookstore, which donated its archives to the Radcliffe Institute Schlesinger Library after shuttering in 2002. In addition to being one of the first—it opened in 1974—it also lasted longer than many other stores, spanning almost 30 years.
Sasseen sought out the collection at the Schlesinger Library after speaking with several contemporary bookstore owners who frequently mentioned New Words in interviews. Sasseen was able to mine the archive for information on why feminist bookstores were so central to activists’ efforts.
She found ample and sometimes unexpected evidence of what role these bookstores played for feminists—even small details showed New Words to be among the grandmothers of feminist bookstores, hosting prestigious leaders of the feminist movement at its events.
“Mary [Murphy, who processed the collection] had set out all these archival materials. She showed me the store’s phone book, and they had Gloria Steinem’s phone number. It was amazing,” Sasseen recalled. “It was really cool evidence of how they had the bookstore set up.”
The Schlesinger Library acquired the records and processed them in 2010. Mary Murphy, project manager, and Kathy Jacob, curator of manuscripts, think the collection may be a one-of-a-kind find (thus far): while other institutions such as Brown University collect the records of publishers, including feminist presses, the New Words collection documents a bookstore whose mission was to disseminate the literature of the post-WWII women’s movement.
“This was a collection we thought would be a very important one since it speaks to women in publishing, women in business and Cambridge in a certain time and place,” explained Jacob.
Murphy, who processed the collection in her previous role as an archivist, stressed how much New Words was a sum larger than its parts.
“There’s a history of consciousness-raising. We have to remember how well-known this bookstore was. It was more than just a bookstore. All the feminist bookstores became a magnet for feminist activism. The bulletin board in New Words was where to go to find out who’s boycotting what, who’s protesting what, to find out about volunteers, housing…” Murphy said. “By looking at what they sell, you can follow the progress of the women’s movement. You can find how women’s literature changed in the marketplace, moving from tiny presses to larger presses.”
What happened to the dozens of stores that have dwindled to nine is a subject for debate—whether victims of competition from online booksellers, the feminist movement’s metamorphosis or the rise of general activism-focused shops, or a combination of factors.
While conversations on feminism may have shifted from taking place in front of bulletin boards in brick-and-mortar shops to online forums or other platforms, the Schlesinger Library will continue to collect and record the dialogue.