MAKING SPACE, MAKING WORDS, MAKING WAVES
April 6, 2020 was a transformational moment in the Boston area women’s community: New Words, A Women’s Bookstore opened. New Words was one of the earliest feminist bookstores in the country and a pioneer in what was soon to become an international feminist-bookstore, women-in-print movement.
The four founders, Rita Arditti, Gilda Bruckman, Mary Lowry, and Jean MacRae, were an unlikely group. Rita was a biologist, Gilda worked in a Harvard Square bookstore, Mary was an optician, and Jean was just finishing a graduate degree at Harvard Divinity School. They found each other through a series of serendipitous introductions made by mutual friends. Each had independently imagined opening a space that would be welcoming to women and allow them to explore the literature, ideas, and politics of women’s liberation. Together, with pooled funds of $15,000, they created one of Boston’s first women’s spaces.
It is hard now to imagine what a radical and audacious move this was. In 1974, mainstream bookstores typically would have one or two novels of Austen or Woolf; there was no outlet for lesbian writing; writings by women of color were all but invisible; the shelf space for women’s politics (always located under “Sociology”) consisted mostly of a few copies of Friedan’s Feminine Mystique or DeBeauvoir’s Second Sex. The opening of New Words was enthusiastically welcomed by women across New England, and for almost three decades New Words was an anchor, a refuge, an organizing site, a community base, and a resource for women’s communities throughout the region, and a destination point for feminists around the world.
The bookstore first opened its doors at 419 Washington Street, Somerville. In January 1976, we moved to a bigger space on the ground floor at 186 Hampshire St, Cambridge, in what was then the Inman Square hotbed of feminist activity. In addition to New Words, the Hampshire Street building housed the Goddard Cambridge Program in Women’s Studies, Focus, a feminist counseling collective, and the Boston Federal Feminist Credit Union. Two blocks down the street was the Women’s Community Health Center, and across the street from that, the women’s restaurant, Bread & Roses. A few doors up the street in the other direction was Gypsy Wagon, a women-owned craft store. The historic Cambridge Women’s Center was within walking distance and the locally produced early edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was already changing women’s lives.
New Words was part of a flourishing feminist cultural revolution in the mid 1970s. Women started producing music, newspapers, magazines, opened publishing houses, and forged national and international political and social networks. Small pamphlet publishers such as New England Free Press paved the way for the ‘zine revolution two decades later. Women’s newspapers in Boston alone included Sojourner, Sister Courage, Equal Times, and, later, the Women’s Review of Books. The magazines Second Wave and Cell 16 were published locally. Gay Community News also reported on and spoke for many feminist and lesbian activists. The international linkages of the bookstore were evident in the range of offerings — New Words’ journal shelves included Manushi (India), Femme (Mexico), Spare Rib (UK); our book sections ranged from health through humor; the store featured a separate wall of shelves devoted to international women writers (of both fiction and nonfiction) from Bessie Head to Nawal El Sawadi.
New Words became a critical community focal point for political organizing, feminist discussion groups, self-help groups, and cultural programming. The Boston Women’s Fund, for example, grew out of a meeting held in New Words’ basement reading room. New Words was one of the few venues where black feminism was made visible; the store was a major outlet for the writings of the Combahee River Collective and for Kitchen Table Women of Color Press in the extensive selection that comprised the “African American” section at New Words. At the time the bookstore was opened, there was no visible lesbian literary presence. Feminist bookstores, prominent among them New Words, moved lesbian writing out of the closet, off the rare bookshelves, and into eager readers’ hands.
From the beginning, the collective wanted the bookstore to be a forum for women to discuss new ideas and new writings. Book-related programming was central to the store. Over the years, readings at the store brought authors such as Julia Alvarez, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton, Pat Parker, June Jordan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Lillian Faderman, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Dorothy Allison, Alison Bechdel Jane Hamilton, Tillie Olsen, Wendy Wasserstein, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Grace Paley, Isabel Miller, among dozens of others, to Boston-area audiences.
By the mid-1980s, the bookstore became a bridge between activist and academic feminismsand served as a supplier for many of the new courses being developed. Women’s Studies instructors relied on the store to find the latest publications in their fields.
By the late 1980s, there were more than 120 feminist bookstores in the US and Canada. At New Words, the collective had expanded to include Madge Kaplan, Kate Rushin, Laura Zimmerman, Doris Reisig, and Joni Seager. The bookstore expanded into two more rooms at 186 Hampshire, and programming later expanded to include a music series (New Words Unplugged) and open-mic poetry sessions. Jaclyn Friedman began coordinating programs at New Words in 2000, a job which she has expanded and refined as Program Director for CNW.
However, in the next decade, significant shifts in bookselling, including the emergence of online bookselling and the growth of large chain bookstores began to have an impact on the viability of local independent bookstores, including women’s bookstores. In 1998 New Words Live, a non-profit organization, was established to provide support for programming at New Words. As sales at feminist bookstores declined dramatically in the late 90s, the women at New Words began to work on a project which would re-envision the transformation of New Words Bookstore to a new entity, no longer dependent of book sales as its sole source of revenue.
In October 2000, we received a grant from the Ford Foundation to develop and examine possible models for the future of feminist bookstores in the United States, paying particular attention to models that would enhance and build on their broad cultural and political roles; to identify the most viable of these forward-looking models and to develop a specific planning strategy and business plan for it; and to explore the ways in which this strategy and model might serve as a national pilot or exemplar for other feminist and progressive organizations facing similar business and organizational stresses.
The decision to implement this model, the Center for New Words, and close New Words Bookstore was made in late 2002. In October, 2002 the bookstore closed with much media and community fanfare and the first season of CNW programming was launched.
As Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) noted: “The Center for New Words is a creative and necessary next step in the cultivation of an open and inclusive civil society. At this juncture in the American political and cultural context, we urgently need to find ways to give power and space to diverse women’s voices. CNW will play a national role in doing this.”
New Words Bookstore’s papers are now archived at Schlesinger Library.