By Kim Dhillon
In the early 1970s, three independent feminist collectives were organized in the US with the purpose of writing, illustrating, publishing, and distributing non-sexist children’s books. Dissatisfied with the children’s literature on offer, and mobilized by the consciousness-raising of the Women’s Liberation Movement, these do-it-yourself styled collectives of feminist mothers wanted to broaden the range of children’s books to reflect the world they wanted their children to grow up in. One of these first presses was The Feminist Press, in New York. (The others included Lollipop Power Press in Chapel Hill, NC. and New Seed Press in California). In Italy, Della Parte delle bambini published non-sexist children’s books in Italian, and Editions des Femmes translated their titles into French. The US publishing collectives printed on mimeograph machines not being used by university admin staff in the evening. Manuscripts were sent in by contributors who heard of the press, and the most appealing ones were paired with an illustrator, and put into production.
The presses reflected a do-it-yourself styled collective of feminist mothers who wanted to broaden the range of children’s books to reflect the world they wanted to see their children grow up in. Members met in university offices out of hours. Over the 1970s a new body of children’s literature, radical for its time, was produced, and presented alternative models for characters, roles, family structures, and gendered behavior, beyond the hetereonormative status quo in mainstream children’s literature.
Promotion was organic, and distribution was often by mail order and small book shops. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the presses had reached a maximum audience based on the production model. Some mainstream children’s literature began to broaden its offerings, making characters, stories, and tropes that reduced the radicalism of the feminist literature. As the Second Wave of feminism waned, the tide turned against overtly feminist projects of inquiry. However, there also came a boom in consumerist exploitation of children and further gendering of toys and books, questioning the relevance and importance of this period of children’s literature today.
The first titles the Feminist Press published were children’s literature. Now, based at CUNY in New York, the Press only publishes adult feminist fiction and non-fiction. Arlie Hochschild was then an associate professor at Berkeley and developing her pioneering sociology on the family. She also had a three-year-old son, and had written a children’s book. Coleen the Question Girl would be one of The Feminist Presses’ first titles, published in 1974 with photomontage and in black and white, with illustrations by Gail Ashby. It tells the story of a young girl, Coleen, who was born with a question in her mouth. Coleen’s unstoppable question asking leads her to find surprising solutions to problems grown-ups can’t answer.
We came to know of Hochschild’s book – out of print but still in circulation on Amazon – as her essay Inside the Clockwork of Male Careers (Hochschild, 1973) was being circulated amongst PhD parent groups in London, finding a new readership. After contacting Hochschild, we began to collaborate to realise a new, updated version of Coleen that would retain her 1970s qualities while being relevant and engaging to new audiences today.
In 2016, Invisible Spaces of Parenthood published a revised edition of Coleen the Question Girl, with new colour illustrations by Rhiannon Williams. Hochschild was keen to collaborate, for she too wanted to see Coleen back in print, and spreading her questions to a new group of readers. Invisible Spaces of Parenthood is an ongoing research project and collaboration between myself and artist Andrea Francke, through which we explore parenthood, feminism, the labour of care, and the visibility of children in societal infrastructures. The 1960s and 70s suggest a recent history when these issues were up for re-examination amidst the second wave of feminism, when alternative models were being created and activated. Key to the creation of these models was the DIY attitude that permeated the second wave’s experiments. The DIY ethos made it possible to develop new models on a small scale, in turn allowing them to be political possibilities. Historical background feeds into discussions and investigations; explorations of the present help diagnose what we want to change and what we want things to become.
Coleen is on sale in paperback on Amazon:
And in hardcover on Blurb: