Introduction to Documents 1 and 2: “Unbusinesslike” Conduct   |   Document 1      |     Document 2
Introduction to Documents 3 and 4    |     Document 3: Feminist Publishing Ethics    |     Document 4: Women in Print Publishing Accords
Document 5: Feminist Publishing Proposal From Ruth to Barbara
Introduction to Documents 6, 7, and 8: Seal Books   |    Document 6     |    Document 7     |     Document 8
Document 9: Women Who Dared    |     Document 10: “Cheat to Eat”
Introduction to Documents 11 and 12: Hate Mail      |     Document 11       |    Document 12
Document 13: Outreach to Women of Color        |       Document 14: Letter to Angela Davis      |     Document 15: Letter from Audre Lorde      |    Document 16: “No More ‘Social Problems’ Projects”

 “We are not superwomen”: Navigating Finances, Identity Politics, and Vision of a Feminist Press

Project Group: Christina Ruggiero-Corliss, Juliet Wayne, Sophia Pekowsky

Student Editor: Natalia Shevin


Barbara Wilson (now Barbara Sjoholm) and Rachel da Silva founded the Seal Press in 1976. Wilson and da Silva met shortly after Wilson moved to Seattle in 1974 and joined the collective alternative newspaper, the Northwest Passage.[1] The staff of Northwest Passage collectively performed all tasks of production except the actual printing, and Wilson was determined to learn how to use a printing press. When a friend told Wilson that da Silva had bought a printing press and planned to print poetry in her parent’s garage, Wilson immediately contacted her. Inspired by their mutual love of books and the “sheer, butch glamour” of printing–the heavy lifting, the ink-stains, and the agency to produce their own work–Seal Press was born.[2] Before the 1970s, there were few printing presses owned and operated by women, and some believed this acted as a barrier between women writers and their audience. But that changed during the rise of the Women in Print Movement. Initially, their intentions weren’t explicitly feminist, but Wilson and da Silva’s personal politics and love of radical lesbian and feminist literature connected them to the burgeoning world of Women in Print.

By 1976, the Women in Print movement had already taken off, especially on the West Coast. Women in Print started as a political movement that attempted to diversify the literary work available to the general public. The movement’s participants believed that the corporate publishers who dominated New York’s literary scene (Simon and Schuster, Random House, and Macmillan) dictated American culture. This culture was home to a narrow range of voices and identities that excluded work by women of color and queer women. Barbara Smith of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press observed that “as feminist and lesbian of color writers, we knew we had no options for getting published, except at the mercy or whim of others, whether in the context of alternative or commercial publishing, since both are white dominated.”[3]

Seal Press focused its advocacy on publishing the voices of underrepresented women. Even though their staff was primarily white and middle class, Seal Press prioritized the writings of working-class women and women of color. They were dedicated to intersectionality long before the word was core vocabulary to feminist thinking. Because of this, Seal Press played a large role in the definition and development of Third Wave feminism in the late 1990s, allowing a new generation of women to voice their concerns in anthologies, fiction, and manifestos.[4]

The ideals of the Women in Print movement eventually conflicted with the financial realities of the book business. Seal Press, like many independent companies, could not offer its authors the perks of corporate publishers, which included national distribution and better compensation for their work. Feminist presses thought corporate publishers would only publish books that were saleable like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics.  Feminist publishers were frustrated when corporate presses bought the reprinting rights for their especially successful books. They felt that corporate publishers had profited off the market that they had created, while they took on the financial burden of nurturing new voices and new authors.

The history and evolution of Seal Press in many ways embodies this tension between feminist ideals and professional business practices. When da Silva and Wilson started the press in 1976, it was a small operation funded intermittently by grants. The original staff was not paid for their work until 1981. Even their most loyal writers like Ginny NiCarthy or Evelyn C. White struggled to keep contracts with Seal Press given their inconsistent record of royalties.

In 1982, after a grassroots campaign to raise the necessary funds, Seal Press published Getting Free: You Can End Abuse And Take Back Your Life, by Ginny NiCarthy. One of Seal’s first full-length projects, Getting Free was widely successful, undergoing multiple reprints between 1982 and 1997. The high level of national recognition and commercial success achieved by Getting Free initiated a fundamental shift in Seal Press’ operations. Having been accustomed to running as a small, intimate and collectively oriented entity, Seal Press struggled to maintain control over the increasingly complex financial side of their business. Faith Conlon, who took over as Wilson’s co-publisher following da Silva’s departure during the early 1980s, referred to this time as a period of “growth pains.”[5] The press had difficulty covering its expenses and paying its authors on time. Clashes over money created an air of tension between the press and its authors, directly conflicting with the Women in Print Movement’s feminist ideals of a trusting and supportive author-publisher relationship.

This mini-edition includes  financial and professional disputes between authors of Seal Press and competing presses (See Documents 1 through 8). It also contains two pitches, one from a previously-published author (See Document 9) and another from a woman who sought to expand Seal Press’ publications addressing  domestic violence survivors (See Document 10).  The project also documents that the Press, like other forms of Second Wave feminism, encountered opposition to its gender analysis, as seen in Documents 11 and 12, a letter from a male whose submission was rejected.

Seal Press’ weathered the transition from Second Wave feminism into the Third Wave. Reflecting the Third Wave’s increased focus on intersectionality, Seal Press worked closely with Evelyn C. White, who is featured in this mini-edition; a frequent author and editor for Seal Press, she worked as a Black woman to recruit more women of color writers to Seal Press (See Document 13). The evidence in the Seal Press files in Oberlin College Special Collections suggest that it garnered respect from feminists of color, despite being owned and operated by a largely white middle-class staff. White remained loyal to Seal Press (she never published for Kitchen Table: Woman of Color Press or other presses of color), established close relationships to the editors, and communicated with humor throughout all of her public and private writing. In particular, this mini-edition includes documents about recruiting essayists for her anthology, Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves (Documents 14, 15, and 16).

Seal Press continues to operate today, publishing thematically similar titles as it once did in the 1970s: topics related to queerness and sexuality, memoirs, parenting, intimate partner violence, and self-improvement. Some books, like Ginny NiCarthy’s Getting Free, and the updated version published with Sue Davidson, You Can Be Free, continue to be reprinted. They continue to publish works from the women’s perspectives. In 2001, Avalon Publishing Group purchased Seal Press, no longer publishing independently.

For more information about Seal Press, visit Oberlin College Special Collections’ finding guide.

[1] The Northwest Passage (1969-1986) was a countercultural newspaper that became an important source for political and environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest.

[2] Barbara Sjoholm, “She Who Owns the Press: The Physical World of Early Feminist Publishing” in Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century, ed. Liz Bly and Kelley Wooten (Litwen Books, 2012).

[3] Jennifer Gilley, “Feminist Publishing/Publishing Feminism: Experimentation in Second-Wave-Book Publishing” in This Is Action ed. Jamie Harker and Cecilia Konchar Farr (University of Illinois, 2016), 23.

[4] Leela Fernandes, “Unsettling ‘Third Wave Feminism’: Feminist Waves, Intersectionality, and Identity Politics in Retrospect,” in No Permanent Waves, Hewitt, ed., pp. 98-118.              

[5] Faith Conlon to Ginny NiCarthy, 14 May 1985, Seal Press Archive, Series II, Box I, O. C. A.