Women & Children First: Deconstructing Women & Women First
You may have an easier time picturing a true feminist bookstore by imagining the opposite of what you just saw. Many people have preconceived ideas of feminism that probably have a lot in common with the Women & Women First skit from Portlandia. The skit presents a narrow sort of feminism, one that caters to a specific kind of woman and excludes everyone else. It asserts rather than denies the idea that identity can be reduced to something basic and easily definable. In the show, the owners, Candace and Toni, are an amalgamation of stereotypes about feminists. They are often judgmental, angry, and dismissive of the lived reality of others, reinforcing common misconceptions about feminism, such as the idea that all feminists are lesbians, hate men, and represent an exclusionary culture.
While these tropes certainly makes for an amusing viewing experience, is this portrayal of a feminist bookstore accurate?
In the case of Women & Children First, a feminist bookstore located in Chicago, Illinois, it is anything but. Where the fictional Women & Women First excludes more people than it includes, W&CF invites a wide variety of people from different backgrounds into its space. This space affirms the experiences and values of a broad range of women and children. In a world where many of these experiences and values are frequently overlooked or outright rejected, this bookstore offers a safe space for those people who have traditionally not been allowed a voice.
This message of inclusivity and support, as well as a celebration of both the things that bring us together and the things that make us different, has been the mission of W&CF since the very beginning.
At W&CF, the staff take a wildly different approach from Toni and Candace. W&CF opened with the purpose “to promote the work of women writers and to create a place in which all women would find books reflecting their lives and interests” (P&W). When store ownership changed hands in 2014, the W&CF website was briefly updated to say that “the store may be changing hands, but it will not be changing heart” (Chicago Tribune).
That heart started beating in 1979.
W&CF opened in the late 70s, just as feminist bookstores were beginning to open across the United States. Part of a feminist academic discussion group, the two, (Christophersen and Bubon) realized that the local bookstores carried very little or no relevant literature. They noticed a hole in the book market for the emerging field of women’s studies. It was an opportunity not only to provide a valuable service, but also to create a new space that gave priority and voice to minorities in the writing world. Business was a little slow at first, but Linda credits the store’s success with a renaissance in women’s writing (P&W). As colleges and universities began to integrate women’s studies courses into the curriculum, more bookstores began to carry feminist texts.
Initially, women and children were Bubon and Christophersen’s priority for the bookstore, but in learning how to create a space for those who have little or none, they discovered their potential to create a space for all, resonant with the type of equality feminism represents. The opposite type of feminism is satirized on Portlandia in Women and Women First.
When their landlords changed and rent was set to be tripled, W&CF needed to change locations. The increase in business prioritized the need to move as well. However, the decision of where to relocate proved to be challenging. Luckily, Andersonville (a progressive community in Chicago) asked W&CF to move into their neighborhood. Bubon and Christophersen’s mission to create an equal space for those without had caught attention, and in a community where all were welcomed and embraced, W&CF found its current and final home.
From there, W&CF became an integral part of the Andersonville community, a place with many locally owned businesses and LGBTQ-friendly establishments. W&CF found it easy to make a home of Andersonville, expanding the store further a few years later after a neighboring craft store closed.
When W&CF first opened, and like many other feminist bookstores, they had a new market to fill. However, during the 90s changes in the book market (chain stores), the economy and the feminist movement saw the closing of many feminist bookstores (Hogan). Despite this, W&CF adapted to the changes, offering a wider range of books, while still remaining the same in its message—as a result, W&CF is one of thirteen remaining feminist bookstores in the United States (Paste Magazine). Surviving as one of the last stores, W&CF understands the importance of their customers and community, unlike in the Portlandia video below.
The clip from Portlandia shown above presents a bookstore with a very minimal connection to its surrounding neighborhood. Toni and Candace are actively discouraging potential customers from even approaching the storefront; it’s clear that the people they find outside of their bookstore are not the sort of customers that they desire. Toni and Candace are playing along with the stereotype that feminism is a narrow concept, one designed exclusively for one particular sort of person. This narrow conception of feminism has no room for the typical shopper. Women & Women First is isolated and obviously unwelcoming, but what is its real life counterpart, W&CF, and its neighborhood of Andersonville, like?
Despite stretching just 0.634 square miles, Andersonville is a tight-knit community. Today, the Chicago neighborhood is home to roughly 15,000 inhabitants, earning an average income of approximately $10,000 more than Chicago residents as a whole. (More statistics on this neighborhood can be found here). This increased amount of income helps to support the neighborhood’s many independent businesses, and attract many people from other states (30.7% of Andersonville residents have moved there from somewhere else in the U.S.).
These independent businesses are the heart of Andersonville, the glue that holds the community together. Run by actual residents of Andersonville, rather than large-scale corporate companies, these businesses work together and promote each other’s success, frequently banding together to organize neighborhood-wide activities. W&CF is a vital part of this neighborhood, a center of literature-based events and an excellent meeting place for many Andersonville residents.
In a neighborhood such as Andersonville, where new people from different backgrounds arrive frequently, there is a recognition and celebration of diversity, of the things that make us all unique. North Clark Street, the location of W&CF, is a good example of the many different options available in Andersonville.
In the southern end of the neighborhood, North Clark Street includes a variety of independent businesses, much like the rest of Andersonville; in addition to W&CF, this street hosts restaurants, furniture stores, and even a dance studio. The restaurants on North Clark Street, from a variety of different countries and cultures, embody the sense of inclusivity that the neighborhood, and W&CF, strives for: there is Reza’s, a Mediterranean and Persian restaurant, the Southern-style Big Jones, the Polygon Cafe (a Thai kitchen and sushi bar), and Diamante Azul, a Mexican restaurant. These restaurants, all clustered together on a single street, represent the blending of cultures and people that can be found in Andersonville.
As one of only two bookstores in the neighborhood (the other is AlleyCat Comics, across the street), W&CF offers a unique physical space for all kinds of customers, no matter their background, to connect with literature, especially literature with a feminist focus. In this way the bookstore embodies an important feminist concept: intersectionality. Intersectionality, defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender” (OxfordDictionaries.com), acknowledges the importance of being open to the differences within everyone. Though W&CF values the experiences of women, they also value the experiences of many other types of people, no matter their class, race, or sexuality. W&CF offers a safe space for those who need one.
Along with this physical space, the bookstore dedicates much time and effort to hosting various events designed to draw in interested members of the community; these events include author readings, book launches, workshops, arts and crafts events, open mic nights, and a weekly story time hour for local children. The bookstore’s event calendar can be found here. These events reinforce W&CF’s connection to their surrounding community.
Through its many events, which bring members of the community together and offer new ways to interact with and connect to literature, W&CF provides what Laura J. Miller calls “community service” in her book Reluctant Capitalists; the bookstore “offer[s] a much-needed public space” for Andersonville residents to come together (122).
Along with its communal connection, the bookstore welcomes customers old and new into the store through its organization; unlike Women & Women First in the clip below, W&CF creates a space that gives people the chance to interact.
Looking at the organization of Women & Women First as a counterpoint to W&CF, we see the idea of a “personal” bookstore taken to its extreme. In this context, a personal bookstore means one based on the personality of its owner(s). In Women & Women First, the bookstore lacks logical organization, with books shelved based on the whim of the owners. This depiction of Toni and Candace plays on stereotypes of women as emotional, rather than rational beings. Instead of logically considering the intern’s suggestion that the store take up the standard practice of alphabetizing books by author’s last name, the two women react with aggression. Toni does not even allow the intern to finish shelving books, instead choosing to throw the volumes. These aggressive actions again play into stereotypical “angry” feminist behavior. In contrast to this fictional store, W&CF demonstrates a logical and considered organization that takes into account both business and feminist community space.
W&CF navigates a delicate balance between the business of books and the community of books, a disparity made visible simply by moving through the bookstore. Unlike Women & Women First, the staff uses rationalized sections, such as hardcover bestsellers and new & noteworthy titles. Indeed, much of the front section of the store is devoted to the fiction and nonfiction titles that generally sell in greater quantities than, say, queer horror (all the potential teens who may be looking for it aside). In another logical decision aimed at increasing sales, several displays of non-book goods sit directly to the left of the main entrance. These goods (cards, bookmarks, t-shirts emblazoned with the name of the store, etc.) are conveniently positioned for the sake of the casual browser or impulse buyer.
French philosopher Bruno Latour defines a thing as both a factual object and a “matter of concern,” whereas as an object only encompasses the realm of the factual (2288). Using this definition, Women & Women First, as a fictional bookstore, treats books as mere objects. Even in W&CF, some of the books function as objects, for instance the tables of bestsellers at the front of the store. The element of W&CF that paints a book as a thing rather than an object is community.
W&CF reflects the importance of community involvement through its use of space. One of the primary goals of the recent renovation was to create more room for community events. Prior to the remodel, most readings and events took place in the children’s section of the store. Staff would set out rows of folding chairs facing an elevated platform. Although the children’s section still occasionally becomes an event area, there is now a second community area, one that can either play host to folding chairs for a reading or a large table for an adult coloring book night, adult beverages included. While the owners of Women & Women First objected to the idea of a mixer, the staff at W&CF certainly would not.
W&CF owes its continued existence in part to the fact that it has remained cognoscente of the importance of physical space as well as claiming online space. Through events like feminist book clubs and Sappho’s Salon, in addition to simply stocking feminist titles, the store maintains a thriving public space for feminist discussion. This discussion continues online through active social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The bookstore also creates a space for the Andersonville community. Its multiple book groups include space for “QueerReaders,” “Family of Women,” and kids, in addition to the feminist and women’s book groups.
W&CF, unlike the stereotypes Toni and Candace are portraying in Women & Women First, does not draw lines to exclude any particular group. They are, in fact, trying to do the opposite, and are trying to blend all of these lines to create a space that all types of people can enjoy.
W&CF effectively does this on their online spaces as well—through their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All of their online spaces try to interact with community and to bridge the gap between W&CF and the rest of the world.
So, what exactly does this blend between online space and physical space mean for W&CF?
Perhaps it is suggesting that W&CF functions culturally as an all inclusive, welcoming space, in all aspects of their store—and is keeping up with modern demands through their use of these online surfaces. By harboring this inclusive environment online, they are creating a space for those who cannot physically come to the bookstore to still be able to participate in all that the bookstore is trying to offer. Unlike Toni and Candace, they are not catering toward a specific type of woman or person, they are catering towards all.
W&CF seems to use their physical space as an extension of the books they carry, using it in order to create an area of equality, and understanding. As we saw through the videos, Women & Women First is doing quite literally the opposite of this—and is “trying” to be inclusive, but is actually creating a very exclusive space through the way they carry out their definition of “feminism.”
Looking at all W&CF is trying to accomplish, it seems their definition of feminism and of literature is much broader than just what is on the page. They are using literature as a center point of their mission. Feminism, simply put, is about equality—something that Toni and Candace are clearly not comprehending. Literature for W&CF becomes a tool to deconstruct the stereotypes that shows like Portlandia are placing on feminist bookstores. Through their relationship with their surrounding community, the books they carry, and the very open spaces in which they display them, and even their history as a bookstore, they combat each one of the stereotypes that Toni and Candace try to place on today’s feminist bookstores.
As one of the original owners, Linda Bubon, responds to the skits: “I like irreverent humor. I’ve always thought that feminists have a great sense of humor and are able to poke fun at the patriarchy. But I have to say, I think satire is at its best when it is the powerless making fun of the powerful. And so [for the TV show] to target a little independent bookstore—you sort of wince thinking there are so many people who’ve never visited a feminist bookstore and this is what they might actually think” (Kelley). Portlandia is making fun of one of the last remaining feminist bookstores in the US, which is evident by even their fictionally named “Women & Women First” bookstore. W&CF, through their definition of literature, are using their bookstore as a tool to remind us all that there is no one “correct” version of feminism.
These feminist bookstores are “a part of [an] endangered and crumbling infrastructure” (Mantilla, 50). This infrastructure provided women with a safe, physical space for consciousness-raising and activism. W&CF is trying to provide their community, as well as all communities, with this type of safe place. They have survived against the odds as one of the last remaining feminist bookstores.
W&CF will continue to fight back.
Images (In order of Appearance)
Newspaper Shot of Bubon and Christopherson. <http://chicago.gopride.com/entertainment/column/index.cfm/col/2212>
Andersonville Sign with People <http://previewchicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/andersonville.jpg>
Toni and Candace (Portlandia) <http://images.amcnetworks.com/ifc.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/toni-candace-best-moments.jpg>
Women & Children First Storefront <http://www.goindie.com/assets/images/user_images/2011/3/14/20110314140344320.JPG>
Women & Women First Storefront <http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/portlandia/images/a/ab/Women_%26_Women_First.png/revision/latest?cb=20140119173726>
Hogan, Kristen. “Women’s Studies in Feminist Bookstores: “All the Women’s Studies Women Would Come In”.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 33.3 (2008): 595-621. Web.
Latour, Bruno. “Why has critique run out?” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2277-2293. Print
Mantilla, Karla. “Feminist Bookstores: Where Women’s Lives Matter.” Off Our Backs. Women and Culture. Vol. 37, Num. 2/3, 48-50. Print.
Other images of the bookstore courtesy of Lynn Mooney.
Change in Ownership <https://www.facebook.com/pages/Women-Children-First-Bookstore/8326741337>
Grand Opening <http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/wcf-history-and-purpose>
Post-Renovation Open House <https://www.facebook.com/pages/Women-Children-First-Bookstore/8326741337>
Store Opens in Current Location <https://www.facebook.com/pages/Women-Children-First-Bookstore/8326741337>
W&CF Moves <http://www.chicagogayhistory.com/ARTICLE.php?AID=21 >
Women’s Voices Fund Created <http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/wcf-history-and-purpose >
Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois. <http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Andersonville-Chicago-IL.html>
The Feminist Bookstores that Inspired Portlandia. <http://www.mhpbooks.com/the-feminist-bookstores-that-inspired-the-portlandia-sketches/>
Intersectionality: definition of intersectionality in Oxford dictionary. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/intersectionality>
The Neighborhood – Andersonville. <http://andersonville.org/>
Women and Children First <http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/wcf-history-and-purpose>