Jennifer Baumgardner, founder and editor of LIBER: A Feminist Review, believes a literary journal can be a place where women’s history intersects with today’s most pressing feminist debates. The bimonthly print publication, also available online, calls this ambitious mission a way to engage with “the tangle of perspectives, priorities and entry points” of contemporary feminist theory and practice.
Visually stunning, the magazine brings book reviews, new fiction, poetry and long-form essays to subscribers. Content straddles the personal and the political. Poetry editor Katha Pollitt selects new work by famous and emerging poets.
Although the magazine is new—its first issue came out in early 2022—it has already attracted contributions from prominent writers including Catharine Stimpson, Chris Kraus, Alicia Ostriker, Laurie Stone and Michelle Tea.
Baumgardner, a writer and documentary-maker, publishes LIBER through her feminist imprint Dottir Press. Formerly the editor of The Women’s Review of Books, and director of The Feminist Press (and a former editor at Ms.!), she is enthusiastic but realistic about the challenges of creating and promoting a publication devoted to books, language, popular culture and progressive social change.
Baumgardner and senior editor Charis Caputo sat down with Ms. contributor Eleanor J. Bader in late summer to discuss LIBER—which means ‘book’ and ‘free’ in Latin—and their goals for the Review.
Eleanor J. Bader: What was the impetus for starting LIBER?
Jennifer Baumgardner: I edited the Women’s Review of Books from 2018 through 2022, and Charis and Katha worked with me for most of that time. WRB was founded and housed at the Wellesley Centers for Women, but in the last 15 years or so, it was owned by Old City Publishing—basically two gentlemen in Philadelphia who own a bunch of journals including American Poetry Review and Women’s Art Journal. They were lovely and never interfered editorially, but they controlled the layout and thus the aesthetic.
When Charis and I decided it was time to move on from WRB, we couldn’t let go of the idea of creating a publication of our own, and focusing on the parts of the job that we loved, including design. We believed there was a need for more writing by feminists, especially in a print form that you can hold in your hands.
We put feelers out to our circles to see what people thought of the idea. There was a lot of enthusiasm. Of the hundred or so writers we reached out to initially, most said they would subscribe, write for it, or both. That gave us the push to create LIBER.
Women’s history is being lost. Think of the dozens and dozens of feminist and lesbian feminist presses from the 1970s and ’80s whose output is not archived, catalogued or even part of an online network for researchers or readers. We’d like to help fix this omission.Jennifer Baumgardner
Bader: Why did you decide to merge archival materials and historical reflections alongside newly written pieces?
Baumgardner: Women’s history tends to get lost and then rediscovered years later. These rediscoveries are important, but sometimes when the history is recovered and circulated, it’s watered down or incomplete or oversimplified or blurred—like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photo. But historical documents or first-person accounts, however messy, are usually fascinating and illuminating.
We want LIBER to have an archival element, a way for feminists to interact with accounts that are neither romanticized nor turned into something they were not. Some of the recent writing and other media about the Jane Collective in pre-Roe Chicago is an example of these distortions.
Right now, women’s history is being lost. Think of the dozens and dozens of feminist and lesbian feminist presses from the 1970s and 1980s whose output is not archived, catalogued or even part of an online network for researchers or readers. We’d like to help fix this omission. We are trying to be another brick in the building of feminist history and would love to serve as something of an archival hub.
Bader: Do you solicit contributions to the Review?
Baumgardner: We do. We have five or six people whose work we love, that we know we can count on and who contribute to most issues, like McKenzie Wark, Noelle McManus, Kathleen Rooney … and Charis! We get a lot of over-the-transom pitches, too.
Additionally, there’s serendipity. For example, our copy editor, Larissa Melo Pienkowski, is also a literary agent. She introduced us to one of her authors, a Brazilian poet named Aline Mello. Katha accepted new poems from Aline, and in a subsequent conversation we recognized that Aline had a great story to tell about what it is like to be an undocumented MFA student post-DACA. Aline wrote a wonderful essay about this in the Fall issue of LIBER.
Sometimes, like with Aline, serendipity works out. Sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes the work submitted requires a lot of surgery, but I like to be open-minded about new writers. It’s worth the risk.
Charis Caputo: We want an interesting mix of writers. I recently graduated from New York University’s MFA program in creative writing, so I am engaged with a lot of younger writers.
Jennifer has a big cohort of her peers as well as second-wave era writers she worked with at WRB, Feminist Press and Ms.—LIBER is committed to including different generations of feminists.
Bader: LIBER includes many nonbinary and trans writers as a matter of course. Is this intentional?
Baumgardner: Yes. People are, of course, biological creatures but we do not use the words “feminist” or “women” in a way that reduces these categories to a few body parts. This enables us to use our platform to look at socialization, the deeply entrenched misogyny that surrounds anything feminine. We refuse to get into the old, obvious debate about who is a woman or generalizations about female experience. Gender essentialist arguments get plenty of real estate—in feminist-identified spaces and on, like, Tucker Carlson. We do not want or need to rehash them.
Instead, we publish work that explores the philosophical and political opportunity that nonbinary or trans perspectives offer to feminist theory.
Caputo: An implicit stance of LIBER is that we do not believe essentialism is valid. There are no ironclad definitions of what it means to be a man, woman or person of another gender.
We knew that we wanted to include a lot of different perspectives and be a big feminist tent for as many people as possible. This is both an opportunity and a challenge.Charis Caputo
Bader: How have readers responded to the magazine so far?
Baumgardner: Some pieces we’ve published have been polarizing which gets debate going. We’re happy about this. Overall, though, the magazine has been warmly received and feedback has been positive-to-rapturous. People seem happy to read it. It’s visually legible, which helps!
Still, we have to scale up if LIBER is going to be sustainable. We now have a distributor and a number of big independent bookstores across the country stock the magazine (like Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, Powell’s in Portland, and Skylight in LA).
Whether we can grow it to the place it needs to be is an open question. We pay our writers, artists and staff, except me and Katha, so we have to have enough subscribers—individual as well as institutional—to enable the magazine to pay for itself. If this does not happen, we’ll have to face the fact that this experiment did not quite succeed. For now, though, we’re happy to create a properly designed feminist print publication.
Caputo: From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to include a lot of different perspectives and be a big feminist tent for as many people as possible. This is both an opportunity and a challenge.
Feminism in some ways has been mainstreamed. Certainly, I grew up taking it for granted. Then, when I started working with Jennifer, I realized I was not very knowledgeable, especially about the second wave. Bringing my generation—I am 32—into the conversation is important to me. This is a role that LIBER can play, helping to bridge the generations. To do this people need to know LIBER exists, so we have to find new and better ways to promote it.
Bader: I don’t envy you. These are difficult times, between COVID and a seemingly widespread economic downturn. Do you have a strategy to move this forward?
Baumgardner: First, Charis is right that feminism has been mainstreamed to some extent. Nonetheless, people typically come to identify as feminists through personal experience. The element of having something happen to you and connecting that experience to previous generations of feminists gives feminism its glue. If LIBER can provide a link that avoids the surface stuff and invites newer feminists in for a deeper dive, we will be making a contribution and providing an ideological toehold for understanding the world.
I think of LIBER as a collage, a mix of new ideas, old ideas, academic theories and commentary about novels, history, memoir and art. If LIBER gets to develop, our pages will include more reported stories, like a round-up of the constellation of feminist materials that were created by the now-defunct women’s presses or an oral history of early Second Wave groups like the Furies.
We have so many ideas and are excited about expanding our reach and readership. This fall we’ll be doing a series of in-person events which we hope will bring in new readers, new writers, institutional subscriptions and maybe some advertising dollars. Time will tell.
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