Reading for women's rights

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Feminist bookseller Susan Post was only a child when she realized she wanted a life very different from the one her

mother led.

“I could see my mother’s isolation,” said Post, who grew up during the 1940s and ’50s in California’s Bay Area. “I saw her kind of wither on the vine. Housework became important; reading wasn’t important. And I grew up not wanting to be in a subservient, isolated environment without intellectual stimulation. I realized that really early.”

Observing her mother’s loneliness and intellectual boredom was one of the many factors that led Post to pursue a more alternative approach to life. She eventually helped create and now owns Austin’s BookWoman, the only remaining feminist bookstore in Texas. The current changing state of publishing has been hard on booksellers, especially independents and specialty shops such as BookWoman, Post said. Past articles have described the store as the only one of its kind existing in Texas.

BookWoman is a haven for literature — both fictional and nonfictional — written by women about women’s and gender studies, GLBT issues and racial topics, among others. The store welcomes both male and female customers but remains strongly focused on female-centric merchandise. Post and a collective of 12 other women founded the store in 1975, when it was known as The Common Woman bookstore and located adjacent to the UT campus at the intersection of 21st and Guadalupe streets.

After changing locations four times in the store’s 35-year history, including a two-year stint operating out of Post’s own living room, BookWoman and Post have now installed themselves at 5501 North Lamar Blvd. Over the years, the other members of the collective have fallen away, and Post now fully owns the store.

A large part of Post’s passion for running BookWoman comes from her own craving for knowledge she finds in books. Reading was an integral part of Post’s self-education and played a large part in shaping her ideas about the world.

“I grew up in a house without books,” Post said. “There was a small bookshelf in a closet with my parent’s very small collection, and we’d have to wait until the parents were gone to go look at them. One of the things that changed my life as a child was the bookmobile that came to town, and I was able to discover new books.”

Despite the dearth of reading material at home, Post was an inquisitive and independent child, often taking the bus alone to Oakland, Calif., and later to San Francisco.

“The bus really educated me in a way that school never did,” Post said. “I saw how different people lived, I saw a lot of poverty. I practiced going to restaurants and ordering food, and I’d have my book that I’d read. I never really found anyone or talked to anyone, but in my imagination, I was kind of acting on a bohemian literary fantasy.”

Not all of Post’s learning experiences were quite so pleasant. Late in Post’s adolescence, following her family’s move to Houston, a man living near her apartment complex’s pool offered Post a glass of water from inside his apartment. He then attempted to pull Post’s bathing suit off. Luckily, Post was able to force the man off and escape.

“I was very naive,” Post said. “I was very ashamed of it for a long time because I never knew of that kind of thing happening to any other woman so I thought I was the only one. That kind of woke me up; I realized that so many men just kind of thought that if someone didn’t claim us, we were free game.”

Post received her degree in art and sociology from Stephen F. Austin University while the school was in the violent process of desegregation.

“Going into Nacogdoches was like going into George Orwell’s world,” Post said. “It was very repressive. I was in a place where there were [racially segregated] water fountains and entrances to the movie theater. I couldn’t wear pants on campus; I hadn’t even heard the word ‘feminist.’ I just acted as if I were one.”

Post eventually settled into a job working in UT’s library system when she received the invitation to join the women’s collective that would eventually become BookWoman at the end of 1975. Among the most fiercely debated topics was the concept of having a strictly separatist “women only” space, an argument on which Post remained mostly neutral.

“The thinking was: ‘We can’t find women on the shelves; we can’t find material that might be objectionable to men — Why would we let men into our bookstores? We want a space for women in which we can control things, including the atmosphere,’” Post said.

Eventually, BookWoman became the welcoming yet strongly female-focused space is todayPost, who seems able to conjure knowledge about any volume in her store with instantaneous ease, says it isn’t the issues that have changed for women over the years but the approach that needs to be taken toward them. She references the need for equal pay for women working in the same positions as men, the need for more women in high-level professional positions and women’s reproductive and health rights as some of the issues that still need attention.

“Back then, it was all about consciousness-raising, making people aware of the issues,” Post said. “Nowadays, it’s about coaching women through those issues, telling them what can be done about them. So often, people think they can sign an online petition and that’s all it takes.”

One of Post’s greatest wishes for the future is a greater intergenerational dialogue about women’s rights, especially on the local level.

“How cool would it be to have a panel discussion of older feminists and younger ones in the area to talk about the issues and how things have changed?” Post said, smiling. “I’m not a theorist, I’m more of a worker. But there are people who have really thought about this stuff.”

Post is a busy woman and admitted she lacks the time and resources to organize such an event. She hopes that the material BookWoman supplies will continue to foster such discussion about women’s place in the world. After all, she knows from experience that information is everything.