I knew the names of Kirsten Grimstad and Susan Rennie from the masthead of Chrysalis, the ’70s feminist cult magazine they ran out of the Women’s Building in Los Angeles, enlisting no less than trailblazing feminist designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville to art direct and design it. But before that, the co-editors worked together on another, lesser known publishing project called The New Woman’s Survival Catalog. At the time, the book was billed as the “feminist Whole Earth Catalog,” Stewart Brand’s famed counterculture magazine that focused on ecology, DIY, and holism during its 1968-1972 reign.
Like Whole Earth Catalog, Grimstad and Rennie’s book is designed in the style of a typical sales catalog, but it comprised more than just product reviews—it’s a rigorous documentation of the efforts of feminist bookstores, health centers, collectives, art schools, galleries, publishing ventures, and self-help divorce co-ops around the country. Grimstad and Rennie quit their jobs and traveled from coast to coast to talk to the women behind these feminist endeavors. “These projects express a rejection of the values of existing institutional structures and, unlike the male hip counter-culture, represent an active attempt to reshape culture through changing values and consciousness,” they write in the book’s introduction. Pre-internet, they created the book to build a network of other likeminded women around the country.
Back in New York, with a shoe-string publishing advance, Grimstad, Rennie, and a small team of other editors and interns typeset, screenprinted, pasted-up, and printed out the book from an Upper West Side apartment. In 1973, they presented it, camera-ready, to their publisher. Their make-shift process is documented at the end of their book, which you can now read in its entirety online.
Can you talk about how you started putting together The New Woman’s Survival Catalog?
Kirsten Grimstad: It started out as a women’s studies bibliography. This was when the Barnard College Women’s Center was really just getting started, and the director at the time wanted to establish a women’s studies bibliography as one of the activities of the center. I was an alumna of Barnard and a graduate student at Columbia at the time, and I was recruited to put it together. I thought the bibliography needed to have an activist dimension to it, otherwise it wouldn’t be feminist. So I conducted a national survey to obtain information about women’s activist projects throughout the country. I shared what I was finding with Susan and she found it very exciting.
Susan Rennie: We were sensitive that our attitude was very New York-centric. What was astonishing about this material was that all of the very exciting and radical movements were happening elsewhere throughout the country. It was much more exciting than what was happening in New York. I was a PhD student at Columbia at the time and on the board at the Woman’s Center. I had some contact at the publisher Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, so we went there and sold it as “the woman’s Whole Earth Catalog.”
That’s what our book strived to do: to create some sort of nationwide network of feminist alternative culture.
So you decided to model it after Whole Earth Catalog before pitching it to your publisher?
Rennie: Yes, that was the hook. We were thinking about how we could present all of this material, and the idea that came to mind was to make it a feminist version of the Whole Earth Catalog.
Grimstad: The brilliance of the Whole Earth Catalog, for our purposes, was the networking element. That’s what our book strived to do: to create some sort of nationwide network of feminist alternative culture.
There’s a similar low-budget, DIY feel to the production of the book as well.
Grimstad: Yes, it aspired to a handmade quality like the Whole Earth Catalog. Its subtitle is “A Woman-made Book.”
Rennie: Also, so much of what women were doing throughout the country was do-it-yourself. For example, there was a women-run rape crisis center in Detroit that was putting together a manual of how to start a rape crisis center, and that was all created by them on a low budget. So it was part of the ethic [of the project].
Grimstad: We also didn’t have a very big advance, and we put together the book really quickly. We did it all under tremendous pressure, in five months. Two months we spent on the road.
So you physically went from place to place to see what women were doing? Can you describe the amount of legwork involved in putting together a directory of this size in the 1970s?
Rennie: We quit our jobs and rented a car. I think gas was something like 60 cents a gallon in those days.
Grimstad: I had a little card box with names and addresses of women’s centers, bookstores, health centers, and all of these places we had identified [with the survey]. But then we would arrive at a place like Atlanta, for example, to go to the Rubyfruit Jungle Collective, which is where Rita Mae Brown got the name for her book. And we would contact these women and they would take us in and take us out to dinner and say, “While you’re here, you must go and visit these women.” They just couldn’t wait to tell us about what else was going on there.
Rennie: We would arrive to Oakland and they’d say, “You have to go up the coast, these women are goat farming.” And then we would get there and there was a feminist agriculture movement.
Grimstad: We would engage in conversations with these women activists that went well into the night. We couldn’t then go and leave and find a motel, so they would invite us to stay over. We were often sleeping on the floor, on futons.
We typeset it, we made these screenprints, and we pasted it all up on boards. What we put together for the publisher was camera-ready copy.
That process and ethos comes through in the finished publication. Did you get straight to work on the book when you came back from the road?
Grimstad: We had two interns at Barnard who we were sending the material to—audio recordings, documentation from the groups themselves. They were organizing it while we were gone.
The whole production happened in two months in an apartment on Riverside Drive and 106th Street. The bathroom was turned into a darkroom. We rented a machine from IBM that was called a Composer, and a woman named Mark St. Giles typeset the magazine. The two of us, along with Fanette Pollack and Ruth Bayard Smith, did all of the writing and editing. I did a lot of the printing of the photographs; we made screenprints in the bathroom. We typeset it, we made these screenprints, and we pasted it all up on boards. What we put together for the publisher was camera-ready copy. At the end we took it all in a big box to the publishers in a taxi. Then we went to the Russian Tea Room and fell asleep at dinner, we were so exhausted.
Then you went on the start the magazine Chrysalis, which you ran out of the Women’s Center in L.A.?
Rennie: After we’d done these books, we had all of this information and all of these contacts. We decided that this work could continue as a magazine. That’s how Chrysalis started. The Women’s Building was where we hooked up with [designer] Sheila de Bretteville. Then, of course, we got to be very stylish.
Grimstad: We were still “doing it ourselves,” but because we were working with Sheila and the team at the Woman’s Building, it was a much more polished product than what we were producing.
Rennie: Without having to do all of the production ourselves, we could pay more attention to content. A lot of the woman who were writing groundbreaking articles for Chrysalis went on to become successful writers. We went about finding them the same way we did with the book, by going around and connecting with people and finding out who was doing what and who was interested in what.
I would say, ‘I’ll be post-feminist when we’re post-patriarchal.’ We’re still not there.
The Whole Earth Catalog still has a pretty strong cult following today. It feels like, in comparison, The New Woman’s Survival Catalog has been buried by history.
Rennie: In the early ’80s, starting with the Reagan administration, slowly and subtly there was a turning away from feminism and a backlash against it. When Reagan came in, he also severely cut funding for community development. A lot of the feminist groups, like the Women’s Building, were surviving on federal community grants.
Grimstad: Feminism was being called “the f-word.” People were writing articles in the New York Times about how we were in a post-feminist era. It was wishful thinking. I would say, “I’ll be post-feminist, when we’re post-patriarchal.” We’re still not there.
Rennie: One of the things that’s come to light during the #MeToo Movement is that there is a resurgence of feminism. There has been a resurgence of women politically. But in the ’80s it was almost like women wanted to distance themselves from feminism, like it was a dirty word. That’s changing. It’s coming back into the vocabulary.
Women were beginning to make this shift from a more passive role in life to an active role in which we asserted our agency.
How do you guys feel that the catalog holds up today?
Rennie: The Survival Catalog is very much an artifact of the Second Wave and represents what the Women’s Movement did in the ’70s. It shows that when women have energy and specific goals, they can direct that energy collectively to an effective degree. We were seeing some tremendous energy while putting together this project. That’s something we’ve been seeing again, on a political level, over these last two years.
Grimstad: What marked that particular era, and you can see this in every single entry to the catalog, is that women were beginning to make this shift from a more passive role in life to an active role in which we asserted our agency. I mean, even the way we made the book—we were offered an opportunity and we said, “Oh sure, we’ll produce this book, we’ll make camera-ready copy like the Whole Earth Catalog.”
Rennie: We didn’t know what we were doing, but we did it anyways.