Mother Courage expands the dream

Joining the growing feminist/lesbian network

By Jeanne Arnold

Barbara’s bookstore dream became a nightmare. At first our store succeeded and sold many books like Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and Marilyn French’s The Woman’s Room. Then the Regency Mall opened with two big-chain bookstores that ruined our sales.

When Barbara was a teenager, she imagined being a Christian missionary. “Now I’m a feminist storefront missionary when women just come to chat. ”

I heard about a woman who sat in her car for half an hour to get up enough nerve to walk into our store. What’s she afraid of? That she’d be seen in a feminist bookstore? That she’d actually talked to a lesbian? Or, as Alix Dobkin sang on our many albums playing in the store, “They’re gonna squeeze ya and tease ya . . . the leaping lesbians.” 

Our books gave power to women, and it’s scary to some to have because they have no experience with power. When they’d come in, they‘d see our books encouraging them to assert themselves. Perhaps some coming into Mother Courage felt intimated—unlike bookstores in the Mall. And they may have looked at us and wondered how we screwed up our marriages—and what about our children? 

Lesbians appreciated us and we had to trust our instincts about them. Are they out, partnered, single, deeply closetedor were they straight.

Barbara was quickly bored at our store. To keep productive, she drew a famous women note card series honoring Gloria Steinman, Shirley Chisholm, Golda Meir , Mother Jones, Dorothy Parker, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart and more.

I wrote commentaries for the newspaper’s opinion page to keep people aware of us. One commentary motivated an organization to discontinue Halloween night with kids throwing fake witches in a blazing pyre and dancing around the flames. Another less controversial one celebrated Susan B. Anthony’s birthday and her historic role in fighting for women’s voting rights. My most controversial commentary promoted the use of gender-neutral language to equalize the status of women, especially in religion. The editors picked out three words in my copy for the headline:  “Erase fathergod image.” That almost had me burned at the stake at my job.

Otherwise Barbara read our books, planned our women’s moon group sessions and did all our accounting: orders, shipping, insurance, taxes, vouchers—whatever. She managed our money and was clever doing so. 

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Barbara writes: Five years, bored and worried about our survival, we finally ran out of money, yet Jeanne and school psychologist friend Phyllis Sweet forced me to partner with them. Phyllis gave us two pages of her handwritten words for her children’s sexual abuse therapy book, Something Happened to Me. Accepting the inevitable, now as a partner, I became the manager and accountant and shipping clerk. I had to carry heavy boxes of books to fill our orders, some even to other countries. I tried not to get edgy when the other partners ordering me around. 

Her simple text was written from a child’s point of view. We created the first sexual abuse book that had illustrations of real children, not teddy bears or sad stuffed rabbits or whatever—and I did the illustrations! It’s my cover that gets them with a drawing of an unhappy young girl with long hair covering her drooping shoulders and holding her hands in her lap. Jeanne designed the book. Each page isolates a different child, but the white spaces change with the child and adult who listens and empathizes, understands and, hopefully, helps them heal. 

One older woman who read it came in the store and thanked me. She’d been abused as a child, revealing that for the first time to me. She said she could talk about it now and would find a therapist.

Jeanne sent Something Happened to Me out with media releases to professional journals, appropriate newspapers and magazines. Soon the three of us celebrated this successful project that helped so many, including us as Mother Courage Press. Her marketing sense made Shakti Gawain’s affirmation our reality. Jeanne says it almost every day, “This or something better is now manifesting for me in totally harmonious and satisfying ways for the highest good of all concerned.”

Then other authors writing about sexual abuse started submitting manuscripts. Mother Courage Press expanded with the success of Something Happened to Me. We took on other topics and our book list grew. We began displaying those books for several years in a booth at the American Booksellers Trade show (ABA). Our booth drew so much attention that other small presses asked to be placed next to us. Every year, Down There Press won the prized place and staffed its booth with playful people selling illustrated adult books and interesting toys.

Booksellers visiting Mother Courage’s booth at the ABA don our sailor hat props for their Polaroid photo while we promote our books, especially Jeannine Talley’s Women at the Helm, her adventures sailing in a 34-foot sailboat with Joy Smith from Los Angeles to New Zealand.

Those exciting ABA weekends brought tons of action, many contacts and a few orders. Jeanne and I took turns staffing our booth or scooping up free books from other exhibitors: trinkets and treats—sometimes even wine. 

To attract people to the small press area, the ABA arranged to have the book autographing area near our displays. A few of our Mother Courage authors who came to the ABA autographed their books even though we were small publishers. 

Kate MusGrave, Susan E. Smith and Claudette McShane autograph and promote their books with us in the small press section of the giant American Booksellers Association’s Trade Show.

To get our share of autographed books to bring home, we stood in line and chatted briefly with Shirley MacLaine, Jane Russell, Jesse Jackson and others. 

When Muhammad Ali walked slowly down our aisle, everyone stopped talking and stood toward him to honor him. Though he staggered some from early stages of Parkinson’s disease, he walked straight and strong. 

Ralph Nader stopped and asked about our books—and about us. He signed one of his books and gave it to our author who wrote Fear or Freedom, a woman’s options in social survival & physical defense, and she signed hers and give to him.

            A sax player across from us noodled music throughout the day, and when England’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher marched passed us to autograph her book, our guy played a jazz version of “Hail Britannia.” Surrounded by her bodyguards and without a nod, she forged on straight ahead.

One time Jeanne was staffing our booth and was concerned because I was missing for a long time. But I was having so much fun joking with Loni Anderson, Burt Reynold’s beautiful buxom wife. She was staffing her booth while “Burt was scouting the crowds,” she said. Loni wanted to produce a line of artistically appealing calendars of semi-nude women. She enjoyed my talent making risqué slightly double entrendre remarks so much that she gave me a hug—and What a Hug that Was!

<<<>>> 

The word when out at the ABA that small press lesbian publishers were going to organize. We crowded into Nancy Bereano’s hotel room. She’s Firebrand Press. The others were Barbara Grier and Donna McBride of Naiad and women from Calyx, Cleis, Kitchen Table Women of Color and Seal presses, plus Onlywoman Press from London. I think they’re all lesbians. We became a loosely organized bunch to give us more clout. Someone named us Book Babes. And Mother Courage was there at its beginnings.

We talked mostly about the imposing black poster with large white letters attracting people to the new Amazon, an on-line book company that’s challenging the big chains. What would on-line sales do to our small presses, independent booksellers, especially our women’s bookstore network? No one had an answer.

After a two-hour interchange, we decided to meet every year at each ABA. The next year we meet at Miami’s trendy South Beach, Florida.

Half of our Book Babes small press feminist publishers take a break from debating business and other critical issues for an adult beverage before lunch at the ABA in Miami’s South Beach in Florida.

Despite the fact that we moved out of the bookstore business in Racine, Ms. Magazine included our store among the seventy-three feminist bookstores in the nation. Finally we got our name in Ms.—and we had closed.

Dear Mother Courage Bookstore, You’ve touched many lives and they’re not going to forget you. You’re not dead. You’re just not living at in your store anymore. We’ll resurrect you! You’ll be living in our home. There’s an office there with two Macs waiting for you and your stories. You’re going to be stronger. 

Mother Courage did survive, publishing 25 titles including local author Charlotte Cote’s biography of Olympia Brown, 13 novels and sailing adventures written by straight and lesbian authors, including those written by Barbara and me. Mother Courage books sold across the USA and Canada, in Great Britain, South Africa and New Zealand. Even the island country of the Seychelles off the coast of India bought Something. Foreign rights sales for Something were made to publishers in Germany, Mexico, Australia, The Netherlands and Israel where they printed the book in Yiddish from back to front, as is the custom.

Now we didn’t need to depend only on local customers. We went farther with Mother Courage. We simply relocated our dream—and Barbara—from the confines of 224 State Street. 

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Mother Courage Bookstore and Art Gallery       1978-1983

Mother Courage Press        1981-1999       

Graphics by Mary Nelson

Next week—“Erase fathergod image”   An inflammatory ending

(Soon we will be announcing our first UNsung Woman)

UNsung Women: the UN-known Herstory History

Submit written nominations about past or present women from Racine/Kenosha whose contributions to the wellbeing of our families, churches, schools, communities and beyond who have not or have been UNderacknowledged.

Four UNsung women nominees will be selected from January through May, 2022

The nominator is asked to provide:

• answers to Who, What, When, Where, How and Why details of your nominee’s herstory in a document or resume format.

• photographs, drawings, illustrations to enhance herstory;

• a reference person or documentation serving as evidence of proof.

Submit your nomination details to <mocourage@aol.com> with your name and where you may be reached.

Please do not nominate women who have already been “sung.”

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