Florence (center) died September 12 in Manhattan, at 91
In spring 1971, when I was in Berkeley, I was interviewing for college teaching jobs. Back at the Modern Language Association meeting between Christmas and New Year’s, I’d managed to scare up a dozen interviews, one of which was with Goucher College in Baltimore. Most of these didn’t lead anywhere but I had a follow-up call from a member of the Goucher English department: She would be passing through Berkeley and the department chairman had suggested that we meet. Her name was Florence Howe.
As it turned out, we hit it off and our meeting, in an empty office, went on for hours. I was surprised to find that the person who I would ordinarily need to impress for a job turned out to be a clear-cut left-winger. She evidently had an analogous surprise about the interviewee. On the Vietnam War, civil rights, and women’s liberation we turned out to be on the same page.
She warned me that Goucher might not be much of a place for activists. She was the only one in the department, though the current chairman was a good guy. She said that if she recommended me at all, I wouldn’t get the job. She was being hounded about not having a Ph.D, which was a lower priority for her than achieving major gains for women and minorities. And she warned me to be careful with the all-powerful dean.
I flew to Baltimore to meet the faculty and the dean — in between visiting Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and Wichita State in Kansas. I saw her and the chairman again, met the other, conservative English faculty, and got past the dean. Soon I was offered the job.
I arrived from California September 1, and began teaching not long after. The chairman who’d been sympathetic was now on sabbatical in Europe, and the new chairman was more conservative.
But Florence had departed months earlier for what became SUNY Old Westbury. From there she went on with bigger and better things (see the link below to the New York Times obituary), working with people who greatly appreciated what she was doing and who she was.
I saw Florence only once more, 10 years later, at the American Writers Congress in the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. I spotted her, busy with a group of several women and two men. I went up and spoke to her but she didn’t remember me.
I decided the way to take that was to speak to myself as follows: “This woman has contributed so much to a juster, fairer, more inclusive society, to unlocking the creativity and stretching the emotional palette, that what she did for me was at best no more than a footnote; an incidental action along the way.” And with that bit of help and some inspiration from her, I managed to contribute my own bits, in Baltimore and thereafter.
©Jerry Kurtz 2020