The Minnesota Women's Press has been taking women seriously since 1985, while learning to laugh.
A decade into this shiny new millennium, tales of the coffeepot wars seem almost quaint. "We said we'd make coffee if everyone would take their turn," Glenda Martin said, recollecting that day in the 1960s when the few women in her university department took a stand. "And by damn, we never had coffee all year."
She laughed heartily at the memory of the beleaguered men who couldn't bring themselves to brew a pot. Martin, 76, remembers faculty meetings "where it was just so clear that what [the men] paid attention to, what they thought about, even how they asked their questions, that this was not what interested me."
Years later, one of her former students, Mollie Hoben, distilled that sense of disconnect into a single question that would shape the rest of their lives: What would news look like if it was about, by and for women?
The answer was the Minnesota Women's Press, which this spring marked its 25th year in business, happily debt-free, modestly profitable and cheekily noting that "Cagney & Lacey" was TV's best dramatic series in 1985.
As much as women's lives have changed since the St. Paul-based newspaper's inception, sexism persists and women still fight to get equal pay for equal work. And family violence is the main reason women go to homeless shelters, even as TV's highest paid actor, Charlie Sheen, faces charges of domestic assault.
"Feminism most often seems like a hidden idea" these days, said Hoben, 66. She recalled a 1998 cover from Time magazine that asked, "Is Feminism Dead?" "People have asked that question for years, and they keep saying it, and people hope it's true," she said. (She also laughs at this recollection; it's a mature movement that finds the humor in its history.) "But people still are doing work that, back then, would have been called feminism. Now it's mainstream."
That's good news, in that making progress needn't always be a battle, but also frustrating if there's no nod to the battles that once were fought. Hoben noted that the suffragists fumed as women began taking the right to vote for granted. "Whatever time you're in, you're reacting to the time that came before," she said. "But you also look ahead."
MWP remains one of the nation's longest-lived free women's publications. When Martin calls Hoben "Mol," she speaks with the warmth of years. From the beginning, they intended to be serious, profitable and bold. (An early brainstorm involving "ladyslipper" is more fodder for laughter.) Hoben and Martin featured front-page profiles of women from a wide range of experience, from homemakers to scientists. They were the first media to cover Ann Bancroft's plans for an all-female skiing expedition to the South Pole in 1992-93.
"What I remember about it was someone was taking us seriously," Bancroft said. "We were getting a series of 'nos' and skepticism and 'you shouldn't' and 'you can't.' And yet I had all these people volunteering -- men and women, fathers of daughters -- for a bunch of years before we ever saw the ice. What [news coverage] did for that crew of people who did believe in us was a big shot in the arm. It gave us a sense of that what you already knew was right."
Hoben described her news judgment as wanting "to be clear that the news of women's lives is as important as news of the Legislature." Added Martin: "People thought we'd use up all our stories in the first year. But the frustration was in selling enough ads to publish a paper big enough for all we had to write."
Cash flow was a continuing challenge. Wealthy women who voiced support for the newspaper apologized when they were asked for money, murmuring that their husbands would never agree. "The money wasn't theirs to decide," Martin said.
In an idea that proved ahead of its time, Martin, a voracious reader, decided to form a book club. "Then after a year, we asked women if they thought this was something worth paying for," she said. They did, and BookWomen was formed, with the $80 membership providing revenue to the paper. Today, more than a thousand readers subscribe to its newsletter for $30 a year -- and book clubs have since caught on worldwide.
Today, Norma Smith Olson and Kathy Magnuson publish the monthly newspaper, now in a magazine format. The print run remains stable at 35,000 copies, although the Internet has brought them readers from all points of the globe.
As to how they measure their success, Hoben said: "We count ourselves successful if we do what our mission says, and we have to stay in business in order to do our mission."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185