Maureen R. Michelson: publishing as an act of resistance

The NewSage Press publisher, winner of this year's Soapstone Bread and Roses Award, brings out a poignant look into the history of women’s suffrage

March 8 marks International Women’s Day, a day that celebrates the social, political, and economic achievements of women across the world. This paramount day, which draws from the women’s suffrage movement and was first celebrated by the United Nations in 1975, seeks to celebrate women’s achievements and raise funds for female-focused charities while bringing awareness to issues of women’s inequality.

NewSage Press’s “One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement.

International Women’s Day also marks the tradition of Portland’s Soapstone organization bestowing The Soapstone Bread and Roses Award upon one woman whose work has positively influenced the writing community. This year’s honor goes to Maureen R. Michelson and NewSage Press’s latest edition of One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, coming in May 2021. Arriving at the ideal time to commemorate the Nineteenth Amendment’s hundredth anniversary, this second edition of One Woman, One Vote features 23 essays about the women’s movement, acting as a companion to the 1995 PBS American Experience documentary by the same name.

As a grassroots organization from the very start, Soapstone, founded by Ruth Gundle and Judith Barrington, has always made it a point to put women first. Created in 1992 to provide writing residencies for women in Oregon’s Coast Range, the nonprofit group bought its retreat building after a remarkable fundraising campaign. As a small organization, Soapstone has always counted on the help and dedication of its volunteers. Through teamwork and community-building, the organization had successfully invited over 375 women writers to coastal retreats before eventually selling the property. Designed by Pioneer Square Courthouse designer Will Martin and built in the 1970s, the building and its 22.24-acre property sold in 2013 after being designated for conservation protection by the North Coast Land Conservancy.

Former Soapstone retreat building nestled in forests of Nehalem, Oregon.

During the height of the residencies, writers such as Wild’s Cheryl Strayed, poet Cecelia Hagen, and Oregon Book Award finalist Barbara LaMorticella graced the wooden rooms and wrote underneath the exposed beams of the retreat space. Today, Soapstone continues to further Oregon and Southwest Washington’s literary communities by offering small grants for groups celebrating women writers and awards to local literary stalwarts.

“(T)he energy for the project grew out of the women’s movement of the 1970s and ’80s, with which we both had been involved,” Barrington told me via email. “We believed that a large group of ordinary folks could make something important happen on behalf of women writers, who faced obstacles in finding the time and space for serious writing.”

Poster for International Women’s Day March, 1975.

It comes as no surprise that the women’s movement of this era would spur a program so dedicated in its convictions. Throughout the early 1970s, women made a disappointingly low number of appearances on The New York Times Bestseller list. By 1975, only 14 percent of books on the list were written by woman. In the last decade the balance of bestselling books has seen women rise to around 45 percent, a gain surely due in part to programs like Soapstone that share a determination to elevate the voices of women writers.

Michelson, this year’s Soapstone Award recipient, has been operating the Tillamook-based NewSage Press since 1985. After a long and successful career as a journalist, editor, and freelancer for Time Magazine, Fortune, People, Sports Illustrated, and others, Michelson decided it was time for something new. Seeking to “publish books which have a much longer ‘shelf-life’” and “work on projects that would outlive her,” Michelson turned to the important voices she knew were not being recognized, creating NewSage Press to champion writers who were otherwise being ignored.

“In the early years, she came to our regular work parties out in the Coast Range, where we did much of the maintenance necessary to support the residency program,” recalls Barrington. “At the same time, she created and ran the publishing house, with a vision of publishing books by remarkable everyday people, especially women, whose stories, ideas, and lives were often ignored by major publishers. One of her authors, former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts, had a serious impact in our region by writing Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology, surely contributing to the passage of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act.” 

NewSage Press has published many remarkable women authors, including the late and internationally beloved Ursula K. Le Guin. Its books have been reviewed by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and others. Its upcoming One Woman, One Vote, edited by Marjorie J. Spruill, examines the evolution of the women’s movement over time and depicts “how women worldwide collaborated across national borders for enfranchisement.” Spruill, who has written two sections in this work, has also included a new ending chapter that supplies readers with an updated overview of the last hundred years since the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, and concludes with the election of the first female and woman of color vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris. 

Maureen R. Michelson, publisher of NewSage Press and winner of this year’s Soapstone Bread and Roses Award.

Over the past week I was able to connect with Bread and Roses award winner Michelson to ask a few questions about her motivations for writing, and about the future of NewSage Press:

What inspired you to begin writing? What drew you to study writing and journalism?

I have always loved words; first, listening to my mother reading to me as a child, and later, learning from my father’s edits of my school papers. I was one of those school kids that really got into diagraming sentences, dissecting the parts, understanding how they connected to express a clear thought; I imagined I was building a house. During summer reading programs at my local library, I made big plans to read every book in the library, starting with the A’s. It never happened because there were too many boring books before I got to something interesting. In high school, I wrote my class song, wrote for school publications, and was an editor for the senior annual. Along my path, I kept being drawn to communicating with words, whether writing or reading. 

In college, I finally found my way to journalism after a couple years trying other majors. I fell in love with everything about journalism, whether reporting, interviewing, writing, editing, or meeting late-night deadlines. I was an editor on the university paper and that lead to an internship at Time magazine after graduation, thanks to an astute professor who became a mentor. She was the toughest editor I ever had—she challenged my words, questioned what I wrote and how I wrote. This professor taught me how to edit (throw out) my favorite beloved sentences or words if they didn’t work in a piece. I learned how to communicate my ideas clearly rather than just trying to impress.

In college, I realized that words are powerful and they create realities, so becoming a skilled wordsmith and communicator became my life’s vision and work. When I was a journalist, I quickly realized the power of the personal story and I wanted to provide a platform for the diverse stories of everyday people, especially women. On NewSage Press’s website, there is a wonderful quote by Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” This is how I see it, too.

In my opinion, small presses have been lifesavers in the literary and publishing worlds; they have provided a platform for so many whose stories have been ignored or silenced. Now, their stories are in books for the universe to read, long after the storyteller has gone. I am proud to be a part of that tradition.

What led you to publish One Woman, One Vote? Can you talk a little bit more about its importance and relevance today?

I had been contacted by the Educational Film Company (EFC) based in Washington, D.C., about publishing a companion book for their documentary One Woman, One Vote, to be released in 1995 for the 75th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. EFC had hired historian Marjorie Spruill to edit the anthology featuring leading historians’ essays on different aspects of woman suffrage in the United States. That was how it all started.

For the past 25 years, One Woman, One Vote has been used by colleges and universities as well as by laypeople interested in women’s and U.S. history. When the book was first published, it was on the cutting edge of understanding the complexities of the woman suffrage movement and issues of race, class, region, ethnicity, and religion … My hope is that 25 years from now this material will still be relevant in understanding the long and layered history of woman’s suffrage and the fight for equality. 

How did you and Marjorie J. Spruill come together for this project?

Marjorie and I worked together in the 1990s preparing the first edition and when it was completed, we met in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 75th anniversary in 1995. NewSage Press hosted a special event at the National Women’s Party headquarters in Washington, D.C., where Alice Paul lived and worked. Marjorie also spoke at the Smithsonian and we marched down Constitution Avenue with thousands of women in a re-enactment of the famous suffrage parade of 1913. It was a heady experience and a highlight in my work as a publisher. That same year I also published Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote, which is an edited version of Doris Stevens’ original story of suffragists jailed and terrorized. It’s a remarkable story and one that affected me profoundly—understanding what our foremothers endured to simply win the vote. The editor, Carol O’Hare, also joined us in D.C. for the celebrations that infused the capital. 

Suffragettes marching for the right to vote in 1913

After that, Marjorie and I rarely were in touch, but in 2018 we began working together for a second edition of One Woman, One Vote. The work has been so meaningful, and we both have a strong sense of this book’s information reaching into the future and touching people’s lives for many years to come. Now over 500 pages, this second edition has become a work of love. There are so many women who fought for suffrage and were never recognized for their sacrifices, until recent years. Now, their stories are being told—especially African American suffragists, women of color, and working-class women who dedicated their lives to equality and justice, and the vote.

I’d love to know what is in store for NewSage Press. What’s next?

Former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts

While I am in the final stages of production on One Woman, One Vote, I am also working on the next NewSage Press book, A Voice for Equity, by former Governor Barbara Roberts. This latest book is a collection of key speeches on equity that she has given throughout her years as a public servant and elected official. Governor Roberts is a remarkable woman, still busier than ever at 85 years young, and I have the deepest respect for her. She works hard as an author, committed to getting every detail correct, and in the process, we generally have a good time. We first started working together in 2002 on her first book, Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology, and today, I consider her a friend and an inspiration.

NewSage Press will continue to look for those projects that communicate greater understanding of one another and our differences, and build bridges with books to a better world.

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