In 1917, the United States and the world were undergoing profound transformations. America entered into World War I that year, and the campaign to give women the right to vote was in full swing. The sense that it was a time when new ideas could gain a hearing prompted a group of women in New York City to create an organization composed of women involved with “the circulation of ideas in books” whose aim was to promote the power of the book and its ability to foment change. Convinced of the importance of the cause, 35 women met on Nov. 13, 1917, at Sherwood’s Bookstore to officially form the Women’s National Book Association.
As it celebrates its centennial, the WNBA has much the same mission it did 100 years ago: to help lead the discussion of literature in America and to promote the achievements of women in both the bookselling and publishing industries.
The WNBA quickly rose to fill a void in the book business. According to the association’s archives, it had become such an important factor in the book industry that, within three years of its launch, it was invited to merge with the all-male American Booksellers Association. While heartened by the offer, the WNBA declined to join the ABA “at this present time,” but it did get assurances that its members would have more representation on various ABA committees.
Despite the ABA’s overture, WNBA remains an independent nonprofit whose roughly 1,000 members (who include a few men) are divided into 12 chapters across the country. And although there have been discussions about hiring an executive director, the WNBA remains an all-volunteer organization
The association’s chair during the centennial year is Jane Kinney-Denning, executive director of internships and corporate outreach at Pace University and a professor in its publishing program. With the help of Valerie Tomaselli, president of MTM Publishing and the chair of the association’s centennial celebration, Kinney-Denning has presided over a yearlong series of events that will culminate October 28 in New York with a reception recognizing the recipients of awards that were announced during the year.
In June, the WNBA announced that its biennial WNBA Award was being presented to Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and novelist, poet, and bookstore owner Louise Erdrich. Although the association usually chooses one winner, it decided this year, in commemoration of its centennial, to honor two women who, the association explained, “represent the wide spectrum of women in the book world—one woman involved in the business or dissemination of books and one in the creation of them.”
The October 28 reception will also feature the presentation of the WNBA Second Century prize to Little Free Libraries. The award includes a $5,000 grant to help Little Free Libraries continue its mission to open “minilibraries” in communities in more than 70 countries.
Another highlight taking place at the reception is the launch of Women in the Literary Landscape: A Centennial Publication of the Women’s National Book Association. Tomaselli, who is one of the editors of the book, explained that the edition will note the contributions made to American literature not just by WNBA members, as in earlier books, but by all women. “This was our way of championing women’s roles in the cultural life of the country during a time when a reminder about women’s power seems more important than ever,” Tomaselli said.
The evening will conclude with the final event in the WNBA’s Bookwomen Speak series; panels earlier this year were conducted by the WNBA’s chapters. The New York panel is titled “The Transformative Role of Literature in Our Society.” The moderator will be biographer Deidre Bair, and panelists will be author and cultural critic Margo Jefferson; Roxana Robinson, an author and former president of the Author’s Guild; and Emma Straub, author and owner of the indie bookstore Books Are Magic.
Looking toward its second century, Kinney-Denning said one goal is to increase the WNBA’s membership. The association will also be considering ways it can better serve the book community, especially in the current political climate. Kinney-Denning said there has never been a more important time for the ideas found in books to be brought to the attention of the American public. This sentiment goes back to the early days of the WNBA and was enshrined in its creed: “Believing that it is impossible to isolate any single instrumentality in the great arterial circulation of thought, this Association is created to include in a single working body, women writers, women booksellers, women critics, women editors, women librarians and women advertisers, together with women employed in the printing and bookmaking trades and in publishing houses, as a means to education to more consciousness in ourselves and as an organized power to further in every instance we can make use, the freer movement of life and truth.”