Celebrating 100 years with The Women’s National Book Association

Centennial poster design by Kerstin Vogdes Diehn of KV Design. Diehn is also a Pace M.S. in Publishing professor.

On October 28, 2017, at a gallery that prides itself on exhibiting the work of female artists, the Women’s National Book Association celebrated its centennial – 100 years of women writers, publishers, booksellers, and librarians, and their innumerable contributions to the literary community of the United States.

Attendees walked through the gallery at a leisurely pace, laughing and chatting with colleagues. Two women paused in front of a portrait, gesturing towards it in wide arcs. Crowned in a wreath of flowers, the subject’s lips were stained a deep, vibrant blue, and she had a strong, almost regal expression. The photo captured the atmosphere of the event; women at the centennial were intelligent, elegant, and, above all, proud. They were ready to recognize the WNBA’s many triumphs.

(Photo: Rachael Kelly)

Jane Kinney-Denning, the organization’s National President – and the M.S. in Publishing program’s Executive Director of Internships and Corporate Outreach – welcomed 200 guests to the event.  Among the many volunteers that evening were M.S. in Publishing students and alumni, including Hannah Bennett, Associate Editor at Start Publising, who is now the President of the WNBA-NYC Chapter; Caitlin Morrow, special markets coordinator at Macmillan and the WNBA’s national membership chair; volunteer Alex Grover, Production Editor at Random House; Liberty Schauf, Conference Sales Coordinator at Thieme Publishers and VP of Communications for the NYC-WNBA Chapter; and Shimma Almaburk, one of the WNBA’s Student Youth Representatives at the United Nations. Professor Sherman Raskin and his wife Paula were also in attendance representing Dyson College, a partner of the WNBA.

“For 100 years, the WNBA has been connecting, educating, advocating and leading in the literary world,” said Kinney-Denning. “It is a truly remarkable accomplishment, one that speaks to the strength of the vision of our founders.”

WNBA National President Jane Kinney-Denning. (Photo: Hannah Bennett)

On October 29, 1917 – three years before women were given the right to vote in the U.S. – a small group of women gathered in New York City to form a league of female booksellers. A hundred years later, the all-volunteer organization has 12 chapters and 1,000 members.

“We believe as our founders believed – that books have power. Power to heal, power to facilitate change, power to open minds, and power to create a world in which we can all peacefully coexist,” said Kinney-Denning. “I am grateful to be a part of the Women’s National Book Association today, and I believe that our founders would be proud.”

TK with a Little Free Library made especially for the WNBA. (Photo: Hannah Bennett)

In addition to recognizing the WNBA’s many sponsors and supporters, the organization presented two Women’s National Book Association Awards to women whose “meritorious work in the world of books [goes] beyond the duties or responsibilities of her profession or occupation.” The first went to Louise Erdrich, the award-winning author and owner of Birchbark Books & Native Arts in Minnesota. The second went to Dr. Carla Hayden, the United States’s 14th Librarian of Congress.

The WNBA also awarded its Second Century Prize – an award given to an entity that supports the past, present, and future power of reading – to the Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization that organizes book exchanges in neighborhoods around the world.

Tod H. Bol, founder and executive director of the Little Free Library initiative. (Photo: Hannah Bennett)

In anticipation of its centennial, the WNBA published Women In The Literary Landscape, a nonfiction work that connects women’s roles in writing, publishing, bookselling, and librarianship to “relevant social history.” John Gosslee and Andrew Sullivan, who published the book at C&R Press, attended the event. They credit their mothers for their love of reading.

Roxana Robinson, former president of the Authors Guild, said “reading about the ways women have been part of our literary heritage from the beginning [in Women In The Literary Landscape] was fascinating and inspiriting. It made me realize how brave and determined these women were, how energetic, how indefatigable…Brava to women booksellers, and to all the other women who have been so invaluable to the culture of books in this country.”

The event closed with a panel discussion on the transformative role of literature in our society. Moderated by Deirdre Bair, biographer of Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett, speakers included Margo Jefferson, cultural critic and award-winning author of Negroland; Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta; and Emma Straub, bestselling author of Modern Lovers and owner of Books Are Magic, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. When talking about her day-to-day life in Books are Magic, Straub said she feels like a “matchmaker,” especially when she’s ordering.

“If I had to distill the typical buyer into one person, he’s a 63-year-old gent with a tweet sportscoat and a small white dog. Our customer is not that person. First of all, she’s a she, and second of all, she’s 30 to 45 years old, and really wants to read an essay collection by a young woman who big book guys have never heard of,” said Straub. “We have such smart, cool readers, and they’re very vocal. They’ll tell me if I’ve missed something. It’s great.”

Check out the Publishers Weekly article on the WNBA’s Centennial. You can learn a little more about The Little Free Library here.