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Legacy Story: An Oral History of Minnesota Women’s Press (1999)

Minnesota Women’s Press founders Glenda Martin (l) and Mollie Hoben sitting at the dining room table where it all began. Photo Sarah Whiting (2019)

Twice per month in 2024, MWP is uplifting select pieces from our 39-year archive with a focus on longstanding issues. In tandem with our “Celebrations” print issue, our April focus is on the anniversary of Minnesota Women’s Press’ founding in April 1985. 

In 1999, Kathryn Blasted Brewer interviewed 43 members of the Minnesota Women’s Press original founding team. Conversations from the Oral History Project were excerpted and edited for clarity by Lydia Moran for our 35 Years of Minnesota Women book (2020). 

Intention

Mollie Hoben [founder]: I was teaching and I was ready to do something else. I was editing and business manager of the Park Bugle newspaper. At the same time, I was taking classes at the University [of Minnesota] in the feminist studies and literature subsection of the English department. I was trying to decide what to do next in my life. Those two things came together and led me to ask, “What would news from women’s point of view be like? Would that be different? If so how?” [It led me] to believe that it was something that was needed.

Glenda Martin [founder]: What led to it was the fact that each of us had come from backgrounds where women, no matter how hard we tried, it always felt like we were at a lesser level. I had been at the university teaching for six years, and then in public schools for I don’t know how many years — twenty. It became very clear that no matter how hard you worked as a woman, no matter what your background was, no matter how much you knew, that you never quite measured up.

I taught at the university in the 1960s, one of four women in a department teaching graduate courses. We had a faculty of about 25, and in faculty meetings one of the four women were assumed to make the coffee, until the four of us decided none of us were going to make the coffee. And in the 1960s, that was sort of far out.

MH: I had been [Glenda’s] student years ago in the University graduate program, and we had been working in the same school district. She was an administrator and I was a teacher. We were very close, personally as well as professionally. It was just logical that she would be part of this.

Kathy Magnuson [Publisher 2003-2017]: I was working at a community newspaper with Mollie Hoben, who was the editor. I was at that point an ad sales rep, I believe. She mentioned that she might have a bigger project in mind. I really didn’t know what she was thinking of, but she was working on something. So that was my first hint.

GM: I have the image of that day, because Mollie was sitting in one of the over-stuffed chairs in the living room, and the sun was shining through the window.

I can remember she posed the question of what news would look like through women’s eyes. I can remember there was kind of a silence then, and my response to her was, “Well, let’s find out.” It was as if, for me anyway, that was the beginning moment.

MH: I think people we talked to thought it was not a good time. It was the mid-1980’s — Reaganomics. It was one of the times when they were saying feminism was past its date — that it was passe, a little bit naïve. We were past the highest excitement of the early wave of the ‘second wave’ of feminism of the 1970’s and late 1960’s. Some women’s organizations were already at that point reaching a place where shortly they would start to run into their problems of being past their time or needing to change. It was certainly personally a right time, and that became the driving force.

KM: Putting out something that had “women” in the name was pretty radical to a lot of people. It made people take a second take, or got attention that way, that I don’t think necessarily would be true today. It was certainly something new and different, and one of a kind.

1985 Vision

MH: The initial vision was a weekly newspaper. That was in my mind all the time early on as we thought about it. It would be very visible around the Twin Cities. It would be covering and doing the kinds of things that we did end up doing — that didn’t change much. Initially, I thought it would be easier to do than it was — to become credible and to be a force. That took longer than we anticipated.

We were not ever interested in a publication that was aimed at a particular segment of readers. We wanted it to be accessible and of interest to people of all socio-economic statuses, all parts of the area geographically, [and all] ages.

KM: My initial vision was survival. That this would be a viable business. I remember we had a little open office gathering the night the first issue came out. There was such ecstasy in this room — in having this newspaper in our hands, to say, “Oh my gosh, it really happened!” My vision was really business related — that this thing could, A) get up and running, and B) keep going. So it was very different than other people’s vision of what it would be.

MH: We gathered together a group — I think it was seven women — who were interested in exploring and planning it with us. We started meeting weekly. We would outline what we needed to do — what were the questions, the information, the steps, and who we needed to talk to. We would meet weekly, at least, at my house around the dining room table. Kathy [Magnuson] would bring her little daughter and baby, and we’d meet and decide stuff, then all go off and do our thing.

KM: It was a real homey environment. Initially, we had what we called the planning group, which was a group of women who got together and talked about the idea for starters. …To say, what if? What would it be like? Would this be a good idea? What would it have? What would it look like? Who would read it? Would anybody care? Would anybody buy ads? …To start shaping some thinking about it.

MH: We actually turned my living room into an office. We had a copy machine in the living room and dining room, and two desks. We’d meet there. We had bigger meetings at Glenda’s house and other people’s houses — one at a church. We were asking people about content and direction.

KM: I remember Mollie doing a ton of work on trying to put together a business plan, when you are grabbing things out of the air and making a best guess. I remember her having a big struggle about whether we should be weekly or every other week, and trying to do projections. What would that mean from a financial standpoint?

We had a survey. One of the planning group women did market research, so she helped us write it. [We wanted] to get ideas; would people have an interest in this? Would they have suggestions? One of the [questions] was about the name. What would we call it? There were a lot of cute and obscure ideas.

In the end we said, “We just have to say what it is. Say it, and name it. This is the Minnesota Women’s Press.”

GM: When we talked with people who might be potential stockholders, some of the reactions were, “You can’t call it the ‘Women’s Press’ because people will see it as a lesbian paper,” which stunned me. I couldn’t think that if you claim the word “woman” that then automatically meant lesbian. Of course we were also very concerned about using the ‘feminist’ word because in that environment in the 1980s, there’d begun to be stereotypes about the kind of women that feminists might be.

KM: We did not lack for people having plenty of advice. “This will never work.” “This makes no sense at all. I cannot believe you’re thinking of doing this.” “Don’t ever put the name ‘Women’ in the name; it will be doomed for sure. It will be way too threatening.” “This is a waste of time and money, because it’s not going to work.” But in the planning group itself, there was a lot of excitement.

I don’t recall that we even used the “F” [feminist] word very much, because the “W” word for “Women” was real ‘out there.’ I don’t think we used the “F” word when we were out talking to advertisers. The product is this editorial piece that is about women, and has a feminist component — whether we used that word or not. We sold it as a smart business decision — that this was an audience that they needed to have their ad in front of.

Carol Pine [long-time adviser]: It seemed very important that this publication be positioned as one that women of all stripes would find valuable, and that it was not aimed at an ultra-liberal lesbian community. It never was, but it was viewed that way. I know it was hard to sell to mainstream advertisers for that reason. It was important for the publication to upgrade how it looked, so that it looked less like an underground publication.

New Perspective

MH: We were interested in writing about women. We were aware that what we were trying to do was redefine what ‘newsworthiness’ meant.

We wanted to pay attention to language, and be sure that we were using language thoughtfully and powerfully for women.

We thought from the beginning that we wanted to look at anything that was going on and look at what that meant for women — what women’s perspective would mean, and how that would touch women’s lives.

From the beginning, we wanted to have commentary and opinion and editorials. [We wanted to have] women’s views of the arts, reviews of movies, as well as more traditional news topics — politics, public policy.

We wanted to be a little more transparent as journalists. [We wanted to] have the writers bring more of themselves to the story, to what they were doing, and be explicit about that, so that the readers would know what the process was — how the news came to be how they saw it.

GM: I think Mollie has a journalist mind. She questions. She really looks at news, interprets, thinks about it, and is interested in other people’s views and reactions to events.

MH: I was encouraging writers to include something with their stories… something we called the “writer’s perspective.” They would say why the story ended up the way it did and what they brought to it. Some of that happened, but it was hard to maintain; it’s hard for writers to do that. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in. It’s not very typical, and in the press of other things, a lot of that got lost. We did encourage writers to be more personal in their style generally.

Doing Business

GM: One of the very first things that we decided was that we would set this up as a for-profit company, and not as a nonprofit. That in itself became a real ongoing thing that we would have to explain to people. It was like, “If it’s women doing this, obviously women only do non-profit things.” We would always have to make the point that we felt it was important that a woman-owned company could be a for-profit company, and would make profit.

MH: Both Glenda and I didn’t want to play that game and be beholden to the funders, and to write grants. That seemed like such a diversion. We talked about what’s the difference? You’re beholden to advertisers, or you’re beholden to funders. You’ve got to sell ads or write grants. We wanted to make the statement that we could make it on our own — that independence and the value of what we were doing. We had big dreams of changing the business climate, and that advertisers would start to think differently about how they advertised.

GM: I don’t think of myself as a capitalist, but on the other hand, it’s the challenge of saying, “If this is the system within which we live, we can make it in that system, even though we plan to do it in some different ways. There was a greater challenge right about being a for-profit than there was about holding true to our philosophical underpinnings of the value of women’s words.

MH: I remember one night we were in the office. I had several [investors] I needed to call. I kept putting it off.

Finally this woman named Deana Foster, who was giving us helpful advice, came over and said, “I’m just going to sit with you here while you call these people. It won’t be bad. They’ll only say no, or maybe yes.” She kind of held my hand while I did some of these calls, because it is not what I liked doing. We weren’t great marketers.

KM: I think at least some of those first advertisers did it with charity in mind. They were enamored with this idea; they wanted to see it go. So they signed up for a contract. They weren’t so sure it was going to last, but it sounded like a neat idea.

There’s a feeling of ownership about this paper, that if it’s in the “Women’s Press” we must have endorsed this [advertiser]. It came up in one of our first Feminist Business Discussion Groups. Somebody around the table said something about, “Well, they used this advertiser from the Women’ Press. She had to be the ultimate, because her ad was in the Women’s Press.” We don’t have that kind of control, but there was this perception.

That doesn’t happen in Minneapolis/St. Paul magazine, or the Star Tribune, or the community papers. There’s an extra positive statement that goes with the ad that readers respond to. They make a point of wanting to do business with other women, or with other businesses that support women. We also have ‘guy’ businesses. Because their ad is in our paper, it’s saying something about that guy. Readers respond differently than they would to ads in other publications.

CP: I think being in the Women’s Press to advertisers now is almost as if they have a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. That goes a long way for women. I pay attention to those ads, and I would much rather buy products and services from people who are in the newspaper than those who aren’t.

Structuring Feminism

MH: Glenda and I were really sick of the hierarchy of the school district we both worked for, and the discounting of people. For the first couple of years, everybody got paid the same. In fact the business plan was based on that, and we counted on if the company grew, that everybody’s salary would grow. We didn’t pay commissions to sales people at the beginning. We’d have meetings where we’d all be in on the decision making. The advertising people were reaching out wherever they could.

GM: If the phone needed answering, anybody who was closest to the phone answered it. There was never a designated person, until after about two years. I said to Mollie, “This has got to change.” That began to be our realization: that no matter how much your feminist sensibilities might want to be open and flexible to everything, that if you’re going to run an organization there are certain things that you simply have to put in place in order to keep your sanity.

Norma Smith Olson [Publisher 2003-2017]: Part of my job was to set up a system that would allow better communications from the departments. It took quite a long time to do that — I’d say over six months to a year of talking with people to see what their needs were in the different departments. I then took all this information and developed a system that would be able to communicate things clearly and efficiently.

GM: Thinking back, in some ways it seems very naive to think that you could just be totally open to everybody doing whatever, and that everybody could be capable of doing whatever, whether it was selling an ad, writing a story, taking a picture. I think it was an over-reaction to total structure.

What we were most concerned about was that everyone was treated equally, and held with value.

CP: I think this organization is the embodiment of feminism and that is why I have been so happy to be involved in it. To me, feminism is a respect for individuality, a nurturing and support of individual growth. It is about advocacy of your ideals. It is about choosing a personal or organizational path and sticking to it.

It is operating an organization out of integrity — being a good steward of resources when you don’t have many, or when you have a lot — and out of respect for people. You pay a fair wage, offer opportunities, and give people a chance to grow.

NSO: There’s a priority on communications, and affirmations is really important in the company setting. Acknowledging when we don’t always get along, or when we have different points of view, or different ways of going about things. Acknowledging that that’s okay, but they are things we need to work on, too.

Paying Attention

MH: We wanted to pay attention to the political world and the public policy world. We had history in the first issue. We wanted to say what grassroots women were doing organizationally and give them more attention than they had gotten in the news generally.

We started off the very first issue with the idea of the Profile [story of an individual woman appearing in every issue] on the front page as a really important statement.

There would be news in a more traditional way on the front page, but there would also be an individual woman’s story. That was a statement about what constitutes news — what’s important. That’s probably the signature of the Women’s Press newspaper.

GM: [Including the Profile] is to honor the fact that we could say to any woman, “We’d like to interview you for our profile,” and she would have a story. We had a lot of people scoff at that.

They’d say “Oh, well, you wouldn’t do a homeless woman.” Well, of course we have. “You wouldn’t do a prostitute.” Well, of course we have. Because what we wanted to [do was] make a baseline statement to the greater public. You can’t lump women’s stories in one lump. It’s really important to recognize the tremendous diversity of these women’s stories.

If you get hung up on being woman, or being feminist, or being lesbian — whatever word you want to put — each of those stories in the larger whole are what’s important.

If we were to sit here now and read the first year’s volume — just the profiled stories — we would see such a mix of stories that it really tells me the underlying purpose of what we set out to do is there. Those stories are so powerful, and yet, some so simple. The collection of those stories is honoring being female in this culture.

The [story] that was the most fascinating for us [in the first year], and one we put extensive coverage into, was when the [World Conference on Women was held in Nairobi in July 1985]. There were women from here who had gone to Nairobi. They said they would like to write for us, so of course that became important to have them do.

To the best of my knowledge, no other newspaper here covered that conference. I know that we’ve had impact on what’s happening in the larger media. This in itself has been, if for no other, a reason to exist.

KM: I remember vividly the very first issue. The printer had to deliver these papers someplace. So they came to Mollie’s garage, in her alley. There were some glitches, so the printer was late. There were twenty of us or so sitting around in Mollie’s alley in the back of her house because we wanted to load up and do the deliveries. It was a sunny April day.

Finally, this big truck that said Shakopee Valley Printing turned into this narrow alley. We all cheered. We were so excited! “Oh, my gosh! It really did come!”

CP: The publishing had potential for national outreach because the “Women’s Press” even [then] I think, was the sole surviving women’s periodical newspaper in America. We also talked about a national forum for women, with challenging topics that the “Women’s Press” would sponsor.

Values

MH: Accomplishing a mission was so important to us, that at times it was a detriment in terms of our financial survival. We were slow to understand our early development, because it seemed that you either had to do one or the other — either be socially responsible or successful financially. We knew the mission had to be first, but it took quite a while to understand that you could do both. So, in that way, we struggled. But if we had our primary emphasis on financial strength as a business, I don’t think we would have made it. You’ve got to be passionate about your business to keep it going and to engage people.

CP: The inclusiveness I think has always been present. It’s getting the staff together and talking about things, really respecting what people have to say, even though they may be new, young, or green in the business. They are still demonstrating in very clear ways how important a person’s opinion is to the larger whole. That dogged pursuit of perspective and information has to do with a desire to really do the best journalism possible that focuses on women and women’s issues.

NSO: I think it’s the end goal of getting words out about women that are respectful and empowering. The profiles we print, the stories we print, are the most important thing that we do. We are trying to tell stories about women’s lives — and not just women who you might see in the spotlight, but everyday women. That’s really valuable. A lot of women can read our paper and say, “I relate to that” or “I felt that way before” or “That’s happened to me.” They can be inspired by [the] women we write about. I would place that as our primary goal: that we value women’s lives and we want to tell people about that.


Minnesota Women’s Press, Inc. Oral History Project is available upon request in transcript (716 pages) and audio form (66 hours) at the Minnesota Historical Society.