Lilith's Library

Joan Drury has led Duluth's Spinsters Ink from the end of one feminist heyday to the dawn of another. How? Dogged vision and deep pockets.

The cover of the book catalog promises almost utopian tranquility. On a sun-drenched hardwood floor swathed in Native American rugs, two African American women in bright, comfortable clothes play with their dog, a cheerful mixed-breed collie. At their feet are the scattered details of joyful domesticity: sneakers, a half-empty wine glass, the comics section of the San Francisco Examiner, hardcover notebook journals, and a stray Gloria Naylor title. It's another Sunday morning in the promised land.

Between the covers, however, things are considerably more tumultuous. Women are presenting the graphic details of their own imminent deaths to breast cancer. Lesbian detectives are cracking international conspiracy rings in Edinburgh. Biracial, differently abled lesbian couples are adopting children and forming new family units. Poignant characters in multigenerational novels are dying of breast cancer. (Breast cancer, in fact, is like a ubiquitous evil spirit here, hovering in the wings and entering all too frequently.) But the struggle is never lost: Courageous single mothers adopt a rainbow coalition of foster children, struggling to give the youngest, an AIDS baby, a happy, if abbreviated life--all the while assuring that the other five children maintain their unique cultural identities.

Welcome to the world of Spinsters Ink, the feminist publishing house in Duluth that has been fighting the good fight for nearly 20 years. It's equal parts alternate universe and business as usual around these parts. Although the staff is given "necessary days" instead of "having to lie for sick days," and can take time off if they need to grieve the death of a pet, Spinsters Ink owner and publisher Joan Drury is not the least bit fuzzy when it comes to issues of leadership:

"When people think of a feminist business they immediately imagine a collective. This is not a collective, this is a hierarchy. It's my dream, my vision, and my money. I'm the boss."

Not to put too fine a point on it, it's also her building.

Founded in upstate New York in 1978, Spinsters was part of a blossoming of feminist presses in the early to late '70s: presses that picked up and published such now standard tomes as Rubyfruit Jungle and Our Bodies, Ourselves. They soon headed west, moving to San Francisco in 1982. Eventually, Spinsters split in two, with founder Joan Pinkvoss forming Aunt Lute books, a house dedicated primarily to publishing women of color. In 1991 Joan Drury bought Spinsters, briefly moving it to Minneapolis before resettling in Duluth, where there is a small but thriving community of North Shore lesbians.

A Twin Cities native who grew up summering in Lutsen, Drury claims a kind of spiritual connection to the North Shore, and it seems to have seeped into her almost physically. If one of the granite boulders around the iron-cold lake suddenly took human form, it might look a lot like Joan Drury: She's large and round, and has cropped gray hair. On a warm morning in late July, Drury has just been dismissed from a jury pool for the second time. Both trials involve domestic abuse, and, even if you knew nothing about Drury's work, one look is enough to guess that she's not exactly tabula rasa. "The prosecution wanted me, all right," she declares gaily.

Beneath Drury's merry persona this morning, however, is a monumental force, the kind that men's-movement lunatics rave about on the Internet: She has money, power, and no compunction about using either to promote a "feminist agenda." Drury's wealth originates from her family's solid-waste disposal business, Woodlake Sanitation, which she managed until her mid-30s, at the same time raising three children. After picking up a degree in women's studies and English, she worked for the Loft. And then there came her sundry foundations: the Harmony Women's Fund, which supports social services and arts endeavors; the Norcroft Writing retreat for women; and the Duluth Building for Women itself, to which Drury lent $400,000, and which now houses Spinsters' offices as well as a women's health clinic and sexual-assault center. Drury is, in a phrase, a Save the Males nightmare; in 1993, Pro-Choice Resources named her "feminist mother of the year."

Drury is also part-owner of the Seal Press in Seattle, a publisher of self-help titles, but it is Spinsters Ink that represents a huge part of Drury's life, and she takes enormous pride in being its proprietor. So much so, in fact, that it's hard not to tweak her about being the "owner." Cooperative feminist business practices, after all, are the subject of their own "light bulb" joke; how, one wonders, does Drury's management style conform to the feminist fantasia she publishes? Apparently, she's heard this line of inquiry before, and while it doesn't make her bristle, she doesn't chuckle much either.

"Tools are tools," Drury says, matter-of-factly. "They're neither good nor bad. Just because some tools have been used by the patriarchy for oppressive purposes doesn't mean we shouldn't use them. Besides, in a collective situation it's never really a collective anyway. A leader will emerge... someone older, or who knows the business better or maybe just someone who talks louder. At any rate it's not necessarily the leader you would choose. And then, they don't have to take any responsibility for their decision, because they can deny the fact that they are the leader--[deny] that there are leaders."

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