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Both my grandmothers served as midwives early in their lives, while they still lived in Eastern Europe. They continued to foster the birthing of new life when they came to America, but their efforts increasingly were confined to their own families, their nurturing energies focused on their own children. Theirs was not a story unique to Jewish women, of course. Within the larger context of American society, women generally were relegated to more private roles. It was no different in the field of book publishing. Until the twentieth century, American publishing remained principally a man's business--more precisely, a Christian man's business. But in the early twentieth century, Jewish men-such as Alfred Knopf, Richard Simon, M. Lincoln Schuster, Bennett Cerf and Roger Straus, to name a few--gained entree into this field and began to exercise an appreciable influence on American literary tastes, book-buying habits and the publishing scene.
Although a few Jewish women did break into the book publishing field-such as Blanche Wolf Knopf, who helped found and eventually became President of Knopf; Amy Loveman, who helped found The Saturday Review of Books and played a pivotal role in building the Book-of-the-Month Club; and Henrietta Szold, who served as the first editor of The Jewish Publication Society--Jewish women generally women lagged behind men in entering the ranks of publishing professionals. And when they did obtain positions in publishing, they usually entered at the middle and lower levels, as acquisitions editors, as editorial, production, marketing and sales staff, or as copyeditors, proofreaders, indexers, designers and researchers. These jobs paid less than management positions--which were overwhelmingly occupied by men-and carried far less prestige. Although this inequality has been significantly redressed over the past fifty years, men still occupy most of the highest-paying jobs in publishing, and women still predominate as the "foot soldiers," performing editorial and production functions.
Yet influence cannot always be measured by salary or rank. Few outside the publishing profession appreciate the powerful curatorial role played by those who determine which books will get a chance find their way into the world. These are the acquisitions editors, whose judgment and taste largely define the character--and often the fortunes--of a press. Acquisitions editors function as important cultural gatekeepers in the publishing world, and they can exercise considerable power by influencing or deciding what to publish, how to shape a manuscript and design a book, how to market authors, how to distribute their books, and how to articulate their press's editorial vision to the public.
The longer I work in publishing, the more I've come to appreciate the truth of this statement.
My Entry into Jewish Publishing: Becoming JPS Editor-in-Chief
As is the case with so many other women in my generation, my early career took a series of side trips, u-turns and detours. Because my husband finished his Ph.D. in English a year before I finished mine in Comparative Literature, I followed him to his first teaching job in a small Pennsylvania town. Over the next twelve years, I cobbled together a part-time working life--teaching, raising two children, launching a writing career and making myself useful to our small local Jewish community. I taught freshman composition and business writing, served as principal of a Talmud Torah and a small Jewish day school, ran a children's service at my synagogue and the PTO at the day school, gave book reviews at Hadassah and Sisterhood meetings, taught adult education classes at the local college, …