Book review: Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier, by Joanne Passet

Passet, Joanne. Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier. Bella Books, 2016. $28.95. ISBN 978-1594934711.

Since I greatly enjoyed Joanne Passet’s Sex-Variant Woman, her 2008 biography of lesbian literature pioneer researcher Jeannette Howard Foster, I was delighted to experience this author’s newest title as well. She has once again winningly raised up one of LGBT history’s trailblazers, not to mention a woman after our own librarians’ hearts.

The life of activist/writer/publisher Barbara Grier was multi-faceted and often controversial, but her guiding mission remained firm: to guarantee that lesbians everywhere had access to books positively reflecting their existence. Born in 1933, Grier came out at age 12 and used the local library to further her knowledge, or as much as was possible back in the day. She began collecting LGBT-themed books as a teenager, fueled by her “love affair with lesbian publishing”.

Grier’s achievements divide themselves into two eras—–her years as a prolific contributor to, and eventual editor of, the periodical The Ladder, published by the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) from 1956 to 1970, followed by the founding of Naiad Press in 1973, in tandem with her life partner Donna McBride, and two other women. Passet engrossingly describes DOB’s intra-organizational turmoil during the Ladder’s existence, including some conflicts exacerbated by Grier’s single-minded zeal.  Grier’s devotion to the goal of lesbian visibility and enlightenment—-to “nourish all lesbians with books”—-was a positive thing, but, according to Passet, her “lack of social skills and abrupt manner” would sometimes create sparks verging on outrage.

Under Grier’s leadership, Naiad Press eventually became the world’s largest lesbian/feminist publisher, focusing primarily on “light fiction,” romances, and mysteries. While Grier cultivated fledgling authors who eventually became LGBT household words, she and Naiad would occasionally court notoriety, such as when they published Nancy Manahan’s and Rosemary Curb’s 1985 groundbreaking study Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. When Grier, in her persona as business owner with eyes on the bottom line, allowed chapters from the book to be serialized in a men’s magazine overseen by Bob Guccione, Naiad’s feminist reading audience was appalled, and residual anger lingered. Nevertheless, the press’s eventual success made it possible for many other women-oriented publishers to materialize as well, while also supporting the nation’s growing network of lesbian/feminist bookstores.

In 2003, Grier and McBride sold Naiad to Bella Books, transferring many of their author contracts to the newer firm. Barbara Grier died in 2011 at age 78.

Passet’s vast research into both Grier the idealistic pioneer and Grier the hard-driving lesbian entrepreneur includes copious quotations from her subject’s voluminous correspondence with authors, mentors and friends, plus reminiscences from colleagues and employees. Barbara Grier had her critics—people who found her frequent abrasiveness-verging-on-arrogance difficult to tolerate, leading in some instances to permanent estrangement from friends and authors—-but her achievements were undeniable and her legacy profound. Passet immerses us deeply in this remarkable woman’s world, and that journey is worth our time.

This book is highly recommended for women’s studies/LGBT history collections, plus general biography. I eagerly await Joanne Passet’s next opus, and so should we all.

 

Cathy Ritchie

Acquisitions/Selection Services

Dallas (TX) Public Library

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