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Florence Howe was born to a Jewish-American family in Brooklyn, New York. She attended Hunter College High School, one of only five young women from Brooklyn to do so, and earned a bachelor's degree in English from Hunter College. She went on to Smith College and earned a master's degree in English in 1951.

She joined the civil rights movement and went to Mississippi in 1964 to teach African-American children. In 1967, she protested the U.S. war in Vietnam and signed a public statement declaring that she would refuse to pay income taxes. Florence Howe became an internationally-known leader of the modern feminist movement. In 1970, she founded The Feminist Press, an independent nonprofit publisher, when her appeal to a number of major university and trade publishers to issue critical feminist biographies was unsuccessful. The Feminist Press has published classic works of Rebecca Harding Davis, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Marilyn French, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston, and hundreds of "lost" women writers from diverse backgrounds on every continent. Florence Howe served as chair of the Modern Language Association Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession. She became a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and is now professor emerita. She has written more than a dozen books and more than 120 essays published in the Harvard Educational Review, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, PMLA, and The Women's Review of Books, and in a variety of anthologies.
She is co-director of Women Writing Africa and text editor of the four volumes emerging from that project. The Florence Howe Award for feminist scholarship of the Women's Caucus for the Modern Languages was named in her honor.
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