In 1973, just for fun, while spending the summer in Cape Cod, Florence Howe and Ellen Bass began collecting poems by women, about women. They started with writers they knew and then dug through card catalogs. Eventually, word spread about their project and women mailed in manuscripts and books. Howe and Bass quickly realized they had enough poems to warrant an anthology and published the collection No More Masks!: An Anthology of Twentieth Century American Women Poets. Initially, the anthology received some harsh criticism, but soon established itself as a groundbreaking and significant text. Twenty years later, in 1993, Howe, now the cofounder and director of the Feminist Press, updated, revised, and enlarged the collection.
Though every poem chosen addresses the particulars of women's lives, the choices of poets and poems were not political or ideological. As Howe explains in the preface, "We chose what interested us. We followed our curiosity. We insisted the poem tell us something we didn't already know about women: about women's experience, women's dreams, women’s thoughts. We insisted that the poem please us aesthetically--as a shape, as a signifier. We asked that the poem communicate openly. We asked that the poems all together be exciting to read, an adventure for the uninitiated."
Organized chronologically, the poems span 75 years and trace a concise history of women's poetry and women’s lives in twentieth century America, starting with Lola Ridge's 1918 description of the Jewish Ghetto and ending with Asian-American poet Chitra Divakaruni's 1991 poem about bathing her mother. The writers explore the brutality of rape and war, the realities of menstruation, childbirth, aging, and the bliss of love and sexuality.
A wide range of styles and backgrounds is represented by the 104 poets (expanded from the original 87) including well-established poets, rediscovered ones, and lesser-known younger writers: from Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, Lorine Niedecker, and Muriel Rukeyser to Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, June Jordan, Sharon Olds, and Louise Glück. Most notably missing is Elizabeth Bishop who declined inclusion in the "segregated" first edition and left instructions in her will that forced a second decline.
For a more recent collection of established and emerging women poets see The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women edited by Susan Aizenberg and Erin Belieu, published by Columbia University Press in 2001.
Howe, Florence, ed. No More Masks!: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets (1993). HarperPerennial.