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Women and Children First storefront

Women & Children First is located in the Andersonville neighborhood. The bookstore has been open since 1979.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Chicago’s Women & Children First is one of the nation’s longest-standing feminist bookstores

Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen had a dilemma: They were both studying English in graduate school — and yet, they were being assigned books almost entirely written by men.

It was the 1970s, and they were immersed in the feminist movement. But most bookstores didn’t feature women’s literature. So the pair decided to build a store of their own. They opened Women & Children First in Lakeview, complete with bookshelves they constructed themselves.

“Everything was do-it-yourself,” Bubon explained. “We ordered the wood… The lumber delivery man comes and I’m the only one there, and he says: ‘Where’s your man to help move all this stuff?’ And I said, ‘You’re looking at her.’”

Now about 30,000 books line the shelves at Women & Children First, making it one of the biggest feminist bookstores in the nation. It’s also one of the last ones standing from the 70s and 80s.

Back then, Bubon recalls, she and Christophersen also had to worry about businesses being openly homophobic. That was part of the motivation for opening Women & Children First: if they owned the store, nobody could fire them for their sexual orientation. And they could offer a safe space for other LGBTQ+ people at the same time.

One morning, she remembers seeing two women walk out the door, holding hands.

“They were laughing and they were swinging their hands,” Bubon said. “I thought to myself: That’s because they were in a space that said it was okay.”

Through 45 years of business, Women & Children First has endured and evolved. Bubon said the store’s success comes down to the community.

When Women & Children First moved to its current location — 5233 N Clark St in Andersonville — they asked for volunteers, and about 75 people answered the call.

Bubon said she still tears up when she thinks about that moment. But there’s something she’s even more proud of: choosing the right people to take over the store and maintain its feminist legacy.

A new chapter for the bookstore

In 2014, Bubon and Christophersen sold Women & Children First to Sarah Hollenbeck and Lynn Mooney, who both worked at the bookstore before they bought it.

Hollenbeck remembers the morning they decided to make an offer. They met up before the bookstore officially opened and hatched their plan with the lights still off.

She said her love for Women & Children First came before she was even an employee.

“I'm a disabled woman, and when I walked in the door, no one batted an eye,” Hollenbeck said. “I immediately felt at home, and I felt safe, and I wanted to preserve that. And I'm so glad that we could continue that legacy.”

Mooney said they looked at the feminist mission and decided to focus on intersectional feminism, with a focus on anti-racism, trans-inclusivity and disability rights. They also focus on creating a feminist workplace, committing to pay a livable wage and improve work conditions.

Looking to the future — and fulfilling the bookstore’s promise

The original mission of the store continues on. That includes its priority of children, right there in the name.

Many kids have grown up in the bookstore. Bubon remembers a time where she kept her son’s baby seat in the front window. Now, she takes care of Hollenbeck’s 2-year-old.

But shops like Women & Children First have also raised generations of feminists. People from across the country walk in, full of stories of how a feminist bookstore shaped their lives, Mooney said.

And while only a few shops remain from the second wave, Mooney said the movement is alive and vibrant. Feminist bookstores are as needed as ever, she added.

“They’re pivotal and critical,” Mooney said. “The larger conversation has caught up with us and is challenging us in new ways to be relevant and to lead.”

Reset host Sasha-Ann Simons spoke with Women & Children First co-founder Linda Bubon, as well as current co-owners Sarah Hollenbeck and Lynn Mooney.

You can listen to the full conversation above.

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