See Jane Read

The Woman Reader

By Belinda Jack

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012, 329 pp., $30.00, hardcover


Reviewed by Leah Price


At a recent party, I found myself sandwiched between an older male historian and a young woman who identified herself as an employee of a mass-circulation women’s magazine.  He asked politely, with just a touch of gentle condescension, whether she had a specialty: Clothing?  Makeup? Recipes? Yes, she replied: book reviewing.   The historian was shocked.  Did women’s magazines run book reviews? he asked. Did she mean that the sort of person who scratches off perfume ads also reads books?

Such condescension, readers of Women’s Review of Books don’t need to be told, is out of date.  Today, women are the primary readers, not just of magazines, but of novels.  This means that being a reader of a woman’s magazine is an excellent predictor of being a buyer of books. A reviewer at Elle or Vogue wields power far greater than her colleagues at many of the self-consciously intellectual and ostensibly gender-neutral monthlies.  At a time when American women outperform men educationally, they also buy more books, visit more libraries, and read more in a range of genres, not just the traditionally feminine novel.

The statistics raise more questions than they answer, however.  Do women today patronize bookstores because gift giving is women’s work and spend more time in libraries because they’re the ones dragging the children to story hour?  Or do females actually read more than males, from childhood onward, as school librarians searching high and low for “butt and fart joke” books to appeal to boys believe?  Lakshmi Chaudhry points out that measured strictly by audience demographics, Hemingway would count as chick-lit. “Unlike the gods of the literary establishment who remain predominately male—both as writers and critics,” she observed in a 2006 In These Times article, “their humble readers are overwhelmingly female.”

This was not always the case.  The story that Belinda Jack tells in The Woman Reader, in rich and resonant detail, traces the denial of literacy to most women at most places and times, from the Mesopotamian marshes where clay tablets were first inscribed in the fourth millennium through the eighteenth-century satires that ridiculed those Nathaniel Hawthorne called “scribbling women.” The same held, Jack might have added, for all but the wealthiest and best-educated men.  A history of reading, then, must be largely a history of absences.  What’s more, reading leaves fewer traces than writing, making the evidence for historical claims frustratingly elusive.  In its place, Jack places a gripping narrative of men’s—and more rarely women’s—writing and painting about women’s reading.  We learn, for example, that until the fifteenth century, “there is no mention anywhere of [the Virgin] Mary’s literacy or books. Yet in paintings of the Annunciation, Mary’s spinning or sewing is gradually replaced by reading.”

This history of attitudes toward women’s reading, which runs alongside Jack’s history of women’s reading itself, covers an impressive geographical as well as chronological range.  A reasonable price to pay is a certain choppiness in the text at points where very different cultures are patched together by perfunctory transitions: after a survey of reading in seventeenth-century France, for example, we learn that “during the same period, on the other side of the world, there were more examples of serious woman readers and advocates of women’s education. In 17th century China…”  The ambitious scope and sweep of Jack’s coverage makes it inevitable that the structure dissolves at times into a series of potted biographies or exemplary lives strung together by “meanwhile.” Different cultures are sometimes flattened together, in generalizations about “women’s universal experience of misogyny and repression” or claims that “as women’s reading became intertwined with leisure and social advancement [in the eighteenth century], it became a still more contested activity and the subject of continuing and intriguing debates.” One gets a certain Groundhog Day feeling when the book’s very last line circles back to the same refrain: “The future of women’s reading looks as challenging, intriguing, contested and lively as its past.”

Plus ça change… In place of linear development we find a logic of cat and mouse. “Despite various attempts to counter woman’s determination to read freely, by the end of the 18th century woman were reading everywhere and reading more,” writes Jack. In medieval Europe, she says, “[W]oman readers were seen by many as a potential threat to the status quo,” and four centuries later, “as always reading could threaten the present state of affairs.” Jack generalizes that “admiration for women who read coexisted with anxieties about [reading’s] effects in many different cultures. This would be the pattern wherever publishing industries developed.” Thus, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European public libraries gradually opened to women, but at the price of providing separate reading rooms for them.

It’s natural for women who identify themselves as readers to want to learn about their forebears.  It may be equally natural for such women to want to see themselves as the culmination of a long line of transgressive, courageous, and independent women.  Jack’s genealogy will not disappoint them.  This is “whig history” at its best: an encyclopedically sweeping, progress narrative of individual outliers who resisted social pressure to become writers and readers, usually of politically subversive or aesthetically significant texts. 

If literate women have usually been in the minority, the kind of reader who dominates Jack’s account is a minority of a minority.  Subscribers to Women’s Review of Books may read for liberation, but most do not. If you total up the print runs for different genres in pretty much any culture since Gutenberg, it becomes clear that most women, like most men, have read more cookbooks, how-to books, and prayer books than political treatises—and that’s without counting romance novels.  Most reading—women’s even more than men’s—has been instrumental, utilitarian, and anything but feminist.  That a group of society ladies who meet on the Upper East Side to read aloud their memoirs garners more column inches from Jack than bestselling romance novels suggests both how selective and how aspirational this history is.

Jack does acknowledge that from the sixteenth century onward, the bulk of what most woman read “told them how to be good wives, mothers and nuns. By and large the power of the press, amid woman’s growing literacy, manifests itself as a force of repression.” Such acknowledgments are usually qualified, however, by a more upbeat conclusion tacked on with a “but” or “nevertheless.”  Thus, she points out that despite such advice from conduct books (the ancestors of our self-help books), “we also have plenty of evidence in the form of letters and literary works, in particular, that some women were not having any of it.”

Jack gives no evidence for her sweeping generalization that “women have always resisted reading material they have not wanted to read, and have withstood being persuaded by it.” Often, too, evidence for some antifeminist position is followed by an unsupported claim that women felt differently. For example, Jack follows a quotation from Chateaubriand denying the possibility of translation with a statement that “on the whole, woman had a somewhat different attitude, believing, more or less consciously, that there was a woman’s language in novels by women which transcended national tongues.” No quotation or citation is provided. In addition, she rarely acknowledges the large numbers of men whose economic interests depend on a steady supply of female readers: this includes not just publishers but also manufacturers of the many products advertised in the backs of nineteenth-century books, from self-ventilating corsets to “female pills,” and in the sidebars of twenty-first-century websites—not to mention the nineteenth and twentieth-century magazines whose female audiences have attracted a substantial body of research by scholars such as Margaret Beetham. 

The words “anxiety” and “fear” crop up four times in Jack’s first three pages to describe the opposition that women readers had to contend with; women readers themselves are described as “brave” or “rebellious.”  One effect of this morally loaded language is to upstage social phenomena by individual personalities.  Another is to short-circuit the historical empathy needed to understand that some women may sincerely have held beliefs that differ from those of twenty-first-century feminists.  Thus, we learn of the nineteenth-century Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry that “it was true that she was one of many educated woman who considered that novels, in the hands of less educated women, might not be improving, but to bring about some of the most urgent reforms she also had to be realistic about what was attainable in the climate of the day.”

Perhaps Jack’s emphasis on exceptional women—at the expense of the rank-and-file subscribers to fashion magazines such as the one for which my friend edits book reviews—reflects what’s attainable in today’s publishing climate.  But one is left wishing to understand more about the social patterns behind individual psychology: were women whose brothers were educated at home likely to eavesdrop on their lessons? Did scholars include their daughters in their intellectual endeavors or simply use them as amanuenses and fact checkers?  Did income correlate with literacy more or less strongly for women than for men? These questions remain for future women readers to answer.


Leah Price is professor of English at Harvard University, and the author of The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel (2000); Unpacking my Library: Writers and their Books (2011); and How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (2012).  She is at work on a new project, People of the Book: How Reimagining the Printed Past Can Help Us Reshape the Digital Future.

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