Jun 29, 2012

The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack

The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack

Literate women, and women who have contributed to the written record, have been controversial virtually from the beginnings of civilisation in ways which have not been true of their male contemporaries. They have been ridiculed, criticised often in hyperbolic terms, and faced with denial that their genius was actually their own, while at the same time celebrated and heralded for their contributions. They have also been represented as erotically desirable. These extremes of reaction and invention are distinct from the parallel history of literary men. They are also considerably more intriguing.
Belinda Jack’s The Woman Reader is a history of women’s access to printed material and of society’s responses to this access. Jack tells the stories of notable woman readers from the Ancient World to the present day; this leads to a certain overlap with the history of early women writers, but this is because very often the only existing records of women’s reading are their own written reactions to what they read.

Gender segregated histories can be contentious, but Jack makes a reasonable case for her choice to specifically focus on women’s experiences with written material. As the passage I opened with explains, from very early on women readers were scrutinised far more closely than their male counterparts. By focusing on sociopolitical factors, Jack largely avoids essentialising or idealising women readers.

Writing a gender segregated history, however, doesn’t mean it will solely be a history of triumphant rebellion and defiance of the status quo. It’s common to portray reading as inherently subversive, but The Woman Reader illustrates how women readers weren’t always rebels – sometimes they were crucial players in their societies who possessed a considerable amount of power and influence and were invested in existing power structures. Their power was not negligible, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist within the constraints of a patriarchal society. I came across a review of the book at The Atlantic that denounces Jack for idealising reading as instantly liberating, but personally I found The Woman Reader far more nuanced than that (in fact, I would argue that it goes to some lengths to challenge a simplistic understanding of what access to printed material implies for women). The book acknowledges that the history of women readers is not one of linear progression from repression to empowerment and liberation, which was something I really appreciated.

For example, one of my favourite chapters was “Reading in the not so dark ages”, in which Jack defies the popular myth that the Middle Ages were uniformly terrible for women:
The alleged ‘silence’ of women in the Early Middle Ages was only relative. The period was broken by bold whisperings in many parts of the world and these would gradually become louder. Early Christian aristocrats and holy women like Radegund, lay women like Dhuoda, Hrotsvit the playwright, and women monastics in Ireland like St Darerca, or Hilda of Whitby in England, and Buddhist noblewomen like Lady Dong Zhenying and Muslim women scholars in the East, provide varied examples of women readers who in turn inspired the reading of others, often women.
Reading this chapter put me in mind of something Jodie was saying recently about her experiences as a history major and a feminist:
I never really like to talk about historical women and power, with any kind of positive emphasis, in feminist circles which contain people who haven’t studied the areas of history I’m talking about. This sounds weird, right, because I’d be expressing a view of a historical period, which emerged from feminist study, to other feminists, but somehow I always feel like if I start talking about the limited power of the vestal virgins, or the control nuns had over their nunneries in 16/17th century Italy, I’m setting myself up to be accused of denying patriarchal oppression. I know some feminists think revisionism is all a kind of fantasy, or women’s desperate and false attempt to place their historical counterparts on an equal footing with the men of the past and over the years knowing that view is out there has had a silencing effect on me.
I can imagine how tricky it must be to make these arguments without worrying you’re coming across as saying that women didn’t actually have it so bad after all. This is a risk Jack runs, but I think she does an impressive job of illuminating both sides: yes, patriarchal oppression is very much real, but this doesn’t mean there weren’t pockets of agency or freedom and ways in which women exerted power, both as readers and writers and in other areas of society.

Another section I particularly appreciated was the one on the iconography of the woman reader. Jack argues that there are far more images of women reading than of their male counterparts, and that this emphasis signals the fact that throughout history women readers have been objectified, eroticised, and perceived as simultaneously dangerous and beguiling:
But the woman reader is not only a reality. She is also a striking invention of the male imagination, a crucial aspect of men’s desire to worship or condemn the mysteries of the ‘opposite sex’. For a long time the woman reader was more often an idea or a symbolic construct rather than real, during stretches of history when few, if any, women were literate. At the same time men’s visual representations of women reading have had a profound but to some degree incalculable effect on women readers, serving either as an encouragement to read or an alarming warning against reading. The visual legacy is a vivid reminder of the myriad role models offered to woman readers. And the history of this legacy in the fine arts is much more intriguing than its male counterpart. Men have generally enjoyed much greater freedoms, a consequence being that their reactions to reading have (allegedly) been more cerebral, and much less psychologically charged.

So it is that the iconography of the male reader is less complex and loaded. Women (and for that matter, men) have not shown much interest in the male reader: he is by no means as beguiling as the woman reader. By and large the book or other document he holds alerts the viewer to the man’s religious or scholarly seriousness, his profession, his status – and not much else. Images of women reading are more numerous, more varied and often more enigmatic. They may conjure an aura of piety, virtue, maternal responsibility, privilege, luxury, scholarly learning or social status. But they may also be richly suggestive of idle leisure, frivolity or erotic temptation.
As some of you may know, my fellow book blogger Alex has created an extensive collection of images of women readers on Pinterest. I revisited Alex’s pinboard after reading The Woman Reader, and it was fascinating to see how many of the images do fit the types Jack identifies. Of course, this isn’t to say that images of women reading are bad and we shouldn’t enjoy them; just that being aware of the ways in which these images are loaded and shaped by patriarchal perceptions helps deconstruct the aforementioned simplistic idea that access to reading material always equals gender equality, liberation and empowerment.

The only section of Woman Reader that let me down was the one on the contemporary world. As I said earlier, for most of the book Jack explains the different histories of men and women as readers through social factors – women’s experiences of reading were by and large different because they were scrutinised far more closely, which means that generally speaking they were forced into a kind of self-consciousness about their engagement with written material that most men didn’t have to face (of course, considering factors like class and race rather complicates this picture). Unfortunately, Jack mostly abandons this approach when discussing contemporary gendered reading patterns, and seems to slip into the kind of gender essentialism she otherwise critiques when accounting for men and women’s different profiles as readers in the modern world. I would argue that the social forces that shaped men and women’s experiences as readers throughout history are still very much at work in the present day.

Still, the historical aspect alone was more than enough to keep me interested in The Woman Reader. The tone and style reminded me a little of A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel (whose influence Jack readily acknowledges). Fans of his work are likely to find much of interest here.

A few more interesting bits (I actually marked eighteen different passages when reading this book, which is more than for any other book I’ve read so far this year. I’ll try my best not to go overboard with the quoting):
In eighteenth-century Europe, but also further afield, the novel became the site of fierce battles as its content broadened and gradually replaced conduct books. One of the most extreme reactions to these changes was the appearance of supposedly ‘scientific’ proof of the dangers women faced if they read. These tracts would in part replace the conjecture, polemic and superstition that infused the discussions of women’s education and reading during the seventeenth century. But as women’s reading, leisure and social advancement became intertwined, so women’s reading became a still more contested activity and the subject of continuing and intriguing debates.

One of the most striking phenomena of nineteenth-century social history was the pervasive anxiety, whether undisguised or more subtly expressed by both men and women, over the newly literate groups’ access to varied reading material. And the growing number of titles written by women was often treated with singular suspicion. This situation was hitherto unknown and seemingly uncontrollable. The three great revolutions – the American, the French and the Industrial – were all deemed, for better or worse, to have been fuelled by more widespread reading. In their wake, many saw allegedly subversive material as further fanning the flames of change whether social, economic or political. Crucially, all these were deemed to be sure to bring radical changes in terms of how men and women would live alongside one another in national as well as marital and familial contexts. Women, it was thought, would be tempted to neglect their duties, seduced by engrossing books.

Within the medical profession some physicians continued to express peculiar fears about the effects of reading on women’s behaviour and general wellbeing. The widely held assumption was that there were fundamental physiological and psychological differences between men and women, and that women’s heightened sensibilities made them prone to hysteria and madness. Both these conditions might be induced by excessive and inappropriate reading, particularly of novels.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloaded a review copy of this book via NetGalley.


  1. I can't think of anything more pertinent to all of us...women readers. Required reading for bloggers?

  2. Sandy, towards the end of the book she actually mentions the fact that there's an unprecedented number of women recording their responses to their reading in mostly female online communities (this is where I went, "Hey, that's us! *waves* in my head :P) I DO wish there had been an analysis of why these communities are mostly female while the traditional critical establishment is still overwhelmingly male, but perhaps she felt this would have changed the focus of the book. It's a huge topic, after all.

  3. I just had to visit that Pinterest board- what an impressive collection! I must have spent twenty minutes just looking at all the images. I think my favorite was the little girl sitting on a stack of books, with another on her head! by Scott James Owles.

  4. lol, I saw some of those women reading images pop up on tumblr the other day, and I was like, what is this, this is not what I look like when i read, lol. So this history is actually very interesting to me!

  5. I haven't had a chance to read this book. I have it, though. My not reading much lately sucks because I am looking forward to this.

  6. I like histories like this, so I'm definitely adding it to the wish list.

  7. There is also a tumblr on that subject, it gives the same impression you found on that Pinterest board:


    Even in their contemporary images you can find those patriarchal perceptions. But also of class. Men who could afford leisure used to be depicted hunting or with their high-rank military officer uniform. Women who could afford leisure were depicted reading.

    About those 18th century ideas, novels having a bad effect on women, they were of course reflecting the same patriarchal frame, but there is something about the novel shaping our ideals. For Denis de Rougemont proto-novels and novels gave the Western World its ideal of romantic love and the problems that came with it (for both men and women). He is certainly not against fiction, but the kind of fiction popular in previous centuries gave the Western world the same kind of misconceptions that rom-coms give us now.

    I really liked your Okorafor review. A friend of mine is taking a course on neo-colonialism reflected in fantasy and science fiction, and Okorafor is one of the primary authors on that subject. Saludos desde Mexico.

  8. One of my modules this year included looking at the way the Reformation severely limited women's freedoms by doing away with convents and thus leaving women with little choice but to marry. As much as we can say that man ruled the world, there were women that got around the issues and were able to live for themselves and be educated, even if their number was few and we've mostly forgotten about them. It is certainly important to remember that while there was a lot of suppression, there were women who managed, even became leaders.

    I always got the feeling that images of women reading were purely for pleasure, to make them look pretty and intelligent when the subtext was that they weren't really intelligent. Of course for us nowadays the artwork might take a different context, supporting the idea of women reading more than men, truly being intelligent and so on, which is pretty awesome. I hadn't thought of the difference in purposes of the genders in art like that, however. I'd agree with your argument on social forces. Women are still supposed to read fiction, men non-fiction.

  9. I've got this book to read from NetGalley and have started but not gotten very far at all (as is the case with ALL the books I have out but are not in audiobook format). It was very interesting at the start, though! I like that she brings in the political contexts, though I am not sure yet what the "thesis" of the book is. Or if it even has one :-)

  10. Jeane: There are some really great ones in there, aren't there? I could spent hours looking.

    Amy: Definitely not what I look like either :P

    Kailana: I know what you mean :( Stupid reading slump.

    Trisha: It's right up your alley!

    Nicolas Diaz: Such an excellent point about class. And yeah, I could easily read a whole book about how the stories we tell have shaped our perception and expectations of romantic love over the centuries. The other day I actually came across a title that might touch on that - Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz. Also, I'm glad to hear you liked the Okorafor review!

    Charlie: Yes, exactly! And yes, the meaning of those images isn't fixed - we're free to read them differently in the present day and to interpret them in a variety of ways. But the history is really interesting, I think.

    Aarti: I'm not sure that it has a thesis beyond "the history of women's access to written material is very complex". That Atlantic review I linked to claims that her thesis is that reading is always positive and liberating, but that made me feel like I'd read an entirely different book than they did. I'm very curious to hear what you think!

  11. Sounds intriguing! Great review.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.