June 26, 2022

How Women Invented Book Clubs, Changing Reading and Their Lives

Women gathered wherever they could get their hands on a few books and quietly: in empty classrooms, in the back rooms of bookstores, at friends’ houses, even when they worked in mills.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, America’s first book clubs—precursors to book clubs—required little more than a thirst for literature and a desire to discuss it with like-minded women.

Journalist Margaret Fuller held a session of what she called her “conversations” in 1839, probably in her sister’s rented room on Chauncey Place, a few blocks from Boston Common.

Ms. Fuller – America’s first war correspondent, magazine editor and all-out feminist renegade – saw her club as anything but a substitute for embroidery. Instead, she rallied women who were, as she writes, “eager to answer the big questions. Why are we born ? How to do?”

As one participant recounted, Ms Fuller “opened the book of life and helped us read it for ourselves”.

Read more:

Mrs. Fuller’s “conversations”, like many literary circles, were a way for women to seek truth, knowledge and an understanding of themselves and the world around them. Megan Marshall, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,” even compared these meetings to outreach groups of the 1960s and 1970s. “There was a sense of female power that emanated from these sessions,” Ms. Marshall said.

Women may have been excluded from philosophical clubs and universities, but they found other ways to engage in literature. The leading role of women in the creation of the modern book club – a consequence of their marginalization from other intellectual spaces – has continued to shape the book landscape in profound and unrecognized ways.

Once on the fringes, women are now one of the most important drivers of the world of books. They continue to account for 80% of all fiction sales. One commentator went so far as to write: “Without women, the novel would die.”

Celebrity book clubs — often led by powerful women like Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon — are more of a guarantee of book sales than critical acclaim. The book club, seen as a feminine and frivolous time to drink wine and chat, is also a radical activity: a rare place where women have long been able to engage with the transformative power of books.

American women had gathered to study the Bible since the 17th century, but it was not until the late 18th century that secular reading circles emerged, around the same time as their European counterparts. Reading circles varied widely in what they read, from literature to science.

An avowed interest in expanding women’s freedoms was often a driving force behind these groups. Hannah Mather Crocker, who founded a book club in Boston in the 18th century, was an advocate for women’s participation in Freemasonry and would go on to write the seminal treatise “Observations on the Real Rights of Women.”

Literary circles encouraged women not only to read for edification or pleasure, but also to speak, to criticize, and even to write. As early as the 1760s, the poetess Milcah Martha Moore gathered women’s prose and poetry in her group, collecting nearly a hundred manuscripts.

Reading circles also crossed racial and class lines. In 1827, black women in Lynn, Massachusits, formed one of the first black women’s reading groups, the Society of Young Ladies. Black women in other East Coast cities would soon follow suit.

At the start of the Civil War, “almost every city and town” in the United States had some sort of women’s literary group, according to Mary Kelley, a professor of American intellectual history at the University of Michigan. Throughout the 19th century, women’s reading circles widened, and some spoke openly about social issues such as abolition, foreshadowing the club movement of the end of that century.

Until the 1900s, book clubs continued to serve this dual purpose: to function as both an intellectual outlet and a radical political tool. Access to books – and book clubs – has expanded, thanks in part to the rise of consumer paperbacks and mail-order sales.

The first half of the 20th century was the height of the book-of-the-month club and the big book movement, both of which encouraged average Americans to tackle big literary novels. As women continued to be excluded from many top universities, the need for a space to explore big ideas through books never dissipated.

After women began to be accepted en masse into institutions of higher learning in the 1960s, the role of these groups reversed: where women once joined book clubs to compensate for the education refused, they now joined them to prolong the pleasures they enjoyed at university. , according to an expert.

Some 63% of women in book clubs now have an advanced degree, according to data from Book Browse. Despite increasing demands on women to balance work and childcare, millions of Americans continue to join and participate in book clubs, and 88% of private book club attendees are women.

Oprah Winfrey’s launch of her book club in 1996 marked a turning point in the history of book clubs – a moment that author Toni Morrison has called a “reading revolution”. In the first three years, each book Oprah Picked sold an average of 1.4 million copies each.

Those who dismissed it as “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” missed its serious core: Books ranged from Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” to William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” to “The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou.

In a way that is surprisingly reminiscent of those early dissenting women who started reading circles, Ms. Winfrey spoke of literature in civic terms. “Getting my library card was like citizenship, it was like American citizenship,” she told Life Magazine in 1997. “Reading and being able to be a smart girl was my only sense of worth, and that was the only time I felt loved.”

This sense of self-worth is a guideline that has continued in book clubs today. “Talking about literature is not just talking about literature. It’s also examining her ideas, her identities, her thoughts, her sense of self,” said Christy Craig, PhD, a sociologist who examines the subversive possibilities of women’s book clubs. From 2013 to 2015, she conducted research on book clubs in the United States and Ireland, interviewing 53 women aged 19 to 80.

Ms Craig found that women turned to book clubs in times of upheaval, as a way to seek wisdom both in books and in each other. Women relied on their book clubs at pivotal times in their lives, such as after college, after a divorce or the death of a spouse, or after the children left home.

“Women have turned to book clubs to really build important social networks, and it has proven incredibly valuable. Through these book clubs, women have found important partnerships to support themselves through things like chemotherapy,” she said.

This has proven true during the pandemic, as book clubs meet online, and some have seen an increase in attendance. Readers seek a special intimacy that can be fulfilled through books. They find “real society”, as Margaret Fuller once wrote. In an uncertain world, book clubs can still serve as a place built on “patience, mutual respect and fearlessness.”

The Washington Post