The Woman Reader

June Purvis discovers how female literacy has faced a myriad of challenges over the centuries

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Reviewed by: June Purvis
Author: Belinda Jack
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £20

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The esteemed author Doris Lessing, who grew up in colonial Rhodesia, once said: “With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates.” A library, she asserted, was “the most democratic of institutions because no one… can tell you what to read and when and how”. In this interesting book, Belinda Jack of Oxford University charts the history of the woman reader, highlighting not only how societies have persistently prevented women from gaining literacy – as well as censoring their reading – but also recounting the stories of dissatisfied women who fought back against such restrictions.

As Jacks points out, across time and cultures women’s reading has long been associated with moral corruption and degeneration. Bookishness, it was feared, might sow the seeds of dissent and thus be threatening to the status quo. In ancient Rome, for example, women’s literacy was tolerated provided it included some moral training or led them to become better teachers of their children (especially their sons), or more competent managers of households.

The Reformation and the advent of print opened up many more opportunities for women to read, especially different versions of the Bible, but the emphasis upon women’s subservience continued. Indeed, the Virgin Mary with a book in her hand, often at the Annunciation, agreeing to do as she was told by the Angel Gabriel sent from God, became the dominant western image of the woman reader.

Numerous ‘conduct books’ published in subsequent centuries reinforced notions of women’s submission and inequality, stressing that ‘the fair sex’ should be perfect wives and mothers rather than autonomous beings in their own right. And although the 19th century may be seen as a golden age for women’s reading, with the rise of cheap shilling books and the periodical press, populist novels remained contentious: women were seen as susceptible to their undesirable influences. Even today, in our digital age, with vast reading opportunities for women, there are new forms of censorship – as well as marked gender inequalities in literacy, especially in the developing world.

Throughout history, as Jack illustrates, feisty women have argued for a better deal for their sisters. Aphra Behn (1640–89), a celebrated English writer who wielded enormous influence over contemporary women readers, was ridiculed for advocating equality between the sexes. A more serious fate befell Olympe de Gouges (1748–93), a French playwright, political pamphleteer and supporter of the French revolution, who demanded the same rights for women as for men; she faced the guillotine.

Inevitably in a broad sweep book such as this, some sections are stronger than others. The chapter on the 19th century is disappointing for its lack of historical depth, something that is particularly necessary given the introduction then in Britain of a gendered state elementary schooling system for working-class kids, and the establishment of public libraries. Greater use could have been made too of autobiographical evidence telling about the experience of reading (and re-reading). Nonetheless, The Woman Reader is an informative and lively text that points to fruitful further lines of enquiry.

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June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth and editor of the journal Women’s History Review