A Brief History of the Beef Against Women Reading

What Women Really Think
Oct. 11 2012 10:47 AM

A Brief History of the Beef Against Women Reading

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Iraqi women attend the "Reading for All" campaign in Baghdad on Sept. 30, 2012

Photo by Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/GettyImages.

This week, a 26-year-old American woman was awarded $3.5 million to write a book of advice for young women. And a 16-year-old fan-fiction writer was mocked for striking a deal to turn her One Direction fantasies into published reality. Also this week, New Yorker writer Joan Acocella read author Belinda Jack’s sweeping history of women’s literacy, “A Woman Reader,” and wrote all about it in one of the most respected magazines in the world. This could not have happened at any other point in history.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

For the first thousand years of the historical beef against women readers, as Jack’s book documents, most women were barred from reading entirely, and the ban was a powerful tool in their subjugation. “In thinking about wisdom, it helps to read about wisdom—about Solomon or Socrates or whomever,” Acocella writes. “Likewise, goodness and happiness and love. To decide whether you have them, or want to make the sacrifices necessary to get them, it is useful to read about them. Without such introspection, women seemed stupid; therefore, they were considered unfit for education; therefore, they weren’t given an education; therefore they seemed stupid.”

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Once women were allowed to learn to read—as light and leisure time and printed religious indoctrination spread, it became harder to keep them from it—social campaigns against women readers and writers mutated with the millennia, their justifications shifting to suit the era. After the fall of the Roman Empire, reading among both men and women was restricted to noble elites and religious figures, people with the time and privacy to pick up a book. But when Charlemagne took over the Frankish empire in 800, he decreed that both men and women under his rule would be educated, though women still read in the vernacular, while men were more likely to be schooled in Latin. And so the stigma against chick lit was born. Popular books written in words that women could understand were shunned by men as “sentimental and realistic” stories “about love and friendship and animals and magic potions,” Acocella says. When women began writing themselves, female authors were often deemed insane, or else secretly male.

As the marketplace for words increasingly skewed female, men started trolling, claiming that women’s novels were sexually corruptive, dangerously distracting, and hopelessly unrealistic, or even damaging to women’s mental health. (One 19th-century doctor, faced with a novel-reading woman, prescribed a book on beekeeping instead.) Male authors adapted by publishing helpful advice for women targeted at keeping them in their place. Women—and the market—fought back. As early as the 16th century, publishers began offering small, cheaper versions of books that could be easily hidden away from husbands. Book clubs formed, where women talked among themselves. “What was it that men feared about women’s reading?” Acocella writes. “A big fear was that it was something they could do alone, without anyone to guide their thinking. They would learn to think independently.”

We all know how that shook out. Pocket novels and book clubs have given way to a bustling publishing market for chick-lit novels, where the voices of male writers are not valued; endless fan-fiction boards, where women log on to draft their own fantasies in their spare time; and social networking sites, where women—who regularly make up over one-half of users—are empowered to document their lives in real-time, one navel-gazing status update at a time.

But the fear of educated women—women who might learn to think for themselves—still persists in many parts of the world. This is why universities across Iran recently banned women from studying dozens of subjects, including English literature. This is why Afghan girls face acid attacks while walking to school. And this is why the Taliban targeted the 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who penned a pseudonymous diary for the BBC, beginning at age 11, where she detailed her struggle to be educated under terrorist rule. So they shot her in the head. Now she’s in the hospital, not the classroom.

Even in countries like the United States, where the lucrative market for women readers is happily exploited, the stigma against women and books takes on new and exciting permutations. Female authors like S.E. Hinton, J.K. Rowling, and Curtis Sittenfeld (given name: Elizabeth) still truncate their names to appear more masculine.

But why? Women today make up more than half of the population, and 80 percent of the fiction market, yet we are still considered a niche. The fact that ladies read is still somehow news, and whenever too many of us pick up one particular book, like 50 Shades of Grey, commentators dissect the contents for clues as to what women (all of them) are thinking. As Jessica Grose detailed in Slate earlier this month, books written by women—like her own debut novel, Sad Desk Salad—are often instantly subjugated as “for-girls-only,” marketed as something lesser-than, and then unfairly scrutinized. “[W]hy, for instance, was a series like Twilight so much more critically derided than Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy? Both sets are huge best-sellers, and both are horribly written (unless you like elaborate, repetitive descriptions of sandwiches). But Larsson’s were never painted as embarrassing, pathetic props for bored housewives (or their husbands),” Grose wrote. “Larsson’s weren’t sneered at by the critical class the way that popular books in women specific genres tend to be.”

This seems to be just another iteration of that old fear: What specialized knowledge might women be absorbing, alone in their rooms? And, yes, sometimes the books we’re reading do provide peeks into the social and political realities that women face today. But other times, we’re just reading because we can. “A great virtue of Jack’s book is that she repeatedly reminds us of the internal pleasures of reading,” Acocella writes. It is “not so much the acquisition of ideas or information as just the pleasure of going to new places in one’s mind.”