Sex, Scripture and Status: Belinda Jack on the treatment of women readers throughout history

The Woman Reader

The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack

Published soon, The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack is the first book to address the controversies associated with women’s reading throughout history, and to show how vastly different women’s reading experiences have often been compared to those of men. Here she discusses her ambitious book, one of Yale’s most anticipated titles in 2012.

Belinda Jack is the author of a biography of influential French female novelist George Sand, and Beatrice’s Spell, a book about Beatrice Cenci, a sixteen year old girl who was executed in Rome in 1599 for the murder of her abusive father. Gender issues run through Jack’s work, and her latest book The Woman Reader tackles the treatment of woman in a new and pioneering way.

The Woman Reader tells a story never told before: the complete history of women readers and the controversies their reading has inspired since the beginning of the written word. The book travels from the Cro-Magnon cave to the digital bookstores of our time, exploring how and what women have read through the ages and across cultures and civilizations.

Belinda Jack traces a history marked by persistent efforts to prevent women from gaining literacy and to censor their reading. She also recounts the counterefforts of remarkable women – and some men – who have fought back and battled for the educational enfranchisement of girls. The book introduces dissatisfied female readers of many different eras – ancient poetesses disappointed by the limitations of male poets, Babylonian princesses calling for women’s voices to be heard, rebellious nuns who wanted to share their writings with others, confidantes questioning Reformation theologians about their writings, famous and infamous wives whose reading provoked their husbands, and nineteenth-century New England mill girls who risked their jobs to smuggle novels into the workplace.

Today, a new set of distinctions between male and female readers has emerged, and Jack explores such contemporary topics as the commitment of mothers vs. fathers to children’s literacy, women’s vocal demands for censorship in school libraries, and the impact of women readers in their new status as the prime movers in the world of reading.

Here she talks to Yale about the process of writing The Woman Reader, discusses some interesting findings during the research of the book and reveals her own experiences of being a woman reader.

Yale University Press: How did you come to write this book?

Belinda Jack: I became interested in just how different men and women’s reading has often been. Men have worried since ancient times about what women read but the reverse has hardly ever been the case.

Yale: What were the most striking stories that you uncovered in the course of your research?

Belinda: It’s been fascinating tracing women’s responses to misogynist writings that they then re-wrote— across the centuries and different cultures. And I was astonished by some of the so-called medical works in the nineteenth century recommending that unstable women should be prevented from reading novels. One eminent physician recommended books on bee-keeping!

Yale: What is the role of the wonderful illustrations in your book?

Belinda: Women’s reading is often closely associated with sexuality—either sexual conformity or impropriety. There’s the Virgin at the Annunciation reading scripture at one extreme and, at the other, images of naked women reading, alluding to its corrupting effects while being mildly erotic for the male viewer. So much of the subtlety of the story is richly suggested in the myriad images of women readers.

Yale: Is the story essentially one of slow improvement?

Belinda: In some ways, but not altogether. Working on attitudes to women’s reading during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe, I was struck by just how similar they were to those in Ancient Rome. In both contexts women were encouraged to read only in so far as it provided them with a moral training, or helped them to be good mother-educators. The other parallel was that literate women were also a sign of their husband’s social status.

Yale: Were you ever discouraged from reading or denied access to certain books?

Belinda: Both my parents were keen readers but my father didn’t think I should read stories in which people died—which ruled out a good deal! They used to call me either a “bookworm” (which I thought most unattractive) or a “‘great reader.” I was struck when quite young by how very different the descriptions were.

The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack is published next month from Yale. Belinda will be writing on this blog in the coming weeks so keep an eye out (or subscribe) for more on this exciting book.

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