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The Woman Reader

The Woman Reader

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Woman Reader
    Book Description:

    This lively story has never been told before: the complete history of women's reading and the ceaseless controversies it has inspired. Belinda Jack's groundbreaking volume travels from the Cro-Magnon cave to the digital bookstores of our time, exploring what and how women of widely differing cultures have read through the ages.

    Jack traces a history marked by persistent efforts to prevent women from gaining literacy or reading what they wished. She also recounts the counter-efforts of those who have battled for girls' access to books and education. The book introduces frustrated female readers of many eras-Babylonian princesses who called for women's voices to be heard, rebellious nuns who wanted to share their writings with others,confidanteswho challenged Reformation theologians' writings, nineteenth-century New England mill girls who risked their jobs to smuggle novels into the workplace, and women volunteers who taught literacy to women and children on convict ships bound for Australia.

    Today, new distinctions between male and female readers have emerged, and Jack explores such contemporary topics as burgeoning women's reading groups, differences in men and women's reading tastes, censorship of women's on-line reading in countries like Iran, the continuing struggle for girls' literacy in many poorer places, and the impact of women readers in their new status as significant movers in the world of reading.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16038-3
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    From clay tablets to papyrus, from manuscripts to printed books, from pamphlets to manifestos and advertisements, from newspapers to illustrated magazines, from the logos on T-shirts to computer screens, from text messages to the advent of e-readers, reading has gone on for millennia. Its story could hardly be more intriguing and varied across time and space. Nor is it a simple chronicle of a steady progression gradually involving more and more readers and increasing amounts of reading matter; there have been stagnant times and periods of reversal when literacy rates dropped or access to reading material declined. The censorship of...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Primitives, Goddesses and Aristocrats
    (pp. 20-48)

    The very earliest ‘reading’ of man-made markings was of those on cave walls, and notches on sticks and bones. And the making of these images, in relation to women and men, may have been different from the start. Were women as much involved in creating them – and ‘reading’ them – as men?

    As image-making is a sign of sophistication in primitive peoples, providing a record of life beyond immediate survival in real time, the degree to which women may have participated is bound up with the possible status of women within these most remote human societies. Archaeologists’ discussions about...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Reading in the Not-So-Dark Ages
    (pp. 49-69)

    What were women reading in the murky half-light of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire around ad 600 and lasted until the turn of the second millennium? This pejorative term, originally coined because relatively little was known of the period, is now less often used – although some historians refer instead to the ‘Silent Ages’, particularly when discussing women’s lives.¹ But over recent decades ever-increasing amounts of exciting material have come to light. Archaeologists, historians and others – including many women excited by the likelihood of discovering more about women’s unwritten history – have...

  8. CHAPTER 3 History, Mystery and Copying
    (pp. 70-88)

    The idea that the worlds of writing and reading transcend the death of the author may be an insight which becomes a cliché over time, but this early description written by the Byzantine princess and scholar, Anna Komnene (1083–1153), has a striking freshness. Anna was the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina, and she became a historian like her northern sister, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim.

    Anna must have been not only one of the best educated women of her time, but one of the most roundly educated too. She was born in the palace of...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Outside the Cloister
    (pp. 89-113)

    Outside religious communities, educational initiatives were slowly percolating through the social system. Some women of the merchant classes were gradually becoming literate, although for them developed numeracy skills were more essential. Merchants and artisans taught women members of the household so that they could work unpaid in the family business. If the man of the household became incapacitated for any reason, or died, women often assumed a rare control and responsibility involving increased understanding of the business.

    The growth in international trade encouraged new kinds of writing to support increasingly complex forms of administration. At the same time a new...

  10. CHAPTER 5 ‘To Reade Such Bookes . . . My Selfe to Edyfye’
    (pp. 114-143)

    The question of the woman reader was central to many intellectual and religious debates of the sixteenth century. In 1592, at the end of a century of growing scepticism, the engagingly immoderate Moderata Fonte was emboldened to voice some frank opinions in her work,The Worth of Women – Wherein is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men:

    Do you really believe . . . that everything historians tell us about men – or about women – is actually true? You ought to consider the fact that these histories have been written by men, who never tell the...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Competing for Attention
    (pp. 144-183)

    In 1615, an opportunistic fencing teacher, Joseph Swetnam, published a swingeing attack on women,The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women; or the vanity of them, Choose you Whether. With a Commendation of Wise, Virtuous, and Honest Women. It was a misleading title, as there is virtually nothing by way of ‘commendation’ in this aggressive publication; there is however much virulent criticism in his miscellany of stories of naughty women, their depravities, and their scandalous behaviour, sometimes attributable to the influence of reading romances. Swetnam, as narrator, poses as a jaded traveller amusing himself by stringing together exaggerated...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Answering Back
    (pp. 184-227)

    In 1748, Samuel Richardson, one of the most popular authors of the day, received an anonymous letter from one of his women readers. This was not an unusual event. In fact, as his novels rolled off the presses in edition after edition, he invited his readers to tell him what they thought of them. He solicited material for his prefaces from his readers as well as, most interestingly of all, original letters which he could use more or less verbatim in his epistolary novels. Many of his readers, mostly women, eagerly complied. The letter he received in 1748 had been...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Books of Their Own
    (pp. 228-256)

    The nineteenth century was in many ways a golden age for reading, and for women’s reading in particular. Eighteenth-century trends continued to accelerate. The printing and publishing industries expanded, responding to new markets at home and overseas, and meeting the demand from rising numbers of the literate for affordable reading material. Industrialisation brought other changes which were to have a profound effect on reading habits. Gaslights meant that workers, including a growing number of women, were able to read more comfortably than by candlelight in the evenings after a twelve-hour shift in the increasing numbers of factories. Better postal services...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Nation-Building
    (pp. 257-275)

    Reading – men’s, women’s and children’s – lay very much at the heart of the American egalitarian vision. The United States Constitution, drafted in 1787, was far more than symbolic rhetoric. Nor was it simply a set of laws to be appealed to if need be. Benjamin Franklin (1706–90), one of the founding fathers of the nation, ensured that thousands of copies were produced and widely distributed. His intended readership was made up solely of white male property owners, and he was himself one of Philadelphia’s leading publishers. Whatever the limits of his vision, and notwithstanding his self-interest, his...

  15. CHAPTER 10 The Modern Woman Reader
    (pp. 276-294)

    Time is a gift, but it can be a suspect one, especially in a culture that values frenzy. When I began this book, almost everyone I knew seemed to be busier than I was. I supported myself, contributed my share to the upkeep of the household, and engaged in all the useful wifely and motherly duties and pleasures. But I still had time left to read. . . . I had constructed a life in which I could be energetic but also lazy; I could rush, but I would never be rushed. It was a perfect situation for someone who...

  16. Endnotes
    (pp. 295-309)
  17. Index
    (pp. 310-330)