Review: The Woman Reader, Belinda Jack

 This was Book-Love at first sight.  A book about the history of reading from a female perspective.  I was at the fabulous West End Lane bookshop in West Hampstead, one of my all-time favourite bookshops and although it usually takes me an absolute age to decide which book to pick in, this time I was at the till after barely completing the first page.  This is a true Book to Treasure.  In The Woman Reader, Belinda Jack chronicles over forty centuries of reading and the many, many challenges to female literacy over time.  The book is packed with fascinating anecdotes and the voices of women since what seems like the dawn of time join Jack in a chorus of shared passion for reading.  From the outside, a history of the woman reader appears such a strange topic – reading itself is such an internal activity and then to separate out the female experience appears difficult, but Belinda Jack’s book underlines time after time the anxiety and controversy which female literacy has caused.  A woman who can read can take on the world.

Unlike other histories, Jack is not writing a book that builds to a positive finale.  The struggle for female literacy continues; in the final chapter, Jack discusses Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for female educational rights and even as I am writing this, in Nigeria over two hundred school girls were kidnapped from their school by the group Boko Haram which objects to women being educated.  I have mentioned more than once that I am a feminist, I have also mentioned that I have taken a fair amount of abuse for owning up to this  When items like those appear on the news, the mind boggles about those who claim that feminism is responsible for the world’s problems – if you are pro-human, then you should be pro-feminism.

Malala Yousafzai

Repeated studies have linked literate mothers with lower infant mortality – Global Giving has the campaign The Girl Effect, fighting for female education with the tag-line ‘Save a Girl, Change the World’.  Studies have repeatedly shown that an educated girl will provide a financial return to her family of between 10 and 20 times as much as a man with an equivalent level of education.  The World Bank has named girls as the ‘world’s greatest return on investment’ and as Global Giving remarks, the question is not so much, ‘Why girls?’ as it is, ‘Why wait?’  Female literacy gives women the power to shape their own destinies, to choose their own path, challenge the status quo but most importantly, it means that they can break free of ignorance.  I remember the passage in A Christmas Carol where the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces Scrooge to the offspring of poverty, Want and Ignorance, warning Scrooge that Ignorance is by far the more dangerous.  He was right.

Belinda Jack begins her history looking at cave paintings, which women were involved in their creating judging by the size of the hand prints.  The existence of images to be decoded pre-dated the invention of written language; Neanderthals read notches on bones which for them contained meaning, primitive man read picture messages on leather and bark.  The idea of having one’s head in a book did not arrive for centuries.  Still, the first known author of any written work was in fact a woman, Princess Enheduanna.  She lived in 23000 BC, making her the earliest poet in human history, her influence was felt in poetry for around five hundred years.  The Woman Reader is crammed full of fascinating nuggets such as this, meaning that despite its in-depth detail, it remains a compulsive and often inspiring read.

Favourite Poete, Lawrence Alma-Tadem 1888

The Reformation often faultered over the translation of the Bible from Latin, fearing common people being able to read it without the intercession of a priest.  Of particular concern was the idea that women might read it without proper supervision.  Belinda Jack tells of the blind woman, Joan Waste, who lived during the reign of Edward VI.  A poor woman, she saved for years to be able to afford an English translation of several books of the Bible, then paid people to read it to her.  Of course, then Mary I came to the throne and poor Joan was burnt at the stake for owning an English translation.  Similar to the fear in America at what literate slaves might be capable of, it was often feared that a literate female might be able to read ‘amourous missives’ and conduct secret love affairs.  Taking a step back, one sees that the battle to contain female education comes back time and again to the male desire to control female sexuality.  There is a reason why Eve was punished for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.


Another point for concern was female hysteria.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was believed that women put themselves in physical danger through excessive reading.  To compound the matter, the rise in popularity of novels meant that people worried that women would be unduly excited by the sensationalistic plots.  Robert Carver, a doctor, advocated that when a woman was reading an exciting novel, the best thing to do would be to distract her and then substitute it for a book ‘upon a practical subject; such as for instance, bee-keeping’.  The idea of a man snatching a book from me and then expecting me to sit down and learn about hive maintenance is almost laughable if the men in question were not deadly serious.

There is such a huge amount of curiousity about literate females.  Last year, my mother bought me a calendar of images of women reading, the year before I read and reviewed Girl, Reading, a short story anthology concerning images of reading women.  At various points, Belinda Jack discussed famous images of women reading, many of which made the link between temptation and literacy.  When a woman is reading, her thoughts are free and unfettered.  She can fly as high as the sky – she has the liberty of her own mind.  There is a reason why in Afghanistan the Sewing Circles of Herat flourished so widely; these functioned as secret schools for women where children would act as look-outs so that when the religious police passed by, the women would hide their books (Shakespeare, Joyce, Dostoyevsky) and take up their sewing again.  It was uplifting as well as saddening to hear about the courage shown every day by these women who seek to better their situation as well as those around them through improving educational access.


This book was highly thought-provoking.  Not only did it make me realise how fortunate I have been to have lived in a time and place where I have had free range of reading materials and educational opportunities, but also because it was so interesting to see how reading responses have changed.  Modern critic Wendy Lesser made little of the misogyny in Don Quixote, while the same novel prompted Cervantes’ contemporary Charlotte Lennox to write The Female Quixote in protest.  I myself have dismissed misogyny in classic literature as merely part of its time but it made me think of what it would be like to actually live in a society with these prejudices engraved in popular culture.  Of course, the struggle continues.  Only in 1965, chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked in court if D.H. Lawrence’s book Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the type of book ‘you would wish your wife or servant to read?’, implying yet again that reading can lead to transgressive behaviour.

The woman reader has changed with the times but her courage has never truly failed.  Reading does have the potential to encourage social change, Winston Churchill admitted that novels such as Mrs Miniver had won the American public over to the idea of intervention in World War Two.  Reading can save the world by opening people’s minds and hearts to new ideas and as the twenty-first century moves forward, the advent of the e-reader allows for an unprecedented level of anonymity in reading.  Girls now out-perform boys consistently in reading tests throughout their school careers, but the fact that the battle for literacy has been waged for so many centuries implies that the end is not in sight, meaning that The Woman Reader ended on a defiant rather than triumphant note.  Books like this are a vital part of our history, we must remember the value of what is being fought for to recognise the importance of the fight.

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The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack
Published by Yale University Press on July 17th 2012
Genres: History, Social History, Literary Criticism, Books & Reading, Social Science, Women's Studies
Pages: 329
ISBN: 9780300120455

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Woman Reader, Belinda Jack

  1. I was so curious to hear what you thought about this book after you mentioned it on your YouTube video. Glad to hear it was a hit! I'll definitely be checking this out. And I quite agree that books like these are essential for our world today. Maybe this book needs to be required reading in school at some point…

  2. It does have quite a dense style but it is so crammed full of interesting information – I had never even heard of Princess Enheduanna before! It's so good to see someone celebrating the power that reading has in people's lives – this was a truly unique book and deserves to be widely known.

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