As author Belinda Jack shows us in her book, The Woman Reader, the evolution of women as readers has been a long and uneven one. There is little known about the earliest women readers and most of what is known is due to women's own records of what they were reading. Not surprising, most early women readers were from wealthy families. However, what is surprising is how many of these early readers taught their sons and their daughters to read, recommended reading lists even as theses children became adults thus, in many cases, influencing the ruling of nations, and, in several cases, set up schools for poor girls and women. What is also surprising is how often these women wrote to refute some male writer who claimed women should not be allowed to read due to their 'weaker minds' and how often other male writers wrote in support of women's literacy.
The discussion of female readers inevitably leads to discussions of what they read, to women as writers, and, after the advent of the printing press, women as publishers. She also discusses the rise of literacy among women, not only in the upper classes, but in the middle and working classes as well which led, inevitably, to the publishing of books aimed exclusively towards them. This was especially true of the novel which, from its earliest beginnings seemed to be more popular with women than men.
This also led, inevitably, to much discussion about the dangers of reading of anything not religious and/or morally instructive on the 'weaker' sex and the fears that indiscriminate reading would lead to bad marriage choices, possibly madness, but, perhaps worst of all, women's ability to lead fulfilling solitary and sexual lives without the need of a male figure to guide them. The book is illustrated and there is one marvelous picture from the 18th c. of a nude woman reclining on a couch, book in hand, while in the shadows a little devil, adds more books to the pile beside her.
Jack points out how even female authors like George Eliot felt that much of what was being written for women was bad for them and that novels should always and only reflect real life. Writers like Dickens were considered lesser talents whose writing was suitable only to entertain chambermaids. I will say here, I found Ms jack's use of this term to describe, I assume, working women an odd one but it is interesting to note that by the middle of the 19th century, literacy among working women was so widespread that books were being written for them and they were being released in serialized form so that they could afford them.
My only real criticism of this book would be about the last part concerning the 20th and 21st c. Perhaps because of the huge amount of materials available to women, she chose instead to discuss the effects of the rise of TV and movies on reading; some, to most of us, obscure women's reading groups; and the publishing industry itself. Among some rather glaring omissions are the popularity of 'chick lit' and YA urban fantasies aimed at the young woman market and the widespread use of ebooks (I found the second somewhat ironic since I read this on my Kobo) and books written exclusively for paperless reading.
Still, in The Woman Reader, author Belinda Jack gives a fascinating picture of women as readers and, by extension, writers from our earliest portraits of women drawn on cave walls right up to the present. Although, it is mainly concerned with women in western culture, there are some interesting references to Asian women readers as well as modern women readers in less liberated societies like present-day Iran. It is well-researched, well-documented, and beautifully illustrated and would be a great addition to the library of anyone interested in the history of women or reading or both.