Why Women Read

The subtitle of this post is “In the Nineteenth Century.” During that time, there were, apparently, many types of readers and stereotypes about women who read. Today, I’ll share eight of those types of female readers with you from Patricia Okker’s book Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors (1995).  Okker’s book has a section devoted to the rise of literacy among women of the nineteenth century. It reminded me of a beautiful book of postcards called The Reading Woman that my good friend Amy gave me for Christmas. The images on the postcards are historical images of women as readers as painted by some of the masters.


In Okker’s study of women editors, she noted that “the woman reader was not seen as particularly beneficial to society, but she also posed no social threats” (p. 113). Here are eight of the ways women readers were depicted in magazines during the nineteenth century.


1. Woman of Leisure

A woman who had time to read undoubtedly employed servants. She also likely dressed fashionably and represented “one who had the economic means to consume rather than produce goods” (p. 113). A woman who owned many books, especially those with pretty bindings displayed in book cases had “high economic standing” (p. 113).

2. Domestic Idler

Women who read may also have been thought to be engaging in “frivolous activities at the expense of her family and household” (p. 114). Many magazines of the time made fun of women who avoided domestic duties and turned to fiction. Okker noted that “the image of the domestic idler assumes—by contrast, of course—the importance of women’s social responsibility” (p. 114).

3. Intellectual “Blue”

I’d heard this term before, but I never knew exactly what it meant until reading Okker’s study. She explained, “In the second half of the eighteenth century the term blue stocking ladies referred to a group of learned women in London—including Elizabeth Vesey, Elizabeth Carter, and Hannah More—who met for intelligent conversation” (p. 114). In the nineteenth century, the term “blue” “assumed a pejorative meaning” (p. 114). It meant that the reading woman gained pleasure from intellectual pursuits rather than religious ones. “[L]ike the domestic idler, [she] was frequently charged with failing to fulfill her responsibilities as a woman” (p. 115). She would be depicted as having “inky fingers, frowzled hair, rumpled dress, and slipshod heels” (p. 115). However, one magazine story from this era, while poking fun at “blues,” ends with the male narrator’s wish that his wife were “blue.”

4. Family Teacher

Other images of women readers focused on the role of teaching children. A woman reading might have children surrounding her, or daughters reading with her. The daughters would represent their eventual role as mother and teacher of children. Okker noted that some of these depictions define “reading as one of the central and binding activities of women’s culture” during that time (p. 119).

5. Activist Reader

Some of the women readers of that time were representative of an expanding women’s sphere of influence. The subject of Okker’s study, Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, often promoted the “idea that women’s reading could help to transform the world” (p. 121). While this often applied to mothers with their children, the idea often appeared with a broader view in mind.

6. Education Seeker

While women of course read to improve the education of their children, they also saw value in improving their own education. Educational reform was often mentioned in Godey’s Lady’s Book, and a project I did last semester on reports from The Society to Encourage Studies at Home (1873–1897) made me aware of the importance of women’s education during that time. Anna Eliot Ticknor (1823–1896) founded the Society as a correspondence school meant solely for women, and it expanded the notion of how and why women should be educated. Many women during that era worked to ensure that women were educated for themselves.

7. Miss Lonelyhearts

Other information in Okker’s study showed that “books could relieve the boredom and loneliness that some women experienced in the home” (p. 122). I know this was true for me in the early days of being a stay-at-home mother. I spent hours reading, while my baby slept on my lap. If I moved, she would wake and my reading time would be over. Okker notes the “solitude of domestic life” and that “[r]eading . . . made all domestic life tolerable” (p. 122).  Yes, it does.

8. Ideal Woman Reader

Hale eventually promoted an ideal type of reader in her magazine. This was the woman who “is assumed to combine her rigorous studies with her domestic and feminine responsibilities” (p. 126). I think today we might call this the women who tries to have it all.


Which kind of reader are you? Do any of these types still hold true today? What stereotypes have you faced as a reader, male or female?

57 thoughts on “Why Women Read

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    1. I know, right? It is pretty great. I wanted to share some of the pictures of the art from it on this post, but they were all copyrighted.

  1. Hey Emily , can you give me your email ID . I wanna contact you regarding something important . A help actually , if you don’t mind .

  2. Great post! Two things jumped out at me. First, have you ever noticed that women in this era (and earlier) are almost always pictured behind something? A table, a fence, a low wall, a desk, the balcony rail in an opera house. At the very least, they have handwork or a book that separates them from the larger world. There is a Manet in which he places a barmaid behind a bar – out in the most public and scandalous place for a woman in that day, but still separated. Still contained.
    Second: I love the “blue” reader section, especially where it conjures something pejorative. Just as it was crucial to contain women physically, it was important to contain their minds. “Blue” can be used to connote sexual – or at least suggestive – ideas and thoughts. And “frowzled hair, rumpled clothes” kind of goes in that direction, doesn’t it? If women started reading for pleasure (God forbid!), who knew what could come of it?
    Just sayin’. . .

    1. I love what you’re saying here. It echoes what Okker talked about with the dresses in many of the pictures she examined. She definitely pointed out the sexual nature of a woman with a book, and how the large dresses maybe hid some of that and made it okay for the women to be holding a book. Good point about the barmaid and others being behind something. You’re right. Who knows what will come of educated women! Scandal!

      1. Yes! I wrote my Masters thesis on the parallel between the clothing worn by women in the 17th C and their, um, “private areas.” I used “Fanny Hill” as my text – and we all know what happened to those women!

      1. You are welcome! It is a great post, people should read that. Especially woman of course. Keep writing then, I’ll be waiting for yours 🙂

  3. I love to read and read quite a bit 🙂 Mr. Craves tells me I am rotting my mind – he is just kidding and it is a running joke between the two of us – ha! I either get the reaction that it is great or not great – pretty much 50/50 at times. Happy Week – Happy Reading 🙂

    1. Me too! Domestic idling is my specialty. I would say it all started with boredom and loneliness after having a baby, so make sure you get out of the house once baby’s here!

  4. I’d love to have a t-shirt with “Domestic Idler” printed on it 😉 That’s so me (avoiding housework, like I am doing now…)

    This is a fascinating study! You always introduce some of the most interesting books that we would not normally come across on our own. I also love those old pictures and paintings of women reading.

    1. What a brilliant idea! T-shirts with these types on them. I avoid housework too. My strategy is prevention; clean something and don’t get it messed up again, but my kids make that nearly impossible.

  5. I’m putting that book on my wish list! I’d heard of some of those stereotypes, but I had no idea what exactly was meant by the whole blue stocking thing. Thank you!

  6. I like the idea of the activist reader and the teacher. The internet has definitely changed the way we gain knowledge and consume information, and perhaps it has created a new version of the “domestic idler”…. Thanks for the great post 🙂

    1. Yeah, I wish they didn’t, but I bet we have some that are different these days. I think I fit into a few of them, so I don’t think we need to worry about only staying in one category. 🙂

  7. What an interesting post, Emily!

    Thinking about views of women readers in the eighteenth century reminded me of a passage in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. The seventeen-year-old heroine of the book, Catherine Morland, loves reading novels and allows herself to become rather swept away by the Gothic novels which were popular at the time. Through the course of the book, she learns that she cannot apply fantasy novels to real-life situations. It is symbolic, a kind of coming-of-age for her.

    Novels were sometimes regarded as “frivolous” and “domestic” in Austen’s time but there is a spirited defence of novel readers and writers in Northanger Abbey. I was thinking of that when I read stereotype #2 in your post. In chapter 5, Austen writes: “there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist”.

    She defends novels as: “only some work[s] in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language”.

    Sorry for the long quote! It just seemed so relevant to this post.

    1. No apologies necessary! I love the quote, and it reminds me of what William Dean Howells said in his book The Rise of Silas Lapham (post coming soon!) about how novels are “slop, silly slop.” They took a while to catch on as “serious,” and the fact that Austen was defending them makes sense. I’m glad we’ve accepted novels as a mature and worthy form these days.

  8. This is a really interesting article! I really love nineteenth century lit, it was one of my favourite modules at uni. It’s really interesting thinking about the type of women that read this literature and the women portrayed in the fiction itself. One of the most annoying things about literature from this period is how pathetic the female protagonists can be (Tess of the d’urbervilles I’m looking at you). It’s good to know that the female stereotype wasn’t always the norm in the real world. I love the sensationalist fictions written for the lower classes, like ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ where the woman was the antagonist. It was just so much more refreshing than the woman that lets life beat her and never fights back (again Tess).

    1. Oh, I can see how Tess comes across that way, but I like her and I love Hardy’s novels! But I hear what you are saying. It would be interesting to compare the types of female protagonists to the types of readers. Were readers finding ways of imagining new identities for themselves through these characters, or did they reinforce the idea that women belonged in the private sphere. Nice connection!

  9. I’m pretty sure I’m a combination of just about all of these 🙂 I loved this post, especially since I’ve been missing grad school. I remember all those 19th-century novels that warn women about “frivolous” and “dangerous” reading.

  10. Hmm I don’t think any of these stereotypes really apply to me, except perhaps a bit of #6? I suppose that’s a good thing, though! It’s funny to see how the language surrounding reading has changed. First it was dangerous for women to learn too much, and now it’s dangerous that people of all ages and genders have stopped reading books in such large quantities.

    1. What a fascinating and astute insight! Now we are begging people to read something other than social media. So if you “had” to create a stereotype for yourself, what would it be?

      1. Oh, probably just the introverted bookworm! And doesn’t that just describe us all? 🙂 I used books as a way to supplant my education growing up. I was often bored in school and I moved around a lot, and books were very good at helping me feel grounded.

  11. I totally see myself as a mix of the Domestic Idler and Education Seeker… I’d always rather be learning something, and if I can avoid doing dishes at the same time, all the better!

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