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?