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A History of Radical Thinking: How Women Created Book Clubs

Sep 22 2016 4:26 PM
A History of Radical Thinking: How Women Created Book Clubs

Two women reading, ca. 1903. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

From illicit Bible studies to Revolution-era French salons, antebellum black women's reading groups to Oprah's Book Club, women have been gathering to discuss literature—and fight the status quo—for centuries.

"What's the point of having a book club if you don't get to eat brownies and drink wine?" It's a question posed by one of the characters in Jami Attenberg's 2012 novel The Middlesteins, and it's a fair one. Book clubs today are so synonymous with women sipping Pinot Gris as they parse Gillian Flynn that some groups charge wine penalties if you fall behind on reading. Others go straight to the source by meeting monthly in bars. Even brands have picked up on this trend: In 2012, ubiquitous winemaker Sutter Home created its own "book club" with HarperCollins, hoping to profit off lush literary circles.

Booze may be a running theme in book clubs, but historically, the main constant in these groups hasn't been wine; it's women. While men certainly participate in book clubs, women dominate the demographics; according to the literary website BookBrowse, which surveyed 15 years' worth of data on book club attendance, 93 percent of book club participants are women.

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They have for over five centuries. Ladies have been gathering to discuss literature and other issues of the day since at least the 1630s, when one woman was booted from her colony due to her popular post-sermon meetings. Later, women moved to decadent Parisian homes to debate Robespierre as the French Revolution loomed. They would also form book clubs to deal with professional and educational discrimination in the 19th century, much of which was racially motivated. But no matter the venue or topic, women have historically clung to book clubs as a space for reading, learning, and making their voices heard—even if all they wanted to do was complain about bratty Amy March in Little Women.

Blasphemy and Banishment

Some of the earliest "book clubs" were simply Bible study groups, and few are more famous than Anne Hutchinson's. In 1634, she and her husband William arrived with their children in Massachusetts Bay Colony, where she quickly made herself indispensable to the local women as a midwife. But Hutchinson also knew her Leviticus, so she began holding meetings for those ladies in her home to discuss the minister's sermons. This wasn't unusual—Puritan women in both America and England had done it before—but Hutchinson's group grew incredibly popular. Soon men were coming, too, and the conversation grew a little too exploratory for the church leaders' liking. Fearing a theological schism (and a woman as a leader), they put Hutchinson on trial and quickly banished her to (horror of all horrors) Rhode Island.

Louise de Fontaine, or Madame Dupin. Portrait by Jean-Marc Nattier (ca. 1730) via Wikimedia Commons

The "Pretentious Young Ladies" of Paris

Meanwhile, across the pond, others were multiplying at a rapid rate. Salons married intelligent political discourse with hot gossip, so naturally they were all the rage in France from about 1610 all the way through the Jazz Age, when Gertrude Stein assembled her famous, formidable crew. Although salons were well-attended by both upper-class men and women, you could count on a grand society lady to be the host for the evening. Catherine de Vivonne, aka the Marquise de Rambouillet, is credited with starting one of the first major salons in Paris around 1620, after she became bored with the gossip of the French court. In her famed "Blue Room," she guided young nobles in the art of conversation, and apparently encouraged the ladies to follow her lead. "Women would decide matters of manners, language, taste, and loisirs—the array of noble pastimes that included reading, conversation, theater and the arts, games, and dancing," Benedetta Craveri wrote of the marquise's operation in The Age of Conversation. "High society women took it upon themselves to educate the men."

There was also a healthy amount of flirting and frivolity going on at this salon, the kind which Moliére parodied in his play Les précieuses ridicules, or The Pretentious Young Ladies. But the tradition carried on into the 18th century with figures like Madame Dupin, who was closely aligned with the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Madame Roland, whose salon frequently featured Maximilien Robespierre... before both of them got the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The Revolution dramatically changed the country's salons, but they didn't go away. They simply relocated and morphed to include different classes, until they lost any lingering relevance.

Antebellum Action

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, book clubs became havens for American women who felt understimulated. Writer Hannah Mather Crocker praised her 1780s Boston reading circle for "cultivat[ing] the mind in the most useful branches of science." But no one was at more of an educational disadvantage at the time than black women, and literary societies sprung up in the 1820s and 1830s as a resource for them. These groups attracted members with short advertisements in publications like Freedom's Journal, the first African-American owned and operated newspaper in the United States. "A Society of Young Ladies has been formed at Lynn, Mass., to meet once a week, to read in turn to the society, works adapted to virtuous and literary improvement," one listing read. The Female Literary Association of Philadelphia attracted the most attention by getting abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to a meeting in 1832 after the group sent him its constitution to his paper, The Liberator. As Garrison reported, the association held Tuesday meetings "for the purpose of mutual improvement in moral and literary pursuits." Nearly all of the members wrote an essay at each gathering. These pieces were then collected and critiqued by the entire group. Since it was all anonymous, they could be as honest as they wanted.

Similar groups spread to Boston, Providence, New York City, and other northeastern cities. But they enjoyed more success in the 1890s, after the Civil War was a semi-distant memory.

Jane Cunningham Croly. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Take this Job and Shove It

Jane Cunningham Croly was a member of the New York Press Association. So she was understandably pissed when they barred her from a banquet just because she was a woman. But instead of losing it on the banquet bouncer, she created a professional club for ladies who were sick of work discrimination. It was called Sorosis (after a fruit that is formed from many flowers), and once it formed in 1868, it inspired a ton of copycats. These women's groups weren't just for venting—they offered lectures, book discussions, and scholarships to female colleges. A few of them even made it to 2016. If you're ever in Ypsilanti, Michigan, you should check out its 138-year-old private women's club.

The Book of the Month, Delivered to Your Mailbox

Harry Scherman is credited with creating the "book of the month" concept, since he founded the mail-subscription service that bears this name in 1926. (It's still around today.) This revolutionary distribution method was obviously great news for housewives, but women were also involved in the actual business. The reformer and activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher sat on the first editorial board as one of the judges who recommended books, and the group was very welcoming to female authors. Its first selection was Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, and in 1936, it turned a random Southern woman into a literary titan by choosing Gone With the Wind.

Second-Wave Sisterhood

No one was required to bring dog-eared paperbacks to the conscious-raising groups that feminists pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s, but these gatherings did mirror book clubs in a number of ways. Consider this pamphlet from the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, which gives guidelines on forming a group. "A conscious-raising group consists of a small number of women (generally not more than 12) who meet informally once a week at a member's home or women's center. Ask friends to bring friends—it isn't necessary to know everyone. Sisterhood is a warm feeling!"

The pamphlet also listed potential topics of conversation to use each week, like "What does 'femininity' mean to you in terms of your own life?" Women were instructed to go around in a circle one at a time, giving each person a chance to speak. This framework closely resembles book discussion groups, where participants come armed with questions about character motivation. But the CR group atmosphere also set the stage for book clubs. As one women's book club member, Audrey Zucker, recalled in a JSTOR article, "[CR groups] permitted women to be together comfortably. It would have been very difficult for me, earlier, to leave my husband and children at home for the night." With that experience under her belt, she joined a book club in 1989.

Oprah Winfrey celebrating her 50th birthday in 2004. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

You Get a Book, and You Get a Book, and You Get a Book!

Oprah Winfrey had already spent a decade dominating the talk show scene when she pulled a new power move with Oprah's Book Club. In September 1996, she invited viewers to read Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean with her and then tune in for an interview with the author weeks later. Her book selections—about ten a year at the group's peak—were reprinted with a special "Oprah's Book Club" cover, which became catnip for Winfrey's largely female audience. Her stamp of approval had the power to push dusty classics to the top of the bestseller lists (Anna Karenina, in 2004) and move a million copies of a book by a virtual unknown (Janet Finch's White Oleander, in 1999). The club's reputation took a major hit in 2006, when news broke that anointed author James Frey mostly made up his memoir A Million Little Pieces. But even with that scandal, and the club's current infrequency, Winfrey still retains massive influence. Her last pick, Love Warrior, now tops the nonfiction bestseller list.

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Pampered Prose

During the aughts, book clubs became framed as leisurely meetings where women could indulge in wine, cheese, sweets, and even the spa. In 2012, the New York Times reported on the trend of book clubs meeting in day spas, which would host the club and often the author as a promotional deal. It appears most of those spots, including the New York–based chain Bliss, have since abandoned the promos. But at least one hyper-literate spa in Wausau, Wisconsin, hasn't given up on the restorative powers of reading.

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