In her introduction to The Woman Reader, Belinda Jack writes that although there are a number of excellent histories of reading, “there is no history of women’s reading to date. . . . [W]e write the books that we write because we cannot find them elsewhere” (18). In fact, there have been excellent historical accounts of women’s reading (for example, Kate Flint’s The Woman Reader, 1837–1914 , Janet Badia and Jennifer Phegley’s collection Reading Women: Literary Figures and Cultural Icons from the Victorian Age to the Present , and Heidi Bryman Hackel and Catherine E. Kelly’s edited volume Reading Women: Literacy, Authorship, and Culture in the Atlantic World, [End Page 93] 1500–1800 ), as well as numerous studies of women (or gender) and reading. But these works have been historically, culturally, and thematically circumscribed. What distinguishes Jack’s book is its claim to present a “complete history” that “travels from pre-historic caves to the digital bookstores of today, exploring how and what women have read through the ages and across cultures and civilizations” (dust jacket).
Across this vast expanse of time and space, Jack finds that “the story of the woman reader has a certain coherence.” The plot is familiar: “Women’s access to the written word has been a particular source of anxiety for men—and indeed some women—almost from the very beginning. Through the centuries there have been many and various attempts to control [women’s] literacy and access to reading material and, of course, counterforces, such as the vigorous individual and collective campaigns to promote women’s literacy and free access to books” (1). It is also not surprising, particularly in patriarchal cultures, that women’s reading has been strongly associated with the danger of sexual license. In spite of the obstacles, women, as readers, have become as skilled and avid as (if not more so than) men. For women as for men, literacy is essential to education; education is foundational to individual freedom and social and political equality.
The second half of The Woman Reader goes over the same ground covered by the books mentioned above. The first half covers everything before. The first chapter, about the emergence of reading and writing on clay tablets in 4000 BCE in Mesopotamia, through Greek and Roman antiquity, offers tantalizing bits of information. The “first author known to have signed a work was a woman,” the Sumerian Princess Enheduanna, born around 2300 BCE. In the essentially oral cultures of antiquity, authors composed orally, dictating their compositions to scribes, and listened as scribes read the compositions of others. Actual reading and writing were mainly the province of scribes who were rigorously trained in the management of the cumbersome materials and technology of the time. Of the 185 scribes named in records of the Babylonian city of Sittar between 1850 and 1550 BCE, 14 were women.
Of course, until the nineteenth century, literacy belonged only to a very small minority—less than 1 percent in 1500, rising to almost half in 1800—of the population. In the middle ages, a small number of women—aristocrats, members of religious orders, and tradeswomen—were literate. The cloistered life, in particular, gave women access to a life devoted to reading, writing, and thinking. Jack describes the life of a number of exemplary scholars: Radegund of Germany, St. Darerca and Brigit of Ireland, Hilda of Northumbria, and Hildegard of Bingen.
Diaries, letters, records of gifts, purchases, bequests, and writers’ dedications show evidence of women’s relationship to books. However, the story of women reading inevitably becomes conflated with the story of women writing—information about what and how they read being deduced from [End Page 94] what they have written. Thus, we have the stories of Marie of France, Elizabeth of Hungary, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and others—members of a group whose numbers increased rapidly as the vernacular replaced Latin as the language of written communication.
Particularly intriguing is the role reading and writing women played in the Reformation, especially the case of Anne Askew, a...