Does Reading Really Set Women Free?

A new book by an Oxford professor claims it does—but her argument is shaky.


"Reading can set women free," Belinda Jack declares in The Woman Reader, her new historical study of women's reading. Jack, a professor at Christ's Church, Oxford, is talking about the message of Margaret Cavendish's 1666 utopian work The Blazing World, but she obviously subscribes to the sentiment herself. As Jack says approvingly in her introduction, many people have seen women's reading as "subversive, disruptive, or threatening." This subversion is linked to the self-adventure of reading, which brings women "into challenging or disconcerting conversations with our inner selves" and helps "us to make some sense of what we, and life, are about." Somewhat inevitably, Jack later singles out for exemplary praise the work of Jane Austen, who, she says, "exposes the tremendous power of reading to bring delight and insight, and quietly to empower the reader...and women in particular."

This is not a particularly revolutionary thesis, of course; reading is often seen as quintessentially empowering and freeing. But is it? Jack doesn't exactly ever try to prove the case. Still, in the course of providing an exhaustive history of women's reading from prehistory to the present, she does include many examples of moments when reading was directly linked to women's liberation. For instance, as she demonstrates, women readers have often replied to and rebutted misogynist writing. Particularly notable is the 16th century Venetian noblewoman Moderata Fonte, who, in response to one vicious male screed, acidly assured her fellow women that men "never tell the truth about anything. "

Such details are entertaining, but do they justify Jack's suggestion that reading is in itself freeing? After all, isn't it possible that in certain times and at certain places reading might actually serve to control women rather than to free them? Tania Modleski, in her classic 1982 study Loving With a Vengeance, argued, for example, that Harlequin romances, Gothic romances, and soap operas addressed women's anxieties and concerns—not in the interest of freedom, but rather in the interest of reconciling them to their lot in patriarchy. "In Harlequin Romances," Modleski concludes, "the need of women to find meaning and pleasure in activities which are not wholly generally scoffed at."

Similarly, in a recent article at Slate, Allison Benedikt talks about the almost unavaoidable paranoia inflicted on pregnant mothers by What To Expect When You're Expecting—a paranoia that, Benedikt points out, is good for a capitalist system that wants to induce a frenzy of panicked spending on baby products, but which is maybe not so great for pregnant women. What To Expect doesn't free its female perusers, but rather traps them into experiencing their pregnancies as a ritual reading of rules. The book, Benedikt concludes, is "finally, a self-fulfilling prophesy, because what to expect as an expectant mother today is to be bombarded with information about how you are doing it wrong—whether it is carrying a baby in your womb, pushing it out, or raising it."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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