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."

Jack is certainly aware that women readers have always been the target of advice. She points out, for example, that most books that women read in the 16th century "upheld the idea that women were inferior, physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually." But Jack refuses to credit the possibility that such books might have actually had some sort of moral, intellectual, or spiritual effect on women themselves. Instead, she argues that, "Women have always resisted reading material they have not wanted to read, and have withstood being persuaded by it." Which seems an awfully sweeping contention, and one which also perhaps misses the point. As Modleski and Benedikt suggest, it's often the things we want to read—the romance novels, the baby books (or for men the superhero comics)—that most persuade us. And that persuasion is not necessarily subversive or freeing.

In order to perceive reading as always good, Jack, ironically, often has to flatten her own readings. The result is that despite her decisively anti-censorship stance, her interpretations can often come across as weirdly Bowdlerized. For example, she praises Jane Austen because the author "did not tell her readers how to read; to live." To which one can only respond—Jane Austen didn't tell her readers how to read? Or how to live? This is the same Jane Austen who satirized Gothic fiction as thoroughly silly, potentially brain-scrambling nonsense, right? The same Jane Austen who wrote a book to tell readers to avoid pride and prejudice, another to tell them to choose sense over sensibility, and a third strongly censuring the performance of frivolous theatricals? I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I suggest that Jane Austen was a moralist with strong opinions. Why would you even want to argue otherwise?

It's more or less clear why Jack wants to argue otherwise. Jane Austen is the single most important iconic woman writer in the English speaking world if anyone is. Jack wants an Austen who agrees with her about the value of reading. Specifically, she wants an Austen who agrees that reading's value is intrinsic. It doesn't matter what you read, particularly. Women can pick up Margaret Cavendish or Gothic fiction or explicit porn (the last of which at least would have undoubtedly horrified Austen). The content is just content, but the delivery system is transformational.

I certainly agree that women (and men, for that matter) should be allowed to read what they want without censorship, whether that be Northanger Abbey or slash fan fiction. And of course women's literacy has been tremendously important in advancing women's equality, as Jack points out. But even there, it's useful to acknowledge that certain kinds of literacy can also themselves be a means of oppression, as Kurds forced to learn Turkish (and nothing else) might attest.

Reading, then, is not some sort of transcendent good. It's simply a technology—and like any technology, it can be used for good or ill. Making it an ideal in itself is as silly as making television or the Internet or the combustion engine ideals in themselves. Accepting reading without any critical distance just leaves you at the mercy of whoever is writing...and that doesn't seem especially liberatory at all.