How Women Invented Book Clubs

Condensed from The Washington Post 3/27/21 article by Jess McHugh

American women had been getting together to study the Bible since the 17th century, but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that secular reading circles emerged, around the same time as their European counterparts. Reading circles, a precursor to book clubs, ranged widely in what they read, from belles lettres to science.

An avowed interest in expanding women’s freedoms was often a driving force behind these groups. Hannah Mather Crocker, who founded a reading circle in 18th century Boston, was an advocate for women’s participation in freemasonry and would go on to write the foundational treatise “Observations on the Real Rights of Women.”

Journalist Margaret Fuller, the first American female war correspondent, a magazine editor and an all- around feminist renegade, held one session of what she called her “conversations” in 1839. Her conversations, much like many literary circles, were a way for women to pursue truth, knowledge and an understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Reading circles crossed racial and class lines, too. In 1827, Black women in Lynn, Mass., formed one of the first reading groups for Black women, the Society of Young Ladies. Black women in other cities on the East Coast would soon follow suit.

The first half of the 20th century was the heyday of the Book of the Month Club and the Great Books movement, both of which encouraged average Americans to take on hefty literary novels. As women continued to be barred from many top universities, the craving for a space to explore big ideas through books never went away.

After women began being accepted to institutions of higher education en masse in the 1960s, the role of these groups flipped: Where women once joined book clubs to make up for the education they were denied, now they joined to extend the pleasures they enjoyed at college.

Once on the fringes, women are now one of the most important driving forces in the book world. They continue to amount for a staggering 80 percent of all fiction sales. One commentator went so far as to write: “Without women the novel would die.”

Oprah Winfrey’s launch of her book club in 1996 was a turning point in the history of book clubs. In the first three years, each book Oprah chose averaged sales of 1.4 million copies.

Christy Craig, PhD, is a sociologist who examined the subversive possibilities of women’s book clubs. From 2013 to 2015, she conducted research on book clubs in the United States and Ireland, interviewing 53 women ages 19 to80. “Womenturnedtobookclubstoreallyconstruct important social networks, and that proved incredibly valuable,” she said. “Through these book clubs women found important partnerships to support themselves through things like chemotherapy.”

That has proved true during the pandemic, as book clubs meet online, and some have seen increased attendance. Readers seek out a particular intimacy that can be bridged through books. They find “real society,” as Margaret Fuller once wrote. In an uncertain world, book clubs can still serve as a place built on “patience, mutual reverence, and fearlessness”.