Women who read are dangerous – A journey through female reading in history and arts

20. Oktober 2020

We women who read should take a moment. Put down the book and look around us. We are experiencing a rare period of triumph. This triumph has been a long time coming – hard fought and hard won. We should note it.

These are wonderful thoughts from a book, that I would like to dedicate this post to. And to a theme, that is both precious and powerful: Women who read.

Women who read – in History

The reading woman has a complicated history, which has been beautifully displayed in hundreds and thousands of pieces of art. It is not self-evident to see a reading woman as subject of a painting or photograph. Historically, women had a limited access to literature.

Historically, a reading woman is the picture of idleness. The household is not being done – dinner is not being made, the clothes are not being washed.

Should women be permitted to have their own imaginations, secret lives?

Women who read - Frauen, die lesen
Photo: Sophia Molek. 

In 1523, Spanish Humanist Juan Luis Vives said that “…the woman ought not to follow her own judgment”. She should read only what man declared as proper. By the Victorian period, at least mothers were trusted to choose a daughter’s book. Critics were concerned that writers would simplify and sensualize their stories in order to court the ladies.

To put it to the extreme – books of conduct have been published, books that women might read in order to learn what women might read.

To sum this up: Reading makes women better wives and mothers, except when it makes them idle and rebellious.

There have been centuries upon centuries of hubbub. Yet – through it all – women have read on, the unacceptable books as well as the acceptable; Gothic novels in times of Jane Austen (remember Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey*), horror novels or mysteries – just to name a few.

The idea that reading gives us pleasure is relatively new. When the range for reading began to take hold, everyone, particularly women, carried a book in his or her pocket.

Women who read - Frauen, die lesen
Michael Ende’s Momo* is one of my favourite books. This work accompanies me since my childhood and once in a while I read it again. Photo: Sophia Molek. 

Critics were still claiming the lack of physical movement while reading, as well as thoughts that the unrestrained reading could damage the society and force imagination and emotion.

But such moralization could not stop the triumphal march of reading, especially female reading. A revolution, which mostly took place between Europe and America from the 17th to the 19th century.

Women who read are dangerous – a book recommendation

The book* “Women who read are dangerous*” gives a wonderful overview of the history of female reading, such as I summed up in my sections above, as well as the danger society saw in the new activity of women.

An incredibly interesting and informative chapter introduces the different processes of reading, which contributes to the reading behaviour. The author names these as “Silent Reading”, “Women’s Reading”, “Anarchic Reading”, “Reading in bed” and the “Intimacy of reading”.

Silent reading – just to focus on one of these chapters – describes intensive and excessive reading. The author speaks about reading that takes place in private, it signifies an intimate, familiar relationship between the book and the reader.

Once seen as radical activity, reading for a woman meant that she was completely autonomous – self-possessed and cultivating ideas all her own. The emancipation from reading aloud to silent reading, so the book explains, first took place among monastic scribes and was only later transferred to university and educated circles, spreading to other groups of civilisations.

While going through these different processes, the author also refers to works of art and literature to underline his statements.

After these introducing chapters the book is filled with beautiful examples from art history, showing women who read in the most diverse positions, places, garments. Each picture is followed by fascinating facts regarding the artist and its motive.

It is a delight to browse through the paintings, see the women being transfixed by books, full of joy and dreams. They include a range of works from private collections and smaller museums, worth to be shown to the world.

This collection – which you can find here on amazon* – is definitely one I would love to recommend to everybody who has an interest in books, art history or female empowerment, or to someone looking for a special gift for a wonderful lady.

It is a collection of passion. Passion for reading, passion for knowledge, passion for balance. Just like the history of female reading itself.


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