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A Feature Review of
The Woman Reader
Reviewed by Rachelle Eaton
The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack is a chronological survey of the history of women’s literacy. I read this book with an eye to how it might inform the practice of missional reading in church communities, where women are often the majority. I hoped to make sense of why, for example, my local library’s book club is almost entirely women, but in other circles I notice only the men of the group having important theological or political discussions shaped by their reading. Can gains in women’s literacy necessarily be equated with intellectual engagement or social influence? Although Jack is clearly concerned with the power dynamics of women’s reading throughout history, it doesn’t appear to be her purpose to make a conclusive argument. Since it is a three-hundred page book, I’ll focus on just a few parts of the history that shed some light on the question.
Women have been reading from the beginning of the written word. Jack describes the Mesopotamian scribes, some of which were women. However, literacy at this time was a craft for hire, not necessarily a sign of privilege or social influence. In fact, women’s reading in the ancient world often reinforced the status quo; a woman was educated to be a status symbol for the family, to be a fitting companion for a husband with literary tastes, and most of all to be a competent tutor for the children (particularly sons).
In the middle ages, the church had a mixed effect. Women were excluded from being lectors or presbyters, positions that held interpretive power. Indeed, a common thread in religious objections to women’s literacy is that, given the opportunity to read Scripture for themselves, they may (mis)interpret it for their own ends, upsetting the “natural” order of church and society.
On the other hand, in the early middle ages, the monastery was the best, and maybe only, place to be for a woman who desired intellectual opportunity and recognition. In the sixth century, a Frankish princess named Radegund started a nunnery that drew many educated women. Like other monastic leaders, she carried influence through correspondence and would even question her bishop’s authority.
In the seventh century the abbess Hilda had remarkable influence with political and religious leaders of all kinds; men listened to her with “awe and reverence.” She built up the library and school at Whitby and was an advocate of women’s literacy. There are many other examples, and Jack concludes, “The respect that intellectual nuns were afforded by their male counterparts during this period is striking, and it is founded on the authority women commanded as a function of their extensive and attentive reading.”
Of course, these women and the men who respected them are notable precisely because they are exceptions, and along the way Jack treats us to many anecdotes of opposition to women’s literacy. Philippe de Novare is quoted saying girls should not learn to read or write (unless they plan to become nuns) because they might send or receive love letters. St. Aquinas argued that women’s intellectual curiosity was sinful. Later, in the eighteenth century, works claiming “scientifically” that reading was harmful for women’s health were common—and they prescribed marriage and denial of access to books as a cure. In all of these objections Jack sees the underlying belief that women’s reading could be socially and sexually subversive.
But men weren’t the only ones to limit educational opportunities for women. Jack gives the example of an abbess in Late Byzantium, Euphrosyne, who discontinued the practice of educating neighborhood girls, unless they intended to become nuns. Euphrosyne felt that the contact with laypeople was a bad influence on the nuns and undermined their vows.
In the later middle ages, literacy for both boys and girls became more widespread and even encouraged by the church, although fears about losing control of the interpretation of scripture remained. The reformers, however, argued strongly for the Bible to be available in the vernacular for everyone, even women. For Luther, personal reading of the Bible was crucial for the personal relationship with God that he emphasized. Up until around the time of St. Augustine, silent reading was unheard of. Reading aloud was a group activity, and that often remained the norm, especially for women, as silent reading is the most potentially subversive—no one can see or control what happens in the reader’s mind. So it is especially revolutionary for Luther to make private reading the central act of the Christian life regardless of gender, but the question remains as to how quickly and how widely women achieved this ideal. At this time, Books of Hours, what Jack calls “liturgical scrapbooks” of psalms, hymns, and prayers, were extremely popular with women and certainly had potential to facilitate that personal relationship with God—but, Jack notes, for some they were little more than “fashion accessories.”
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