Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Women's Reading Groups

[gary daily col. 7 March 10, 2002]

Last year during Women’s History Month I had the pleasure of researching women’s literary organizations in Terre Haute. In the Vigo County Public Library Community Archives I found the records of the “Woman’s Reading Club.” Founded in 1879 and continuing in existence for nearly forty years, this group was remarkable in ways beyond its longevity. This research also struck a “the more things change, the more they remain the same” chord with me.

Terre Haute’s “Woman’s Reading Club” was in step with the times. By the turn of the century, many such clubs existed across the country. Because of the explosive growth in membership and the strengths of their organizational skills, these clubs were catching the attention and the support of reform-minded male politicians. Women’s groups were taking political stands on national issues, most prominently prohibition and woman’s suffrage. The result of this growing influence was a visible and nasty backlash. Many political leaders along with the conservative press considered this movement an unsettling and radical turn in society.

Ex-President of the United States, Grover Cleveland offered this advice in the “Ladies Home Journal” in 1905: "the best and safest club for a woman to patronize is her
home . . . ” Three years after Cleveland’s chidings, the "Journal" published an editorial in favor of what they termed "The Sane Woman's Club." It turns out the editors’ felt that sanity resided in women keeping their social efforts and intellectual interests close to home. The editors recommended to clubs the beautification of their villages and "making their homes more attractive" as proper outlets for women’s energies. I assume the continued reading of the “Journal” was also considered “sane” and acceptable.

In the past, most critics dismissed the reading groups out of hand—nothing important going on there. They would harp on women meeting just for the sake of meeting. But why should we assume that these women were not serious about their pursuits? What they shared was a certain amount of leisure time and the desire to do something they deemed important and stimulating with that time. They proceeded to organize and do just that.

And what of women reading together today? How are they perceived? Women probably have less time available to them than did their sisters a century ago, but they continue to read, meet, and discuss the ideas borne of their reading. These groups are ubiquitous. It’s my guess that publishing houses would close faster than dot.coms peddling day old bread without the readership, the purchases, of women. But this growth and success has given rise to echoes from the past. There is a steady, hollow, rat-a-tat-tat of sniping, and not just at Oprah and her Book Club selections (a subject for another week’s column), but also at women’s reading groups in general.

TV and movie stories catch the leading edge of these barely veiled put-downs of women reading together in groups. They link these book clubs with false stereotypes of the 1970s-style feminist consciousness raising groups. We’re left with images characterizing women who read and think as man-haters, boorish intellectuals, or meek mice without a bit of fashion sense. Food is a prominent symbol in these television and cinematic renderings of women reading together. Are the media trying to demonstrate that women can’t chew and think at the same time?

These scenes are usually played for laughs. But who’s laughing? (If you know of examples that counter these general impressions, please e-mail me.) I guess we’ll have to wait for President Bush to announce that book clubs support the war on terrorism before we see men’s reading groups being formed in great numbers. I can’t wait to see Arnold and Bruce and Danny Devito, along with other action figures, say Dick Cheney and Kenny Boy of the Enron debacle, in a movie where the discussion of a book is their reason for coming together. Now that’s funny.

Perhaps Terre Haute’s “Woman’s Reading Club” and the clubs of today are onto something. As Brian Hall noted in a New York Times piece last year: “If talking about books ﷓﷓ a subject often more personal than politics and more arguable than religion ﷓﷓ can be bruising, it can for the same reasons be thrilling.” And I ask: Why aren’t more men involved in this thrilling contact sport of the mind?


“If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” is one of forty or more such programs now taking place across the country. By all reports, it is the only one of these programs where the readers in the community choose the book. Take advantage of this unique opportunity and vote.

The three books being voted on are: Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars. Ballots and ballot boxes are available at the following locations: all Vigo County Public Library locations, Senior Citizens Center, BookNation, Waldenbooks, COFFEE Grounds, Java Haute, Vigo County Historical Society, YWCA, YMCA, ISU Library, ISU Bookstore, Arts Illiana, Harry & Buds European Cuisine, Westminster Village.

You can also vote on line through links on the WTWO and Vigo County Public Library web sites.

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