Book Clubs cover

"Long seriously considers the women's reading group, a subject too long neglected by academia. In a concise preface, she defines her research methodology (a case study of white women's groups in Houston) and her intention to use it to argue that the reading group, traditionally thought of as passive, is an active cultural practice integral to individual and social identity. She supports her argument in eight well-organized and researched chapters. . . . The most fascinating chapter provides a preliminary analysis of three important developments affecting communal reading: the rise of large independent stores and chain stores, Oprah Winfrey's book club, and online discussion groups. Throughout, Long presents evidence of the supportive and inspirational roles reading groups play in women's lives. . . . A unique work."
Library Journal

"Book Clubs offers a fascinating look at the importance of books in women's lives and their particular affinity for making reading a communal experience. Elizabeth Long's work has special resonance in light of the poignant stories coming out of Afghanistan about women joyously embracing the chance to read freely again after years of intellectual starvation by the Taliban regime."
—Pat Schroeder

An excerpt from
Book Clubs
Women and the Uses of Reading
in Everyday Life

by Elizabeth Long

Why Reading Groups Now?
And Why Are Most Participants Women?

In the twentieth century, middle-class white women's lives changed dramatically. Like all Americans, they were affected by the great events of the century, from the Depression to the two world wars, the Cold War, and more recent limited conflicts, as well as by the spectrum of modern movements for social justice and ecological awareness. Women felt the impact of consumerism and the mass media, the rise of an increasingly urban service- and information-based economy, and the gradual emergence of a global world order. They experienced the growth of therapeutic discourse, the rise of New Age spirituality, and the recrudescence of religious fundamentalism. They witnessed the rise of ethnic and religious diversity in the United States, and they lived through a rising tide of divorce and threats to the family from drugs to school violence. Yet the transformations of middle-class women's lives have also been inflected differently than have those of their male counterparts in both substance and timing.

For example, American women did not achieve full, voting citizenship until 1920, and it was not until the 1960s that formal barriers to educational equality for women crumbled. In the nineteenth century, large numbers of men entered the marketplace as wage earners in the industrializing economy. Yet it was the twentieth century that witnessed women's massive entrance into a pattern of paid employment that more and more resembled men's. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild says, "It is women who are being drawn into wage work, and women who are undergoing changes in their way of life and identity. Women are departing more from their mothers' and grandmothers' way of life, men are doing so less."

Demographic changes affected the sexes differently as well. American women shared with men the benefits of longer, healthier lives, but the decrease in family size, coupled with a longer average lifespan, had far more impact on women, giving them many more years without the responsibilities of child rearing. Women's increased control over their own reproduction also had immense implications for women's sexuality as well as for family planning. And although this issue is still under debate, some analysts claim that even divorce affects women more than men, whether emotionally or financially.

It can be argued that middle-class women's lives changed more during the twentieth century than did those of their male counterparts. Hochschild's work implies that this is the case. And Theodore Caplow's 1970s restudy of Muncie, Indiana, the famous "Middletown" of Robert and Helen Lynd's pioneering 1920s community study, provides some fascinating support for this notion. For example, in the 1920s almost no middle-class women worked in Middletown, and working-class women worked only when their husbands were unemployed. "By 1978," Caplow reports, "this situation had changed out of all recognition." Almost half the middle-class women worked (the same proportion as working-class women), and a husband's unemployment was no longer an important motivation.

Among Middletown youth, although high school boys' patterns of independence from home (as measured by nights out per week) shifted little between 1924 and 1977, high school girls' patterns showed that they stayed home much more in 1924 but that by 1977 they were away from home as much as boys. Similarly, by 1977, high school girls, who fifty years before were four times as likely to be dependent on their families for money as were boys, were earning and managing their own money at the same rates as boys. And in terms of what they valued from parents, in 1924 adolescents listed "spending time with their children" as the most desirable quality of a father but "being a good cook and housekeeper" as most desirable in a mother. By 1977, adolescents claimed that the most desirable quality of both mothers and fathers was "spending time with their children and respecting their opinions," according to Howard Bahr.

Culturally, as well, the consensus about how middle-class men ought to live their lives has been relatively stable and strong over the course of the past one hundred years, continuing to privilege a primary dedication to work complemented by a secondary involvement with the family. Yet during that same period, women have faced the fracturing of what historian Barbara Welter has called "the cult of true womanhood," the nineteenth-century ideology that assumed women should be domestic, pious, pure, and submissive. Now there are several competing ideals about women's nature and proper place. Liberal ideology highlights women's similarity to men. New traditionalists raise the banner of difference and a revival of domesticity. Radical matriarchalists also claim large differences between the sexes, sometimes harking back to a goddess-inspired spirituality. Contemporary women have a considerably larger array of life choices than did their predecessors, and their lives are not only very different from those of their mothers and grandmothers but also very different from each other.

Yet all of these choices are matters of public and private contention. It seems that whether a woman has or does not have children, whether she works for wages or works at home, whether she stays in a marriage, gets a divorce, or comes out as a lesbian—let alone when and how she does any of these things—some scholarly study or social group can find fault with her choice. And because women are more involved with the family than are most men, even if women are happy with their chosen path, their lives usually involve sharper transitions than do men's. For example, college-educated women learn habits of discipline, efficiency, goal-directedness, and career-directed ambition, but raising young children also requires a very different set of emotional and intellectual sensitivities. At the other end of the parenting years or upon the occasion of divorce, women more often than men move from a family-centered life into full-time paid employment, another demanding disjuncture.

In the recent past and present, then, women have had to negotiate many issues in order to fashion a life for themselves. This process is more open-ended than is the case for many middle-class men because of women's newly expanded range of choices and a lack of clear-cut templates. It can also be more compelling because women, more often than men, are in the grip of conflicting expectations both from the environing culture and from their own internal sense of what a woman ought to be. This could explain why women, more than men—and despite what social analysts measure as significantly less leisure time for women than for men—choose to engage in collective reflection and dialogue between texts and lives. Reading groups serve a much-needed function for contemporary women, for whom the "social construction of identity" is less an academic theory than a pressing personal question.

Further, women's new relation to the world outside the home has continued to be vexed by gender issues. In part because women reformers of the nineteenth century never really tackled what they saw as the "masculine" public sphere of business and government, during the twentieth century women have been accepted into the public world on its own preexisting terms. Women have gained rights as university students, citizens, and workers by inclusion into these social categories as if the categories themselves were not already gendered. Yet higher education, the state, and the world of work have had—and even now continue to have—a masculine "bent." For example, women's legal status assumed dependency on a man until very recently, and the courts still treat women differently than they do men.

By the same token, higher education in America has, until quite recently, been very different for women than for men. This is most obviously related to heavily normative expectations about what women's lives will be like after college. These expectations have changed during the twentieth century, but certain commonalities have continued to mark women's experience of higher education with remarkable persistence.

Most obvious were the formal barriers to educational equality, such as women's exclusion from colleges and universities or postgraduate programs and professional schools. The second wave of feminism and the federal government's passage of Title IX were responsible for lowering those barriers to educational equity. Less formal barriers—from disparities in funding or sexual harassment to differential parental expectations, differences in tracking and counseling, or peer cultures that pit educational attainment (especially in certain subjects) against feminine popularity—have been harder to erase.

In this regard, it should be noted that women college students have been disproportionally represented among the humanities and social sciences. This may be because of barriers discouraging women from entrance into the sciences or engineering, or because of the perception that there is a less instrumental link between women's university education and careers than there need be for their male counterparts. Given their differential participation in the labor force, college-educated women may have also maintained some links to the nineteenth-century ideal of the accomplished and cultured woman, which would account for the fact that female undergraduates have been overrepresented in academic majors involving the appreciation of art and literature. This kind of experience during college may contribute to the fact that reading groups attract more women than men even now.

As for work, the very success of nineteenth-century women's attempts to broaden their sphere of action—first, in reading groups and, later, in agitation for social reform—contributed to dramatic transformations in women's participation in the world of paid employment. Once confined to a severely limited domestic sphere, middle-class women today face so many conflicting demands on their time and energy that it is less surprising that their reading group activity has changed than that it has not disappeared altogether. The twentieth century has witnessed a revolution in middle-class women's work life, both at home and in the marketplace. Yet this has failed to integrate women equitably into the marketplace, while leaving them with a bewildering array of life choices and few, if any, clear models to follow.

At the turn of the twentieth century, married women's experience of work was very different from that of their husbands. Many middle-class women never worked outside the home. And although their work was demanding, it was confined to a domestic sphere that most men and women considered to be separate from and almost antithetical to the capitalist marketplace.

The twentieth century witnessed vast changes in this pattern of employment for women, so that by 2001 women comprised 46.6 percent of the paid workforce, and even among mothers with children under three, more than 50 percent are employed. Various factors have contributed to this shift. The Depression caused women to search for employment, either as a supplement to their husbands' earnings or as sole wage earners for their families. World War II also disrupted traditional patterns of employment. During the late 1940s, both ideological forces (a revived cult of domesticity was one pillar of the postwar "return to normalcy") and institutional pressures (the closure of federally financed day-care centers) pushed women into the home. Yet the 1950s actually witnessed a rise in married women's employment. The women's movement of the 1960s, fomented in part by educated but unemployed married women (suffering the "problem that has no name," according to Betty Friedan's influential book The Feminine Mystique), validated women's paid employment, raised consciousness about barriers to women's entry into a variety of jobs and careers, and urged social supports such as child care that would make the workplace more hospitable to women. In the 1970s and 1980s, the end of the rapid rise in the American standard of living put a different pressure on the traditional patterns of married women's withdrawal from the workforce. Rising divorce rates (which, as analysts have pointed out, had been rising since the turn of the century, but only in the 1970s overtook the combined rates of death and divorce) have also tightened women's connection to the world of paid employment.

Employment patterns among middle-class women now resemble those of their male peers to a far greater degree than would have been imaginable to women one hundred years ago. Yet as in education, there are still vast differences between male and female experiences of work, whether in the marketplace or at home. Most people are familiar with the persistence of the wage gap between women and men and recognize that women are still ghettoized in certain occupations or occupational specialties. More recently, sexual harassment has risen to public prominence not just as an experiential reality for many women at work but also as one mechanism of discrimination. It is also significant that women still bear the brunt of the responsibility for what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls "the second shift" of housework and child care—which leaves them with less leisure (and proportionally more exhaustion-related stress) than men experience. And the timing of careers, which often demand maximum commitment during a person's twenties and thirties (what economists call a "tournament model" of competition for rewards in later life), creates a structural tension in women's lives between childbearing and child rearing and the imperatives of paid employment. Work conditions in the United States are also inflexible compared with those of Northern Europe, particularly in the areas of family leave, part- and flex-time scheduling, and retraining for those who have been out of the workforce.

In effect, the world of work has remained doubly gendered, with troublesome consequences for women. On the one hand, housework or nurturing work—the work that economist Nancy Folbre calls "caring labor"—is not recognized as real work, either in terms of financial remuneration or in terms of what economic indices such as the GNP count as "productive." Despite praise from mass circulation magazines, segments of the clergy, and other fractions of the intelligentsia, women at work in the home have good reason to experience their way of life as being culturally devalued. Moreover, as fewer women stay at home for shorter and shorter periods of their lives, working at home can be isolating. It is precisely this isolation from other adults—as well as from the mainstream of the culture in general—that motivates some women at home with young children to join reading groups.

On the other hand, the structure of paid work in the marketplace, especially full-time employment and professional careers, assumes an employee with no family responsibilities except to earn money. This means, in effect, that paid employment as we know it is built around the assumption that the employee is either totally autonomous or is constrained only by the responsibility to others that has traditionally belonged to the male within the family. So professional careers and most other occupations can be characterized as structurally gendered male. And indeed, women often feel a distressing lack of fit between their aspirations or imperatives as women and the demands of the marketplace.

In sum, the extension of "universal" categories to cover women without taking into account their differences from men—differences relating to biology, especially to reproduction, as well as those relating to the traditional middle-class family form and division of labor by gender—has left women's realities and concerns still fairly marginal to the core institutions of the American mainstream. My argument here is that women's inclusion in education, the economy, and the polity has been different from that of men because of a gendered division of labor within the family, which has never been adequately addressed. Because the public realm has a masculine cast, women have found themselves somewhat at odds with its proscriptions, somewhat out of phase with its expectations.

This difference was easier to understand during the nineteenth century, when formal exclusion from public life was coupled with a strong ideology of domesticity and natural difference. The twentieth century has been more confusing because informal barriers often feel like individual choices rather than social constraints. Indeed, the very successes of organized womanhood in the past have won significantly more options for the women of today. Similarly, during the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, it has become unclear whether (or under what circumstances) women are better served by claiming similarity to men, and when, on the other hand, it is strategic to highlight their important differences. Under such institutional and ideological circumstances, reading groups have continued to be important for women, in particular, because of women's need to negotiate life choices and identities that are, as argued earlier, both significantly more open and uncharted than in the past and yet are still not really well served by the major institutions of our social order.

How Are Contemporary Groups Different from Their Nineteenth-Century Predecessors, and Why?

The broad changes in middle-class white women's lives explain not only why contemporary reading groups have continued to be important forums for women but also why they differ from nineteenth-century groups. I have already mentioned the change in members' educational level and the ways reading groups have shifted in function from supplementing nineteenth-century women's meager formal education to continuing some of the pleasures of twentieth-century women's college experience in a more informal venue.

Women's reading groups have also ceased to give detailed reports on the books they select each month. In the nineteenth century, women spent long hours preparing such reports, which they often wrote up for presentation and even for distribution to other clubs. Today, if there is a member who is responsible for presenting a book, she usually introduces it briefly, drawing on biographical information about the author and on reviews in periodicals such as the New York Times Book Review or Publishers' Weekly. Sometimes she is only responsible for generating discussion questions. Groups may even dispense with preparation altogether, hold no one responsible for presenting a book, and just jump into groupwide discussion.

This difference may be related to the busyness of contemporary women's lives, but it also has a performative dimension. By their earnest application to scholarly research, nineteenth-century women were communicating their seriousness of purpose to themselves, to each other, and to the world at large. They were enacting an equivalence (even if only approximate) between their endeavors and those of a college classroom. Contemporary women do not have to acquire—or prove—their competence in this way, because they are already college educated. The informality of their book discussions expresses a level of ease with literary analysis that comes with prior experience. Often they cite the fact that they enjoyed talking about books in college as a reason for their participation in reading groups. The format of contemporary groups communicates a self that is already so well acquainted with books and book discussion that book talk is easy and "natural," pleasurable rather than laborious. These modern selves are the heirs to decades of struggle to establish and broaden women's higher education. The very "naturalness" of informal reading groups is a historical construction, the sediment of efforts contributed in part by earlier reading groups, who would probably be both surprised and gratified to see the casual competence displayed by their descendents.

Contemporary groups have also shed much of the procedural formality that marked earlier groups. Gone are the slates of officers, the meticulous attention to parliamentary procedure, the elaborate minutes, slogans, mottoes, and yearbooks. Again, time pressures may contribute to their disappearance, but again, the expressive dimension of present-day informality is important. Where once such groups provided women tutelage in the skills of running a formal organization and an education for citizenship and leadership in the public sphere, now other groups and organizations provide that tutelage. Contemporary women come to their reading groups with a sense of how to set up an agenda and delegate tasks, a sense so deeply internalized from participating in other kinds of organizational meetings that their reading groups can afford them the relief of informality. Similarly, they have already established that they are citizens, organizers, and leaders, so they do not need another occasion to practice these skills or demonstrate them to each other or to the broader world.

Most strikingly, women's reading groups today are different from those of their predecessors in that they have no larger or more social mission than to gather women together for the companionable discussion of books, ideas, and experiences. Indeed, the procedural informality of their meetings may also be expressive of this more purely cultural intent. Many women who participate in reading groups are involved in other socially relevant activities. Yet only a small number of book discussion groups see themselves, as groups, expressing a social mandate in any way resembling those of nineteenth-century literary groups and the women's club network those literary groups spawned.

The earlier organizations claimed to represent all women. This was never the case, for the movement was limited by both class and race, but the illusion was served by two factors. First, literary clubs and the broader women's club movement avoided both religion and politics. Second, middle-class women were more confined to domesticity and did not have the possibilities for imagining or living through the many divergent lives that middle-class women have today. But after a century of broadening options for middle-class women, those older organizations have been overtaken by a host of more specialized and ideologically divided associations that serve the immense variety of women's contemporary concerns and speak with the many different voices women now claim. For example, academic groups such as the Sociologists for Women in Society or the International Association of Feminist Economists address the work/home question at the level of both theory and practice. Almost every professional group has a women's association concerned with equity, advancement, and issues relating work to family, sexual orientation, and other aspects of domestic or private life. Broader-based and more issue-oriented groups address general problems from sexual harassment and domestic violence to questions surrounding reproduction. Other more explicitly ideologically based groups also proffer analyses and solutions for the gender dilemma as they define it, whereas umbrella groups such as the National Organization for Women attempt to reach broad constituencies for political interventions.

It is not surprising that reading groups now have no integral connection to social reform. Other organizations have taken up that mission, or more properly missions, because the unity of nineteenth-century middle-class women (always somewhat illusory) has fractured into a bewildering array of possible orientations toward the opportunities and constraints structuring middle-class women's lives at the end of the twentieth century.

It is also true that during this same period, a constellation of factors has reshaped the literary field, making more tenuous the ideological connection between reading good books and reforming the social world. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed the decline of the cultivated amateur "man of letters" who wrote for a general audience of people much like himself and who saw literature as part of a broad civilizing process. Literary studies became professionalized when they were institutionalized as departments in the university around the turn of the twentieth century. By now, creative writing itself has become another academic discipline, offering advanced degrees. Along with departmentalization, literary studies developed specialized professional journals. This rewarded academics who wrote for each other rather than to a broad audience. Reinforcing this tendency is the decades-long rise in special interest publications and concomitant decline in the "general interest" periodical in which men of letters spoke as citizens or cultural critics.

Some scholars claim that professionalization has democratized recruitment into literary studies by making it possible for any talented student to master textual analysis. Certainly, the content of curricula in literature reflects a broader definition of literature than was true in the middle years of the twentieth century, and the umbrella of cultural studies has extended literary studies not only into popular culture but also close to the borders of history and anthropology. But there is a cross-cutting tendency within the field for scholars to speak in specialized technical terms that rival the arcane terminology of the social sciences. Linked to professionalization, this development has isolated academic literary discourse from a broader middle-class audience, despite literary critics' often genuine desire to link literature to its social and political concerns.

Despite these developments, increasing numbers of middle-class women have continued to join reading groups since the 1980s. Reading groups appear to provide a particularly valued kind of social and intellectual support for middle-class women, even if participants have also turned to more activist groups to deal with other concerns. In the latter part of this book I describe in more detail how contemporary women's reading groups function and characterize some of the needs and desires they fulfill, but I briefly address these questions here in relation to the social-structural changes I have already described.

The radical transformation in women's lives over the past century, and the widening options it has brought in its train, may have made the kind of interaction provided by reading groups especially valuable, although differently so than in the past. For one thing, as discussed earlier, all of today's much vaunted choices are to a certain degree problematic. Traditional women find their lives more culturally devalued than ever before because fewer and fewer women participate in this way of life, and because the ideology of separate and morally superior womanhood—with its implicit critique of the marketplace—has lost its hegemonic place in the middle-class worldview. Career-oriented women find the world of remunerative jobs and professions gendered in ways that make it hard for women to compete as equals to men, whereas women who withdraw from paid employment during their child-rearing years face demanding transitions. Moreover, men's lives have not changed in ways that are symmetrical with the changes in twentieth-century women's lives.

Even if one were to disregard such issues as problems to be debated, they entail a need for adjudication, negotiation, and self-reflection. Moreover, because of the range of possibilities and the rapidity of change, the lives contemporary women are forging for themselves lack clearly defined role models, and there is even less that speaks to what might ideally be possible. Finally, many women no longer have automatic access to what Carroll Smith-Rosenberg calls the "world of love and ritual" that nineteenth-century women—who were more separated from the worlds of adult men—created together in close relationships with other women, whether kinswomen or friends. Instead, women at home often face isolation from other adults, and even if they are not precisely cut off from adult companionship, they often feel a distance between their lives and the intellectual mainstream of our culture. Women at work, perhaps especially in male-dominated occupations, can often feel set apart from other women, and most occupations are so specialized that they do not validate a persona characterized by broad interests or holistic humane and aesthetic concerns. This is, of course, a problem for men as well as for women, but women's historical self-definition has been that of "guardians of culture" and cultural generalists (even dilettantes), so there may be more resistance among women than men to being forced into narrow occupational slots.

Reading groups have become a cultural form that can help women with many of the lacunae, complexities, and contradictions in their lives. In their present form, reading groups can provide a forum for self-reflection that is not narcissistically self-referential but involves learning through literature—both fiction and nonfiction—about the most important objective and subjective developments of the contemporary world. For women whose lives entail the uncertainties of unmapped territory, they can offer the comforts of discussion with like-minded peers. This discussion often blends lives in books with lives lived by others, whether those gathered together or those known to a member of the group. This kind of contemplation can offer the security of similarity, the challenge of divergence, and the possibilities of the hitherto unimagined. And because groups tend to continue over decades if they are satisfying to the members, they offer women a chance to deal with major life transitions in the company of well-loved books and companions.

Reading groups can offer women both support and the wherewithal to explore their identity and negotiate its complexities over time. In this, reading groups resemble therapy groups and consciousness-raising groups, and many who do not know about reading groups draw that comparison upon hearing of them for the first time. Yet reading groups are different. For example, reading groups do not generally deal with the inmost reaches of subjectivity, and indeed, groups often perceive members who become too preoccupied with their own personal problems as difficult or disruptive to the real purpose of the meetings. Reading groups also do not pathologize members' personal issues, so they are not contributing to the spread of a "patient" or "victim" mentality. On the other hand, reading groups do not generally have a political or even a public mission. Yet they allow members to think about themselves and the social world in ways that, if not collective, can often provide critical purchase on the dilemmas facing contemporary women. This kind of discourse appeared in the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but even during the height of the second wave of feminism, most middle-class women were not mobilized, and many did not agree with feminist ideology.

Herein lies the most salient difference between reading groups and the plethora of other support groups or political groups women may participate in. Reading groups are centrally focused on books and ideas. They may engage issues of identity and provide validation for many different inflections of womanhood, but their primary mission, today as in the early years of the nineteenth-century literary club movement, centers on reading, the pleasures of the text, and normative conversations that consider both books and life experience. Reading groups still serve middle-class women as time spent for self-improvement, for personal fulfillment, and for exploration of personal identity, but most particularly as time for the development of a self that is engaged with the literary imagination and dedicated to the discussion of ideas, meaning, and values in the company of equally dedicated companions.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 62-73 of Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life by Elizabeth Long, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press and of the author.

Elizabeth Long
Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life
©2003, 274 pages
Cloth $55.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-49261-2
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