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How women invented book clubs, revolutionizing reading and their own lives

More than 150 years before Oprah and Reese Witherspoon, women began reading together in groups.

Illustration depicting young women in the 19th century relaxing and reading on an August afternoon. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
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The women met wherever they could get their hands on a few books and some quiet: in empty classrooms, backrooms of bookstores, at friends’ homes, even while working in mills.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the first American reading circles — a precursor to book clubs — required little more than a thirst for literature and a desire to discuss it with like-minded women.

Journalist Margaret Fuller held one session of what she called her “conversations” in 1839, likely in a friend’s rented room on Chauncey Place, a few blocks from Boston Common.

Fuller — the first American female war correspondent, a magazine editor and an all-around feminist renegade — saw her club as anything but a substitute for embroidery. Instead, she rallied women who were, as she wrote: “desirous to answer the great questions. What were we born to do? How shall we do it?”

As one attendee recounted, Fuller “opened the book of life and helped us to read it for ourselves.”

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Fuller’s “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. Megan Marshall, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,” compared those meetings to consciousness raising groups of the 1960s and 1970s. “There was a sense of female power that was emanating from these sessions,” Marshall said.

Women may have been excluded from philosophical clubs and universities, but they found other ways of engaging with literature. Women’s chief role in founding the modern book club — a consequence of being marginalized from other intellectual spaces — has gone on to shape the book landscape in profound and unappreciated ways.

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.”

Celebrity book clubs — often run by female powerhouses such as Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon — are more of a guarantee of book sales than a glowing review. The book club, dismissed as a feminine, frivolous time to drink wine and gossip is also a radical activity: a rare place where women have long been able to engage with the transformative power of books.

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 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.”

Literary circles encouraged women not just to read for their own edification or pleasure but to speak, to critique, and even to write. As early as the 1760s, poet Milcah Martha Moore collected women’s prose and poetry in her group, amassing nearly 100 manuscripts.

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.

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By the onset of the Civil War, “nearly every town and village” in the United States had some kind of female literary group, said Mary Kelley, a professor of American intellectual history at the University of Michigan. Throughout the 19th century, women’s reading circles expanded, and some became outspoken on social issues such as abolition, foreshadowing the club movement of the end of that century.

Well into the 1900s, book clubs continued to serve these dual purposes: functioning as both an intellectual outlet and a radical political tool. Access to books — and book clubs — expanded, thanks in part to the rise of mass-market paperbacks and mail orders.

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, according to one expert.

About 63 percent of women in book clubs have an advanced degree, according to data from Book Browse. Despite increased demands on women’s time balancing work and child care, millions of Americans continue to join and participate in book clubs, and 88 percent of participants in private book clubs are women.

Oprah Winfrey’s launch of her book club in 1996 was a turning point in the history of book clubs — a moment that author Toni Morrison called a “reading revolution.” In the first three years, each book Oprah chose averaged sales of 1.4 million copies each.

Those who dismissed it as “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” missed its serious core: books ranged from Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” to William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” to Maya Angelou’s “The Heart of a Woman.”

In a way that is surprisingly reminiscent of those early women dissidents starting reading circles, Winfrey spoke about literature in civic terms. “Getting my library card was like citizenship, it was like American citizenship,” she told Life Magazine in 1997. “Reading and being able to be a smart girl was my only sense of value, and it was the only time I felt loved."

In her commencement address at Agnes Scott College, Oprah Winfrey said a closet full of shoes doesn't fill up your life, but a 'life of substance' does. (Video: Reuters)

That feeling of self-worth is a through line that has continued into book clubs today. “Talking about literature is not only about talking about literature. It is also examining one’s ideas, identities, thoughts, sense of self,” said Christy Craig, PhD, a sociologist who examines the subversive possibilities of women’s book clubs. Over the course of 2013 to 2015, she conducted research on book clubs in the United States and Ireland, interviewing 53 women ages 19 to 80.

Craig found that women turned to book clubs in times of upheaval, as a way of seeking wisdom both from books and from one another. Women relied on their book clubs at pivotal moments in life, such as after college, following divorce or the death of a spouse, or after children left the home.

“Women turned to book clubs to really construct 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.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where Margaret Fuller staged her book discussions. It was likely at a friend’s place.

Jess McHugh’s work has appeared in the New York Times and TIME, among others. Her book “Americanon,” a history of U.S. bestsellers, is being published in June.

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