A few years ago my very good friend gave me Women Who Read Are Dangerous by Stefan Bollmann with a foreword by Karen Joy Fowler. It chronicles a history of art depicting women reading. From Eleanor of Aquitane’s tomb to Fuger’s The Penitent Magdalene and the more recent Women Reading by Gabriele Munter, the book is a gold mine of images of women and their books.

Eleanor of Aquitane’s Tomb via History Today.
Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Tomb via History Today.

The forward discusses how literacy grew amongst women over several centuries. This growth did not come without controversy. There were those who saw reading as beneficial for women. Others who saw it as ‘further evidence of the inexorable decline in manners and social order.’ (Women Who Read Are Dangerous, p.23)

Always dangerous Fruger’s The Penitent Magdalene

Reading is a private deeply personal act. It is about both acquiring knowledge and personal pleasure. The reader enjoys an intimacy with her books. It is a world only she can enter. This is precisely what makes it so dangerous. A woman who experiences her own world in her own mind will one day want her own world in the real world.

Women Reading by Gabriele Munter
Women Reading by Gabriele Munter

That is a dangerous idea. Or it was in past centuries. I wonder if in many places it isn’t still one. We can point to examples all over the world of girls who struggle to get an education. This isn’t limited to far away ‘developing’ places. This happens in North America too.

Today certain leaders like to insult the intelligence women and people of color on a regular basis. Reading books is one way to gain knowledge, to become smart. When one is smart, when one is well-read, they start to imagine a different world. This is scary for those who wish the world would go back in time. Back to a time when women had far fewer mobility. A time with people of color had few rights. There are many ways to resist this. One small personal way is to read a book. Because we still live in a world where reading a book is an act of protest.