There’s a reason antidemocratic leaders often persecute authors and ban literature: Books hold the power to undermine poisonous norms, harmful social constructs and oppressive governments.
Even more powerful than books alone are book clubs and reading groups. When resistance is afoot, book clubs are often buzzing. Not only can the clubs help politically inflamed members motivate themselves, and each other, to read relevant books ― 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century ― it’s a ready-made reason for friends to gather and talk about the anxieties and ideas du jour.
So it makes sense that, as Ruth Graham reported in Slate last week, the election of President Donald J. Trump has galvanized book clubs. Graham’s mother, and her colleague’s mother (the vast majority of book clubbers are women and over 45), reported reading or considering more political fare in recent months, from The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Plus, Graham noticed, there are a rash of new, explicitly political book clubs, some online and some in-person.
As social networks that emphasize the exchange of thought, book clubs have always had a civic-minded side. Benjamin Franklin’s famous book club, Junto, established in 1727, brought men together to talk about business, literature, philosophy and politics. Like many clubs, including women’s clubs, that followed, Junto allowed members to supplement a lack in formal education. For those of humble (like Franklin) or otherwise unprivileged origins, reading groups were an ideal avenue to learning. Enslaved people were barred from learning to read, but freedmen and women in the northern states formed literary discussion groups for similar ends. Eventually Franklin’s group became a driving force behind civic projects like the first public lending library and a volunteer fire department.
Women’s book clubs, in particular, have a subversive history. Up until quite recently, women getting together to gab about books was viewed as suspicious rather than silly and self-indulgent. Talking about ideas was the provenance of men, much like higher education and politics. All the way back in the 1630s, Anne Hutchinson held a Bible study group for women at her home, at which she and the other ladies could continue talking about Scripture after the minister’s sermon. The group quickly grew so popular that she sometimes held meetings to which men were invited. In short order, the Puritan establishment became suspicious of her popular gathering and the theological discussions it held; in 1638, she was banished for promulgating a heretical doctrine. At her trial, Governor John Winthrop accused her of having “maintained a meeting and an assembly in your house that hath been condemned by the general assembly as a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex.”
Women’s political and civic improvement groups, most notably the consciousness-raising groups popularized by second-wave feminists, followed in the same tradition as reading groups. Often there wasn’t a clear distinction. Not only was women seeking education subversive in itself for centuries, talking about ideas often led women into acting on them, writing and speaking publicly about their ideals. Feminism, for example. In 1839, the principal of a girls’ seminary in New Hampshire wrote a circular urging both students and alumnae to read and write together not only for their own improvement, but for “the elevation of our sex universally.” (Sarah Sleeper, the principal in question, also urged women to serve as evangelical Protestant missionaries in order to save “the heathen,” so a bit of a mixed bag.)
Consciousness-raising groups promoted by second-wave feminists, Broadly pointed out, followed book clubs in structure: a group of women who meet regularly to share their thoughts on given topics. But the distinction is more cosmetic than anything. Consciousness-raising groups explicitly gave women the opportunity to get away from their domestic responsibilities, take stock of their lives and discuss shared experiences and ideas; the modern book club, often pilloried as an excuse for housewives to drink wine and vent about their marriages, does the same, whether or not the conversation stays focused on the nominal topic. Women, after all, still do most of the household work ― especially older women from more traditional generations. A guilt-free outing to a book club, where she can focus on her own thoughts for an hour or two, may be particularly appealing to the gender with five fewer hours of leisure a week.
Book clubs and kaffeeklatsches have long offered space for female bonding, self-education and even political organizing that white men, with their comfortable hold on the vote and positions of political and corporate power, didn’t need. But as women escaped their domestic confines for book club meetings, the feminine stigma burgeoned. Today, many men are reluctant join book clubs because they’re, y’know, for girls ― though some aggressively masculine clubs have launched to entice the manly men.
“As we derided women for gathering with paperbacks and coffee cake, they were building networks ripe for political conversation and social action.”
Besides, keeping a book club running is work, the kind of humble administrative task that women have always been expected to shoulder. Though some book clubs meet in public locations, many are hosted by members in their homes. People bring homemade dip, brownies and bottles of wine. They do the expected reading. It’s kept together by the mutual service of the members, the subordination of their whims to the needs of the group. Any woman who has noticed that the men in her office never organize the birthday parties, or that her husband is never the one to remember the kids’ dentist appointments, will know that one gender has been far more effectively conditioned to perform these duties. Women also, apparently, become the social directors in their households: Research has shown that women maintain larger support networks and are less socially affected by the loss of a spouse.
The book club runs on the type of social networking that women have long been expected to do in support of men ― having the husband’s boss over for dinner, then leaving them to talk about serious things over a scotch and cigar after dinner, to take one very 1950s example ― though upperclass women, like the aristocratic hostesses of Parisian salons, could foist that work on servants. It’s work that looks a lot like political grassroots organizing: thankless, dedicated and most effective when it connects people and spreads ideas.
Book clubs have been moving back and forth between overt political action and more subtle civic engagement for centuries, so the progressive resistance to Trump is just the latest example of a political flare-up, with resistance clubs sprouting all over. Graham pointed to the new book club launched by Daily Action, a text message-based resistance network; in-person clubs hosted by bookstores and Meetup groups also abound.
But one thing is clear: Women ― especially older women and black women ― know how to create communities, literary and political. Lest we forget, it was Oprah who launched the biggest book club we've yet seen. Other prominent new book clubs -- Well-Read Black Girl, geared toward black women; Emma Watson's feminist club Our Shared Shelf; Oprah's Book Club 2.0 -- were created by women to harness the curiosity and intellect of women. Activist movements have done the same. The Black Lives Matter movement, largely spearheaded by black women, burst into the public consciousness well before Trump’s presidency even seemed possible. The Women’s March was reportedly the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. And meanwhile, as Graham relates at Slate, women around the country are reading books that help them understand our political moment and discussing them together.
As we derided women for gathering with paperbacks and coffee cake, they were building networks ripe for political conversation and social action. The rest of us are starting from scratch.