book club stars - keaton, bergen, fonda, steenburgen

No Feminists without a Book Club?

About the same time that Friends in Council was chartered in 1869 Sarah [Atwater Denman] also worked to get a national women’s suffrage convention in Quincy. According to Paul R. Anderson in Platonism in the Midwest, the women’s clubs were considered part of the early feminist movement serving to provide organizational support for women.
—Iris Nelson, Herald-Whig

Women in America have gathered together for support and for intellectual stimulation for a very long time. In that regard, strong evidence shows that the nature of women has not changed since the 17th century. In the first recorded gathering for group discussion of literature and issues of the day, women began, in essence, a book club and what has become known as “feminism”.1

Last November, when Movies on Chatham viewed and critiqued Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), discussion about feminism and how it has  evolved was unavoidable, especially in the context of our theme of Changing Times.

Then next on the schedule in December is Book Club (2018), a financially successful and entertaining movie starring beloved actors, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen. No doubt, each of the four women is a torch-bearer for feminism in her own unique way, as the following summaries show:

Candice Bergen starred in Murphy Brown, the long-running CBS sitcom that portrays a star reporter for a fictional news magazine, “FYI”. Bergen’s character unquestionably broke ground for societies’ acceptance of single mothers, and likely inspired numbers of women to pursue careers in news media organizations.

Jane Fonda, in addition to her modeling and Academy Award-winning acting, built a prosperous business from her popular exercise videos that encourage women to be physically fit and healthy. She actively involved herself in politics starting in the 1960s, an era in which women were just emerging in the political arena, and perhaps planted early seeds of political activism in Hollywood.

Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen are vital in paving the way for women in the entertainment business, and have steadily demonstrated to future contributors to the arts that success can extend beyond acting. In addition to their Academy and Golden Globe Awards, and a number of other awards between them, Keaton and Steenburgen both have flourished in singing/songwriting, movie production, real estate, writing, conservancy (Keaton), and humanitarian work (Steenburgen).

Literacy Is a Privilege and Required for Book Club

Book Club's Diane Keaton reading "50 Shades of Gray"
Book Club’s Diane Keaton reading “50 Shades of Gray”

How appropriate it is that these accomplished women worked together to make a movie based on the very thing that is the impetus for all their endeavors:  literacy—the ability to read and write. Book clubs, arguably, would not exist without it.2 Before going further, since some are surely thinking also about audio books, please note that I’ll just use “reading” to include all methods you may use for this process.

Naturally stemming from the ability to read is a wish to gather with other readers to share ideas and to learn from each other. Movies on Chatham’s research on feminism indicates that book clubs are a freedom and privilege that should not be taken for granted. Hunt (2016) aptly titles her history of women’s book clubs as, “A History of Radical Thinking”.

In studying Otto’s timeline of book clubs in America (2009) below, it is striking to note that book clubs have evolved just one step ahead of feminism’s progression. And, it all began with a father teaching his daughter to read.

A Timeline of the Book Club in America

1600s – Most women were illiterate during this era. Yet, an English Puritan father, William Marbury, insisted that his daughter, Anne, learn to read.

To flee the Anglican Church’s persecution, Anne, with her husband William Hutchinson and their children, traveled by ship across the Atlantic from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On the ship, she began to lead a group of women to analyze weekly sermons, and later expanded to studying literature more broadly. Garnering a following, Anne Hutchinson was threatening to elders of the Colony, as might be expected in the male-dominated era. She was tried for heresy and, despite a strong defense, was excommunicated from Massachusetts.

1700s – Domesticating land that is newly discovered and wild is hard work; thus, both men and women toiled endlessly. It was not until the latter half of the century that the community settled down to the point where some privileged women could give time to the study of literature.

In the 1760s, Hannah Adams of Massachusetts became the first American woman to earn a living from writing. She was part of a reading circle that gathered regularly to discuss “belles-lettres and shared poetry”.3 A similar reading society was formed in Boston in 1778 by Hannah Mather Crocker for the same purposes of reading belles-lettres. Crocker can be considered as one of the earliest feminists—she dared to voice the radical opinion that formal study of science and literature was more suitable to women’s dignity than the frivolous activities that society had defined.

1800s – The catalyst for a feminism movement came in the early 19th century, when various groups of women in New England began meeting regularly to discuss poetry and literary work. These social and educational gatherings gave rise to the following milestones:

1826 The first American lyceum is founded and launched the lyceum movement. Lycea were voluntary local associations that sponsored lectures and debates on current issues and promoted adult education. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Daniel Webster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Susan B. Anthony were among the lecturers, entertainers, and readers who participated. By 1834, there were roughly 3,000 lycea in the Midwest and Northeast.

1827 Black women formed literary societies in the late 1820s and 1830s in cities throughout the Northeast (Hunt, 2016). The Society of Young Ladies in Massachusetts is the first.

1840 The first known bookstore-sponsored discussion club in the US begins meeting in Margaret Fuller’s Boston shop. The “Conversations” seminars for women applied the Socratic method to examine philosophical questions.

1866 Sarah Atwater Denman starts a women’s study group in Quincy, IL known as “Friends in Council”. Originally meeting in Denman’s home to read aloud and discuss literature and philosophy, the group is the oldest continuous literary club in America.

1900s – By the turn of the 20th century, the omnipresent literary societies enhanced literacy for women and in turn set the foundation for their 20th century counterparts to lift feminism to new heights.

Two women reading, ca. 1903
Two women reading, ca. 1903. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A thirst for knowledge drove women to read. The more women read, the more they learned; the more they learned, the better equipped they were to advocate for themselves. Reading books got the feminist movement going more than anything else.

The state of literacy in the 20th century was so advanced that it may have seemed incomprehensible to a girl born during its span that there was ever a time when Anne Hutchinson’s learning to read was the exception, not the norm. Whether this 20th century girl is aware, she was born in the midst of a renaissance for readers.

Books in Mass Production

From the Rare Book School at UVA (“Turning the page”, 2012), we learn that,

At the beginning of the 19th century, books were still being manufactured using many of the same craft skills and techniques that had been used since the introduction of moveable type in the 15th century. By the end of the 1800s, the book had changed from a largely handmade object to a mass-produced industrial product .

. . .

The driving force behind innovation in book manufacture was an expanded readership. Literacy rates climbed throughout the century, ensuring an ever-increasing audience of readers from all walks of life. As the middle class expanded, new readers had both the money and leisure to purchase books in every genre, from literary fiction and poetry to science, technology, and political economy. The demand for more books, more variety, and more novelty inspired printers to experiment with every aspect of book production, hoping to find ever more economical ways to manufacture books.

Because of the dramatic increase in book production, 20th century readers—male, female, young and old—were inundated with more books than they could read in a lifetime. With a book for every interest, passion, and hobby, children grew up with their minds stretched to boundless fantastical places and adventures from the imaginations of writers—the whimsical worlds of Dr. Seuss, solving mysteries with Nancy Drew or the Hardy boys, vacationing with the Bobbsey twins, surviving with the Boxcar children, going to school at Sweet Valley High, and on and on.

Expanding Readership through Technology and the Increasing Numbers of Book Clubs

Oprah and her TV Book Club
Oprah and her TV Book Club

Toward the end of the century, in 1996, talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, started her own public book club via TV, which created an unprecedented excitement for reading. The behemoth that is now Amazon was started by Jeff Bezos, who like all good billionaire technologists, sold his first book from his garage in 1995.

The pastime of reading stayed on technology’s trajectory as online book clubs (i.e., GoodReads) emerged along with Kindles, Book Nooks, and a variety of other reading devices and apps. Blogs and social media created new forms of reading and writing.

Since social media has been developed, embraced, and is here to stay, let’s count the positive—within fingertips, social media brings people together and exposes them to posts, comments, links to articles and websites, memes, advertisements, and a sea of information. Some have claimed that the average person can read 200 books in the time s/he spends on social media and reading blogs every year (Chu, 2017). Yet, all the above involve one thing: reading.

Through the analysis and discussions about Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Movies on Chatham learned about the book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women (Rosen, 2013), that describes today’s trends toward greater leadership roles for women in the workforce and more women graduating from college than men. It is no coincidence that the “rise of women” coincides with an increase in the number of book clubs that exist in America today.

There are more than 5 million book club members in the US now. Most clubs have 10 or more members, and 70 – 80 percent of clubs are all women. Why is that?

My theory is that the basic nature of women has not changed since the 17th century when Anne Hutchinson who took the initiative to gather women on the ship sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.  Modern-day women gravitate towards each other for support, and for intellectual stimulation by mixing discussion with good wine and good food.

Book Club Stars’ Favorite Books

Seems like a most natural inquiry to wonder what books are favorites of the four women who played Book Club’s central roles (“Book Club Stars”, 2018). Surely not Fifty Shades of Grey!

Candice BergenNancy Drew, Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, White Nile and Blue Nile by Alan Moorehead, and Old Filth by Jane Gardam.

Jane Fonda: Bird by Bird by Annie Lamont

Diane Keaton: Rocks and Clouds by Mitch Epstein, plus architecture and picture books.

Mary Steenburgen: Gentleman in Moscow (same as Candice Bergen), and Pippi Longstocking books by Astrid Lindgren, which she reads to her grandchildren.


1 Feminism

Feminism is a complex set of ideologies and theories, that at its core seeks equal social, political, and economic rights for women and men.

2 Literacy

Literacy is traditionally defined as the ability to read and write, but the concept of literacy has evolved in meaning. In the modern world, a broader interpretation of literacy includes knowledge and competence in specific areas.

3 Belles-lettres

Belles-lettres or belles lettres is a class of writing, originally meaning beautiful or fine writing. In a modern narrow sense, the label describes literary works outside major categories such as fiction, poetry, or drama. The term is sometimes used pejoratively for writing that focuses on aesthetic qualities of language and not its practical application.


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