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Letters from Audra: The new woman

The last of an eight-part series

Audra Otto loves reading books, talking to writers, visiting book clubs, digging up photos, and hanging around the Minnesota Historical Society. Holder of literary degrees from the University of St. Thomas and the National University of Ireland, she’s been a major player helping MinnPost get the Book Club Club off the ground. Letters from Audra talks about the role that book clubs have played in the lives of Minnesotans from 1880 to today.

Most differences between historical and contemporary clubs have resulted from the changes in the lives of middle-class women during the 1900s. The right to vote, increased levels of education, and widespread participation in paid employment have broadened women’s sphere of action. Today, the vast majority of reading group members are college graduates, and many have attained a master’s degree or doctorate.

Today, book clubs are much less formal, less structured; there are no parliamentary procedures, no book reports, no meeting minutes, no yearbooks. The absence of these components of book groups past is partly related to the busyness of women’s lives in modern society, but there is another dimension to this change. Women no longer feel the need to communicate their seriousness of purpose to the general public, to project the equivalence between their endeavors and those of college classrooms or political bodies.

As Elizabeth Long observes in her treatise, “Literature as a Spur to Collective Action,” 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.”

Significantly, the work of 19th- and early 20th-century book groups expanded the opportunities available to future generations of young women, contributing to many of the dramatic changes that marked women’s lives in the 20th century.

P.S. From the editors — The new man
After a lot of digging, Audra reports that there is hardly any scholarship out there about men’s history in terms of book clubs. So we’ll have to start breaking new ground.

Of the 96 private clubs registered so far with MinnPost’s Book Club Club, there are 70 women-only clubs, 20 co-ed/mixed-gender, and 3 men-only. (Three clubs skipped this question.)

If you belong to a Minnesota book club that’s men-only or mixed-gender, what’s it like?

And, if your family history includes a men-only or mixed-gender club, we’d love to hear from you. 

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