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Sarah Lindsay

Men Reading Women: Three Reasons to Read Books by Women

Christine de Pisan instructing her son
Christine de Pisan Instructing her Son, minature from London, British Library ms. Harley 4431, c. 1413 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 3 of a five-part series on why men may be reluctant to read women and how even well-intentioned men default to reading other men. Read part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In part 1 of this series, I argued that modern American society makes it easy for men to avoid reading books by women — and that this is a problem because it devalues not just women’s contributions but women’s personhood. And in part 2, I argued that the solution cannot be for women to write like men (whatever that means), because instead of addressing the problem this solution continues to devalue women.

So how can we address these problems? What might make men more likely to read books by and about women? I will have some practical suggestions in Thursday’s post, but today I want to focus on why men should read women authors.

In the big picture, as I’ve argued, not reading books by women reinforces — intentionally or not — the idea that women are not fully human in the way that men are. But I think many men, like the writer of the Relevant article I discussed in part 1, don’t set out to either avoid or devalue women.

They (and women, too) simply swim in cultural waters that make it easy to dismiss books by women, especially spiritual or theological books written by women.1

So why should we intentionally seek out books by women? Beyond the big picture of treating women as fully human and fully capable of writing books relevant to men as well as women, I see three reasons to read women.

First, developing empathy: a growing body of research suggests that reading fiction helps us to develop empathy, sympathetic understanding of the emotions of others. Empathy makes us more kind, less likely to stereotype, better able to understand why a person may make particular choices.

From the very beginnings of their reading lives, girls read about boys and girls, developing empathy for men as well as other women. Far too often, however, boys are directed away from books about girls. Boys can identify with Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, but not Jo Marsh or Katniss Everdeen.

But limiting the characters boys and men encounter also limits the empathy they develop: the empathy extends to characters like them (male), but not to female characters and, by extension, to girls and women.2

This problem is intersectional, too — not limited to gender. When we expect everyone to identify with white men, but only women to identify with women or minorities to identify with minorities, we limit empathetic development and reinforce the sexism and racism that sees women and minorities as deviating from the norm.

Second, embracing diversity: Alongside developing empathy, reading books by and about a wide variety of people develops an appreciation for diverse perspectives and experiences.

No matter how much we know better, we easily slide into the assumption that our perspective and our experiences are normal and right. Interacting with a variety of people helps us overcome this assumption: what seems normal and obvious to us might be completely foreign to another, and we can learn from that new perspective.

We should embrace this sort of diversity in a variety of ways, but reading in particular allows us to deepen our historical perspectives. We have much to learn from writers and characters of the past, beginning with humility.

Like developing empathy, this value extends beyond the question of why we should read books by and about women. But gaining the perspective of women on their lives and experiences will enrich our own understanding of the human condition.

Third, challenging the idea that men are the norm: When society treats men as the standard of what it means to be human, the male experience is valued above the female experience. And western patriarchy makes men rational and women emotional, men able to transcend the body while women are trapped by their bodies, men capable of an objectivity that women cannot attain.

Reading and valuing women writers is a part of learning to value “feminine” characteristics. We must learn to value these traits, often gendered as feminine but in reality common to all humans, in order to integrate and value our whole human selves — mental, emotional, physical, spiritual.

To be sure, individual readers and writers will have preferences for the more intellectual or the more confessional, the more objective or the more subjective. But we need to stop imagining that books by men (and this is especially prevalent in theological and spiritual writing) are intellectual and objective and therefore better than confessional and subjective books, which are often written by women.

Theology cannot be merely intellectual; it is also lived. And the intellect is not divorced from context or free of bias; our reason is shaped by our experience, including our experience as a man or a woman. No view of God is purely rational; human beings cannot attain some sort of pure rationality.

Diversifying our reading, and especially our theological reading, helps us to see the limitations of what we consider normative and the flaws in the idea that theology based in experience is inferior to theology based in reason.

Right now, a whole host of women spiritual writers are reminding Christians that we need to pay attention to how our theologies can be lived and embodied in the world. They don’t argue that we should toss out all the church fathers, but they do remind us that beautiful intellectual systems can crumble when they meet our embodied lives — and often the flaw is in the theology, not the embodiment.

When we elevate the male and the intellectual as objective and true, we lose the wisdom gained by experience and the insights offered by our emotions. I do not mean to suggest that women are more emotional than intellectual, but in our current western culture women are more free to express their emotions and write based on experience. And instead of devaluing their perspective, we should interrogate our own assumptions about male rationality and objectivity.

To boil this post down to one reason to read more women writers: patriarchy harms not just women, but also men. When men don’t read books by and about women, their perspectives are limited, their empathy may be stunted, and they place far too much confidence in their own point of view.

Come back on Thursday for some practical suggestions on adding more women into your reading life.

  1. Women are certainly not immune to having book lists that skew towards men, particularly in theological or spiritual writing. Part of patriarchy is that the whole society values men above women; men alone are not responsible for maintaining and perpetuating patriarchal systems.

  2. Reading is not the only way to develop empathy — but it is one way to develop understanding of others, and limiting who “others” includes will also limit empathy.

Tagged: books | gender | theology