Monday, August 12, 2013

Why are book clubs so often all women?

I love my Kindle!  But it's taken me a while to admit that.  I hated the idea of e-readers, and generally resist new technology on principle. (Not sure which principle that is exactly, but I'm sticking to it just like a curmudgeonly but forgetful geriatric.)

I love holding a book in my hand, feeling the pages, wondering at the covering, flipping back and forth to the author's bio.  I love lining my walls with books. Having moved almost every year, I get - to my aching bones - how irrational it is to lug these things around and then spend time filing them back away into bookcases, but they seem to create a sense of home to me.

Living in Western Kenya all of that's gone.  There are no real bookstores of note, and we had to leave our book collections at home.  Enter the Kindle.  Even in remote areas there's often a 3G connection, so all is magically (it's run on magic, right?) at my finger tips.

And this technology has permitted me another great love - the book club!  Maybe Oprah has made it now seem lame, but I love book clubs.  I love getting together with a bunch of other people to discuss some world we all just stepped into, to see how others experienced it.
See how happy?!?  Well, except for old shifty-eye in the middle.  There's one in every group, right?
So, we finally got one together here in Kisumu. I volunteered to host the first one, and it was terrific! It happened to be all women. We had a lively discussion about the book and all got along well.

So, amid our discussion, after we had all become comfortable with one another, I threw it out there:

"So, I know at least one man who is interested in joining this book club.  What do you ladies think?  Should we let men in the group?"

The response was immediate and unanimous, a resounding, "No!!"

But I was taken aback and a bit baffled. This was not a timid group of women who are afraid they will be streamrolled or silenced by more forceful men. It was smart and accomplished group who were not easily intimidated by opposite sex. Our small group included a woman who had done relief work in Haiti and Sudan, an oncologist and an epidemiologist with a "trailing spouse."

This was a group of strong women with feminist tendencies and lots of male friends, so why the emphatic insistence on keeping the book club free of penises? 

I've thought about this a lot, and I've come to think that it's most likely it's because there's something sacred about the space created by a sisterhood of women which we are so often missing in our modern, meritocratic, "ungendered" world. As much as our spouses are often our best friends, and we mix easily with colleagues and friends of both genders, there's something special about the energy created by a group of women - people who share your experience of walking around on this earth and navigating life as a woman.

In a place like Kenya there is plenty of culturally institutionalized separation of genders. Women spend time cooking and washing clothes together.  Women buy and sell vegetables and meet at the market place. Women spend hours chatting while plaiting each other's hair.  When I gave birth at a Nairobi hospital there were almost no men, but laboring women leaned on aunts, cousins, sisters and even other laboring women. Here, especially in the rural areas, the rhythm of the day is completely different for women and men.

We in the West might see all of this separateness as enforced and unequal, but it's possible we've overlooked that this separation also ensures a source of comfort, support and solidarity, which American women might be missing out on.  Sure, we have the occasional "girls night" out and things like "knitting circles" are gaining in popularity, but we don't have as many regular times in which it's just women gathering in a safe space to talk and be together.  Maybe that's why the women in my group were so quick and eager to keep this space a sisterhood.

What do you think?  Am I reaching here?  Or are we missing something from our past when gender spheres were more separated?


  1. I have no idea why the women in your group would want to keep men out. But, i can guess as to why book clubs are usually comprised mostly/exclusively of women. It is steriotypical to say that women are better at arts and literature type things and men are better at math and science type things. I am one of those women with 2 engineering degrees who scored WAY better on my math SATs than my verbal SATs; and I have no interest in reading fiction (not that i would have time to read it even if i wanted to). So, in this respect i am more like a steriotypical male. Speaking for us steriotypical men, I'd rather stick pencils in my eye than read a book someone else told me to read and then get together with a bunch of people and talk about it. that would be like volunteering to relive the horrors of high school english class. I have nothing against "girl" time, unless it involves discussions about literature.

    1. Funny. I am kind of like you - did well on math and science and prefer to read non-fiction. And I was not a huge fan of high school English classes. But now, when I love a book, I love to share the experience and find out how other people saw it. I usually end up seeing something about the book that I missed after a good discussion. And, more to the point, I miss out on that circle of women friends. Maybe that's not a universal yearning, but it's one I have! Thanks for chiming in with the "stereotypical male" perspective. : )

  2. Kim, I think you are right about the support and solidarity aspect - my bookclub is all women, all with careers, and most with children. Oftentimes our bookclub discussions end up covering more than just the books - children, pregnancy, relationships, career frustrations, advice for career changes, etc. You can of course talk about all these things with men, but it is nice to have a separate space with other like-minded women to do this. And in a way, our bookclubs are a 'ladies night out,' especially for the ladies with kids!

    I know people who belong to more than one bookclub to meet all their different interests, too - some that are focused on a specific genre of literature, some that are work-based, some with women and men, some with women only, and yes, even some that are men-only. Like any other group, you find what most interests you and enriches your life.

    I have to say, bookclubs have never really been my thing, but because of the one I'm in now, I've read some pretty amazing books that I would never have picked up if someone in my bookclub hadn't put them forward as an option for us to vote on (we are democratic like that).

    1. Could not agree more. Actually, at that first book club someone was pregnant and we spent a bit of time sharing birth stories and talking about breast feeding - sure, we could have that discussion with men, but it wouldn't have been the same.

      Yeah, and I didn't think book clubs would be my cup of tea either initially. But I've read books I wouldn't have picked up either and it's for the best. And now I sometimes read a book and feel itchy to talk to someone else about it, to see how they've experienced it.

  3. I can relate to that. I think women need that separate place to talk sometimes and adding a male perspective would change the dynamics of the group.

    And I have been thinking of getting a kindle because we are still ordering books from Amazon and shipping them overseas. (sigh).

    1. Get. the. kindle. It's probably upped our book budget due to the impulse purchases, but there's nothing like someone telling you about a book they love and then going home and downloading it from your bed. Really, if I didn't live here I might not need to do it, but it's been a godsend here in Kenya!

  4. yeah, i think men change the dynamic of a group like that. it's okay and even good i think to get a man's perspective, but it'll change things. also, so torn on kindle. love it but hate it on loyalty to books. :)

    1. ICM: I was torn as well but love my kindle to bits now. And I generally resist new technology. And I think it is good to have a man's perspective too, but I know it would change the dynamic.

  5. AS you know, I have been in my book club for over 20 years. It has changed over the years, depending on the make-up of the group. That also changes the nature of the group, and some years I have loved the books we read more than others. I do enjoy it because the women in our group are so smart, and so literate (although Dad tells me that's because it's a book club, but I think it is something more). Lately, our book club has been allowing men in for specific books - The Art of Fielding, The Life of Henrietta Loucks, and Dad even came for a discussion of The Leopard. It made me think when we retire we should have a couples' book club.