Are Women the Enemies of Books?

Bookmaking on the Distaff Side

Anne Lyon Haight, “Are Women the Natural Enemies of Books?” Bookmaking on the Distaff Side (1937).

“There is a significant and instinctive enmity between women and books.”  Holbrook Jackson, The Fear of Books (1932). 

In 1937, Anne Lyon Haight asked “Are Women the Natural Enemies of Books?” Haight went on to refute this idea with a history of several notable women bibliophiles. Unfortunately, the works on women book collectors are vastly outnumbered by the many writers who have called women the enemies of books.

In 1880, William Blades wrote a book titled The Enemies of Books, in which he enumerated all the dangers which might befall rare books. The complete list from his revised and enlarged edition of 1888 includes ten enemies: fire, water, gas & heat, dust & neglect, ignorance & bigotry, the bookworm, other vermin, bookbinders, collectors, and servants & children. Many book collectors of that time would have added Women to the list, a danger regarded as equally threatening to the survival of their collections.

The first book collector to record this opinion was Richard de Bury, an English monk who wrote the Philobiblon, a treatise on the love of books, in 1344. Writing in the voice of books themselves, he described woman as “that biped beast … always jealous of the love of us, and never to be appeased, at length seeing us in some corner protected only by the web of some dead spider, with a frown abuses and reviles us with bitter words, declaring us alone of all the furniture in the house to be unnecessary, and complaining that we are useless for any household purpose.” Subsequent writers, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, overwhelmingly agreed with this opinion. They repeatedly described woman as the enemies of books, jealous of them, and completely incapable of understanding men’s bibliomania.

Women are “the sworn enemies” of books.  Paul Eudel (1877)

“Almost all women are the inveterate foes … of books worthy of the name. First, they don’t understand them; second, they are jealous of their mysterious charms; third, books cost money; and it really is a hard thing for a lady to see money expended on what seems a dingy old binding, or yellow paper scored with crabbed characters.” — Andrew Lang (1881) “Woman, often jealous of the book, is a Bibliophobe by instinct.”  Octave Uzanne (1889)

“[W]omen, as a class, are the enemies of books, and are particularly hostile to bibliomania.”  Eugene Field (1896)

Women are the “implacable enemies” of book collecting.  Bernard-Henri Gausseron (1901)

“The Book encountered a dangerous enemy: Woman.”  Léon-Félix de Labessade (1904)

Even when women did become book collectors, they were seldom recognized as such. In 1915, George Watson Cole wrote, “Book-collecting has been a pursuit almost invariably followed by men. The long lists of bibliophiles of every period and of every country are singularly devoid of women’s names.”

François Boucher, Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (1756). Via Wikimedia Commons

François Boucher, Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (1756). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Since book collecting required wealth and education, earlier women bibliophiles were usually from the noble classes. For example, Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, was one of a number of French women collectors during the 16th through 18th centuries. However, these ladies were often dismissed as serious book collectors; they were accused of collecting because it was fashionable, not from a true love of books. In Invitation to Book Collecting (1947), Colton Storm and Howard Peckham wrote of French collectors:

“The pastime was then pursued as much by women as by men, the hobby being curiously bound up with their love affairs. As Dr. Randolph G. Adams slyly puts it: ‘All the great woman book collectors were immoral.'”

Dr. Rosenbach was kinder in his judgement of women collectors. In the chapter “Mighty Women Book Hunters” in A Book Hunter’s Holiday (1936), he wrote, “It speaks rather well, I think, for the kings of France that they chose for friends beautiful ladies who loved beautiful books.” He ended the chapter with an appeal to women, “Ladies, why leave the triumphs of this sport to men?” Today, there are probably more women book collectors than ever before. When the famous collector Mary Hyde Eccles spoke in 1990 at a Grolier Club exhibit about women collectors, she said:

“The fascinating question raised by all this is why, in five centuries, in six countries, do  there seem to have been so few women book collectors? The answer is obvious: a serious collector on any scale must have three advantages: considerable resources, education, and freedom. Until recently, only a handful have had all three, but times are changing.”

Book collecting can have as much appeal for women as for men. Anne Lyon Haight’s article “Are Women the Natural Enemies of Books?” concludes:

“It would appear that book collecting is a truly feminine pastime, containing many elements which appeal to their sex; romance, intellectual curiosity, love of the beautiful and the quest of something difficult to obtain. . . . Book collecting, however, is a common denominator of all ages and a medium through which the minds of both sexes may meet with pleasure, and therefore greatly to be recommended as a delightful occupation.”

One thought on “Are Women the Enemies of Books?

  1. Our thanks to librarian Emi Hastings (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) for bringing fresh attention to this engaging subject. Women have been informed book enthusiasts for centuries, of course; they have also been writers of books, patrons & stewards of books, and custodians of books (are not most librarians women?). The wealthier among them have been valued & discriminating collectors. Constraints on the representation of women in the annals of book-collecting (esp rare & fine & special imprints) originate in personal resources (money). Collecting has always been pricey, but the fact remains that highly-placed women, and women of means, did (and do) collect in many instances. See not only the famous essay by Rosenbach, which I ment’d to Emi shortly after her talk at Grolier, but also the bibliography of book-collectors compiled by Bernard Quaritch (his Dictionary of English Book-Collectors; for women collectors, see the Index, also the Roll of Collectors). For recent information on collector Mary Hyde, originally from Detroit, see recent blog posts, with captioned images, by Florida collector Jerry Morris. And of special mention here is Florida collector Patricia Pistner, originally from Chicago, a respected collector of highly valued miniature books. I was pleased to coordinate & host her well attended presentation, with table display, at a recent meeting of the Florida Bibliophile Society (my poster on that event, with images, is in the Archives tab of the Society’s website). There are many informed women book collectors a-foot, but the entire subject has yet to result in a first-ever (gender-segregated) bibliography … but all in good time (Emi is on the case!).

    Maureen E. Mulvihill, PhD
    Princeton Research Forum, Princeton NJ
    Collector: English & Irish Women Writers.
    28th May 2014.

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