Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women

Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women

Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women

Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women


In a compelling approach structured as theme and variations, Barbara Sicherman offers insightful profiles of a number of accomplished women born in America's Gilded Age who lost--and found--themselves in books, and worked out a new life purpose around them.

Some women, like Edith and Alice Hamilton, M. Carey Thomas, and Jane Addams, grew up in households filled with books, while less privileged women found alternative routes to expressive literacy. Jewish immigrants Hilda Satt Polacheck, Rose Cohen, and Mary Antin acquired new identities in the English-language books they found in settlement houses and libraries, while African Americans like Ida B. Wells relied mainly on institutions of their own creation, even as they sought to develop a literature of their own.


This is a book about women, reading, and the connections between them. More particularly it is about reading in the lives of young women growing up in America’s Gilded Age who, in varying degree, broke away from the domestic lives expected of them. Born roughly between 1855 and 1875, they belonged to a generation of women that individually and collectively left an unparalleled record of public achievement—as physicians and scientists, social workers and educators, perhaps most of all as leaders of the social justice wing of the Progressive reform movement of the early twentieth century.

How women maneuvered their way from overprotected childhoods marked by extreme gender stereotyping to lives of adventure is one of the fascinating aspects of this generation’s history. Many ingredients fueled the desire of girls and young women for public lives. Chief among them were the exciting new opportunities for higher education and professional employment that came along at the right time; some, like the settlement houses, they created for themselves.

Well-Read Lives examines a less tangible but no less significant factor in women’s journeys to public identities: the ways in which reading stirred imaginations and fostered female ambition. It argues both that reading has long been an important vehicle for promoting and sustaining women’s aspirations and that it had special resonance for young women in the years after the Civil War.

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