How women invented book clubs, revolutionizing reading and their own lives

By Jess McHugh for

The women met wherever they could get their hands on a few books and some quiet: in empty classrooms, backrooms of bookstores, at friends’ homes, even while working in mills.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the first American reading circles — a precursor to book clubs — required little more than a thirst for literature and a desire to discuss it with like-minded women.

Journalist Margaret Fuller held one session of what she called her “conversations” in 1839, likely in a friend’s rented room on Chauncey Place, a few blocks from Boston Common.

Fuller — the first American female war correspondent, a magazine editor and an all-around feminist renegade — saw her club as anything but a substitute for embroidery. Instead, she rallied women who were, as she wrote: “desirous to answer the great questions. What were we born to do? How shall we do it?”

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