What Were They Reading?

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Mills students search library archives for hints of the past

By Alison Nowak ’01

When I first saw Women Reading as a Necessity of Life in the course catalog I was intrigued. It was rare that a course title disclosed so much about its intentions. It was also rare that a class so closely reflected my two areas of study, women’s studies and English. It was even being taught by one of my favorite professors, Kathy Walkup. The topic and the opportunity to do original research were too much to resist. 

The class examined the reading habits of women, tracing patterns from hundreds of years ago and connecting them to how and why women read as they do today. In addition to reading about and discussing past patterns of women’s reading, we also interviewed women in our lives to find out what kind of materials they were reading currently. Our final project involved the Mills College Collection, archival materials housed in the Heller Rare Book Room. Our assignment was to look for evidence of what and how past Mills women read. 

As the four students in the class began to scour the archive for evidence, we came across photographs, journals, essays, and letters. Our search in the greater library turned up numerous articles and publications that reflected the reading interests of Mills women in the past. After our initial excitement over the fascinating contents of the archive in general, we calmed down and chose a focus for our research. Each of us took a time period and had a general interest within that period. We considered questions such as these: Were women reading for pleasure, or primarily academic purposes? How much did reading habits differ over time? What sorts of encouragement were there for reading? Our interactions with the archive were wonderful. The four of us swapped information constantly and read aloud to each other when we found something particularly interesting. 

Our focuses took us to different places within the Mills archive. Hannah Cox ’01, looked for photographic evidence of women reading and kept pulling great photos out of the “indoor activity” file. (The Mills Collection includes more than 10,000 photos.) The pictures gave a sense of reading life that ranged from formal to social and relaxed. 

The rest of us stuck to the texts within the archive, reading through publications and endless files of letters and memorabilia. The files were both exciting and maddening, because there were more than we could ever get through in a semester; and although they are organized, they are certainly not organized around the topic of reading. We were all hoping to find gems of information about past Mills reading habits, and to some extent we did. 

Margaret Howland ’01, went back the furthest in time, locating information about Mills women from 1870 to 1911. She found course catalogs that listed the requirements for English as Beowulf to Milton followed by Milton to Tennyson for freshwomen, later 19th century literature for sophomores, and Shakespeare for juniors. There were no set requirements for seniors. She also found evidence of student reading outside the classroom. There was a literary society devoted to William Cullen Bryant, and they resolved that “more benefit is derived from literary societies, than from the required work.” The Bryant literary society also published a newsletter to keep its members updated. 

My research picked up a little after where Margaret’s left off. I was looking at the time period from the 1920s up to World War II. I initially wanted this section of history because I discovered that Gertrude Stein had come to campus in 1935, and I was hoping to find some student response to the famous expatriate. One of the research librarians presented me with a letter from Alice B. Toklas to the President of the College. Toklas was responding to a dinner invitation and stated that “Miss Stein . . . reminds me that it has been her habit at colleges and universities to meet a group of the students specializing in English and students particularly interested in her work after the lecture for discussion.” 

After I read this letter I became absolutely sure that there had to have been some commentary about it. Although I found nothing in the Weekly, Georgiana Melvin wrote an article in the Quarterly about Stein’s lecture on “Poetry and Grammar.” According to Melvin, over five hundred students and faculty gathered to hear her words. Additionally, the editor remarked that Stein’s lecture created such a flurry that the editor felt “it is possible that her statements which caused hot discussion in April will still have significance for readers in November.” 

Mills women in this time period were very involved with literature. Many lists of “good reading” were produced by community members. Flora Belle Ludington, a Mills librarian, frequently published a column in the Quarterly entitled “Worth While Books.” In 1936, Professor Willard Smith’s summer reading lists were so popular that they were sold in the bookstore. President Aurelia Reinhardt presented a lecture on “Books of Today and Tomorrow” accompanied by a list of recommended texts. 

Black-and-white photo of a Mills student from the 1940s sitting on a bench with a bookshelf in the background, holding several books and examining the spine of one of them.

Students also gave their opinions of the great books of the day. Virginia Simler ’23, wrote an article for the Weekly in 1920 entitled “Reading in Bed.” Simler states that “there are few joys which we indulge in that are greater than reading in bed.” She then describes how she is lured toward reading for pleasure: “There is another kind of a night on which you may be reading in bed, the night when you ought to study some subject that you just detest but take because it is required. You know quite well that the work is important and that later you will undoubtedly wish you had studied. But if you have Conrad’s latest novel to begin or a recent issue of The Yale Review, it is not humanly possible to study.” Simler’s favorite poets were Masefield, Noyes, and Kipling. 

I also found mention of the tradition of Book Day, which originated in 1930 and honored Carlyle who wrote, “The true university of these days is a collection of books.” Book Day was the day when gifts of money for books and books themselves were given to the library by students, faculty, and alumnae. There was also a contest to determine which student had the best personal library. 

We also studied what women were reading at the end of the 20th century. Rae Tabbert ’02 chose to focus on multicultural awareness in the Mills curriculum, and looked for reading patterns of women of color at Mills. Although Rae found some evidence of women of color at Mills in the earlier half of the 20th century, multicultural literature did not become a focus for Mills until the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. During this time Mills began to bring a more ethnically diverse group of speakers to campus including Lucha Corpi, Joyce Carol Thomas, Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and Chief Wilma Mankiller, as well as others. 

In the 1990s, a publication by and for women of color was produced at Mills College. The Womanist reflected voices and issues of women of color on the Mills campus during that time period. Some women who wrote in The Womanist found it difficult to find good books that represented their culture, while other women found courses at Mills that allowed them to see themselves in the literature. 

When we began our journey into the archive, none of us knew what we would find. As I looked at the letters, documents, and other memorabilia from the archive, I became increasingly aware of how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to sift through such a large number of primary sources. The information left behind by Mills women allowed me to gain a greater understanding of how, why, and what Mills women read in the past. I left Women Reading As a Necessity of Life with a greater sense of history and tradition behind my education, and especially my reading, at Mills.