The history of how American women readers have been studied is tied closely to the history of Women's Studies in America. This is true in several senses: one is that Women's Studies from the start concerned itself with identifying and describing the woman reader (and, later, women readers – an important distinction). The second is that the history of Women's Studies is, quite literally, largely a history of women – in this case, feminists – reading. After all, as Judith Fetterley declared in 1978, “At its best feminist criticism is a political act whose aim is not simply to interpret the world but to change it by changing the consciousness of those who read and their relation to what they read.” This essay has, then, a dual focus: describing some of the many ways in which women readers have been and are being studied and suggesting why certain kinds of studies appeared at different historical moments.
Twentieth-century feminists were not, of course, the first to address the topic of the woman reader, a controversial matter dating back to Classical Greece. Indeed, every advance in the technologies of literacy brought with it protests against, and sometimes arguments for, women reading. The history of the novel in particular is deeply imbricated with advice for, fears about, warnings to educators, parents, girls themselves.