100 Years of Women in the Book World Being Kickass

Alice Burton

Staff Writer

Chicagoan and aspiring cryptozoologist Alice Burton has a B.A. in Comparative Literature and is an Archives Assistant with the Frances Willard Historical Society. When not booking or historying, she is singing soprano wherever people will have her. She will watch any documentary on Neanderthals or giant extinct animals, and has a Stockholm Syndrome-like love for Chicago and its winters. Blog: Reading Rambo Twitter: @itsalicetime

The WNBA. An underrated basketball organization, you think. Yes. BUT ALSO the Women’s National Book Association, celebrating its 100th anniversary this month.

Yes, founded in 1917 — in the midst of WWI and three years before women’s suffrage was nationally ratified — the WNBA was created in the belief “that books have power and that those involved in their creation gain strength from joining forces” and exists to “connect, educate, advocate and lead in the literary community.”

In a move strikingly reminiscent of the organizations we have cropping up all over right now, the WNBA was founded in the midst of a social justice movement. The New York City suffrage parade of 1917 galvanized a group of women who wanted to be represented in their industry. They were shut out of membership in the American Booksellers Association and the Booksellers’ League, so those 15 women booksellers got together and created something from nothing.

If you’re wondering how something like this 100-year-old organization can get started, one of the founders in a 1918 interview said:

“[I]t was while everyone was planning for the big suffrage parade last year that I discovered how unorganized were the women in the book-selling profession. I wanted to march in a group with members of my profession, but I discovered that there was no such organization. This discovery set some of us to thinking and planning, and out of this planning came the Women’s National Book Association.”

They then “created the national association, elected officers, and mapped out a busy year’s work.” The bimonthly meetings they had were noted down in shorthand, transcribed, and sent to every member in order to make it a truly national organization, rather than a series of siloed chapters.

As an example of what women were facing, popular essayist and bibliophile Eugene Field wrote a poem in his book The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, which begins speaking of a lack of women in “that part of paradise especially reserved for book-lovers”:

The women-folk are few up there,

 For ‘t were not fair, you know,

 That they our heavenly bliss should share

 Who vex us here below!

He continues with “It has never been explained to my satisfaction why women, as a class, are the enemies of books, and are particularly hostile to bibliomania.”

Maybe they were just an enemy of you, Eugene Field.

The WNBA has carried on its legacy through its national chapters, publication The Bookwoman, and their recent book Women in the Literary Landscape. May they go on for another hundred years.