Our Reading Lives

Adventures in Feminist Bookish Online Dating

Jessica Woodbury

Staff Writer

Jessica Woodbury's professional life has taken her to prisons, classrooms, strip clubs, and her living room couch. After years as a Public Defender in the South, she now lives in Boston with her two small children. Cursed with a practical streak, she always wanted to pursue music or writing but instead majored in Biochemistry because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. These days she does absolutely nothing with science or law and instead spends too much time oversharing on the internet. She has a soft spot for crime novels and unreliable narrators. And the strip club gig was totally as a lawyer, she swears.  Blog: Don't Mind the Mess Twitter: jessicaesquire

When I pull up a person’s dating profile, one of the things I pay the most attention to is their book list, especially on OKCupid where you’re encouraged to list favorite movies, music, and books. I’ve encountered all kinds of book lists and all kinds of readers, but one thing stays the same: these lists are dominated by male authors.

I date all genders, and while this definitely happens across the board, men are the worst offenders. I got so tired of if that eventually I added the following paragraph to my profile:

“Thanks for sharing your book lists and thanks for them not all being the same, but it really troubles me how many men list no books written by women.”

I regularly shout about diverse books, #ownvoices, and reading female authors, so it made sense for me to include this after my own author list. I want them to know that I am a person who cares about reading diversely, and talking about books with me is always going to implicitly involve diverse reading.

I want someone who thinks my profile looks interesting to get that nudge, I want them to immediately go back to their own profile and realize, “Oh shit, this list IS all men.” And maybe, just maybe, they start questioning their own reading habits and I bring a little more good to the world.

The side effect of this little experiment is that it’s an excellent screening tool to weed out dudes who are gonna be dicks about reading women. I have no patience for these men, and sometimes it takes a while to realize they have this quality, so I’m thrilled that I get to know them now.

bookish online dating

Here are some actual, real messages I have received from men:

“And yes, I read books by women. Do they count among my favorites? They haven’t so far, but not because I’m anti-women. My favorites just happen to have been written by men”

If you were playing Male Chauvinist Reader Bingo this would be the center square. It is not the first time I’ve heard it. It won’t be the last time I hear it. The fact that you actually DO read books by women–but do you, really? Like really, really? I don’t think you do–and yet none of them ranks as a favorite should be a reason to stop and consider not what is wrong with female writers, but what is wrong with YOU, my friend.

“Confession: I don’t really have a favorite woman author other than Rowling. How much does that hurt my chances?”

This is another very common response. “I read Harry Potter so clearly I like female writers.” Sorry dudes, but one token favorite woman isn’t gonna do it.

But before you go weep for the state of our patriarchal world, I do want to share a couple wins.

“I’m just dropping you a line to say thanks. I have quite a collection of books, mostly history. I have never really considered the gender of the authors of books I read. So I went and look through my stacks and you are correct, not many woman authors. I could dig deeper but think the sample survey was enough…I will consider gender now as it should provide me with alternate perspectives, which, I would think, enrich my learning of the world.”

Mission Accomplished! Sure, maybe he’s trying to get a cookie and get me to reply to his email, but I will take this win.

“I thought your comment about men’s book lists was interesting, so I went back and looked at mine, and you’re right. I’m not sure why, but there are several female authors I really enjoy, I’m not sure why I didn’t include them.”

And here, someone who is already reading books by women acknowledges his own guilt in not including them among his favorites. We still live in a world where books by men, especially canon, are held on a pedestal in a way books by women are not. We all need to take a good look at that.

So far I’ve gotten surprisingly few trolls and harassers around this comment, though I have my filters set rather high for my inbox so I may just not see them when they happen. But I’ve gotten much worse on Twitter. I’ve had lots of great messages from it, too, though if you decide to take this step you need to be ready for people to ask you which books by women you should read. I do not mind in the slightest. I have a few hundred to recommend.