Gender Issues: Literate Women
Why have men sought to prevent women from reading?
Even in colonial Massachusetts, the law required boys to attend school while girls were primarily educated at home. Consequently, while John Adams attended school in Braintree and entered Harvard when he was 15, his future bride Abigail was taught by her father. Passionate about books, the Reverend William Smith encouraged his daughter to read Shakespeare and Pope and the classics. From a friend of John’s she learned French. Probably by herself, she learned to write and spell and punctuate, or as Abigail Adams said in 1803, “As to points and commas, I was not taught them in my youth, and I always intend my meaning shall be so obvious as that my readers shall know where they ought to stop.”
Belinda Jack in The Woman Reader tells us that men worried that if women could read, they could think independently. During the 19th century, some people thought the “hysteria” that woman seemed susceptible to could be precipitated by a book. As one London physician suggested, “If a novel seemed to worsen a woman’s condition, it should be taken away and replaced by ‘a book upon some practical subject; such, for instance, as beekeeping.'”
In her introduction, Jack points out that the prejudice against woman readers dates back to the ancient world. One Roman historian connects a noblewoman being learned to her masculinity and promiscuity. Continuing chronologically, Jack points out that hundreds of years later when many more women were reading, they were given books about proper conduct.
Reading parts of Belinda Jack’s book and several lengthy reviews started me thinking about modern romance novels. Are they disparaged because they are classified as a woman’s genre? And yet, as an Atlantic article points out, we no longer have an oxymoron when a romance novel is described as feminist. According to the Atlantic, in more recent romance novels, the woman is the heroine who takes control of her own life.
Our bottom line: Because female literacy has always meant more power, it was one of the most crucial gender issues in the past and remains especially relevant in developing countries today.
Sources and Resources: My journey through the history of female literacy started with Abigail Adams when I was researching the economic role that she played in the Adams household. Ideal complements, The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack and a detailed New Yorker article (the source of my quote from 19th century London) provide the historic overview. Then, to move onward, you might want to read this Atlantic article about Romance novels and feminism, this paper on female literacy in the developing world, and to explore further the World Bank’s statistics on female literacy.