Limited by men who want to take control female power, past and present female literacy is among the major gender issues.

Gender Issues: Literate Women

by Elaine Schwartz    •    May 19, 2014    •    1449 Views

For millennia, men have tried to stop women from learning to read.

Before we look back, I wanted to share these World Bank maps that let us see the status of female literacy, 2009-2013

Female Literacy in Developing Nations:

Gender Issues include female literacy rates in developing nations

From The World Bank

Worldwide ratios of female to male literacy:

Gender Issues: Ratios of Female to Male Literacy

From: The World Bank

But, we need not conclude that limiting female literacy is a developing nation phenomenon.

Looking back at the United States, 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, Abigail Adams learned French. Probably by herself, she learned to write and spell and punctuate, or as she 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.

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.Thinking of future posts, I hope you will share your comments about the positive externalities that spillover from educated women.


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 paper on female literacy in the developing world, and to explore further the World Bank's statistics on female literacy. Because of "Bring Back Our Girls," I included excerpts from this past econlife post and then added the World Bank maps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

« »