With Women’s History Month having begun, I wanted to share one of our popular posts…
From May, 2014 (with an update):
For millennia, men have tried to stop women from learning to read.
Before looking back though, let’s see the current status of female literacy, 2011-2015 in selected nations. To better judge shaded colors, in Afghanistan 18% of the 15+ female population (2011) can read “a short, simple statement with understanding” and display some numeracy while in Brazil at 92% (2013), the female literacy rate is much higher:
Worldwide ratios of female to male literacy:
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: Human Capital
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. Most fundamentally, we are experiencing the negative externality of unrealized economic growth from ignored human capital.