Women and the importance of literacy; statistics: reading in the 19th century

In an interesting review of The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack, Joan Acocella (The New Yorker, October 15, 2012) “Turning the Page — How Women Became Readers,” shares these tidbits:

“In the history of women, there is probably no matter, apart from contraception, more important than literacy. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, access to power required knowledge of the world. This could not be gained without reading and writing, skills that were granted to men long before they were to women. Deprived of them, women were condemned to stay home…. Compared with men, they led mediocre lives. Without [the introspection reading provided], women seemed stupid; therefore, they were considered unfit for education; therefore, they weren’t given an education; therefore they seemed stupid.”

Because books kept getting cheaper, and commercial lending libraries began to flourish, along with the “increasing spread of compulsory education, about half the people living in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century could read, though with large differences between north and south, and Protestant and Catholic. The literacy rate for Sweden was about ninety per cent; for Scotland and Prussia, eighty per cent; for England and Wales, between sixty-five and seventy-five per cent; for France, sixty per cent; for Spain, twenty-five percent; for Italy, twenty per cent. In Russia, where the serfs were not freed until 1861, only five to ten percent of the population could read.”

“The nineteenth century has been called a golden age of reading.”



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