“Women were learning to read and write, maybe not intentionally.”

Can’t you just hear it now, the conversation over the teacup, the bassinet, the loom, the fire, the embroidery hoop, the fan, the cow’s back: “My dear, I don’t know how it happened, but this morning I found myself READING! It amazed me so much, I decided to write it down…and COULD! What in the world???!!!”

These women!

Teach literature and you’ll discover that most of our students (and probably most of our countrymen, too) have a sort of comic-book understanding of history. I myself have to confess to picturing Geo. Washington as perpetually standing up in a boat, so much so that when I first saw Gary Larson’s cartoon of “Washington crossing the street” I didn’t realize what was funny.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Students’ grasp of the realities of women’s lives over the centuries and cultures is even less nuanced than their grasp of most of history. According to some papers,women were completely beaten down, uneducated, and powerless until suddenly the twentieth century happened (mostly post-WWII), and now they can do anything they want and the feminist movement is no longer needed. According to some other papers, they were completely beaten down and uneducated in a world where if they had just had some gumption they could have done anything—including working in industries that did not yet exist—and then suddenly the twentieth century (mostly WWII) happened, and they got the gumption and did it!

Even child-bearing is simply a matter of decision: “She realized her call in life was to be a mother and she became one.”

Reading and writing, though: quite a different matter, presumably not a matter of choice or determination. Even women who had no intention of acquiring these arcane skills evidently found themselves acquiring them nevertheless. If I recall correctly, one of Shirley Jackson’s books recounts the moment when a child cries out from bed, “Mommy, Mommy, I can READ!” after suddenly realizing that while looking at the pictures in a book often read to her she can understand the text as well. Maybe learning to read and write happened just this way, to women all over the world, in whatever period my student was writing about.

What she actually meant I do not know, but these are the thoughts that haunt me whenever I try to speculate.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““Women were learning to read and write, maybe not intentionally.”

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