As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us reflect upon the role of women in building societal literacy levels.
As we know, women in the Middle Ages were essentially illiterate; only 1% of women could read. Nuns were essentially the only women allowed to read and pursue scholarly interests.
After Gutenberg invented the printing press, however, books became cheap and widely disseminated. Other societal factors which helped raise literacy levels among women were, humorously, the introduction of the chimney flue (that pulled smoke out of rooms), the growing use of windows in homes, and the invention of eye glasses. Women pounced on these chances, learning to read, collecting personal libraries, writing their own works, and devolving collections of books to their daughters (more so than their sons). As a result, they achieved greater safety and independence – financial stability helping to prevent not only economic, but also domestic abuse.
Of course, we know women “took the bull by the horn” and turned the tide of history – 82% of women over the age of 15, across the globe, are now literate (World Bank) – reading and writing as they choose! Since this exponential rise, society has also accepted the fact that a mother’s reading skills are the greatest influence on a child’s future academic success (NIH). No doubt, when societies do not value and support the education of women, they are essentially sealing their own doom.
Women also became primarily responsible for teaching literacy in educational settings, thanks to industrialization, immigration, and the work of spokesperson Catharine Beecher, who thought women should enter this “high and honorable profession” to achieve independence and acquire a sense of fulfillment (A full 87% of elementary school teachers in the United States today are women – 66% worldwide (UNESCO, 2017)).
Unfortunately, as important as this position was (and is) to society, pay for this feminized profession, as well as benefits, remained (and remain) meager. Historically, women teachers have received a ridiculously low wage, as they taught multiple grades and levels in one-room school houses, closely scrutinized and monitored. Despite improvements during the 1930s-1980s, teachers today are suffering setbacks, both in working conditions and in pay (hence the recent strikes in both red and blue states). In fact, teachers have suffered a loss of pay, for, according to the Economic Policy Institute, this profession, as we have noted, composed primarily of women, earns a record 18.7% less in wages than comparable workers! The EPI blames this loss on State legislative bodies, noting: “The erosion of teacher pay relative to that of comparable workers in the last couple of years — and in fact since 2008 — reflects state policy decisions rather than the result of revenue challenges brought on by the Great Recession.” Perhaps such ineffective and literacy-eroding policy decisions are the reason 40-50 percent of teachers leave their jobs within the first five years. (And, public personalities labeling teachers as “losers” does not help, either)!
Consider: how does this backlash reflect upon our society? Are we now devaluing literacy, children, and women – placing value only in acquisition and working-age, male adults? Both history and literature tells us we continue such a course to our peril.
Update: On a positive note, a presidential candidate for the 2020 election is proposing a plan to increase teachers’ salaries by $13,500.00 annually, stating: “You can judge a society by the way it treats its children. And one of the greatest expressions of love that a society can give its children is educating those children with the resources they need. Teachers are our greatest resource in that endeavor.” (Scott in VOX, March 26, 2019).