Read a Book, Gamble With Your Life
In 19th-century England, fears over women reading hit hysterical highs. Doctors — male and female — worried novels’ sensational plots could make ladies insane, infertile or prematurely “developed” (there were no such worries about men, whose constitutions were believed to be stronger). In reality, the fear may have been more that women would form ideas that exceeded their station.
“There were a lot of anxieties around fiction, in particular that it would lead women to be dissatisfied with their lives,” explains Kate Flint, provost professor of English at the University of Southern California and author of The Woman Reader. “The more interesting female leads were rebellious and pushed back against convention. There was concern over the kind of expectation women might derive from what they read.”
Rather than deter women, however, this gendered anti-literacy campaign just raised awareness that it was an activity they could pursue, and soon Victorian women were forming “reading circles,” which accomplished exactly what it was feared they would.
Bill Teale, president of the board at the International Literacy Association, notes that, while literacy “gives you the social emotional power to understand and express yourself, it also gives you political power.” And if the actions of oppressive regimes are anything to go by, it’s a very potent power indeed.