Literacy Heroines

Women and the Written Word

by Alice S. Horning (Author)
Monographs XII, 304 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 Introduction
  • Part I Educators
  • 2 Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) and Schooling for African American Girls
  • 3 Gertrude Buck (1871–1922) and Rhetorical Theory and Practice
  • 4 Cora Wilson Stewart (1875–1958) and the Moonlight Schools
  • 5 Sarah Winnemucca (1844–1891) and Native American Civil Rights
  • Part II Activists
  • 6 Jane Addams (1860–1935) and Hull House
  • 7 Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) and the NAACP
  • 8 Lillian Wald (1867–1940) and the Henry Street Settlement
  • 9 Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), Social Justice and the Anti-lynching Movement
  • Part III Writers
  • 10 Nella Larsen (1891–1964) and the Harlem Renaissance
  • 11 Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842–1924) and the Woman’s Era
  • 12 Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • 13 Ida Tarbell (1857–1944) and the Muckrakers
  • 14 Lessons and Conclusions
  • Index
  • Series index

←x | xi→


It’s impossible to overstate my lucky choice of Mark McBeth (John Jay College, CUNY) to help as an outside reader of the whole book. We had worked together on a professional journal previously and I knew him to be a fast, detailed and demanding reader. If this book is any good, it is because of his skillful guidance, his wide-ranging knowledge of the field and his command of key historical and social trends I have touched on here. My debt is deep and wide.

For help with the Bethune chapter, Mr. Barry Rubin, former principal of Mary McLeod Bethune School in Pontiac, MI.

For help with the Stewart chapter, Yvonne Honeycutt Baldwin (Morehead State University) and Samantha NeCamp (University of Cincinnati).

For help with the Addams chapter, Van Hillard (Davidson College) and Katherine Joslin (Western Michigan University).

For help with the Winnemucca chapter, Cari Carpenter (West Virginia University), Jill Chrobak (Michigan State University), and Anne Ruggles Gere (University of Michigan).

For help with the Tarbell chapter, Robert Kochersberger (North Carolina State University), and Anna Clark, journalist.

For help with the Terrell chapter, Joan Quigley (attorney and author) and Alison Parker (University of Delaware).←xi | xii→

For help with the Buck chapter, Suzanne Bordelon (San Diego State University) and Anne Ruggles Gere (University of Michigan). I am also grateful for help with the photo of Gertrude Buck from Dr. Colton Johnson of the Vassar College Special Collections department.

For help with the Ida B. Wells chapter, Jacqueline Jones Royster (Georgia Tech) and Joyce Williams, Texas Women’s University.

For help with the Lillian Wald chapter, Joyce Williams (emerita) Texas Women’s University.

For help with the Nella Larsen chapter, Cheryl Wall of Rutgers University. Shortly after talking with me, Cheryl Wall passed away in April of 2020, before she had a chance to review the contents of the Larsen chapter. Although I am confident that I have represented her work and the information she provided accurately, she did not review the chapter. I remain grateful for the help she provided.

For help with the Stowe chapter, Barbara Hochman (Ben-Gurion University, Israel).

For help with the Ruffin chapter, Teresa Blue Holden (Greenville University).

For help with the final chapter, Jenn Fishman (Marquette University).

For help with various chapters, Shirley Wilson Logan of University of Maryland, LaWanda Dickens of Alcorn State University, and Anne Ruggles Gere of the University of Michigan. For general help with the details of publishing at Peter Lang, Dr. Meagan Simpson, Mr. Anthony Mason, and Ms. Jackie Pavlovic and their assorted assistants all of whom have the collective patience of saints in answering questions and wizardly tech skills to solve problems.

For support of the preparation of the index, I am indebted to Dr. Kevin Corcoran, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Dr. David Stone, Director of the Office of Research, Oakland University. And for the preparation of the index, Mr. Matthew White.

←xii | 1→



As this book is being written, we are at an unprecedented moment in our society where women’s status and roles are changing in very marked ways. Women have long used their talents, especially their critical literacy, to advance themselves, their ideas and their principles, but have in Contemporary times brought these abilities to bear on the key issues of our times. The success of these efforts highlights both the issues and the momentum for change and reform. Looking back over time shows that women had a major impact of a similar kind in the Modern period, from 1880 to 1930, a time of major change in American society. My recent research on that period has brought the work of a dozen women to light as important messengers for literacy in our time. My book Literacy Then and Now: A Study of Modern and Contemporary Literacy Practices (2018) has showcased both men and women, including some members of this small group who played important roles in literacy development through the Modern period. The goal of the present book is to define how these dozen women served as literacy heroines, and to explore their messages for Contemporary times. While there are many differences between Modern and Contemporary life especially because of technology, the object is not to compare and contrast. Instead, a study of the earlier time, when traditional literacy was central to people’s lives, can provide ←1 | 2→useful insights, ideas and approaches for today; the messages of Modern times are pertinent and essential.

The Modern period as defined here includes developments in just about every area of human endeavor: the arts and humanities, the sciences and the social sciences all showed stunning achievements and success, especially for women’s lives and work. The persistence of these women as well as their use of literacy shows that much can be accomplished by focused use of critical reading and writing abilities. Though each woman had a unique approach to key issues, each made contributions through her exemplary use of an array of literacy skills. In addition, all of them shared their expertise with others by serving as sponsors of literacy in private life or public service or both. Their heroic character arises, then, from their status as exemplars and sponsors. Beyond these shared features, they meet the definition of heroines because they show a combination of traditional male and female characteristics used to achieve amazing goals that go against the status quo in various ways, developing and/or exploiting their power for their own aims as well as those of others. The heroines presented here are very much a product of their own time, and for this reason, each chapter will take up key historical developments that set the stage for each woman and her achievements; their skills and abilities are instructive for today.

Our time shows a clear shift to digital forms for literacy, somewhat different from the Modern period. It’s worth pointing out, though, that 1880–1930 offered its own technological shift with the invention and spread of the telegraph, telephone, radio and recording devices as well as movies. But now, more and more reading and writing take place on screens, marking a significant transition but not a transformation in literacy. That is, literacy may be taking a different shape, but the basic processes are the same from a psycholinguistic perspective, as discussed in detail by French cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene (2009) among others (Seidenberg, 2017; Willingham, 2017). And the underlying psycholinguistic processes are still very much needed, according to University of Connecticut reading scholar Donald Leu (2004, pp. 1590–91), who writes about what he calls “foundational literacies” that form the basis of, and are essential for, digital literacy. The nature of these foundational abilities is discussed in more detail below. Current research with students and the public in general, both quantitative and qualitative, shows that people do not read or write as well as they might. Most importantly, they lack the critical literacy skills to evaluate material for authority, accuracy, currency, relevancy, appropriateness and bias. Large scale and fine-grained studies show that half or more of today’s students and adults lack both the foundational and the critical skills to function well in a democratic society ←2 | 3→(Stanford, 2016; ACT, 2017; NAEP, 2015; OECD, 2016; Serviss & Jamieson, 2018; Reich, 2018; Nichols, 2017; Levitin, 2016). The intensive literacy activities of 1880–1930 offer useful messages for Contemporary times, built on the specific terms (Literacy, Modernity, Intersectionality, Exemplar, Sponsor, Heroine) that frame the discussion that unfolds in the following chapters.

Definitions: Literacy

Arguments over what literacy means, is or does abound in the literature, along with a generally pejorative discussion of what it means to be illiterate. There are two common meanings for literacy as usually used: literacy in the traditional sense of alphabetic ability with written texts, that is reading and writing, and literacy in the sense of knowledge or skill in a particular area as in “computer literacy” or “musical literacy” or other similar phrases. A leading literacy scholar and his colleagues offer a helpful explanation of the “foundational” literacy skills essential then and now because, as they suggest, they provide the base on which Contemporary literacy abilities are built:

The new literacies of the Internet and other ICTs [information and communication technologies] … almost always build on foundational literacies rather than replace them. Foundational literacies include those traditional elements of literacy that have defined almost all our previous efforts in both research and practice. These include skill sets such as phonemic awareness, word recognition, decoding knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, comprehension, inferential reasoning, the writing process, spelling, response to literature, and others required for the literacies of the book and other printed material. Foundational literacies will continue to be important within the new literacies of the Internet and other ICTs. In fact, it could be argued that they will become even more essential because reading and writing become more important in an information age. (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2004, pp. 1572; 1590–1591)

Leu et al. claim, then, that while what we are looking at on screens may include changing forms and features, it will still require the basic features of alphabetic literacy when dealing with written texts, along with the critical abilities that have always been part of what it means to be literate. It’s these basic features of literacy that are in a state of transition but not transformation, that is, according to the dictionary definition, a change to something different. The idea is that they are not becoming something altogether different, but are changing from one state or ←3 | 4→form to another (“transition,” 1989). The argument here is not a case for “back to basics;” instead, it suggests that the foundational skills pervasive in the Modern era are still very much needed and in use in Contemporary times. The consistent relevance of the full array of literacy abilities is one reason that it makes sense to look back to the Modern period for lessons useful today. Leu et al.’s statement makes clear that the “foundational literacies” are “even more essential” in our Contemporary screen-focused times.

A different reason why traditional paper-based literacy as practiced in the Modern period can inform what is happening now arises from research showing that the brain “prefers” paper for several reasons. Among other things, recent studies show that reading on paper results in better comprehension and recall than reading on a screen, especially when the task involves longer texts. In addition, digital reading is harder physically and mentally. Readers’ scrolling and dealing with the light of screens is hard physical work that can lead to headaches and other problems. Finally, screens are distracting, at least partly because they offer so many other options besides the text on display. Even young people show better recall of material read on paper than material read in digital form (Jabr, 2013). For all these reasons, the foundational literacies that expanded significantly through the Modern period can be useful for understanding Contemporary literacy.

A similar perspective appears among online scholar-teachers in the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (GSOLE), for example, an organization committed to the development of students’ online literacy. In an online conference in 2018, the organization invited Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a digital literacy scholar, to deliver the keynote address. In her presentation, “Teaching Literacy in the Snapchat Era” (https://www.slideshare.net/brocansky/teaching-literacy-in-the-snapchat-era), she points to the need for specific instruction for students who will live and work in a digital environment. Relying on claims of Washington State educator Mike Caulfield, she says that conventional print literacy must be integrated with critical reading of all kinds of material in a digital environment. These scholars are in agreement with Leu et al. and other leading literacy scholars about the need for traditional alphabetic literacy as a base to build on for Contemporary digital literacy in the “Snapchat Era.” This shared view confirms the value of looking back for useful insights.

The whole question of defining literacy, not to mention its measurement or assessment of aspects of it, is highly complex. University of Wisconsin literacy scholar Deborah Brandt, whose concept of sponsorship is discussed in detail below, has pointed out that literacy changes constantly in relation to the needs ←4 | 5→of people over time, space, occupation and so forth (2015). Other scholars have made similar points (e.g., Graff, 1979) about the flexibility of literacy. Just looking back to the US Census sheds further light on the scope of the problem since the Census variously defined literacy as the ability to sign one’s name, the ability to read and write in any language, school completion and several other options before giving up on a standard definition altogether. Still, if literacy is conceived of as a way of thinking about and/or working with written language, it should be clear that the on-going transition keeps adding on to essential alphabetic literacy that was well established in the Modern period; then, a somewhat simpler definition of literacy highlighted the key critical skills everyone needed and still does.

To address and integrate these various aspects of traditional and digital literacy, I developed my own definition of academic critical literacy to serve as the basis of research I did with novices and experts (Horning, 2012). While the present study does not look specifically at the academic environment, it is concerned to some degree with the teaching and learning of literacy, insofar as at least some of the heroines were educators. My definition is by no means the best or only definition of literacy, but is meant to provide a basis for the discussion to follow. Earlier, I set the definition this way:

Academic critical literacy is best defined as the psycholinguistic processes of

getting meaning from or putting meaning into print and/or sound, images, and movement, on a page or screen, used for the purposes of analysis, synthesis, evaluation and application; these processes develop through formal schooling and beyond it, at home and at work, in childhood and across the lifespan and are essential to human functioning in a democratic society. (Horning, 2012, p. 41)

I shaped the definition to meet several specific goals: to include both reading and writing, to capture the notion of literacy including both alphabetic and visual aspects, and to insure that the critical features of analysis, synthesis, evaluation and application were integrated as part of what literacy means. I also wanted to make sure the definition recognized that literacy is not something people learn in school and have, but is a process of continuous development over a lifetime. Both the Modern period’s ideas of literacy and the Contemporary on-going transitional nature of it entail these defining characteristics of psycholinguistically-based meaning exchange, critical usage and lifespan development found in the heroines’ work and thus offering useful insights for today. However, this definition is intended only to serve as a starting point for exploring the work of the ←5 | 6→heroines; it sets up a framework to consider the kinds of reading and writing done in both Modern and Contemporary times.

Definitions: Modernity

The Modern period provides a useful time period to study for various reasons. Remarkable developments occurred in just about every area of the humanities, sciences and social sciences. The intellectual giants of the time, both American and European, come readily to mind: writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, artists like Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet, musicians like Claude Debussy and George Gershwin, scientists like Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, and social scientists like John Dewey and Sigmund Freud all lived and worked through this period of time. I argued in my earlier book that their work arose in a particularly rich environment where reading and writing were widespread activities of choice and literacy rates rose markedly (Cook-Gumperz, 2006, pp. 22–29). While the venues of literacy have been changed due to the growth of digital options, literacy itself is fundamentally the same now as then. The messages of the Modern period can help to address the current need to improve critical literacy for everyone.

The Modern period is also surprisingly similar to Contemporary times, the current literacy challenges notwithstanding. It was a period of intense change in the United States as well as in Europe on almost every dimension. There was, as noted earlier, major demographic shifts in the population at large, the result of huge waves of immigration along with shifts in residence among those already here. Between 1880 and 1930 the national headcount went up significantly according to the national census data (United States, 1975, p. 8). The management of this influx of immigrants was a subject of much debate in the country at the time, with legislation, literacy testing and other approaches in use in various ways. Immigration remains an important and divisive Contemporary issue, though the people entering the country are from different homelands now; knowledge of language and literacy ability continue to be matters of concern. In addition, the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Northern cities as detailed by Wilkerson (2010) shifted the population away from farms and the rural South and into the industrial cities of the North. Southerners, through Jim Crow laws, equally used African Americans’ literacy to “control them.” Both groups needed education, housing, social services and among the immigrants, of course, English language and literacy instruction. The connection ←6 | 7→of literacy and power persists in Contemporary times, for example, in discussions of making English the “official” language of the United States.


Literacy Heroines is about twelve amazing women who lived and worked in the period 1880-1930 who used their literacy abilities to address major issues in the country in those years, including some we still face today: racism, sexism, voting rights, educational and economic inequality, health disparities and others. They used their exemplary literacy skills to teach, to bring issues to light, to right wrongs, to publish books, articles, pamphlets and other materials to reach their goals. They benefited from focused help in the form of sponsorship from others and provided sponsorship in many forms to others to foster literacy in people young and old. They stand as Literacy Heroines, working in a variety of roles, using their literacy abilities in heroic efforts to serve as respected exemplars and sponsors of literacy for others. They used their grit and willingness to stand up for their principles, took small steps, worked collaboratively, hospitably inviting people to literacy. Ultimately, it should be clear that in one way or another, the Heroines were addressing the many forms of inequality in American society; their lives and work show that literacy is thus a key tool in the struggle for social justice, then and now. Suitable for courses in the history of literacy or writing studies, history of feminism, history of education and related areas.


XII, 304
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 304 pp., 12 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Alice S. Horning (Author)

Alice S. Horning is Professor Emerita of Writing & Rhetoric/Linguistics at Oakland University, where she focused on the intersection of reading and writing. Her most recent work is the co-edited Teaching Critical Reading and Writing in the Era of Fake News, published by Peter Lang (with Ellen Carillo). She is the editor of the Studies in Composition and Rhetoric book series for Peter Lang.


Title: Literacy Heroines