Literacy Heroines

Women and the Written Word

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

Table Of Content

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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.

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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.

But the demographic changes were hardly the only developments of the time. There were also important technological changes. Tech lovers and first adopters of Contemporary times claim that there’s never been a change in technology like the one happening now when, for example, according to NYU Stern School marketing professor Scott Galloway, The Four (Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google) dominate our economy in their “epic race to become the operating system for our lives” (2017, p. 9). However, they would do well to look back to the antecedents of these tech tools. Several key patents were issued just before or during the Modern period: Alexander Graham Bell was awarded one for the telephone in 1876, and Guglielmo Marconi got a British patent for the radio in 1897. Both were involved with the development of the telegraph, which had been patented earlier (1837) by Samuel Morse. Online streaming, iPhones and all the devices and doodads of Contemporary life have their antecedents in the Modern period. Galloway warns readers about the “march of digital technology” (2017, pp. 266–7) with its negative impact on society, on income inequality, and on politics. These concerns invite a look back to the Modern period when the large scale shift to technology began.

James Gleick, historian of science, has written about these issues in his discussion of the development of information transmission systems and Contemporary technology (2011). He points out that while telegraphy sped up the transmission of information by many orders of magnitude over paper letters sent by mail, the system, even with Morse Code, was prone to huge errors from a single character flaw:

Those who used the telegraph codes slowly discovered an unanticipated side effect of their efficiency and brevity. They were perilously vulnerable to the smallest errors. Because they lacked the natural redundancy of English prose—even the foreshortened prose of telegraphese—these clearly encoded messages could be disrupted by a mistake in a single character. (Gleick, 2011, p. 158)

Then as now, speed can lead to errors with wide-ranging consequences, as users of error-correction software now find analogous kinds of problems. And as the technology developed further, a deeper concern followed. Gleick notes that three new information technologies came together more or less at the same time and were widely adopted with significant impact on how people interacted, an impact that continues in Contemporary times:

←7 | 8→Three great waves of electrical communication crested in sequence: telegraphy, telephony, and radio. People began to feel that it was natural to possess machines dedicated to the sending and receiving of messages. These devices changed the topology—ripped the social fabric and reconnected it, added gateways and junctions where there had only been blank distance. Already at the turn of the twentieth century there was worry about unanticipated effects on social behavior. (Gleick, 2011, p. 170)

The worry was unquestionably justified and continues to the present day. But the point here is that technological change provided a key kind of change that formed the backdrop of the Modern period in which the literacy heroines were living and working.

A different kind of technological change had a further direct impact on reading and literacy, resulting from substantial improvements in the technology of print production. These improvements encouraged reading as the activity of choice because they made access to print cheap and easy. Dime novels, nickel or penny newspapers and cheap magazines were in broad circulation, a by-product of cheap paper, paperback book production, linotype (an automatic typesetting process) and offset presses using rubber rollers, all developed before or during the Modern period (see https://printinghistory.org/timeline/) making printing faster, cheaper and more available. While printers formed unions to protect jobs, the impact on reading is easy to see. There was a tremendous increase in reading material, readily accessible, inexpensive, and of broad interest. For example, though it is in the process now of being divided and sold as separate enterprises, Time Magazine was founded in 1922 by two Yale graduates who had been reporters and was sufficiently successful that one of the founders was able to begin Fortune in 1929 (Pappu & Stowe, 2018, p. 1). The Ladies Home Journal, another example of a magazine still in existence today, had a circulation of one million by 1903 (cf. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ladies-home-journal-and-practical-housekeeper) and libraries were also supporting reading in a variety of ways. So reading was available, inexpensive and widespread as the entertainment of choice.

Technological change was not the only kind of change in the Modern period. Socially, the Modern period was generally quite progressive, both before and after World War I. The movement for women’s suffrage is a key element in the backdrop for most of the heroines. Though they were not all necessarily or overtly involved with the suffrage movement, they were surely aware of it, reaping its benefits after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Perhaps like ←8 | 9→the Women’s March in January of 2017, it marked a turning point in women’s efficacy for enacting change in society. Some of the heroines worked directly on and all surely benefited from this major change in the status of women; each chapter includes a brief discussion of a major issue of the time to consider such developments as Progressivism, the movement for self-improvement, the use of libraries, suffrage and helping others as backdrops to the literacy-based work of the heroines.

Other broad aspects of progressivism addressed the developing trends of urbanization and industrialization, both still with us today, though the move to manufacturing in factories might be supplanted by the current shift to all things digital. Brandt discusses the implications of these changes for literacy development (2001, pp. 25–46). Similarly, progressivism was concerned with income inequality as an emerging trend through these 50 years. Progressivism, not a total answer to all the challenges facing the country, did provide a general backdrop of change in the direction of a better society and a better life for Americans. There was plenty of controversy, disagreement and unrest. These 50 years were still troubled times in many ways. There were several key financial downturns, and a world war that involved the US both indirectly and directly. Thus, the Modern period is most assuredly not some nirvana, but it is a period of great change built partly on the growth of literacy everywhere, supported by the efforts of the amazing women whose work will be explored here.

Psycholinguistic Discoveries in the Modern Period

One more aspect of the developments of the Modern period warrants discussion before defining the other key terms needed. Interesting and important work being done on reading, linguistics and psycholinguistics underpins the widespread literacy happening through the period. Various linguists, psychologists and physicians were engaged in research that touches on reading or literacy skills in some way, such as Wilhelm Wundt who published a major book in psycholinguistics in 1900, and Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon who did substantial work on the localization of various functions in the brain in the 1930s. Reading per se was the object of study and some important findings revealed key features of the process itself. For example, Louis Emile Javal, an ophthalmologist, discovered in 1880 the eye movements he called saccades, a French word meaning jerky or jumping, to capture the movement of the eyes across a line of alphabetic text. Although we have the impression of reading continuous text in a ←9 | 10→smooth flow, the eyes in fact move across a line in a series of jumps, focusing so that readers only see a sampling of the text. The brain fills in a great deal. Much of this research was summarized by a leading psychologist and reading researcher, Edmund Burke Huey, in a book published originally in 1908 (Huey, 2009/1908, pp. 11–33). Huey himself designed a device to track eye movements and their speed (2009/1908, pp. 17–24), resulting in his most important contributions. The more readers know about a text, the less they need to see, so the fewer jumps or fixation points needed. This finding explains why we read beach books much faster than (for most of us) theoretical physics.

Huey was one of many scientists working on reading through the Modern period; their research findings offer key insights into the anatomy and physiology of reading confirmed by more recent high-tech studies using eye tracking, fMRI and other tools (see, e.g., Dehaene, 2009). Huey’s research showed that reading is driven by meaning, an active and constructive process normally done at very high speeds (p. 114) by skilled readers handling ordinary texts. Moreover, he pointed out that children can and do learn to read naturally, without being taught directly if they are exposed to books and allowed to do so, albeit, he thought, by processes of imitation, now known not to be quite right (p. 218 f.). Building on the work of fellow psychologist Messmer, he provides information about the shapes of words, letter sequences and predictability, much of which has been confirmed by more recent research (2009/1908, pp. 60–62). Based on assorted studies of reading speed, Huey suggested that speed of reading is naturally higher for high interest material or texts about which readers have extensive prior knowledge, and that speed could be increased if readers were able to avoid the lip movements arising from reading aloud to themselves silently (Huey, 2009/1908, pp. 111–20).

The work of these researchers is a key component in the backdrop of the Modern period.

As distinguished psycholinguist Willem Levelt points out, this work is part of a shift to careful, cross-disciplinary and empirical investigation of basic language processes (2013, p. 473). The work through the Modern period set the stage for Contemporary work in this field. It did so by raising the standards for experimental work along with the use of statistical analysis for results. Instead of relying on self-report, introspection and theory, psycholinguists began to use data to develop a clear-cut analysis of human language ability. According to Levelt, these trends form the base for the much more advanced work of Contemporary times. Understanding the reading process helped to move reading and literacy forward even though it may not have had a direct impact on the literacy heroines either individually or collectively. The studies that were done almost surely ←10 | 11→informed the teaching and learning of reading in the Modern period; a number of the heroines were trained teachers who would have been aware of these findings. The research on reading, like the social and technological changes discussed earlier, was going on in the background while practical steps to improve the literacy of people generally was in the foreground of the heroines’ efforts.

Definitions: Intersectionality

Intersectionality is one further overarching concept needed to frame the discussion of the heroines. This term has come to be widely used in various areas of study partly because it is especially useful to capture the idea of overlapping roles that result in discrimination of many kinds. The concept is so important and fundamental that it is discussed in the latest edition of the APA Publication Manual (2020). The APA includes it in the section of the manual on bias-free language guidelines, defining it as “the way in which individuals are shaped by and identify with a vast array of cultural, structural, sociobiological, economic and social contexts … [relating to] inequality, such as racism, genderism, heterosexism, ageism, and classism, among other variables” (2020, p. 149). This focused attention suggests how useful this term has become in understanding how multiple factors might come together to affect people who are trying to work on important issues or problems.

Recent research suggests a key source is the work of widely respected UCLA and Columbia law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, among others. In a recent collection of writings on this concept, including those of Crenshaw, University of Tennessee psychologist Patrick Grzanka points out that “intersectionality is foremost about studying multiple dimensions of inequality and developing ways to resist and challenge these various forms of oppression” (2019, p. 10). He offers an excerpt from a 2000 UN paper Crenshaw prepared for a meeting on racial discrimination which explains how the metaphor of a traffic intersection applies:

To use a metaphor of an intersection, we first analogize the various axes of power—i.e. race, ethnicity, gender or class, as constituting the thoroughfares which structure the social, economic or political terrain. It is through these avenues that disempowering dynamics travel. These thoroughfares … often overlap and cross each other, creating complex intersections at which two, three or four of these axes meet. Racialized women are often positioned in the space where racism or xenophobia, class and gender meet. They are consequently subject to injury … (qtd. in Grzanka, 2019, p. 43)

←11 | 12→

This concept makes a great deal of sense when looking at the work of the heroines. Whether their chief work was on education or publishing, public health or land rights, suffrage or monopolies, their approach inevitably entailed underlying intersections of gender, race, class, ethnicity or other factors. Sometimes, the intersecting factors were direct and explicit, but sometimes they were less overt. When an outside reader of this manuscript mentioned this concept, the relevance was immediately clear. For most of the heroines, intersectionality helps to explain the ways in which they were constantly challenged, requiring their persistence, grit and considerable hard work.

Definitions: Exemplars/Experts

The women under study here have key characteristics, as indicated in these various terms discussed thus far, that imply that they are exemplars. That term warrants a dictionary definition as a starting point: “A model or pattern to be copied or imitated … a typical example or instance … an original or archetype” (Random House, 1966, p. 498). The women presented here as heroines share these positive attributes and are meant to be copied or imitated as the dictionary suggests. Their efforts in the Modern period are specifically noteworthy given their time, which was not particularly favorable to or supportive of women. For all these reasons, these women are heroic exemplars. The heroines notably show individual variation in race, class and socio-economic background. This variation suggests that literacy cuts across all these lines in the Modern period; it is fundamentally a human issue that impacts everyone. These women offer a set of archetypes, starting points for imitation, models to follow.

One manifestation of the heroines’ expertise appears in their writing of their autobiographies. While this type of writing was fairly common in the Modern period, most of the heroines chose to write what Georgia Tech rhetorician Jacqueline Jones Royster described to me as autoethnographies (personal communication, January 13, 2020). While they sketch out some of the features of their own lives, their real goal is to provide the historical background of the time in which they lived and worked as well as a discussion of the key issues that were their focus. Communication scholars Adams, Jones and Ellis (2015) formally describe autoethnography as a qualitative research method that works by “connecting personal (insider) experience, insights and knowledge to larger (relationship, cultural, political) conversations, contexts, and conventions” (2015, p. 25). They also state that autoethnographies rely on both insider and outsider ←12 | 13→perspectives on various situations, using “a researcher’s personal experience to describe and critique cultural beliefs, practices, and experiences” in combination with self-reflection, with social justice as a key goal (2015, pp. 1–2). A majority of the heroines have written books that fit this description, and they are discussed in detail as manifestations of the heroines’ exemplary literacy abilities.

One further point is in order on the nature of the heroines’ expertise, particularly for the Black women in this group. The Black autobiographical tradition traces back to slave narratives. For example, William and Mary historian and literary critic Joanne Braxton (1989) characterizes Ida B. Wells’s Crusade for Justice as both a personal memoir and a historical account of her efforts to deal with racism. This observation about Wells’s autobiography is quite useful since it also applies to the work of Jane Addams and Sarah Winnemucca. Braxton notes other key features, like ties to Biblical and historical antecedents such as a reference to Biblical prophet Deborah, other heroines like Joan of Arc and Wells’s connection to Frederick Douglass, all of which fit with “the Black female autobiographical tradition” described in this analysis (p. 103f.). Like Braxton, Trinity College women’s historian Barbara Sicherman points out that Wells was part of a trend among women in the Progressive period to write their autobiographies “for public consumption” but specifically, they “wrote mainly about their work, subordinating their personal to their public lives” (2010, p. 54).

The issues about autobiographical writing are complex. In my conversation with University of Delaware historian Alison Parker, who has written a detailed biography of heroine Mary Church Terrell (personal communication, February 21, 2020), she pointed out that for Black women, their goals focused on “placing themselves in a particular debate” and showing their achievements as a way to represent their race. Moreover, they preferred to be silent on personal issues rather than presenting what Contemporary readers might think of as a “tell-all” kind of book, purposely omitting private details. While racial representation was surely less of a factor for the White heroines, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald and some of the others shared with the Black women the broad goal of social justice and Progressive reform. The autobiographical or autoethnographic volumes discussed in the chapters are all manifestations of the heroines’ exemplary literacy skills.

A different way of characterizing exemplars comes from recent psychological research on the concept of “grit” as defined by University of Pennsylvania psychologist and MacArthur fellow Angela Duckworth. On her scale, a self-report device designed to measure grit, she asks about characteristics like focus, perseverance, goal-setting, hard work combined with deliberate practice, determined ←13 | 14→hope, and passion (2016, p. 55). These characteristics appear among people who score high on the Grit Scale and who are highly successful in their lives. Her argument is that while people have a certain array of natural talent in some areas, everyone can develop the characteristics of grit that lead to success in any field. The exemplars discussed here would also fit Duckworth’s description of gritty people; in the following chapters, I will be pointing out these features that make exemplars also “paragons of grit” (p. 144).

Another approach captures the elements of expertise in a succinct list, proposed as distinguishing experts from the general population by National Security Affairs professor Tom Nichols: “education, training, practice, experience and acknowledgment by others” (2017, p. 39). He notes that education, certification or other formal recognition of specific knowledge is one indicator of expertise. It helps if experts also have talent in their chosen field, above and beyond the ability to attain the credentials of a degree. But credentials and talent are still not enough to create expertise; experts also need experience in their chosen field which leads to the kind of intuition and/or arational ability described above. Whatever that might entail, experts persist at it for a length of time, developing their abilities beyond those of others. Furthermore, according to Nichols, experts continue to learn from and be corrected by others in their field, leading to fewer mistakes or other problems (2017, pp. 28–38). While he concludes that expertise is difficult to define, Nichols’s list of characteristics, along with Duckworth’s concept of grit and the definition of literacy all help to account for the ways in which these heroines are experts in literacy who should be regarded as exemplars.

Definitions: Sponsors

Finally, these exemplary women have taken the role of sponsors of literacy (in Deborah Brandt’s sense of the word (2001)) in two different ways. First, they themselves benefited from being on the receiving end of sponsorship that gave them opportunities to develop their own literacy skills to a high level of expertise. In addition, though, they served as sponsors themselves, sharing their knowledge and expertise through teaching, publishing or leadership roles. Brandt’s sponsorship concept has been widely discussed since she presented it in her award-winning book, Literacy in American Lives (2001). Her definition has also been widely quoted, but since my own definition of heroines hinges on it, it warrants repeating here:

←14 | 15→Sponsors, as I have come to think of them, are any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, and model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold, literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way. … Although the interest of the sponsor and the sponsored do not have to converge (and, in fact, may conflict), sponsors nevertheless set the terms for access to literacy and wield powerful incentives for compliance and loyalty. (2001, p. 19)

The definition makes clear that sponsorship is always something of a mixed bag. When it works positively, sponsorship offers substantial benefits, but it can work in negative ways to control literacy options if doing so is to the sponsor’s advantage.

The heroines discussed here generally embody the positive attributes of sponsors, from the receiving and giving sides. While in a few cases some of their work could be perceived as negative, it was generally unintentionally so. All are exemplars who intended to be positive sponsors of literacy. A brief example might clarify this point. Jane Addams received sponsorship from her father, her teachers and among others, Ida Tarbell (another literacy heroine) who read and commented on some of her writing. At the same time, she provided sponsorship through many of the activities offered at Hull House, such as reading groups and encouragement of others to further their education or develop their own reading and writing abilities. In these ways, all the heroines are positive sponsors of literacy for others.

Definitions: Literacy Heroines

Looking back, then, reveals the role of key women who might be called literacy heroines. In fact, as part of the general cultural shift in women’s roles and status mentioned at the start of this chapter, the nature of heroines goes quite a bit beyond a simple dictionary definition. Other disciplines provide research that offers a much broader picture of how heroines are currently understood. The classic literary analysis takes up heroines across all genres, building on research on myths and archetypes as discussed by Joseph Campbell and others. A thoughtful analysis appears in a book by Women’s Studies professor Carol Pearson and educator co-author Katherine Pope (1981). In considering heroines in literature generally, they make the following points:

Whether explicitly feminist or not, therefore, works with female heroes challenge patriarchal assumptions. In addition, both traditional and contemporary works with a female hero typically depict her primary problems as outgrowths of the ←15 | 16→culture’s attitudes about women and of women’s economic and social powerlessness. … The fact that the female hero does not martyr herself for others and that she undergoes the journey for her own benefit absolutely violates female sex-role conditioning, which teaches a woman to be selfless. … Because the hero does not give up her life for others, … she becomes more rather than less able to aid others in their search for fulfillment. (1981, pp. 12, 14–15)

We will see these characteristics in the heroines discussed in the following chapters. While they would probably not identify themselves as feminists in the Contemporary sense, they clearly work to aid others in a variety of ways. They become specifically literacy heroines because they make explicit use of their own literacy skills to achieve their goals and/or to support the literacy development of others. Their service to others is a key feature of heroes as analyzed by University of Nebraska political scientist Ari Kohen (2014, p. 8). From these diverse viewpoints, a broad picture of what makes people heroes or heroines emerges.

Yet another broad view of heroism appears in work that focuses on women’s roles in comics and literature. Western Illinois Communication professor Nathan Miczo discusses the “superheroine” and her characteristics. Miczo points out, using comic book and movie roles as examples, that “superhero behavior … seems to be defined as masculine, regardless of the gender of the hero performing it” (Miczo, 2014, p. 180). Various studies suggest that heroines must be able to cross various gender stereotype lines, being both feminine and sexy as well as respected for achievements, but can only do so if competence becomes more of a focal point than appearance. These characteristics must form a complex blend. Drawing on the work of Carol Gilligan (1982), Miczo says:

A superheroine needs to balance her masculine strength with a set of competencies that highlights her feminine qualities if she is to be accepted in a (fictional) world that may just be “inherently masculine.” … A superheroine can be strong and she can be concerned with her relationships, exemplifying the competencies and practicalities of masculine and feminine values. (2014, pp. 180–81).

The heroines of the Modern period capture these characteristics effectively, generally, blending roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers with work outside the home as organizers and leaders, resulting in respected achievements. Indeed, the ←16 | 17→heroines to be discussed here are women who show this admirable mix of qualities. They are women who have achievements or abilities that reveal the importance or usefulness of literacy in some way or another. In some cases, they have achieved astonishing (though perhaps not superhuman) goals. So, they themselves are highly literate individuals who have put their personal literacy to good use, to achieve specific outcomes.

Another Communication Studies scholar, Wisconsin poet and literary scholar Sandra Lindow, points out that “women depicted in these tales do not wait to be rescued by the prince. Furthermore, the value of becoming Mrs. Charming is significantly downplayed” (Lindow, 2014, p. 12). Lindow points out that while heroic journeys often involve a search for truth or self-understanding, feminist works tend to show women working against the status quo on various dimensions: gender, race, class, beauty, love and so forth (2014, p. 4). Using recent fiction as examples, she notes that the heroines live on their own, rescue princes as needed, use their brains, networking skills, bravery and creativity to work at what might be called continuous improvement, notwithstanding setbacks (2014, p. 12). But even before a feminist shift in this direction, older heroines showed resilience, patience and wisdom (2014, p. 3). These characteristics will all appear in the following profiles.

To draw this discussion together, then, a definition of literacy heroines is needed to serve as the start point for the work of these women. So, a literacy heroine is a woman who has worked in a variety of roles, using her literacy abilities in heroic efforts to serve as a respected exemplar/expert and sponsor of literacy for others.

In each case, these women’s work as heroines offers essential messages for Contemporary times. In the following profiles, I present evidence from biographical, autobiographical and archival materials about these women’s lives, roles, and writings to reveal their messages. Where possible, I have talked to leading scholars to get a sense of how each heroine’s work is best understood in the Contemporary context; these interviews provide important additional insights. The scholars chosen are people who have done significant research on these heroines, so they bring to bear detailed background and in-depth knowledge of their lives and work. Following are the 12 women I discuss, chosen because they appear to be 12 true literacy heroines as described in the definition, and because their work offers useful lessons for Contemporary times.←17 | 18→

Part I: Educators

2.Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) and Schooling for African American Girls

The founder of a school for girls that became Bethune-Cookman University, Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator and activist who also served in the federal government later in her career with a focus on expanding educational and literacy opportunities for African Americans.

3.Gertrude Buck (1871–1922) and Rhetorical Theory and Practice

A Vassar faculty member for many years, Buck was a feminist writer and rhetorician and was the first Ph.D. student of Fred Newton Scott.

4.Cora Wilson Stewart (1875–1958) and the Moonlight Schools

Stewart was a Kentucky elementary school teacher who began a program of evening classes to teach parents to read and write, ultimately serving in the federal government and spreading the program across the country.

5.Sarah Winnemucca (1844–1891) and Native American Civil Rights

Winnemucca was a Paiute writer and activist who campaigned for Native American civil rights; she is the author of the first Native American autobiography by a woman, Life Among the Paiutes, published in 1883.

Part II: Activists

Part III: Writers

10.Nella Larsen (1891–1964) and the Harlem Renaissance

Nella Larsen was a novelist, a nurse and a librarian, a key writer in the Harlem Renaissance movement and a winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship; her 1928 novel Quicksand is largely autobiographical.

11.Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842–1924) and the Woman’s Era

A suffragist and activist, Ruffin was the founding editor of Women’s Era, the first newspaper by and for African American women, begun in 1890; she was also a founding member of the NAACP.

12.Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Stowe’s novel of slavery and its implications was widely circulated and read through the Modern period, having been exhibited at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago; the book repeatedly extolls the importance of reading to nearly every character.

13.Ida Tarbell (1857–1944) and the Muckrakers

Tarbell was an investigative reporter and teacher who wrote books and articles as part of the Progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though she was a somewhat ambivalent feminist, her work did land her in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

A Note on Methodology

My approach here follows the general plan of case study research. The women chosen for study have distinguished themselves in a variety of ways but they are not particularly representative or chosen for that reason. Instead, they appear here because of their contributions to literacy work and to the population at large in their respective communities. The evidence in each case comes from the women’s own writing or materials they generated as part of their activities in their chosen field, sometimes including an autobiography or autoethnography. A second source of evidence derives from what has been written about each of ←19 | 20→them, usually by a biographer, but sometimes by journalists, critics or others commenting on their efforts. Finally, a third source of evidence consists of interviews I have conducted with leading Contemporary scholars who know the life and work of each heroine. These interviews are not considered “human subject research” according to Institutional Review Board review, but I have followed the general principles of informed consent in the research, providing each interviewee with an information sheet about the project and obtaining formal written consent to use the interview material in this book. The interview participants have reviewed the content of the chapters for accuracy.

The case study process I have followed draws on the guidelines offered by respected social science researcher Robert Yin (2014). Yin offers useful specifics for the conduct of case study research. In terms of overall design, he points out the importance of the main questions under study, the propositions being investigated, the unit of analysis (pp. 29–31) and the ways to connect the analysis to the data to answer the questions. In this book, the basic questions are two in number: what makes each woman studied here a literacy heroine, and what message does each case offer for critical literacy in Contemporary times? The propositions relate to terms discussed in this opening chapter: literacy, modernity, intersectionality, exemplar, sponsor, heroine. The unit of analysis is each woman’s life and work, reflecting her engagement with literacy. In each chapter, the data is drawn from multiple sources (per Yin’s recommendations, 2014, pp. 118–23), such as a biography or autobiography, documents or materials composed by the woman herself, secondary source reviews of this material or related commentary, interviews with current scholars on the woman and her times, and other pertinent material, possibly in archives or online resources like Hathitrust. These sources are consistent with Yin’s recommendations, some of which simply do not apply (like direct observation or participant-observation, not possible here) (2014, p. 106).

Yin’s key principles for this type of research include the fact that there are many variables in each case under study: the use of multiple sources of evidence, as described above, having informants review the report, and the use of a theoretical framework to guide the analysis of the evidence (pp. 16–17). Once the data has been collected, the analysis should be sure to include alternative explanations of answers to the original questions, of which there are many (p. 141). Because there are multiple cases here, the final chapter offers what Yin calls a “cross-case synthesis” (pp. 164–68). While each chapter/case offers answers to the main questions, the cross-case discussion at the end puts them together with specific messages for Contemporary critical literacy.←20 | 21→

This set of case studies, then, offers an examination of women’s lives and work in the Modern period, providing many lessons for us now. The persistence of these women as well as their use of their literacy shows that much can be accomplished by focused effort accompanied by careful use of critical reading and writing abilities. Though each woman had a unique approach to such key issues as women’s rights, suffrage, immigration, education and social welfare, each made contributions through her exemplary use of an array of literacy skills. In addition, all of them are heroines because they shared their expertise with others by serving as sponsors of literacy in private life or public service.

←26 | 27→


 Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) and Schooling for African American Girls

Figure 2.1:Mary McLeod Bethune. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [reproduction number, LC-USW3- 014843-C]

←27 | 28→


Some years ago, I worked at the annual reading of College Board’s Advanced Placement exam in English Language and Composition. It is the largest of the AP exams given to high school students across the country who are looking to develop their writing skills, and who are hoping to score well enough to place out of first-year writing courses in college. For many of those years, the reading was held in Daytona Beach, Florida. In the evenings, after the scoring work was done for the day, the College Board offered a variety of events, like a reading by a local author or a field trip; one of the field trips in Daytona was to Bethune-Cookman College (now University). I think we visited the campus and perhaps the home of the founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, the subject of the current chapter. Bethune had started the college as an elementary school for girls in 1904; it grew over time, eventually merging with the Cookman Institute, under the auspices of the Methodist Church, to become Bethune-Cookman. My visit occurred and Bethune herself lived long before the idea for this book developed. But she appears on many lists of outstanding women in the Modern period for good reason as she was, through her newspaper columns and other writings, a literacy exemplar as well as a noteworthy sponsor of education for African American women. An assortment of awards, honors, elected offices and other forms of recognition make clear her status as a literacy heroine.

Issue of the Times

Given that Bethune went on to found a school, the decision in the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 seems like the most important issue in her lifetime. Bethune would have been 21 when the case was decided, and its implications would surely have been felt over the rest of her life since it was not reversed until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case and Bethune died the following year. Simply put, Plessy made the principle of “separate but equal” the law in transportation, housing, schools and various other venues. It perpetuated, according to a quick rundown on the History Channel website (https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws), the Jim Crow laws which mostly began in 1865, after the Civil War, setting the stage for many forms of mistreatment of African Americans. Jim Crow was of course supported by the Ku Klux Klan, which began in Tennessee, also in 1865. When Bethune started her school in 1904, the Plessy decision was firmly entrenched, with specific ←28 | 29→implications for education as well as all other areas of daily life. I talked with Barry Rubin, a social activist and formerly Pontiac, Michigan public school principal at the Bethune Elementary School who knows a great deal about the school’s namesake for obvious reasons (telephone interview, August 3, 2020); he suggested that Bethune lived and worked in a time and place affected by Jim Crow.

Three focal points set the basic background for Bethune’s life and times: the general landscape of racial discrimination captured by the Jim Crow laws, which really took hold after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the Plessy case itself, and the important dissent by Justice John Marshall Harlan. Bethune saw the implications of the overall situation in education, leading her to begin her own school to offer a better education specifically to African American girls in Daytona Beach. The court case, according to Rubin, provided further justification to deny resources, and thus opportunities, to Blacks in many areas of life. Bethune worked to try to counter the impact of Plessy; in Contemporary times, she would easily qualify as an antiracist according to Ibram Kendi’s current definition (2019) because her school and other work was intended to make those resources accessible.

She was working hard to counter the White supremacist views of her time. To have a full sense of what she was up against, Rubin suggested to me (telephone interview, August 3, 2020) that a thorough working definition of White supremacy might be useful to have in mind. The following definition comes from the website of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization devoted to social justice:

White supremacy is a term used to characterize various belief systems central to which are one or more of the following key tenets: 1) whites should have dominance over people of other backgrounds, especially where they may co-exist; 2) whites should live by themselves in a whites-only society; 3) white people have their own “culture” that is superior to other cultures; 4) white people are genetically superior to other people. As a full-fledged ideology, white supremacy is far more encompassing than simple racism or bigotry. (https://www.adl.org/resources/glossary-terms/white-supremacy)

These belief systems were widespread, especially in the South, so surely Bethune and her students were victimized by them. And they were essentially institutionalized and legalized by the Plessy decision, so its implications are critical to fully understanding the Modern period in which Bethune founded her school.

Washington Post journalist Steve Luxenberg (2019) has written a thorough history of the Plessy decision, including a nicely condensed explanation of the ←29 | 30→origin of the Jim Crow laws. The phrase comes from the name of a character presented by entertainer T.D. Rice, a White man who sang and danced in blackface in the 1830s, performing a song called “Jump Jim Crow” which presented a variety of racial stereotypes. The phrase became a code term for racial segregation in railroad cars and elsewhere according to Luxenberg (2019, pp. 9–10). According to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan,

Rice darkened his face, acted like a buffoon, and spoke with an exaggerated and distorted imitation of African American Vernacular English. In his Jim Crow persona, he also sang “Negro ditties” such as “Jump Jim Crow.” Rice was not the first White comic to perform in Blackface, but he was the most popular of his time, touring both the United States and England. As a result of Rice’s success, “Jim Crow” became a common stage persona for White comedians’ Blackface portrayals of African Americans. (Retrieved from https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/origins.htm)

Jim Crow laws affected many areas of daily life in addition to segregated railroad cars, limiting or constraining access to good schools, visits to parks, service in restaurants, medical treatment at hospitals, rooms in hotels on trips, rides on busses, drinks from water fountains, proper burials in cemeteries, worship in churches, and even being incarcerated in prisons. Essentially, they created a segregated society. It was in response to this overall situation that Homer Plessy was set up to challenge segregation in the day-to-day lives of African Americans.

Legal scholar and Seton Hall University historian William james Hull Hoffer explains that Plessy was one of a group of Afro-Creoles in New Orleans who wanted to challenge the segregation of the trains (2012, pp. 1–3), so with help, he set himself up to create a test case. Plessy was arrested by plan to create the situation that would allow the group to pursue their case in court. The Library of Congress has an online site on the history of the NAACP, which includes the following basic summary of the Plessy case:

By the time Homer A. Plessy, a New Orleans octoroon (a person with one-eighth Negro blood) challenged that city’s right to segregate public transportation by riding in a “Whites Only” railcar, the constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War to provide protections and rights for Negro citizens had eroded. The Louisiana state courts ruled against Plessy, and his subsequent appeal, against the ruling by Judge John Howard Ferguson, to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied in 1896. The impact of Plessy was to relegate Blacks to second-class citizenship. They were separated from Whites by law and by private action in transportation, ←30 | 31→public accommodations, recreational facilities, churches, cemeteries, and schools in both Northern and Southern states. (United States, 2009)

Though Plessy’s challenge was set up to deal with discrimination in transportation, the implications went far beyond it as the Library of Congress exhibit indicates, impacting schools specifically. Plessy was overturned in the Brown decision in 1954, but until then, the segregation and discrimination had a widespread impact across the country but especially in the South, where Bethune lived. According to Bethune scholar Audrey McCluskey, emerita professor of African American Studies at Indiana University, Bethune was aware of the Brown decision, but encouraged others to continue to work for civil rights in one of her last newspaper columns (2014, p. 147).

Plessy was decided by a 7–1 vote of the Supreme Court (one justice was not involved in the case), saying that “separate but equal” facilities and segregation in other aspects of American life were constitutional. The lone dissent was by John Marshall Harlan. Harlan argues against the decision using the 13th (ending slavery), the 14th (equal protection) and the 15th (voting rights) amendments to the Constitution to put an end to racial segregation and discrimination. He specifically writes that

… in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. (qtd. in Thomas, 1997, p. 57).

Harlan’s now widely respected dissent was the lone voice against the decision. The case provided the legal ground for what was already common behavior, allowing for the passage of specific laws legalizing discrimination in many parts of daily life. Mary McLeod Bethune worked in this environment for her entire life, beginning by writing in key venues about racial issues, sponsoring literacy by starting her own school to provide a better education for Black girls, and much later making heroic efforts in the federal government for the cause of racial equality.


The main events in Bethune’s life are easy to capture. She lived to the age of 80 and was active in education and government work till almost the end of her life. ←31 | 32→Some of her later achievements, after 1930, are clearly the outcome of a long-standing educational philosophy. The main events reveal a woman who was very focused on her main goals, a key marker of someone with grit as discussed in the opening chapter. After her birth and early life in South Carolina, according to California State/San Bernardino historian Joyce Hanson, she was educated at a seminary and at the Moody Bible Institute (2003, p. 4). Although she wanted to become a missionary to Africa, her application was denied by church leaders due to lack of need in Africa (2003, pp. 42–43). Her religious inclinations, along with her drive to help others led her to take up teaching in various small schools around the South, during the course of which several important events occurred. She met and married Albertus Bethune (1898) and had a son with him (1899). She also worked at Haines Institute in Augusta; while there, she met Lucy Laney, an important sponsor of her later work. While working at Haines, Bethune learned about Booker T. Washington’s work at the Tuskegee Institute, which served as the inspiration for her own school in Daytona Beach. It is not clear if she actually visited Tuskegee (Hanson says there is no evidence of a visit (2003, p. 49)), but she built on the ideas there of both vocational training and preparation for professional careers of all kinds.

Bethune recounts in an autobiographical sketch that the conditions she saw in a visit to Daytona were truly awful, and so she decided to start the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls there, using exactly $1.50 that she had in her wallet at the time. She worked hard to earn community support through an assortment of fundraising projects, like selling sweet potato pies and ice cream. She also spoke at church services, getting support from religious and community leaders (2003, pp. 56–58). With the support of White women, community members helped build the school, as did some volunteer teachers from the community. She also sought the support of philanthropists, chiefly well-to-do White industrialists like James Gamble of Proctor and Gamble among others; despite being seen by some as accommodating to White expectations, Bethune knew how to garner support from these key sources (2003, pp. 59–65). She was clear on the need to provide a full, academic as well as vocational education for the students. Hanson reports that by 1912, the school was a full high school with nine teachers. It subsequently became an accredited college, merging with Cookman Institute (1923), with Bethune serving as president till 1942 (2003, p. 4). In the last 20 years of her life, Bethune’s work in the women’s club movement led to various political roles, including work for the government as the Black expert on education under several different presidents. The club activities and government service come after the end of the Modern period as I have ←32 | 33→defined it; while they are no less important, they are only indirectly relevant to Bethune’s status as a literacy heroine. Hanson (2003) and other sources provide a detailed discussion of these later years.


Bethune did much forceful, exemplary writing over the course of her life, though not in the form of whole books or an autobiography per se. She was a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier as well as for the Chicago Defender, two of the major Black newspapers of the time. The Courier was both a local paper in Pittsburgh and had a national edition, according to a PBS website discussion of the Black press:

The Pittsburgh Courier was once the country’s most widely circulated Black newspaper with a national circulation of almost 200,000. Established in 1907 by Edwin Harleston, a security guard and aspiring writer … By the 1930’s it was one of the top selling Black newspapers in the country--as widely read as The Chicago Defender and The Afro-American. … Many of the 20th century’s most well known and influential Black journalists and intellectuals contributed articles, columns, and editorials … . (https://www.pbs.org/Blackpress/news_bios/courier.html)

In addition, Bethune wrote numerous documents, compiled among her papers (Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, 1996). Two of her more substantive pieces appear in books. One is an essay in a collection called What the Negro Wants that appeared relatively late in her career, and the other is one of several autobiographical sketches that are in the archives.

The first piece, called “Certain Unalienble Rights,” quoting the phrase in the Declaration, appeared in an edited volume, What the Negro Wants (Bethune, 1944). It shows that Black citizens wanted what everyone wanted, the unalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, in addition to nine specific goals, all of them things still much desired in Contemporary times: improved race relations, democracy that includes Blacks, equality in the military, in civil rights and in putting an end to lynching; she linked the latter two in her text. In addition, goals Bethune outlined included voting rights, equal employment opportunities and fair treatment in housing, health, education and other federal programs. Finally, she listed fair treatment in labor unions and general racial interactions. But she also saw Black people as responsible for taking steps to achieve these goals, such as by using organizations and other public resources, to improve public opinion. More specifically, Bethune lays out what the work entails:

←33 | 34→We must challenge, skillfully but resolutely, every sign of restriction or limitation on our full American citizenship. … If we simply accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves and allow those responsible to salve their conscience by believing that they have our acceptance and concurrence. We should, therefore, protest openly everything in the newspapers, on the radio, in the movies that smacks of discrimination or slander. … We must challenge everywhere the principle and practice of enforced racial segregation. (Bethune, 1944, p. 256)

She goes on to stress using the regular political process of elections and similar activities, harnessing specifically the advocacy of women through their organizations and leadership skills (1944, p. 258). Notably, she calls on readers to use their literacy skills in writing and speaking out to raise their voices for these goals. She was using her own literacy as a model for what she wanted to see from others. Ultimately, Bethune made this plan more concrete in her sponsorship, as discussed below.

The second piece is from Bethune’s “Spiritual Autobiography” which appeared as a chapter in a collection of American autobiographies edited by Louis Finkelstein in 1948. Though this piece, like the previous one, appeared late in her career, here Bethune writes about her early life:

When I had my first experiences with people who could read when I could not, and with seeing fine churches, when my people worshipped in shacks, I asked God to open to me the opportunity to do something about that. The idea gripped me. … I put all negative thoughts away from me, as I do now, and then and there I affirmed my needs, my hopes, and my aspirations. That affirmation with God took me from the cotton fields to the little mission school to Scotia College to Moody Bible Institute, and, finally, to the planting of the Bethune-Cookman College—the real child of my desire. (Bethune, 1948, qtd. in McCluskey & Smith, 1999, p. 53)

The careful structure of these few sentences reveals that Bethune was willing to make public her deeply personal religious faith, showing how her religious commitment drove her to get an education and create the school that was her “real child.” Her use of parallel structure and metaphor suggest that she was a capable writer, able to use the language for both professional and personal goals. Biographer Hanson points out that Bethune made “many literary contributions” (2003, p. 5) including this work and the newspaper columns mentioned earlier. In order to “do something about that” as she says, she set her early goals as an educator to offer literacy sponsorship, with reading as one of her key focal points.←34 | 35→

A speech from 1926 or 1920 (date is unclear in the McCluskey and Smith collection) offers further evidence of Bethune’s skill as a writer. According to editor McCluskey, this speech, “A Philosophy of Education for Negro Girls,” grew out of Bethune’s wish to present a wider view of her approach to teaching (McCluskey & Smith, 1926/1999, p. 71). Although she was in favor of vocational education for girls, she also wanted to provide a broader background so that young women could move beyond domestic activity and ordinary vocations. Bethune School principal Barry Rubin pointed out that she was working specifically against a male-dominated situation and was really trying to open up possibilities for girls and young women (telephone interview, August 3, 2020). Again, referring to her early life, she writes about the larger goals that she had in mind as a school leader:

Very early in my life, I saw the vision of what our women might contribute to the growth and development of the race—if they were given a certain type of intellectual training. I longed to see women, Negro women, hold in their hands diplomas which bespoke achievement; I longed to see them trained to be inspirational wives and mothers; I longed to see their accomplishments recognized side by side with any woman, anywhere. With this vision before me, my life has been spent. (qtd. in McCluskey & Smith, 1926/1999, p. 84)

The deep-seated desire to achieve larger goals for others appears here in the repetition of the phrase “I longed to see …” and the idea of intellectual development for all women, certainly the kind of broad goal that is characteristic of all literacy exemplars. It is no wonder that Bethune was recognized with an assortment of awards and honorary degrees, along with a statue in Lincoln Park in Washington among many other forms of recognition. While she may not have written or published as much as someone like Ida Tarbell whose life work was as a writer, she was surely a literacy exemplar in her use of literacy to achieve her goals.


Turning to Bethune’s sponsorship of literacy, her work as the founder of a school that became a fully accredited four-year university makes clear her success as a sponsor. In 1904, she saw the need for a school for girls, and so founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, with five students. There is also a foundation that bears her name along with an assortment of other indicators of her efforts to sponsor literacy for others. And like other ←35 | 36→heroines, she not only provided sponsorship to others through the school in Daytona Beach, but also was the recipient of sponsorship through her own mentors. Perhaps her motivation to serve as a sponsor of literacy for others is captured in this often-cited (though without a written source) quote: “The world opened to me when I learned to read.” (Brainy Quotes; no other source available). The school in Daytona provided the first venue for Bethune to achieve the goals stated in her philosophy of education, though only formally stated much later.

Sometimes, a heroine’s motivation to provide sponsorship for others arises in part as a result of this kind of receipt of sponsorship from others. In Bethune’s case, she benefitted from the support of Lucy Laney. In 1895, Bethune began teaching for a year at the Haines Industrial and Normal Institute in Augusta, which had been founded by Laney. According to McCluskey, Haines prepared students well for higher education as well as for their personal lives, noting that Laney herself had a wide-ranging education that included an undergraduate degree from Atlanta University (2014, p. 23). In her politically-focused biography of Bethune, Hanson points out that Laney was a huge influence because she had done what Bethune hoped to do herself, starting a school that would present young Black people (especially women) with educational opportunities and options for their lives. Hanson writes:

Under Laney’s supervision, Bethune honed her programmatic and organizational skills as well as her educational philosophy. Bethune’s year at Haines gave her experience in an essentially all-female educational environment with primary, grammar, and normal and industrial courses. By example, Laney offered practical lessons in developing a variety of curricula, running an educational institution on a businesslike basis, engaging in community programs, and building networks with other Black female activists. (2003, p. 49)

This experience with Laney as her sponsor allowed Bethune to create her own school ideas using the work and model of the Haines school as a base. While Bethune’s goal was somewhat different from Laney’s because she was not interested in teacher training, Laney’s model showed how a school could prepare teachers to provide literacy sponsorship to students.

While her statement of educational philosophy was written somewhat later, in 1926, she had clearly thought broadly about women’s role in home life and beyond. She saw that young Black women were responsible for creating homes in which as she says “proper home life provides the proper atmosphere for life everywhere else” (Bethune, 1926, qtd. in McCluskey & Smith, 1999, p. 85). But in addition, she goes on to comment on the importance of the “creative self” in ←36 | 37→their own lives. In doing so, she says, “[t]‌his in itself will do more to remove the walls of inter-racial prejudice and build up intra-racial confidence and pride than many of our educational tools and devices” (Bethune, 1926, qtd. in McCluskey & Smith, 1999, p. 85). According to McCluskey, Bethune wanted her students to go beyond the home sphere, so they could take on larger responsibilities to move the whole race forward (1999, p. 71). Laney’s sponsorship set the stage for Bethune to develop this philosophy, put into practice in Daytona Beach.

The philosophy manifested in the school might fairly be said to represent Bethune’s understanding of both of her role models, widely known and respected at the time, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. They had differing views on the type of education best for Black people, as discussed by University of Michigan rhetorician and historian of education, Anne Ruggles Gere. Gere points out that their rival views were a source of conflict among members of women’s clubs at the time. Washington “advocated practical education to prepare members of his race to serve as maids, manual workers, and agrarian laborers” while DuBois supported the idea that “members of his race should have a full classical education to learn the pleasure and power of reading and writing as well as prepare them for careers as teachers” (1997, p. 223). Bethune set up her school as a “both … and” enterprise, to provide both the “industrial” education that Washington supported and the intellectual development suggested by DuBois.

Once she established her own school to achieve both outcomes, Bethune was on the other side of the sponsorship equation, providing sponsorship to the young people enrolled there. Information about the school in Daytona provides indirect evidence of Bethune’s literacy sponsorship for the young women in her charge. The school, according to the Bethune-Cookman University website, was funded early on by the United Methodist Church (https://www.cookman.edu/about_bcu/history/). She also got help from key industrialists like Gamble and Rockefeller according to McCluskey (1994, p. 75). The fact that the school prospered, ultimately becoming, relatively recently, an accredited university, shows that her overall educational approach was successful and respected. Chiefly, this outcome was achieved with the help of a very strong and very well-educated faculty. Among them were Frances Keyser from New York, who had a strong literary background and Portia Smiley who had worked at Pratt, also in New York. These women took the lead in developing the curriculum to include both vocational training (called industrial education at the time) and traditional academic subjects, according to McCluskey (2014, pp. 60–61). The teaching staff was quite stable, with many remaining in Daytona after retirement (2014, p. 61). Also like Laney, she brought in artists and speakers on a variety of topics (2014, p. 63). ←37 | 38→None of these activities points directly to support for literacy, but surely students learned to read and write in combination with these other activities and areas of study. The visitors may have reflected the ways in which literacy abilities could lead to recognition. Additional evidence of sponsorship appears in the school’s offering a broad curriculum as well as Bible study (2014, p. 64) which together fostered literacy development.

Bethune’s personal experience directly connected literacy to education more broadly. As a child, she noted the differences between Whites and Blacks in terms of the availability of books, with White children having many. Hanson reports this experience as follows:

The importance of books and literacy became even clearer when she picked up a book and a White child berated, “Put down that book, you can’t read.” According to Bethune’s recollection, this pivotal event drove home the connection between illiteracy and racial inequality. From that time on, Bethune claims she recognized education and literacy as inexorably linked to eliminating inequity and racism. … She became determined to read, but more important, she says she became determined to educate as many others as she could. (2003, p. 29)

It is easy to see how this view carried her, with the experiences in various schools and under Laney’s guidance as well as that of others, to the founding of her own school and her broader support for education for Blacks.

This view also played out in Bethune’s later work, beyond the period that is the focus of this book. Like Cora Wilson Stewart, she served in the government in an assortment of leadership positions, influencing educational policy. For example, in 1936, FDR named her the leader of the Negro Affairs Division of the National Youth Administration, according to Bethune Foundation curator Preston (2019, p. 114), writing about Bethune’s role in social justice education. And between 1936 and 1939, she was the only woman in the Black Cabinet under Roosevelt (Hanson, 2003, pp. 160–61). This form of sponsorship can fairly be judged indirect, but it reveals how Bethune’s early experiences and direct work as a teacher and school founder give rise to broader influence later on. One further example of this influence of her early life on her later achievements appears in the US National Parks’ description of the statue of Bethune in Lincoln Park in Washington, DC. The park description reads as follows:

Across the park at the West end there sits a monument to educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. The statue features an elderly Mrs. Bethune handing a copy of her legacy to two young Black children. … The first monument to ←38 | 39→honor a Black woman in a public park in the District of Columbia, the Bethune monument recognizes one of the country’s greatest leaders. The inscription on the pedestal of the monument “let her works praise her” speaks of Mrs. Bethune’s many accomplishments as an educator, politician, presidential advisor and civil rights activist. (Capitol Hill Parks, NPS. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/cahi/learn/historyculture/cahi_lincoln.htm)

The statue is only one of the many forms of recognition of Bethune, but it points to the ways in which her later work builds on her achievements before 1930.

The Park Service description points to one other effort that illustrates the idea that Bethune’s early commitment to education played out in her later government activities and activism. The note that the funding for the statue came from the National Council of Negro Women points to that organization, which is still very much in existence today. It works to improve people’s lives, removing barriers to education and career success for young African Americans (http://ncnw.org/). NCNW is a private, non-profit organization currently led by Johnnetta Cole, who was herself mentored by Bethune. Similarly, Bethune served as president of another group, the National Association of Colored Women, which later became the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and which is still very much in business (https://www.nacwc.com/). Its website, like that of the NCNW, makes clear its efforts to promote education and equal opportunity for Black women.

Yet another source of sponsorship arises from the club movement as the point of origin for Black sororities and fraternities; these organizations were an important part of Black upper middle class life for young people during college and afterward, according to Bethune School principal Barry Rubin. They also provided scholarship support for students and professional connections for Black teachers, more opportunities for sponsorship albeit indirectly (telephone interview, August 3, 2020). Finally, Bethune provided specific government service under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, working for women’s equality as well as educational opportunities for Blacks. While Hanson points out that Bethune was not uniformly popular, she was respected by many (2003, pp. 211–12). Although these achievements occurred after the Modern period as defined here, they represent outcomes Bethune worked on over the course of her whole life, including the years before 1930. In all of these roles, she was in a position to create situations in which others could provide literacy sponsorship.

Hanson makes clear how this later work shows that Bethune’s goals continued to motivate her to be a sponsor of education (admittedly not necessarily ←39 | 40→literacy). As leader of the National Youth Administration, she pointed out specific problems with the way the program failed to work for Black education. Hanson reports that Bethune filed her first annual report with this information:

She drew attention to the fact that as of June 1937, 35,687 African American students had received student aid. At the same time, she also pointed out the proportion of available NYA student aid funding they received was only 11.8 percent of elementary and secondary aid, 5.4 percent of college aid, and 7.4 percent of graduate aid, although Black youth made up about 13 percent of the population. Bethune called for the continuation and expansion of these student aid programs for Black children. … Bethune believed the best way to improve the programs and reach more Black children was not to set aside separate funds for African Americans, but rather to allocate a proportion of the funding for designated projects for expenditures among Blacks. (2003, pp. 150–51)

Her idea was that the general funds were more likely to continue to be available, so getting a proportion of them would work more effectively than getting special funding that was more likely to disappear. This approach also meant that Black educators could make their own decisions about the best ways to use available funds.

The link between Bethune’s general goal of improving education for Blacks and their literacy levels is explained in Kaestle’s important study of literacy in the period of focus here. Kaestle, emeritus professor of history of education at Brown, points to the “literacy gap” between Whites and Blacks and how it changed over time, using self-report survey results and other measures. He writes:

In the 1870 census, shortly after emancipation, 81 percent of Black Americans reported themselves to be utterly illiterate, compared with 11 percent of Whites. Twenty years later, the Black rate was down to 57 percent, compared with 8 percent of Whites. Booker T. Washington once described freed slaves as an entire nation wanting to go to school, and they did so, their efforts sustained by family values that were nurtured during the antebellum slavery years, when literacy became associated with power and freedom. (Kaestle, et al., 1991, p. 31)

The improvement in literacy rates was chiefly a by-product, according to Kaestle, of increases in school attainment. The time frame used in this passage runs into the Modern period, but is before Bethune started her school in 1904. Still, the trend to increased education and resulting improvements in literacy levels is evident.←40 | 41→

On the other hand, as Kaestle points out later in his book, overall literacy in the population at large is not as strong as it could or should be, particularly for racial minority groups. Moreover, he was writing long before the pervasive use of computers, social media and so forth. After a thorough and careful discussion of both the changing definitions of functional literacy, he gives this basic definition: “reading and writing skills necessary to understand and use the printed material one normally encounters in work, leisure, and citizenship” (1991, p. 92).

A review of the various measures used by government to measure functional illiteracy shows that functional illiteracy rates were still high at the time he was writing, at 20–30%, with implications for education and employment. And he somewhat presciently writes that schools “have never excelled at educating minorities and the poor or at teaching higher-order skills” (1991, p. 128). While he was writing this book about 30 years ago, the racial divide in the schools has not changed much. And again, to make the connection between literacy and the broader social and political landscape, Kaestle writes:

… we shall need much better reading skills across the entire population if we are to survive and improve as a democratic society in an increasingly complex age, quite apart from workplace demands for more literacy. … Serving the goals of economic and political participation on the literacy front will require new commitment, more money, and a closer collaboration by educators, employers, community groups, and government agencies. (1991, p. 128)

It should be clear that the work Bethune did both in the Modern period and beyond addressed these needs on several levels. As a sponsor of literacy, she worked directly first, by teaching under the guidance of others like Lucy Laney and then by starting her own school. Then she advocated for literacy by writing about education and literacy goals in her statement of her philosophy of education along with other writings in places where her ideas would be read, like the newspaper columns. Later, her sponsorship took her into larger venues. Her leadership and membership in various organizations and clubs like the NCNW provided another forum for her role as a sponsor of Black education. And finally, through her service later in life in the federal government, she advocated for educational opportunities for Blacks. Although improved literacy may not have been her explicitly stated goal, she certainly saw the connection of education and literacy in her own personal experience so her sponsorship was focused on literacy in the context of education broadly construed.←41 | 42→


One of the key characteristics of heroines is that they violate gender stereotypes in some way although sometimes performing the traditional female roles as they work toward their personal goals. Bethune’s personal life certainly fits here. On the traditional side, she married Albertus Bethune in 1897 when teaching at another school after her year at Haines, and had a child, Albert, in 1899. However, the couple ended up separated. They never divorced, but as Bethune became more involved in her work, Albertus was less willing to keep moving to follow her. He did go as far as Daytona, the last of several moves they would make together as traced by biographer Hanson. By 1908, the school in Daytona was well on its way, and Albertus went to South Carolina to live with his sister, having failed to establish any kind of business for himself in Florida. According to Hanson, he believed in a traditional nuclear family model where he should have been providing for his wife and child. He was unable to meet his own expectations, forced to abandon them while his wife succeeded. Meanwhile, Bethune decided to send son Albert to study with Lucy Laney at Haines, where she knew he would get a much better education than was available at any school in Daytona. Moreover, it was clear that Albert could not attend the school Bethune was building in Daytona, intended strictly for girls. Thus, Bethune functioned as a single mother. Even though she did not actually live with her husband while pursuing her goals (Hanson, 2003, pp. 51–55), she routinely asked to be addressed as “Mrs. Bethune.” It was a heroic way to present herself personally and professionally.

In other ways, too, Hanson demonstrates that Bethune qualifies not just as a heroine but as a “race woman,” a phrase coined by Higginbotham (1992, p. 267) to capture the work of those who focused their lives on racial and gender equality in American society. Bethune, Hanson says, was distinct from other leaders because she worked toward both of these goals (2003, pp. 1–4). Higginbotham’s thorough discussion of racial identity, including a variety of terms used for both racial and gender designation, is presented in the context of the long history of racism that reaches back to slavery, Jim Crow and Plessy, through to Contemporary times. This work of dealing with racism through education puts Bethune easily into the category of heroines. Her goals as an educator to provide both vocational and academic preparation are the tangible evidence of her status as a race woman, leader and heroine. It might also be fair to say that her work in education and as an antiracist reflects the intersectionality of her efforts, as that concept was defined in the opening chapter. Though Bethune’s primary work was as an ←42 | 43→educator, it crossed with her attempt to counter racism in schools and elsewhere (Crenshaw, 2000).

Two scholars, McCluskey and Gere, provide additional evidence of Bethune’s status as a heroine, demonstrating her use of networking to advance her goals in education and literacy to address the economic and social powerlessness of Blacks. First, scholar McCluskey discusses the networks among women of the Modern period. McCluskey’s study (2014) examines the lives and work of four women educators, living and working through the Modern period: Lucy Craft Laney, Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Each of them founded a school; they were in touch with one another over time, with Laney serving particularly as employer and supporter of Bethune as discussed earlier. McCluskey describes the four of them as working together to use mentoring and persistence (key elements of grit, according to Duckworth, 2016), organizational expertise and a sense of agency to reach their individual and collective goals (2014, p. 2). McCluskey writes that “[t]‌he networks of women that these charismatic founders developed were major contributors to the success they achieved” (2014, p. 119). This comment points clearly to the use of networking for heroism.

Anne Ruggles Gere (1997) presents a related view, suggesting that the women’s clubs in the Modern period sought to achieve a variety of goals above and beyond those of governmental organizations or social gatherings. The clubs were more organized, offering a focus on literacy development. Gere writes that they “used their own reading and writing to explore the contested relationship of literacy and citizenship” (1997, p. 22). For Blacks, the literacy focus was especially important, given the history of blocking slaves from learning to read and write. Thus, the clubs allowed them to work to “secure the power of literacy for members of their race” (1997, p. 22). Insofar as the key activities of women’s clubs, both Black and White were reading, writing about and talking about books, these organizations were important sponsors of literacy. Bethune’s participation and leadership in these national organizations demonstrates the ways in which she was a heroine whose focus directly and more generically was on literacy development and support for others.

Lessons for Contemporary Times

Mary McLeod Bethune’s work in education, literacy and politics demonstrates her heroic determination to focus on the needs of others from the very beginning ←43 | 44→of her adult life, showing how her grit countered the legal and social system of “separate but equal” that held sway for virtually her entire lifetime. While not a professional writer, her speeches, newspaper columns and other publications show that she was a skilled writer. She was able to use written language as an effective tool to make the case for her educational goals as a literacy exemplar. As an educator, she founded a school on a shoestring that went on to offer a K-16 education for African Americans in Florida where opportunities were seriously limited. She received sponsorship from Lucy Laney among others, relying on networking with other educators and leaders to serve as a sponsor of others across all of her educational efforts through the Modern period. Later, when called into government service under FDR, she was able to parlay her considerable experience as a writer, speaker, educator and activist to open up many opportunities for Blacks in leadership positions, wielding considerable influence, albeit informally, in the Black Cabinet as well as elsewhere in the government. Given all of this work, it is hardly surprising that she was repeatedly recognized with multiple honors (Hanson, 2003, p. 5).

The lessons from the life of Mary McLeod Bethune are lessons of grit, persistence, resilience, patience and pure effort, that were extraordinary considering the backdrop against which she worked. They show that despite a ferocious environment of racism in many aspects of life, such as schooling, transportation, and housing, she was able to make major contributions to improve the lives of Black people. She lived at a time when it was not as common for women to bypass gender stereotypes as it is now, and while she nominally filled the expected roles by marrying and becoming a mother, she also skipped the norms by sending her son to boarding school and separating from her husband. Many of her projects, like Bethune-Cookman University, and the National Council of Negro Women continue today showing the long-lived value of these efforts. She had clear goals, drawing on the courage of her convictions to achieve them in the face of obstacles of all kinds. It might be fair to say that she was the walking embodiment of Duckworth’s idea of grit (2016), and it paid off with significant success in all of her work that carries into Contemporary times. The key lesson is that individuals with grit of this kind can and should stick to their goals, since they have a substantial positive impact.

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 Gertrude Buck (1871–1922) and Rhetorical Theory and Practice

Figure 3.1:Gertrude Buck. Source: Michigan Women Forward/Hall of Fame (Improved image thanks to the Vassar College Special Collections Library.)

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It’s odd that when you go looking for material and information about Gertrude Buck, there’s almost nothing to find. Yes, a few books have been published some of which are revised versions of doctoral dissertations, though none very recently, but no biography or autobiography, no compilations of letters, no book arising from her dissertation (though it appeared as a kind of monograph published by her adviser). I even went to the Library of Congress where I thought I would surely find a trove of items but found few books beyond those readily available in university library searches. In conversation with a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, she suggested that maybe a biography of Buck should be my next writing project since no one else had done one, although Suzanne Bordelon’s close study of Buck’s publications offers a kind of intellectual biography. I consulted the librarian because I thought I must surely not be searching correctly, but she could not find any more material than I had already found myself. Of course, I knew from the start of my work on this chapter that there would be useful material at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where Buck earned her Ph.D., and between that material and the handful of published books and articles on Buck and her work, it is easy to make the case for her as an exemplar and sponsor of literacy, unquestionably a literacy heroine.

The other issue in trying to research the life and work of Gertrude Buck is that even Google Scholar queries of her name pull up various citations on topics she herself was interested in or wrote about, including assorted pedagogical matters, placement in writing courses, program administration and other issues, but few if any direct references to her work. And her life was in many ways unremarkable, at least till it ended at a relatively young age, so there’s little biographical background, even though she lived, worked, wrote and taught in a period of growth in education and intellectual engagement for women, employing her considerable literacy skills to the suffrage movement, to Progressive reform efforts, and to health care matters, above and beyond her direct literacy work. Still, a handful of scholars, feminist and otherwise, have taken a careful look at Buck’s life and contributions, including notably her part in making higher education accessible to women, offering a backdrop against which to examine her status as a literacy heroine.←48 | 49→

Issue of the Times

Because Buck spent her professional life as a faculty member and administrator at Vassar, a highly regarded women’s college in her time, it makes sense to look at the climate of higher education for women through the Modern period. Buck arrived at Vassar in 1897 according to editor JoAnn Campbell. She had been hired to run the writing program, that is, to be what is now called a writing program administrator (WPA). Though she hadn’t applied for the job, Buck’s dissertation had come to the attention of English department chair Laura Wylie, who offered her the position. Undoubtedly the same issues that plague Contemporary untenured WPAs would have created difficulties for Buck (cf. Dew & Horning, 2007). But Buck would go on to a full career at Vassar, so the landscape of higher education provides a sense of the times.

Key developments in the period 1880–1930 show that higher education was a hot area undergoing important growth and development, not only because of women like Buck going to college and then graduate school, but also because these women went on to have professional careers in academia. Professional organizations like the American Association of University Women (AAUW) were founded in the period (begun in 1881) among other developments like the expansion of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the acts of Congress that created the land-grant schools, and an array of issues around gender: the admission of women to higher education at all, separate colleges for women, co-education at public institutions and related questions. Part of how Buck qualifies as a literacy heroine is that she not only was herself highly educated and thus an exemplar, but also as a member of a college faculty, she served as a sponsor for literacy and other kinds of educational development in an era in which women and other underserved groups had increased access to postsecondary education. Her achievements led University of Michigan English and Education professor Anne Ruggles Gere to choose Buck’s name for her endowed chair in Ann Arbor in recognition of Buck’s contributions to Writing Studies as a field.

One example of the growth of educational access was the founding and development of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). It began, according to a history written by the founders when it celebrated its fiftieth year in 1931, as an association of women college graduates from public and private women’s and co-ed schools for supporting one another in “practical educational work” (Talbot & Rosenberry, 1931, p.12). Starting with 65 alumnae of eight colleges, it grew quickly to branches in about half a dozen major cities, offering research and advocacy on key issues of the time. Now, it is a national ←49 | 50→organization of 170,000 members supporting equity for women in education, employment, and other areas, according to its website (www.aauw.org). In its early work, the AAUW, first called the Association of College Alumnae, took on various educational issues, attempting to advocate for women’s preparation for and entry into higher education, as well as roles in administration and as faculty members (1931, pp. 193f.). The organization also undertook immediate research to show that higher education did not harm women’s health or fertility (1931, pp. 116–30), growing rapidly in the US and elsewhere (1931, pp. 338–400). Vassar, where Buck went to work, sent women to the very first meeting in 1881, so Buck stepped on to a campus where the AAUW had active members long before her arrival (1931, p. 17). The AAUW has continued to grow in membership and impact, as is clear from the work of East Carolina University historian Susan Levine (1995). However, even as women’s higher education was expanding in the Modern period, Anne Gere pointed out that Buck’s high level of education and her status as a professor were both very non-traditional (telephone interview, May 13, 2020).

The AAUW is only one indication of the widespread growth in higher education and related areas beginning in 1880 for women and more generally. Another is the HBCUs, which had begun before the Modern period, and in fact, a few had started much earlier in the 1800s according to education historians Jackson and Nunn (2003). They give a good working definition of HBCUs as a helpful starting point, saying that they are “private and public two-year, four-year, graduate, and professional degree institutions that were established specifically for the postsecondary education of people of African ancestry in the United States” (2003, p. 3). They report that most of the 103 HBCUs are in the South, having begun between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century (2003, p. 3). A few, like Cheyney University in Pennsylvania begun in 1837, Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1856 (where Mary Church Terrell taught briefly), and Lincoln University also in Pennsylvania in 1854, were begun before the Civil War but many more began during Reconstruction and the following decades. Also, some started as primary and/or secondary schools and then went on to develop a postsecondary curriculum and offer degrees at that level (Jackson & Nunn, 2003, pp. 3–13). An example of this kind of development is discussed elsewhere in this book, in Mary McLeod Bethune’s school begun in Daytona Beach in 1904, now Bethune-Cookman University. The HBCUs arise in part as a by-product of widespread discrimination lingering over the whole history of race relations, leading to the development of separate institutions.←50 | 51→

The HBCUs benefitted to some degree from the funding provided by Congress under the Morrill Acts to develop land-grant institutions of higher education around the country. The first Morrill Act in 1862 that established land-grant schools for Whites was followed by a second in 1890. The 1890 legislation specifically required that states that had segregated education develop schools for Blacks; the result was 19 land-grant HBCUs, 17 of which are still in existence, such as Delaware State and Virginia State among others. All the land-grant schools had an agricultural focus, but the HBCUs worked more on “vocational and technical teacher training” while the White land-grants focused more on research (Jackson & Nunn, 2003, p. 15). There are now 110 land-grant schools across the country according to Gavazzi and Gee, respected higher education administrators (2018, p. 39). Both the HBCUs and the larger land-grant movement provided expanding access to higher education for both Blacks and Whites. The University of Michigan where Buck got her Ph.D. was one of the original land-grant institutions and she was the first woman to earn a doctoral degree in Rhetoric at UM, as Gere noted in our conversation (telephone interview, May 13, 2020).

The development of the HBCUs is not meant to suggest that the educational situation or any other part of life for African Americans was good through the Modern period. Quite the contrary. The New York Times in 2019 undertook a major project to examine the events of the 400 years since the arrival of the first slaves. The 1619 Project, begun with a focused issue of its magazine section on August 18, 2019, shows clearly the ways in which life for African Americans in the US was extremely difficult. In the opening article by MacArthur fellow and Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, she points out that despite Reconstruction’s positive moves, there was widespread injustice, including Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, lynching, convict leasing, and employment discrimination among other forms of racism in the South. The result of these developments was, in the Modern period in the South and surely elsewhere, to make things worse rather than better for African Americans, particularly after the withdrawal of federal troops. She writes that the situation was so bad that “this period between the 1880s and the 1920s and 30s became known as the Great Nadir, or the second slavery” (2019, p. 21), as discussed in more detail in the Stowe chapter. So, the positive steps in the development the HBCUs are one force against the widespread racism, Jim Crow laws and other forms of mistreatment, but they do not address many of the underlying racial issues that persist to this day.

Discrimination was also not unique to African Americans; it impacted women as well. After attending the University of Michigan for both undergraduate and ←51 | 52→graduate degrees, Buck began her academic career at Vassar College, a small, private, liberal arts institution. Vassar is profiled in the work of University of Rochester history of education scholar Lynn Gordon. In her book on women’s higher education in the Modern period, Gordon points out the substantial growth in the numbers of women attending college, from 40,000 in 1880 to 481,000 in 1930, based on previously published reports (Gordon, 1990, p. 2). The landscape into which Buck stepped was changing substantively just as she arrived in higher education. According to Gordon, not only were there more women faculty and administrators, but the whole environment was changing:

At the women’s colleges, the 1890s marked the beginning of a new era, as faculty and students demanded an end to “seminary-like” regulations from the 1870s and 1880s, established extracurricular activities similar to those at the men’s colleges, and created reform organizations, such as settlement associations, corresponding to off-campus groups. (1990, pp. 3–4)

At the same time, most schools were predominantly White, Protestant and middle class, with the numbers of women attending coeducational institutions growing as the number attending single sex schools declined (Gordon, 1990, pp. 5–7). At the same time, though, the situation for women going into the professoriate was pretty dismal according to University of North Carolina historian Barbara J. Harris (1978). Women were limited in the professions (law, medicine) and while most of the Ph.D.s went into teaching, earning a third of the graduate degrees, only 4% got to the rank of full professor (1978, p. 138) by the 1920s. Despite these limitations, Anne Gere suggested to me that the growth of women’s educational attainment helped set them up to assume greater leadership roles later in their lives (telephone interview, May 13, 2020).

On and off campuses through the Modern period, the role of women was undergoing significant transformation as the social changes of the Progressive movement unfolded. Gertrude Buck lived and worked through this period and was right in the middle of these developments. While the focus of this chapter, like all the chapters in this book, is on a woman whose work on literacy made a substantial difference in the lives of others, the developments in the country at large that served as the backdrop for Buck’s work provide a pertinent framework for understanding her heroism. Particularly on the issue of suffrage, which Buck and partner Laura Johnson Wylie actively supported according to San Diego State University feminist rhetorician Suzanne Bordelon (2007, pp. 99–102), the campaign was part of a larger shift in the government. It should be clear that for both Black and White women, not only access to higher education, but also the ←52 | 53→understanding of women’s roles, their participation in the political process and many other aspects of their lives were in a significant process of transformation.


It’s fair to say that Gertrude Buck is of special interest to me as a fellow Michigander, since she was born and raised in Kalamazoo, on the west side of the state. Her early life is barely discussed in the few books about her (Bordelon, 2007; Campbell, 1996). While there is more information about her time as a student at the University of Michigan and as a faculty member at Vassar, there’s not much of a personal profile available. She was the daughter of a lawyer, so the idea of higher education was never in doubt. And she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007, though the webpage about her contains little background information (https://miwf.org/timeline/gertrude-buck/). It is clear that she wrote extensively, both professionally and creatively, publishing textbooks as well as poems and plays, the latter compiled by Wylie after her death.

Her biography in the Vassar College Encyclopedia is similarly limited in terms of information about her early life (http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/faculty/prominent-faculty/gertrude-buck%20.html). The Vassar information explains that she left Kalamazoo to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, earning her undergraduate degree in 1884, a Master’s in 1895 and a Ph.D. after study with Fred Newton Scott in 1898. She was Scott’s first doctoral student; later they would co-author at least one textbook together. Ann Arbor is less than two hours from Kalamazoo by car, so until she left for Vassar, she did not wander far from home. She did, however, teach English briefly at Indianapolis High School in 1897 while working on her Ph.D. During these years, Buck also spent time working with Fred’s sister, Harriet Scott, principal of the Detroit Normal Training School (which became Wayne State’s College of Education much later). According to Bordelon and Gere (telephone interview, May 13, 2020), Harriet Scott had a significant impact on Buck, leading to the development of the ideas in Organic Education, which they co-authored (1897). She began teaching at Vassar later in 1897, and never left for the rest of her career (Bordelon, 2007, pp. 17–18).

The Vassar Encyclopedia suggests that Buck was not a healthy woman for most of her life. She was a Christian Scientist and so refused medical treatment, even after a first stroke in 1921; a second stroke ended her life in 1922. She lived in Poughkeepsie with her “friend” Laura Wylie, also the person who hired her ←53 | 54→originally and thus, her boss, rather than living on the campus. It seems clear that they were more than “friends” though at the time such a relationship could not be enacted publicly; one consequence of the need to be careful about her private life probably helps to account for our limited knowledge of Buck’s life, as Anne Gere mentioned to me (telephone interview, May 13, 2020). The lack of biographical information does not undermine her status as a literacy heroine, since there is plenty in her professional life to show how she was an exemplar and sponsor of literacy.


Gertrude Buck’s professional work begins with her educational background at the University of Michigan. She earned all her degrees, as noted above, in Ann Arbor, culminating in her doctoral work under Fred Newton Scott. Scott was a colleague of John Dewey in Dewey’s relatively brief time at UM, and the two were friends. Both had an impact on Buck. Though she did not write an autobiography, Buck was a fairly prodigious writer of a range of different kinds of texts, reflecting her exemplary professional work as a rhetorician as well as her interest in creative writing and in theater. Keeping in mind that exemplars are so qualified based on their education, training, practice, experience and recognition by others, Buck’s education as well as her work in varied genres show that she is an exemplar of literacy.

Buck’s doctoral thesis offers the first clear evidence of her exemplary status, above and beyond the fact that she earned a Master’s and Ph.D. in Rhetoric at UM. The dissertation was a study on the nature of metaphor, arguing for a developmental view of radical and poetic metaphors. Early in the text, she writes this careful definition of the radical metaphor:

To put the whole matter into a sentence: Specialization in language follows at some distance specialization in thought; and the recognition of any expression once simple as metaphorical marks the social demand for a division of labor on the part of language which shall make it adequate to the growing differentiation of the thought it represents. If a definition be required, radical metaphor arises when a thought has outgrown its form of expression. It is the bursting forth of a doubly branching significance from the single sheath of language once adequate to contain it. (Buck, 1899, p. 18)

Building on her own careful metaphor of sheath and branch, she goes on to explain the further intellectual development that leads to a more sophisticated view of metaphor, the next step being poetic metaphors which are “vital”:

←54 | 55→The old rhetorical hypothesis may be sharply contrasted with the psychological by saying that the former started with two objects and hitched them together to make the figure, while the latter begins with a single object or situation, out of which develop the two elements in the metaphor. The one explanation conceives of metaphor as a mechanical product, like a box, whose parts, gathered from different sources are put together to make the whole. The other regards it as the result of a vital process, more like a plant or an animal, whose members grow from the same source, out of a homogeneous mass into a clearly differentiated structure. The one represents the biological, the other the mechanical conception of the metaphor. (Buck, 1899, p. 35)

Finally, she suggests that similes are the most developed form of thinking. Ultimately, metaphor serves readers in creating for them a “nicely adjusted, symmetrical, free yet unified exercise” (1899, p. 69) in reading or hearing and understanding ideas. Drawing on examples from poems and plays as well as from sources ranging from Cicero to Dewey, the dissertation is a tour de force of Buck’s knowledge of the history of rhetoric along with her wide reading of literature for examples to support her claims and her understanding of Dewey’s relatively new ideas from psychology. Ohio Northern University rhetorician Barbara Vivian writes: “For Buck, metaphor was not a mechanical device contrived for effect, but a natural aspect of language and perceptual development” (1994, p. 103). The dissertation served as a starting point for Buck’s exemplary work as a literacy heroine, which continued with a substantial set of textbooks, accompanied by her own creative writing.

It seems clear that Buck did not set out to join the textbook writing industry, with multiple editions, which then as now incorporate updates and improvements in content and format (such as rhetorician John Genung’s Practical Elements of Rhetoric published in 1886 with various later editions, as discussed in my earlier book (2018)). However, she did write or co-author seven textbooks clearly for teaching writing, according to Campbell’s compilation and more than a dozen scholarly articles on a range of topics including rhetorical theory, suffrage, literature and other topics (1996, pp. 283–84). So she was a prodigious and successful writer. The excerpts from her dissertation above demonstrate her ability to present her ideas effectively. An early article published in 1903 shortly after she completed her dissertation provides further support for her exemplary skill as a writer. In “The Foundations of English Grammar Teaching” she writes:

We come, then, face to face with the foundations of English grammar. It rests upon some definite conceptions of language-function and language-structure, the ←55 | 56→former ultimately determining the latter. The function of language as thought-com- munication is a faith all but universally professed, though at times it may be with the lips only. There is no such agreement as to the structure of language. To some writers it is essentially organic, to others inorganic or mechanical; the difference referring directly to different notions of the structure of thought itself. (Buck, 1903, pp. 486–87)

Here and elsewhere in her writings, Buck tries to provide a view of grammar and the teaching of writing that is very much ahead of her time. Gere shared a similar appraisal of Buck with me in our conversation (telephone interview, May 13, 2020).

She argues carefully for an organic view of writing, condemning the use of sentence diagramming and other mechanical approaches, advocating a process that focuses on audience and purpose in ways Contemporary teachers would easily understand. In his detailed study of a number of her papers and books, DePaul University rhetoric scholar Gerald Mulderig says that

Buck’s organic theory of language and her rejection of the assumptions underlying sentence diagramming also call to mind modern studies that have defined the nonlinear and idiosyncratic nature of the composing process. … For Buck, in fact, it was only a short step from viewing language organically to conceiving of the practice of writing in general as properly guided by intrinsic forces rather than externally imposed rules. (1984, p. 98)

She wanted students to have their own purposes for writing, addressing real audiences rather than just the teacher. She also suggested what Contemporary teachers do routinely: have students read one another’s work and provide feedback. She was years ahead with these ideas.

Buck also saw writing as an explicitly social enterprise, leading to direct connection between writer and reader. She takes up this point in detail in a short article that appeared in Modern Language Notes in 1900. Reaching all the way back to Plato, she writes about how the speaker and hearer or writer and reader were thought to interact in discourse, whether spoken or written. Finally, she comes to this point: “Both the Platonic and the modern theory of discourse make it not an individualistic and isolated process for the advantage of the speaker alone, but a real communication between speaker and hearer, to the equal advantage of both, and thus a real function of the social organism” (Buck, 1900, qtd. in Ritchie & Ronald, 2001, p. 217). She was able to use ancient rhetorical concepts ←56 | 57→to offer her thoroughly modern and highly ethical view of how written communication could make real connections between writer and reader.

Further support for Buck’s role as exemplar comes from Bordelon’s study of her feminist ethics. Bordelon points out that her

… ethical perspective aimed at eliminating hierarchies and power imbalances. Since she viewed society as a dynamic, interactive social organism, Buck’s ethics underscored participation, relationships, and interdependence. This perspective was central to her feminism and her rhetoric, which challenged male/female hierarchies, revised tradition approaches to rhetoric, and sought social transformation. (2007, p. 2)

These views impacted not only her teaching but also her writing as well as other activities. Her writing skills specifically extend beyond textbooks and scholarly articles that were and still are, given her personal philosophy, similarly well ahead of their time. A poet and playwright of some ability, her creative work was largely compiled after her death by partner Laura Wylie (Campbell, 1996). Wylie provides a laudatory five-page preface to the collection. The credits in the collection make clear that the poems were published in a variety of venues both at Vassar and beyond (Buck, 1922). Buck wrote a one-act play that shows her feminist views as the main character is a single woman caring for an ill older sister, according to Campbell (1996, p. xii). Her feminist views are also reflected in some limericks published during her lifetime (p. xii), not included in Wylie’s collection, but reflective of her general style while making a satirical comment on the suffrage issue:

A delicate Angora cat
Had whiskers: but pray, what of that?
“I don’t want to vote,”
To a friend she once wrote:
“My place is at home on the mat.”
“Let me hold the umbrella my dear,”
Mrs. Hen said to kind Chanticleer.
“Tis man’s privilege, love.”
And he held it above
His own head, so it dripped in her ear.
(Qtd. in Campbell, 1996, p. xxvii)

←57 | 58→

These lines in a limerick suggest Buck’s willingness to make fun in support of suffrage. Her support was clear in her activities at Vassar like sponsoring speakers and her involvement in the community efforts on the issue in Poughkeepsie; this limerick is a swipe at those opposing it.

In the Poems and Plays volume, Wylie offers this careful interpretation of Buck’s work:

Ideas took on with her the sharpness of individual existences; when most far-reaching they were seen in relation to the real life of real people. In even casual meetings, she was quick to recognize the unique qualities of personality. The generalization thus embodied to her the richness of concrete experience; the concrete experience was illumined with the ideas it visualized or illustrated. … Conclusions never remained in her mind as mere conclusions, but became at once vital and active realities, living forces working for the discovery of ever-new truths. (Wylie qtd. in Buck, 1922, n.p.)

While it might be fair to say that this positive commentary is not surprising, given Buck and Wylie’s close relationship, Wylie seems to make a useful connection between Buck the person and Buck the writer. The notes here on generalizations, perceptions and conclusions show that Wylie found Buck to be an astute observer and careful thinker. These qualities appear in both the creative and scholarly work Buck did.

This point was reinforced in my telephone interview with San Diego State University rhetorician and Buck scholar Suzanne Bordelon (personal communication, October 28, 2019). Bordelon marveled at the sheer quantity of writing that Buck did, considering that she was a faculty member, administrator, theater director, suffragist and engaged community member. It’s not clear how she had time to do all that she did. However, Buck was evidently deeply committed to seeing writing as essential to communication in relationships; conveying this idea in her own writing and teaching was a key goal. The point here is that Buck was a creative writer in addition to her scholarly research and in addition to the textbooks she produced largely for her own classes and those of other faculty. One of the textbooks, co-authored with her dissertation director Fred Newton Scott, would surely have entailed some of the continuous improvement and feedback essential to exemplars. She was thus a published writer of both academic and creative texts, recognized for her writing ability. The sheer volume of her writing, according to Bordelon (2007, pp. 213–15), makes clear her exemplary status as a writer and scholar.←58 | 59→


Sponsorship as Brandt has defined it entails both giving and receiving support for literacy activities usually to gain some kind of advantage, though in some cases it can entail the suppression of literacy. It’s not entirely clear what advantage Buck gained by serving as a sponsor of literacy at Vassar, though she was promoted relatively quickly to senior academic rank. And of course, she evidently benefitted significantly from her relationship with Wylie: Wylie hired her, presumably supported her promotion, and lived with her, plenty of profits. Through her teaching, administrative work and development of the theater program at Vassar and in the community, Buck served as a sponsor of literacy for students, faculty and Poughkeepsie residents.

Campbell discusses the history of the Vassar English Department in the context of the relationship between Buck and Laura Wylie, the chair who hired her. They worked together very effectively, apparently, with Wylie advocating for smaller class sizes, more pay for Buck and other goals. While elsewhere, then as now, English departments were separating their writing courses (called rhetoric then and sometimes now) from literature courses, Wylie opted for keeping both areas, plus courses on the history and structure of the language (aka linguistics) together in one department for the sake of efficiency (Wylie qtd. in Campbell, 1996, p. xxiii). She also off-loaded a lot of administrative work on Buck in addition to a hefty teaching load:

During Buck’s first semester at Vassar, 1897–98, she taught four sections of the required argumentation class, one section of advanced composition/description, a section of freshman English, and an independent study graduate course. Second semester found her with the same schedule plus a section of advanced argumentation and oral debate. She continued with seven courses each semester until 1902, when she was promoted to associate professor and her teaching load was dropped to four courses each semester. In addition to teaching, Buck’s duties included directing the first-year English program, maintaining relations with secondary schools, organizing department lectures, and serving on various university committees and national committees, such as NCTE’s committee to revise grammatical terminology. (Campbell, 1996, p. xxix)

Since she served as both instructor and administrator, it is clear that Buck was thoroughly engaged as a sponsor of literacy in the English department at Vassar.←59 | 60→

Bordelon also points out that Buck and Wylie worked together for 24 years, using a “collaborative model of administration that encouraged members of the English Department to take an active role” (2007, p. 11). In this role as well as her involvement with NCTE, Buck was a sponsor of literacy for students and colleagues alike. I can, having done the kind of work that Buck did as the writing program administrator at my institution for ten years, testify to the ways being a WPA offers the opportunity for sponsorship of literacy, mostly indirectly: hiring instructors, training and guiding their work in the classroom, reviewing their performance and addressing student complaints, along with developing curriculum and sometimes choosing textbooks. Thus, the WPA has substantial influence over students’ literacy development based on what happens in the classroom. If Buck had regular staff meetings and offered professional development workshops and such, she also had an impact on the faculty themselves, perhaps recommending or requiring common readings to help faculty help students. Her role as WPA, then, offered her ways to sponsor literacy directly and indirectly for both students and faculty.

A further way in which Buck sponsored literacy was through the textbooks that she wrote or co-authored or co-edited with other colleagues. The University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library has copies of several of Buck’s textbooks. Despite the theoretical views presented in her articles, the textbooks seem remarkably traditional. In both Argumentative Writing and Expository Writing, the latter co-authored with a colleague, Buck presents traditional terminology and examples, followed by exercises for the students to develop their own essays. The text co-authored with Fred Newton Scott, A Brief English Grammar from 1907, looks remarkably like a traditional English grammar book. It’s quite similar to something like Warriner’s English Grammar, a series for middle and high school students widely used from the 1940s to the 1980s or later (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warriner%27s_English_Grammar_and_Composition). It explains the basics of English grammar and punctuation followed by exercises, essentially a teaching text very much like Warriner’s.

At the time, Buck’s texts would have been standard, typical textbooks for writing classes. But the textbooks are a kind of teaching, offering literacy sponsorship to the students who used them and indirectly to the faculty who taught from them. Bordelon points out that Buck’s influence goes far beyond these texts in any case, shown in her discussion of two of Buck’s students, Mary Yost and Helen Lockwood. Both of them got undergraduate degrees at Vassar, studying with Buck and Laura Wylie, and returned to teach there, showing that these intellectual heirs to Buck continued her ideas of “encouraging feminist teaching practices that fostered democratic communication, activism, and broader intellectual ←60 | 61→and social responsibility for women” (Bordelon, 2007, p. 154). Bordelon pointed out to me that Yost went on to be a senior administrator at Stanford later in her career (personal communication, Nov. 25, 2019). Bordelon also shows in her book that Buck’s approach to teaching involved democratic ethics of equality and cooperation. She says that Buck “wanted her students to be active, critical citizens who would recognize and work against systems of dominance and oppression” (2007, p. 11) in their writing and beyond college.

A similar take on the ways that education could deal with more than traditional exercises appeared much earlier in Buck’s co-authored text with Harriet Scott in Detroit on Organic Education (1899). There the authors make clear that beyond the traditional requirements grammar and other parts of the curriculum, like, say learning the multiplication tables or dates and facts from history, students should develop their own interests and be guided on ethical issues, learning to think clearly and critically while exploring topics as their curiosity and interests might suggest (Scott & Buck, 1899, pp. 22–23). Teaching in this way would surely involve reading and writing an assortment of types of texts, an indirect sponsorship of literacy. Literacy scholar Anne Gere characterized this view and much of Buck’s textbook material as very “forward looking and rhetorically informed,” strong positive features of the work of a literacy sponsor (telephone interview, May 13, 2020).

Beyond direct and indirect sponsorship through teaching, running the writing program, and writing books, Buck was also active in theater, serving as a literacy sponsor through the development of the theater program first at Vassar and later in Poughkeepsie. Her involvement in theater activities began when she completed a workshop at Radcliffe led by George Pierce Baker (1919) that focused on playwriting and production. She attended the workshop in 1915–1916 according to the Vassar College Encyclopedia (http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/faculty/prominent-faculty/gertrude-buck%20.html). Bordelon mentions that she spent a full year studying with Baker (2007, p. 129). Upon her return to Vassar, she initiated a playwriting course and a student theater group to perform works written in the course. One production involved the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a Vassar student at the time. It should be clear that the playwriting course and theater group were another manifestation of her sponsorship through teaching, particularly since she saw the drama workshop she created at Vassar as “an extension of the classroom” (qtd. in Bordelon, 2007, p. 26). These efforts were quite successful, with eight plays by students presented in off-campus venues by 1919 (2007, p. 26). By encouraging students to write plays and read to perform them, Buck sponsored literacy on stage as well as in classes. Gere suggested that Buck saw writing as “performative” following an observation by Stanford ←61 | 62→rhetorician Andrea Lunsford (https://community.macmillan.com/community/the-english-community/bedford-bits/blog/2016/06/23/writing-as-performance), meaning that writing can accomplish action in the real world, so the connection to theater made sense to her (telephone interview, May 13, 2020).

And then she expanded this role and connection by founding a theater group in the Poughkeepsie community. The connection allowed her to join the campus to the community, as the Vassar Encyclopedia records:

The Workshop inspired Professor Buck to fuse her campus and community efforts by founding the Poughkeepsie Community Theatre. President MacCracken observed, “She had long carried on her plan of an association with the community by residence on Market Street and by participation in town life. She wished now to bring Poughkeepsie the fine art of drama in connection with the little theatre movement.” With the Community Theatre, Buck hoped to create an environment in which all social classes worked together to find self-expression. (http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/faculty/prominent-faculty/gertrude-buck%20.html)

Bordelon explains that Buck’s participation in the founding of these theater groups, both the student group at Vassar and the community group in Poughkeepsie was part of a national Little Theater movement going on around the country in the early 20th century. A similar theater group was developed as part of the programming of the Hull House settlement house under Jane Addams’s direction, discussed elsewhere in this book (Bordelon, 2007, p. 126), and yet another example appears at the Henry Street Settlement founded by Lillian Wald and also discussed elsewhere in this book. But the community/college connection was an especially crucial focal point for Buck. Vastly anticipating the Contemporary work in community literacy, Buck and other literacy heroines used putting on plays to support and sponsor literacy. For Buck at Vassar, both theatrical productions and other points of contact and connection offered an opportunity for the college to garner support in both tangible and intangible ways (2007, pp. 129–32). Thus, theater work was yet another form of sponsorship through a literacy-related activity in which Buck took the lead. Like her work in teaching, administration and writing, Buck supported and encouraged literacy in all the work that she did.


Gertrude Buck was unique in a number of ways though she may not appear distinct from others doing similar work at the same time. However, there is plenty ←62 | 63→of evidence that her work was exemplary; just her track record of publications in both scholarly and creative realms bears out this claim. Her sponsorship of student literacy is clear through her teaching as well as her leadership of the Vassar writing program; her work with the playwriting course that led to her community theater involvement offers further evidence of her role as a sponsor of literacy. Above and beyond these features, her life offers other reasons to consider her a literacy heroine. She evidently led quite an unconventional life on a number of dimensions. For instance, like some other women in this study, Buck’s college and graduate degrees distinguish her from most women of her time. Writing in the AAUP Bulletin, Walter Eells shows that 182 women were awarded doctorates in the last decade of the 19th century; he lists a total of nine from University of Michigan between 1886 and 1899, including Buck (1956, p. 648, 650). In the 19th century altogether, 42 doctorates were in English. She also distinguished herself by being the first Ph.D. student of Fred Newton Scott, a highly respected rhetorician and leader at UM and in both NCTE and the MLA, according to feminist rhetorician Lisa Mastrangelo (2012, p. 37). These organizations were and still are the principal national organizations for those teaching English. So Buck studied with a top leader in the field in one of the key programs offering the Ph.D. in rhetoric. In addition to these atypical features of her education, what makes Buck a literacy heroine is that she was committed to helping others, especially women, since Vassar was all female at the time, through literacy.

Buck’s personal life is another area in which she was unconventional, as she violated gender stereotypes. Some of the other heroines discussed elsewhere in this book managed to take on traditional roles but work outside the home in addition. Unlike them, Buck was in a non-traditional relationship with Laura Wylie and did not have children. It’s not clear that she was Lesbian, but given the fact that these women lived and worked together for many years, it seems at least possible if not likely. They chose to live in the town of Poughkeepsie rather than in the protected environment on campus, perhaps to protect their privacy, or perhaps because they did not feel the need of protection that campus housing might have provided. It is, in any case, a choice that suggests independence of spirit, again unconventional for the times. Heroines typically show many of these features of an unconventional life.

Professor Bordelon suggested to me that the “heroine” designation might be somewhat problematic (telephone interview, October 28, 2019). Buck probably would not have been comfortable with such a status; she would certainly not have seen herself as a heroine in any sense. However, she clearly thought it was important for women to have a say in current issues and such, leading her to support the ←63 | 64→suffrage movement in active ways. But at the same time, Bordelon noted that Buck and other women of her time seemed to know that they were doing distinctive and important work on a number of fronts. This awareness led to some sense of responsibility for Buck and others, including those at the other “Seven Sisters” women’s colleges, to keep records of what they were doing. The result is that there are documents, files, artifacts and other materials in the archives at Vassar, at the University of Michigan, and elsewhere, along with the public books and articles published by Buck and others. These materials remain available to Contemporary scholars. Indeed, record of a session on at the national convention of college writing teachers from 1987, which included Buck scholars Gerald Mulderig and Joanne Campbell, appears in a folder of correspondence about Buck shared with me by University of Michigan rhetorician Anne Ruggles Gere. So records of her work and influence suggest that Buck’s work continued to be of interest long after her death.

Finally, it seems clear that Gertrude Buck had a high level of grit and resilience. As defined in the opening chapter, based on the work of Angela Duckworth, grit includes focus, perseverance, goal-setting, hard work combined with deliberate practice, determined hope, and passion (2016, p. 55). Through her work on her doctorate, followed by full-time teaching and administrative work, Buck shows her focus and perseverance. Her numerous publications suggest a willingness to work hard; given her teaching load and the amount of time administrative work can take, it is amazing that she found time to write publishable scholarly articles and books, much less poetry and plays. Finally, when she began the work on theater activities both on campus and in town, the projects involved must have required strong persistence and optimistic confidence of the ultimate success of the enterprise. For all these reasons, Gertrude Buck stands out as a literacy heroine.

Lessons for Contemporary Times

While Buck’s early life does not seem to have been particularly remarkable and while her adult life seems to have been quite private and protected from public view, she embodies the key features of literacy heroines, offering lessons for Contemporary times. Despite a significant teaching load along with other assigned work, she managed to publish both textbooks and other scholarly materials, entirely self-motivated. While some might scoff at the idea that anyone can enjoy the benefits of hard work and success, the lesson here is that high levels of effort do pay off. Evidently, given Wylie’s attempt to increase Buck’s pay, the rewards were not necessarily financial, but were in the satisfactions of being an ←64 | 65→exemplary writer and a teacher/administrator who provided sponsorship for students and others. As Duckworth (2016) makes clear, internal motivation, without tangible rewards, is one of the features of the grit shown by Buck. Literacy heroines show that hard work driven by intrinsic motivation fosters the achievement of personal goals.


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