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Literacy Heroines

Women and the Written Word


Alice S. Horning

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

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9 Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), Social Justice and the Anti-lynching Movement


Figure 9.1:Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, New York Public Library.

←169 | 170→NOTE : Following the lead of historian Mia Bay, I refer to Ida B. Wells-Barnett as Ida B. Wells or just Wells throughout for the sake of simplicity and smooth expression. She was married to Ferdinand Lee Barnett in 1895 and used a hyphenated name thereafter (Bay, 2009, pp. 214–216).

With Ida B. Wells, there is, as in some other chapters, the happy problem of a remarkable amount of material, including an autobiography. Naturally with a journalist and activist, this situation is not surprising, since writing was Wells’s stock in trade. Wells was a feminist, suffragist (whose work was recognized in a mosaic mural at Union Station in Washington DC on the 100th anniversary of the suffrage amendment to the Constitution in 2020; see and one of the founders of the NAACP who published extensively as part of the anti-lynching movement; she also taught at some rural schools as well as in Memphis early in her career. The Library of Congress offers this capsule summary of her life:

Ida B. Wells-Barnett … fiery journalist, women’s rights activist, and civil rights militant—is best known for her anti-lynching crusade. She mobilized public opinion against lynching through her newspaper editorials, pamphlets, clubs, and lecture tours in the Northern United States and Great Britain. She also served as secretary of the...

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