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March 11, 2021

40 Amazing Daguerreotype Portraits of Women Posing With Their Books From the Mid-19th Century

Women formed a large and increasing part of the new novel-reading public. The traditional discrepancy between male and female literacy rates was narrowed, and finally eliminated by the end of the 19th century. The gap had always been the widest at the lowest end of the social scale.

Perhaps more women than we realize could already read. The signature test, commonly used by historians to measure literacy, hides from view all those who could read, but were still unable to sign their own name. This group was essentially female. The Catholic Church had tried as far as possible to encourage people to read, but not to write. It was useful for parishioners to be able to read the Bible and their catechism, but the ability to write as well might have given peasants an undesirable degree of independence in the eyes of the clergy. Perhaps for this reason, many women could read but not sign or write. In some families, there was a rigid sexual division of literary labour, according to which the women would read to the family, while the men would do the writing and account-keeping.

Although feminist movements at the end of the 18th century had tried to set up precedents for women’s reading, 19th century models for the ideal women concentrated on activity, for instance charity work and above all motherhood. The only reading advocated for women was as part of educating their children or running their households. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was first published in 1861. Although novel reading was common among leisured women, it was somewhat looked down on, unless the text was of a serious or ‘improving’ nature.


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