"Reading and writing ourselves into being--then what?": The literacy of certain nineteenth-century young women

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Reading and Language Arts


Peter B. Mosenthal


nineteenth century

Subject Categories

Sociology | Women's Studies


The purpose of this study was to examine the intersection of literacy and gender in the lives and correspondence of a group of fortunate, mid-nineteenth-century young women, especially as this intersection related to issues of power and gender construction. Based upon the insights of Harvey Graff (1987), revisionist literacy historian, literacy's role as an unequivocally liberatory force in the lives of those of secondary status is questioned. Because literacy is a significant vehicle of socialization (Berger & Luckmann, 1966) and gender construction (de Lauretis, 1987), understanding literacy's role and meaning in the lives of young women can reveal how they constructed themselves through their reading and writing practices as well as how they may have been engendered by the constricting (and liberatory) discourses of their day.

Preserved in the Osborne Collection in the Special Collections Library of Syracuse University, the documents of this study--over 300 letters as well as relevant account books and journals--were uncovered among the correspondence of the male professionals of the Wright/Mott/Osborne family.

Methodologically, to determine what meaning literacy had in the lives of these young women, two approaches were taken. The first was a content analysis of their letters, and the second was the development of a context of understanding around their literacy practices. This development of a context of understanding was two-pronged. First, it consisted of gathering information concerning the actual texts read--books, journals, newspapers. Secondly, it consisted of connecting the reading and writing practices of these young women with contemporary feminist research.

Three major themes emerged from this study: literacy's complex and abundant status in the lives of these young women; the gifts they provided to themselves through their literacy practices; and the double-edged nature of literacy's role in their lives. These themes illustrate the rich complexities and contradictions which have been literacy's concomitants throughout history (Graff). These themes illustrate, too, the importance of addressing close attention to women's literacy's productions and practices as well as literacy's role as a technology of gender (de Lauretis), both in constructing and reproducing gendered inequalities.


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