Gender Equity Begins with Literacy

By the time Donna reached junior high, she knew the secret to getting a C—be quiet, sit in the back, don’t make a stink, and show up. For over forty years, Donna kept hidden the fact that she could not read and write well. No one at the law firm where she worked as a bookkeeper knew. Her closest friends and family didn’t know. After all, she was a high school graduate from a predominantly middle-class community. She even had a business college certificate, so who would have ever guessed that Donna was reading at below a fourth grade level?

As Donna’s case illustrates, one cannot assume that because someone has a high school diploma or a higher education degree that she is literate. In fact, according to the ABC News report, Living in the Shadow: Illiteracy in America, “Seven million Americans are illiterate, 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application, and 30 million can’t read a simple sentence.” The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) reports 30 million individuals have below basic level literacy skills and 63 million have only a basic level of literacy proficiency—that’s 93 million individuals in the United States who have low or limited literacy skills.

With reports indicating that more girls graduate from high school than boys, and women dominating the ranks of college graduates, it is tempting to think women’s literacy is an issue that has been addressed.  The startling global reality is that more than half of the world’s illiterate are women. Although the last 20 years have witnessed a slight closing of the gender gap [PDF], there are areas in which cultural and economic barriers still prevent more women from becoming literate than men.

Within the U.S., according to the NAAL, women make up 54 percent of those in the U.S. who perform at the lowest level—below basic—defined as not illiterate but lacking the skills to use printed and written information to function in today’s technologically sophisticated society [PDF]. This means that 12 percent of women in the U.S. do not have the reading proficiencies necessary to read and comprehend this blog post, or instructional materials, brochures, books, magazines and news stories.

The institutional oppressions that women face because of their gender are compounded when they are print challenged. Mev Miller, the founder and coordinator of WE LEARN (Women Expanding Literacy Education Action Resource Network), the only U.S. national organization devoted to addressing specifically women’s adult basic education and literacy needs, explains:

Lack of functional literacy skills or limited educational attainment directly hinder women’s full participation in society. Women with higher literacy understand and have better healthcare, find more solutions out of violent or abusive situations, advocate for their children and families, and have access to better-paying jobs. They are more likely to vote and become active citizens. Literacy and basic education, then, are significant factors supporting women’s empowerment and leadership in families and communities.

She believes that women with limited education and literacy have been shut-out and ignored by society for far too long. A national week devoted to adult education and family literacy indicates this may be changing.

Recognizing the need to raise public awareness of adult and family literacy, the U.S. House of Representatives and supported by the National Coalition for Literacy, declared September 13-19, 2010 Adult Education and Family Literacy Week. So far, this dedication is a one-time only effort: but it is an opportunity to assist adult learners in need of literacy services and support increased access to adult education and family literacy programs by increasing awareness.

We often equate “smartness” with reading, but Donna’s story demonstrates how smart one can be without it. She learned to navigate and maneuver the world without being able to read most of the things in it.

Professor and women’s adult literacy scholar, Lorna Rivera, points out the need to challenge the stereotypes we currently hold of adult literacy learners—infantilized, helpless, dependent, vulnerable. Like Donna, there are the millions of articulate, strong, yet invisible women who are affected by low literacy and limited education. The problem extends across age, ability, race, and class boundaries, although certain patterns emerge: 46 percent of the adults identified as America’s least literate have one or more disability, 63 percent are people of color, 44 percent are below the poverty threshold, and 35 percent are people who only spoke Spanish before starting school [See PDF, table 4.1].

In addition to a national week devoted to raising the awareness, the next step needed is for the Reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, Title II (WIA-II), also known as the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA). The law was scheduled for reauthorization in 2003, but, largely due to issues concerning other parts of the legislation, has not yet been reauthorized. Thankfully, due to advocacy efforts in the adult literacy field, Congress is now working to reauthorize WIA. The legislation would, among other things, coordinate an adult education, literacy, and work skills system designed to better and more broadly serve adult students [see PDF]. And good news came on September 9, 2010 when Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY) began sponsoring an Adult Literacy Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For the millions of Americans in need of adult literacy services, reauthorization cannot come soon enough. More than 51 million out of school youth and adults in this country lack their GED® credential or high school diploma, 29 million are in need of English Language Services [PDF], and about half of the adult workforce lack the basic communication skills and education required to obtain a job that pays a living wage. Current adult education services meet the needs of only 3 million adults annually–a much lower number than the 80 to 90 million adults that need them–and were not designed for the global economic challenges of today [PDF].

Want to get involved? Follow the reauthorization of WIA and let Congress know the changes you want to see ( Lend your support by becoming a member of the Women Expanding Literacy Education Action Resource Network-WE LEARN (

Photo from user dougbelshaw through Creative Commons License 2.0


  1. I always assumed that girls were more literate than boys, in general. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how many men can get so much wrong ("summery" v. "summary"; "whitch" v. "which", the whole "there, their, they're" thing and so on), and yet can excel in programming in which non-intuitive synatax is crucial.

  2. These statistics were staggering. We focus so much on the illiteracy around the globe, but here we have our own literary issues to overcome.

    • dominiquechlup says:

      I'm glad the statistics I compiled for the article are helping to educate individuals about the state of women's literacy in the U.S. I still think it's important to focus on women's literacy across the globe as well as here in the U.S., but your point is well taken. Thanks for commenting.

  3. dominiquechlup says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read my article and post a comment. I appreciate your point that one often assumes girls are more literate than boys. I think this is often the case, which is why I hope my article will help to bring some attention to the state of women's literacy. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  4. This article was very insightful. Thank you for shedding some light on such an important topic.

  5. Dominique,
    What a great article! I shared it with my Facebook friends.

  6. And literate mothers lead to literate children. So women's literacy is really the key to leaving "no child behind".

  7. Deya Garcia says:

    Great article, people need to be aware of this issue. I recently read somewhere that there are over 800 million illiterate adults in the world and that more than 500 are women. I was shocked to say the least. I thought it was much less. Obviously this has a direct impact on gender equity in all levels of society.

    • dominiquechlup says:

      I agree the statistics of low literacy and illiteracy are staggering. That's one of the reasons I was so motivated to write this piece for Ms. I really hope folks will see these stats and choose to get involved. And for those individuals who devote their time and advocacy efforts to adult and famiily literacy, I hope they'll feel validated that they are doing very important work.

  8. Dominique,
    This article is so timely! Today my class is discussing learning and literacy and I definitely plan to share!

  9. kathryn murdock says:

    Hooray – well said. Let’s not confine it to reading and writing – there are all kinds of literacy – financial, cultural are two other areas that are of prime improtance to women. It is and always has been the woman of any society which tells the most about that society. We need all women to be literate in all aspects of life.

    • dominiquechlup says:

      I sincerely appreciate your insight that it's about addressing women's literacies across all aspects of life. Well said!

  10. Great article. I am sharing it on linked in and facebook. Thanks to Ms Magazine for reporting on important issues such as this!

  11. Bravo Mev Miller – I checked out your WE LEARN website – thanks for what you do to raise awareness of this important issue and making a difference for women and literacy who benefit from your organization!

  12. Great article! And I especially commend Mev Miller for the work she is doing to address women's literacy needs!

  13. I am so glad to see Ms. Magazine reporting on such an important issue, especially as it pertains to women. Thank you!

  14. Thanks, Dominique, for sharing this article. It is timely, coming this week, indeed, but it is also important the other 51 weeks of the year. The problem of illiteracy in general, and of illiterate mothers in particular, is overwhelming and few people have an idea of just how much this impacts our educational system, our safety net, social justice and the economy. Thanks for your support of the cause.

  15. It is interesting how individuals who are low literate such as Donna live in somewhat of a "shadow land" where they create an environment where they cannot be identified. They have created spaces so properly that no one can recognize their inability to read and comprehend. While these people have created a form of protection, it has to be stressful sometimes. The idea of always worrying about who will find out ican be an awful feeling I would imagine.

  16. Melissa Poehnert says:

    As a woman who comes from a working-class background who has earned a master's degree, I regard literacy access as a fundamental issue of social justice. I overcame many obstacles to continue my education. I credit my persistence along with a small community of people who supported me for my success. Too often I see a divide between women who have succeeded in the education system and reap the benefits, and women who continue to suffer from the direct consequences of sexism, racism, and classism. I try to recognize my relative privilege and fight to break down these obstacles. Ms. Chlup's thoughtful blog focuses much-needed attention on the reality of many women in the U.S. who have been made invisible by the myth that everyone in this country has equal access to quality education.

  17. Thanks, Dominique, for this wonderful and to-the-point article! This information is hidden from the general public.

  18. Dominique,

    This is a great article. I had no clue there were so many people unable to read and write. When do you think the education system broke down so badly? Can we "fix it" to the point where no new people enter the workforce unprepared as the ones you describe had to do?

    I sincerely hope those in positions to help pay attention and take action because with numbers like these, Americans are going to fall further and further behind other countries in the world, too.

    Thank you for writing the article and bringing this information to light.


  19. Mary Comstock says:

    This is so obviously needed to equalize for the sake of future generations. Why are our most important resource (mothers) the least educated?

  20. What an insightful article! Dominique–thanks for supporting this worthy case. I hope it opens some eyes to the problem, and ultimately helps with a solution. I'm sharing it with my facebook friends and others in my circle.

  21. anonymous says:

    what a great graphic and insightful article!

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