Working Literacies: Gender, Labor, and Literacy in Early Modern England

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link





“Working Literacies” explores the literacy abilities and practices of early modern working women, paying attention to the ways that ideologies of patriarchy and labor as well as the institutionalization of poor relief mediated their engagements with literacy. By examining little-studied archival material such as administrative records, literary ephemera, and petitions, “Working Literacies” nuances assumptions about working women's (il)literacy in the period, showcasing the multiple layers of literate ability that women leveraged as available means in making arguments about their lives as economically precarious workers in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. In centering the reading and composing habits of pre-modern working women, this dissertation provides historical depth to intricate relationships of gender and class in histories of rhetorical education, economic systems, and labor activism.In my three major chapters, I analyze little-studied literacy artifacts of three sites: 1) curricular and administrative materials from charity schools and orphanages; 2) ephemeral reading materials such as popular chapbooks and ballads; and 3) petitions that address working conditions for women. Although these sites may seem disparate, they present compelling evidence about the literacy of working women at different points in their lives: learning literacy skills, reading as evidence of literacy, and the use of those literacies in the act of petitioning. Furthermore, “Working Literacies” illuminates that ideologies of gender, labor, and literacy were complexly interconnected: lower-class children learned literacy skills in ways that sought to make obedient and industrious workers and wives, yet working women made inventive use of those literacy skills to engage representations of and forward arguments about their lives as workers and their gendered workplaces. In demonstrating the intricate interrelationship between class and gender in theories and practices of literacy, “Working Literacies” enters into and energizes conversations about women and labor as well as histories of literacy and rhetorical education.