In this third and final installment of my columns on the pervasiveness of adult low literacy, I feel an urgent need to call out how race, gender, and class coincide—and collide—when it comes to reading ability. This topic is especially critical at a moment marked by de facto and de jure attacks on women’s bodies and economic autonomy.
The nonprofit ProLiteracy, one of ALA’s longtime partners, makes the connection between reading and health care agency. It points out that women with low literacy skills are at higher risk of “financial, health, and partner vulnerabilities throughout their lives,” potentially limiting their independence.
That cyclical relationship—limited education and reading ability leading to limited economic opportunity leading to limited health care options and outcomes—is something women in the US and globally experience acutely, and it has only worsened since the pandemic.
Researcher Amanda Fins noted in her 2020 National Women’s Law Center snapshot of poverty among US women and their families that in 2019, nearly one in nine women (or 13.9 million) lived in poverty. Following the pandemic and the economic fallout, she wrote, “Women are bearing the heavy burden.”
When I was a youth services librarian, my second shift on the reference desk spanned the afterschool hours. I noticed a young woman enter the library’s vestibule day after day and wait. One day she entered and stood just inside the door. I greeted her, and she warily asked, “How much does it cost?” I barely had time to explain that using the library was free before a little boy ran up, handed her his books, and they were out the door.
She would come back, and eventually I learned she had arrived from the Horn of Africa to be the boy’s live-in caregiver; this was the first public library she had ever visited. She had stood outside for weeks because she thought she needed to pay to come in.
It had been the prospect of education that led her family to agree to send her to the US to care for the son of a wealthier family that had immigrated to the United States from their community. But as the boy grew, the promise of her furthering her own education became more distant. She was 18 when we met, and her dream was to attend college. But like many others—disproportionately women—caught in a cycle of extractive labor, she had surrendered her passport and other forms of ID to the family she worked for. She felt she couldn’t enroll in school, apply for a second job, or seek critical services (medical or social) without their awareness or sanction. “I’m stuck,” she said to me one day as we talked through scenarios that could lead her to college.
With social responsibility as one of ALA’s core values, and with the library and information science sector being more than 80% female, what is our ethical responsibility to the women whose low literacy and educational access are overlooked because of the overlapping of race, gender, and class?
The first step is to recognize that we need more library-based adult literacy programs. Some libraries we can learn from and already recognized by the larger literacy community for doing this work include Charlotte Mecklenburg (N.C.) Library, Houston Public Library, and Nashville (Tenn.) Public Library.
Self-help coach and author Iyanla Vanzant speaks of the responsibility to “call a thing a thing.” She exhorts us to “look a thing dead in the eye, acknowledge that it exists, call it exactly what it is.” When we call out and seek to make literacy a right instead of an advantage of the privileged, we do just that.