By the Numbers: Female Illiteracy Worldwide; May 1997; Scientific American Magazine; by Doyle; 1 Page(s)
In the history of literacy, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was a major turning point, for it gave women the first wide-scale opportunities to learn reading and writing. One premise of the radical Protestants, including Lutherans and Calvinists, was that everyone was entitled to read the Bible. Nowhere was this premise more apparent than in Lutheran Sweden, where in the late 17th century, a highly successful literacy program began to promote the Christian faith. The ability of women to read was vital because they were seen as the primary teachers of the young. The Protestant commitment to female literacy was evident in other places, such as Puritan New England, where women were more literate than their sisters in Europe.
The biggest surge in female literacy in Western countries occurred in the 19th century. By 1900 the overwhelming majority of women in several countries, including the U.S., France, England, and the more advanced parts of Germany and the Austrian empire, could read and write. Virtually all Western women are now literate, although a substantial minority have no more than a rudimentary skill, such as the ability to pick out facts in a brief newspaper article. (A 1992 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 17 percent of U.S. adults have only this rudimentary ability; 4 percent are unable to read at all. Illiteracy in the U.S. is probably no higher than in western Europe.)