The Social Dimension of Literacy
These words were spoken by a woman who teaches literacy and upgrading to women in rural Nova Scotia. I interviewed her with other tutors and participants from a variety of literacy, upgrading and training programs in 1986.1 Her comment is similar to those of many of the literacy workers I interviewed, but contrasts strongly with the accounts of the participants.
In this article, through the words of women who participate in literacy and upgrading programs, I want to demonstrate that many women are extremely isolated. This makes the social dimension of literacy programs especially important to them. It is only through the opportunity to talk together about their lives that women can share knowledge about the ways in which isolation is structured into their lives and can begin to find ways to challenge and change this situation.
It is essential to acknowledge the importance of me social aspects of literacy programs, so that those programs which do not currently consider the social dimension an integral part of their programs are encouraged to so. The social dimension includes events, discussion groups and meetings, as well as informal opportunities for women to get together share their experiences. Many community-based programs do integrate such social aspects into their programs, but the extent to which they can do this is limited by the scarcity of funds. Funders frequently fund only the serious work of "teaching" and see other aspects as peripheral.
Illiteracy is often considered a primary cause of isolation especially for rural women. But many of the women I interviewed had been isolated in childhood because they been unable to make friends in school and now as adults did not trust neighbours. Others had left friends behind when they moved to a new location with their husbands. Women frequently have total responsibility for children which keeps them at home and housework is hard work which is also carried out in the home. Men often have the power to decide whether a woman will get out of the house. They may forbid women to participate in events or simply control this through lack of access to the family car. This control is usually seen as "natural." The gendered organization of society also makes it appear natural for families to live in a place that is suitable for the man's work and for women to stay at home as "housewives," with little access to transportation. The women I interviewed talked of being shut in the house with little or no social contact outside the extended family and little social life. Illiteracy is not the cause of women's isolation. Women are trapped in their lives so they cannot be freed from this isolation through literacy alone.