Ursula Le Guin's 1986 essay, "Prospects for Women in Writing", opens with the sentence,

It's only been about two hundred years since women gained access to literacy and began to empower themselves with that great power, the written word. And they have written. The works of women acknowledged as "great" -- Austen, the Brontës, Dickinson, Eliot, Woolf -- make a high road for other women writers to follow, so wide and clear that... [etc.]

If this 'claim' is true then I think it may be relevant to topics such as https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/17000/are-men-more-creative-than-women

So, to what extent is it true? If this topic needs to be narrower, perhaps restrict it to "English-speaking women" (Le Guin is American).

To provide context, the essay ends with,

... Wolf knew that and said it in the 1930. Most of us forgot it and had to rediscover it all over again in the sixties. But for a whole generation now, women have been writing, publishing, and reading one another, in artistic and scholarly and feminist fellowship. I we go on doing that, by the year 2000 we will -- for the first time ever -- have kept the perception, ideas, and judgments of women alive in consciousness as an active, creative force in society for more than one generation. And our daughters and granddaughters won't have to start from zero the way we did. To keep women's words, women's works, alive and power -- that's what I see our job as writers and readers for the next fifteen years, and the next fifty.

The context of the question makes it clear that "women gaining access to literacy" means women being able to write/publish works which will be read by other women -- so, please ignore examples of women who can read when all the authors are men, and/or women who can write when all the readers are men.

A now-deleted answer said that the answerer didn't know what was especially significant about the "200 year" number. I note that most the authors in the quote (i.e. Austen, the Brontës, Dickinson, and Eliot) all worked approximately 200 years ago: and so I guess that the existence of those authors was the reason for LeGuin's saying "200 years". The author of the same deleted answer then said something to the effect that that the existence of those specific authors was remarkable or unprecedented in some way: but I don't know in what way, or why it was such authors came to be, then and not before.

My guess is that the cause was two-fold: women being educated less than men were; and a social bias which kept women (especially aristocratic women) from any 'commercial' activity including publishing.

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    @Sancho I changed the title to match the quote. Evidence in either direction might answer the question, but I want the latter meaning, i.e. what she said.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 18:12
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    As it stands right now this is likely too broad and even from a English-speaking world it is flatly wrong from the broad sense since upper-class women in Medieval times were taught to read and write.
    – rjzii
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 18:13
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    @Sancho Right now the question is too broad since historically women have had access to literacy on the basis of their class, or where they were born in the world. From a Western standpoint, upper-class women were able to read and write and lower-class women were likely just as illiterate as the men were. If we expand to other parts of the world... things get complicated since there was extreme bias against women but typically it depends upon the culture.
    – rjzii
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 18:20
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    @ChrisW The second part depends on the part of the world since in some places women were second-class citizens. I'd have to do some research to be able to properly formulate how literate pre-18th century women were, but 16th-century women authors weren't rare per se. I seem to recall that for upper-class women of the era would have been able to more or less universally write letters. Lower-class women were generally illiterate and I would have to check the literacy rates in men.
    – rjzii
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 18:36
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    While it is certainly (and trivially true) that some women have been writing for a long time, the possible interesting (to me, of course) claim here revolves around a possible gender differential in when literacy because widespread (and at that this may vary be region). Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 15:01

2 Answers 2


I can think of a pretty good example that disproves the theory. Women in Classical Japan (c. 900-1000AD) were famous for their literary art. To choose two famous examples, Murasaki Shikibu wrote "The Tale of Genji" (once called "the world's first novel") and Sei Shonagon wrote a famous diary called "The Pillow Book." "The Tale of Genji" is probably one of the most (if not THE most) influential books in Japanese history.

As it happens, while the men of the Japanese court were slogging through epic poems in "official" Chinese, women were building the foundations of native Japanese literature. Pretty cool.

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    +1 Thank you; that does seems to disprove the theory, at least for Japan/Japanese. I find it curious that the two authors you mention were contemporaries (in the same way that the several authors except Woolf, listed in the OP, were also contemporaneous).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 9:58
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    I specialize in Classical Japanese literature, so that's what immediately springs to mind. You might also enjoy looking into Sappho, the Greek poet who died around 570 BC: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sappho
    – Maia
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 1:47
  • And the other ancient authors? One assumes they were men. But, for example, the part in the Odyssey where the sailors get changed into animals and the witch's followers play with them, surely a woman wrote that.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 9:08
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    RedSonja - why would one assume other ancient authors were men? Not sure your comment helps here. Maia named a couple of famous ones, but there were also others.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 10:47
  • 21 of the "100 poets" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogura_Hyakunin_Isshu) were women, including one empress. All well before the last 200 years in Japan. This illustrates, I hope, that a lot of upper class Japanese women were writing (although Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu are probably the most famous). Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 23:10

There is really good quantitative data on this in Estimated illiteracy of men and women in England, 1500-1900

In 1700:

In Moklinta, Sweden 89% of women could read.

In Iceland 50% of women were literate.

Amsterdam 44% of women (70% of men).

England 25% of women (40% of men)

France 14% of women (29% of men).

  • Thanks. I think the context of the quote was whether women were able to write, and be published.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 19:39

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