Literacy as Gendered Discourse: Engaging the Voices of Women in Global Societies

reviewed by Ashley Cartun - October 23, 2015

coverTitle: Literacy as Gendered Discourse: Engaging the Voices of Women in Global Societies
Author(s): Daphne W. Nitri (Ed.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623969034, Pages: 226, Year: 2015
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These are the voices from the margins, left out of history books, made to live and speak on the fringes through the very same discourses developed to oppress them. In Daphne W. Ntiri’s (2015) edited volume, Literacy as Gendered Discourse Engaging the Voices of Women in Global Societies, these women’s voices are unsilenced, re-centered and given power to challenge gender inequality through powerful narratives on literacy.

As Mary V. Alfred so poignantly states in the forward of this book, despite the “landmark” documents guiding the global initiatives of adult education, which include a focus on the empowerment of women, as a global society we are still far from reaching that goal. In framing this text, Alfred situates these initiatives within the context of women’s literacy, and the gendered nature of discourse. She asserts that women’s literacy is a “game changer” and holds “the potential…to reshape the developing world [yet] remains an untapped developmental resource” (p. xiii).

While not directly employing Foucault (1990) (with the exception of Lisa R. Merriweather), the authors in this book support his argument that discourse is deeply tied to knowledge and power, socially constructed, fluid and unstable. As such, discourse can be utilized both as a tool of oppression and a tool of emancipation. Foucault writes that “Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it anymore than silences are…discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to sort it” (p. 101).

Literacy as Gendered Discourse makes this argument by sharing the powerful narratives of women struggling to obtain literacy across the world. Although these narratives describe the ways in which discourse has been used as a weapon to oppress and separate women from access to literacy, these very same discourses are then repurposed in this text to serve as tools of patriarchal deconstruction. In these ways, Ntiri asserts that each chapter “fill[s] a unique niche in the canon of studies that investigates the challenges of literacy as an instrument simultaneously of gendered inequality and emancipation of women” (p. xv). Mary V. Alfred also supports this text’s significance by stating that it aids in “dismantl[ing] the patriarchal ideologies and everyday practices that keep women in persistent poverty and in inferior status to men” (p. xiii).

Ntiri outlines three major objectives of this volume, which are to “generate and expand interdisciplinary knowledge in the discourse about women,” “address ongoing structural inequalities between men and women and define ways to dismantle structures that foster gender inequality and enhance women’s conditions” and “document how increased access to literacy had contributed to women’s changing status and roles and celebrate those changes as important and betterment of both men and women” (p. xvii).

The narratives are organized by four sections within the volume: “Defining Gendered Discourse,” “Gendered Literacy in International Contexts,” “Health Literacy,” and “Towards a Theoretical Discourse in Gender and Literacy.” Each author’s chapter contributes to the goals of this volume through the use of high-quality research and theoretical discussions across discipline and method, many of which employ feminist and other critical theoretical frameworks. The use of these methodologies only further supports Ntiri’s goals of this text and is a lived argument of its importance.

The authors in this edited volume draw on various critical theories, including feminist, critical literacy, and critical race, to conceptualize literacy as not just “reading” and “writing” but as a social construction and enacted through practices, which are characterized as expansive and can hold multiple meanings. For instance, scholars featured in the “Defining Gendered Discourse” section use Black feminist theories in order to highlight the important narratives from their qualitative studies. Sealey-Ruiz and Johnson-Bailey explore the gendered literacy of Black women in the academy and the ways in which these discourses functioned for them in a hostile environment, historically designed to exclude women and people of color. Matabane shares Black women’s oral histories as electric guitarists to demonstrate how the practices of “musicking” captures a more expansive notion of literacy, and how these practices support the needs of their communities and themselves. Johnson draws on the biographic-narrative interpretive method to highlight the literacy narratives of African-American women and the ways in which their beliefs about literacy influenced and impacted their lives and identities. The narratives highlighted in each chapter support the notions that through gendered discourse, we “become,” are given identities and are positioned to and through literacy. As such, these authors situate literacies as discourses within epistemological systems through which women make sense of their environments and their place within them. Ntiri’s chapter is an exploratory study, drawing on Transformative Learning theories and literature of African immigration in an effort to call on scholars to take up research in these areas to address the extreme inequalities of African immigrant women. Mguni and Muwati take the reader through the historical landscape of Zimbabwe and highlight the ways in which changes in institutional and social contexts, such as colonialism, have influenced gender and literacy. Strohschen shares vignettes from her journeys to Kenya and Afghanistan, and juxtaposes them with what she calls the “fairytale” that literacy will directly result in the empowerment of women in order to think about the ways that we might be allies in these efforts through critical problem-posing.

Given these theoretical frameworks, these narratives constantly circulate the ways in which literacies are embedded within, and products of, systems of power, privilege and oppression, and how they function within race, class and gender. In the “Health Literacy” section of the volume, scholars center their arguments on the ways in which building literacies within health related discourses can, and do, have local and global effects on women’s lives.

Kibicho et al. interviewed women living with AIDS in Malawi and demonstrated the deep knowledge they have, despite their being labeled as having “low literacy” skills. By taking a postcolonial feminist approach, the authors reframe these women’s knowledge and capacities as well as illustrate their agentic and proactive endeavors in raising awareness about AIDS to their local communities. Brown, Collie-Akers, and Fernandez-Ortega examine an empowering community-based nutrition program for Mexican women. They assert that through what they call a “learner-centered culturally sensitive educational experience,” communities can empower themselves and embed health literacies within already existing practices and discourses. And Peoples takes a critical media literacy approach in order to critique Direct-to-Consumer marketing to also promote a more “feminist health media literacy.” She implores the reader that taking a more critical stance on women’s health in the media brings to light the ways women are positioned in relation to medicine and media. Peoples suggests that giving women access to these literacies also gives women the opportunity to advocate for more equitable, justice-oriented health media pedagogies.

In the final section, “Towards a Theoretical Discourse in Gender and Literacy,” Merriweather and Hudson-Weems both take a wide lens on issues of literacy, gender and equity, and eloquently discuss the landscape of issues concerning literacies so deeply connected to the scholarship highlighted in the book. By drawing on critical race feminism, Merriweather substantiates the claim that literacy is a dangerous practice by critiquing the concept of gendered literacy, and states that examining literacy as gendered practice “only dismantles part of the master’s house” (p. 182). She urges us to consider critical race feminism to address the consistent conflation of gender and race within literacy discourses. And Hudson-Weems brings what she calls the “Africana womanist” into relief by elaborating on the philosophy of the Africana woman and her potential.  She asserts that literacy plays a critical role in bringing these potentials into fruition by “creating a new generation of truly free Africana people worldwide” (p. 194).


Scholarship in this volume is rich in critical theories and maintains the various intersectionalities while also being aware of and avoiding conflations of race, class and gender. The authors consistently critique power structures, and urge other practitioners and scholars to continue to think critically about issues of gendered literacies and inequity. Yet, these arguments, while acknowledging the fluidity and social construction of gender, primarily stay within the male/female binary. Although the ideas raised in this text are complex and crucial to addressing issues of equity and justice around the world, this text also holds potential in the deconstruction of gender binaries, and the oppressive nature of gendered discourse in general. Many theories posed in this volume already do this work of deconstruction and, if mobilized through poststructural and queer lenses, these very same arguments can extend the impact of this volume, and bring these critical discussions into the global conversations already occurring around gender in all of its important complexities.


Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality. Volume 1: An introduction. (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York, NY: Random House. (Original work published 1978)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 23, 2015 ID Number: 18203, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 10:43:27 AM

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