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Secret Habits

Secret Habits

Catholic Literacy Education for Women in the Early Nineteenth Century

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Carol Mattingly


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
25 illustrations


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About the Book

Literacy historians have credited the Protestant mandate to read scripture, as well as Protestant schools, for advances in American literacy. This belief, however, has overshadowed other important efforts and led to an incomplete understanding of our literacy history. In Secret Habits: Catholic Literacy Education for Women in the Early Nineteenth Century, Carol Mattingly restores the work of Catholic nuns and sisters to its rightful place in literacy studies.

Mattingly shows that despite widespread fears and opposition, including attacks by vaunted northeastern Protestant pioneers of literacy, Catholic women nonetheless became important educators of women in many areas of America. They founded convents, convent academies, and schools; developed their own curricula and pedagogies; and persisted in their efforts in the face of significant prejudices. The convents faced sharp opposition from Protestant educators, who often played on anti-Catholic fears to gain support for their own schools. Using a performative rhetoric of good works that emphasized civic involvement, Catholic women were able to educate large numbers of women and expand opportunities for literacy instruction.

A needed corrective to studies that have focused solely on efforts by Protestant educators, Mattingly’s work offers new insights into early nineteenth-century women’s literacy, demonstrating that literacy education was more religiously and geographically diverse than previously recognized. 


Carol Mattingly is a professor emerita at the University of Louisville. She is the author of Appropriate[ing] Dress: Women's Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America and Well-Tempered Women: Nineteenth-Century Temperance Rhetoric. Her writing has won the Elizabeth A. Flynn Award.