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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.


Mattingly’s book offers a myriad of documentation and analysis of primary and secondary source material and draws from eight different religious communities’ archives. Such interesting, careful work should inspire other efforts of rhetorical history and analysis to consider education outside the “grand narratives” as well as deepen future understandings of U.S. Catholic rhetoric and education.—Sara A. Mehltretter Drury, Rhetoric & Public Affairs

“Once again, as she did with the temperance movement, Carol Mattingly has enlarged our rhetorical landscape by illuminating previously undervalued work. Here she chronicles Catholic religious sisters’ teaching of composition and rhetoric to poor and middle-class girls in early nineteenth-century America. Mattingly weaves a complex picture of these women’s lives, documenting their struggles with poverty and anti-Catholic prejudice, their selfless aid to pandemic victims and war wounded, but also their complicity in enslaving people of African descent. Secret Habits belongs on my shelf of essential studies of American literacy education.”—Patricia Bizzell, coeditor of The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present
“Challenging what she eloquently terms the ‘Protestant literacy myth,’ Mattingly offers a rich picture of Catholic women’s contributions to American rhetorical education. Bridging the work of scholars interested in diverse institutional contexts, feminist historiography, and religious rhetorics, Secret Habits fills an important research gap.”—David Gold, author of Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873–1947

"Mattingly spotlights what she styles “secret habits,” the neglected contributions of nuns to female literacy in the era. The double meaning of the title hints at her thesis—referring at once to the distinctive religious “habits” worn by different orders of women religious, but also to the “habits” of literacy that nuns developed among themselves and fostered among the girls they instructed. These habits were, perhaps, less “secret” in the sense of being hidden than in being overlooked, ignored, or forgotten by other historians of literacy."--Joseph G. Mannard, Indiana University of Pennsylvania