Women and women's organizations exploited available opportunities and spaces to assert themselves in South African public life in the early-twentieth century. Their educational interventions combined a special concern with nation-building and the kinds of history read by schoolchildren. This article examines the reading initiatives of a number of women's organizations in South Africa from 1900 to 1914. It reveals their political, educational, cultural, economic and personal entanglements, and their attempts to apply reading to nation-building. Their ambiguous legacy influenced the later expansion of reading and literacy schemes and the development of free public library services in South Africa.