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Women from the Renaissance to Enlightenment

As the Middle Ages progress, we find that, much like the ancient days, women gain and then lose rights as the historical and political face of Europe changes. In her famous essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?”, Joan Kelly-Gadol argued that although the Renaissance has been called a period of renewed intellectual, political, and artistic development, the “rebirth” of civilization benefited only men.  The rebirth of academic and artistic interest, she explains, was a recouping of the classical writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Coupled with the medieval notions of women as being either good, submissive, and chaste (a la the Virgin Mary) or evil, active, and promiscuous (a la Eve), and armed with the “scholarly and scientific” writings of the ancient sages, like Aristotle, the men of Renaissance Italy see the women of this time as important for perpetuating family lines and for helping the men be comfortable and content.  
Leonardo da Vinci's  Mona Lisa, 1503-1506
from http://www.ai.mit.edu/people/ltk/lisas.html

            While some few wealthy noble women held some power during this time, even most upper class women had very limited roles in society. Legitimacy of heirs being important, the women’s sexuality was intensely regulated--chastity is once again virtually mandated--, and male comfort being important, women were taught to be charming; they were to be dressed elaborately, also, so that they were both pleasing to look at and a statement about their husbands’ or fathers’ social status.  

            Scholar William Monter shows, in his essay “Protestant Wives, Catholic Saints, and the Devil’s handmaid: Women in the Age of the Reformations,” how these extremely classical ideas about women when combined with the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Catholic Reformation increased the value of women in the domestic realm and saw their role as mothers and wives become extremely important, almost to the exclusion of any other roles.  Given the uncertain religious and political climate, this restrictive definition of women’s roles within the rigid patriarchal social structure, led to expressions of misogynistic violence.  He notes that both fear of change and the loss of the feeling of security added the anxiety of the period, which led to the largest executions of women known to history: the witch-hunts and infanticide trials of the sixteenth century. Monter notes that the witch executions peaked from 1560 to 1670, killing probably 30,000 or more women.  Although different in many ways, Monter points out that women accused of being witches and those accused of murdering their children had a very important similarity: they tended, statistically, to be women outside of the immediate locus of male control.  Accused witches were overwhelmingly women past menopause who lived alone on the outskirts of rural settlements, while women accused of infanticide were almost exclusively young unmarried women in the burgeoning city-towns.  Both crimes, Monter informs us, usually obtained convictions on little real evidence.  The fabricated testimony of a neighbor would do in a witch trial, and as there was no way to differentiate a live birth from a stillbirth, the burden of proof came to rest upon the defendant, ensuring extremely high conviction rates.   

Historian Merry E. Wiesner explains that this regulation of women’s behavior spreads so greatly throughout much of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that eventually because of the increasing belief on the household, run by a male, as an instrument of social control, the power of male guardians over widows and unmarried women increased. As the law code governing women becomes more restricted, she points out, “women’s actual legal and economic activities . . . did not decrease proportionately” (229).Women’s work begins to differentiate itself from men’s work, even within each social class.  Women of the middle class, for instance, who had worked alongside their husbands in some sort of business--weaving, sewing, cobbling, ale brewing, etc.--could find themselves dispossessed of the business or the opportunity to work in it once they were widowed.  As more occupations require a university education, to which women were denied access, the men working in jobs that did not require that education began to define their jobs, too, as the provinces of men only.  As the number of available jobs for women decreased, Wiesner explains, eventually more women began competing for less jobs, usually domestic in nature, effectively keeping their wages low.  Wiesner explains that eventually work associated with women and the domestic arena became devalued in and of itself in relation to men’s work.

                Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in her essay “Women and the Enlightenment” traces the changes of these strongly held gender roles as they are affected by the idea of individualism.  She sees the era’s willingness to engage in social critique and its belief in the concept of the supremacy of the individual human mind and its possible rationality as the stepping stone that led to challenging the accepted idea of the inferiority of women and notes that many of the era’s influential philosophers, like Rousseau, wrote on the topic.  She shows, however, that the thinking on women generally still found them as “opposites” of men, and therefore reaffirmed their worth and their “equality” in terms of their uniquely feminine suitability for “higher” sphere of morality. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, she points out, argues for equal education for the sexes in part because of their special role as mothers (260). During this time, Fox-Genovese notes, women began hosting intellectual salons and writing their own stories from their own perspectives in the new literary form: the novel. She concludes her essay by saying that “both Wollstonecraft and [the Marquis de] Condorcet precociously perceived, the logic of the bourgeois doctrines of individualism and democracy implied equality between men and women.  As increasing numbers of women came to understand those implications, they drew upon the legacy of the Enlightenment to claim the rights of the individual for all women” (272).

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek-Hall, the instructor of Women in Literature, at Kimberly_RadekHall@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 11 January 2017 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek-Hall, 2001.