The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England

April 8, 2010

In this timely, well-written study, Sarah Gwyneth Ross charts the rise of secular, learned women in intellectual society in Italy and England from 1400 to 1680. She considers commonalities in "the lives, rhetorical strategies, contemporary reception, and feminist contributions" of 19 women writers who were well known and widely celebrated during their own time, ranging from widely documented figures such as Christine de Pizan, Isotta and Ginevra Nogarola and the daughters of Sir Thomas More, to less-examined figures such as Esther Inglis and Mary Ward.

Working from manuscript and print sources, Ross develops portraits of the "intellectual families" who nurtured these scholar-writers, and this is the critical construct that sets her book apart from other studies that consider the lives and works of Renaissance women. She explores the sponsorship and familial support that provided networks for learned women, including humanist fathers who chose to educate their daughters alongside their sons for social prestige and to instil strong ethical foundations, essentially creating "household academies", and humanist husband-and-wife teams, who, together, fostered "household salons" of learned family members, friends and patrons.

While these historical depictions are valuable in and of themselves, perhaps the greatest service that this book performs is that it clearly illustrates in an engaging and accessible way what specialists in the field have understood for some time: that the "exceptionality" of the learned Renaissance woman is a myth.

Through nuanced consideration of primary sources, Ross deftly shows how humanist interest in educating daughters crossed cultural and class lines, discussing numerous examples of learned families in Italy and England for whom erudition constituted, in her words, a "family business". In the process, fascinating details are excavated. She shows, for example, how Pietro Bembo and Sir Thomas More wrote letters to their children in which they compared their achievements and incited their sons to improve their work by extolling the superior accomplishments of their sisters. She also examines the circulation of young women's letters, illustrating how this practice entrenched women in literary circles, garnering praise and, in effect, creating good public relations for their families.

Moreover, she observes how learned young women in given families were deliberately matched with humanist husbands: the daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, for example, were married to erudite "Cambridge men" approved by their father. Regarding class, she moves beyond consideration of noble women as she explores the notion of the learned family in the make-up of the Andreini family of actors in Italy and introduces readers to women intellectuals among the "middling sort" in England, including Esther Inglis, Mary Beale and Mary More.

Among the many salient issues regarding women intellectuals that Ross considers, four that stand out are those of women's conversance in classical languages; the impact of the querelle des femmes; the literary quarrel over the nature of women; and the proto-feminist writings authored by figures in this study. Echoing Jane Stevenson in Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century, Ross discusses the tradition of Latin instruction for women, observing the continuity of this practice through time and noting that in the 17th century, "the tradition of home schooling in the Classics by relatives" remained firm. She points out that Italian women humanists often wrote in Latin and "were celebrated for centuries in biographies of famous women" while "English women humanists translated religious texts from Latin and Greek into English and were praised as models of 'learned virtue'".

Ross also observes that learned women "frequently shared a determination to expose the disjuncture between women's capacities and their social roles". Women's participation in the querelle des femmes was clearly entwined in the production of early feminist writing. Ross cites the work of Christine de Pizan as a starting point and touches on Isotta Nogarola's apology for Eve, then notes that later writers such as Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella, Bathsua Makin, Beale and More especially critique women's social roles, stating that 17th-century feminists "pushed theoretical equality harder than their predecessors had done and began to formulate plans for rectifying social inequality". As she addresses these issues, Ross neatly responds to the pithy epigraph by Karen Offen with which she begins her book: "Amnesia, not the lack of history, is the most serious problem for feminism today."

When considering this beautifully detailed study, one question arises: why only Italy and England? Ross has diagrammed a critical historical framework that invites scholars to explore the sorts of developments of which she writes across the Continent, as well as the Atlantic. In so doing, they would build on her excellent project of remedying the "amnesia" that often plagues consideration of women's literary history.

The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England.

By Sarah Gwyneth Ross. Harvard University Press 416pp, £36.95. ISBN 9780674034549 Published 30 October 2009

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