The Birth of Feminism
Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England
Harvard University Press 2009
I’ll be honest: I have a Ph.D. in early modern European history from a big university you’ve probably heard of and I couldn’t name a single female writer of the Renaissance before I read Sarah Ross’s new book The Birth of Feminism. Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England (Harvard University Press, 2009). Does that make me a bad person? No, other things make me a bad person. But it does make me and my entire field ignorant, for as Sarah points out there were quite a number of female intellectuals in the Renaissance. They were, so to say, waiting for us to pay them the attention they deserve. Sarah does a nice job of unearthing them, telling us how they came to be intellectuals, and giving us a good idea of what they wrote about and why. That’s quite an achievement in itself, but there is more. Sarah also makes a bold claim, one that I’m sure will have the field of Renaissance studies atwitter (no, not twitter as in “tweets”). She argues that these women intellectuals were sort of proto-feminists, not in the Gloria Steinem sense, but an important sense nonetheless. They proposed that, via humanist education, women could have as much “virtue” (NB: from the Latin word for “man,” vir) as men. And they not only argued this was the case, they demonstrated it by means of their writing. This act, Sarah convincingly proposes, was a crucial early step in the movement toward the idea that women were, well, equal to men. And, I should add, she offers lots of other meaty stuff for those interested in the history of gender, the history of the family, intellectual history, and the Renaissance generally. Read the book and then you, too, will be relieved of the embarrassment of not being to name a single female Renaissance writer.
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