University News

Jen McNabb"The Worth of Women' and the Liberal Arts: Debates, Insights and Legacies from the Renaissance"

(The tenth annual College of Arts and Sciences John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture, Sept. 4, 2012)

Thank you, Professor Hallwas, for that warm introduction. My thanks as well to Provost Ken Hawkinson for his attendance tonight. It is a great pleasure to be here this evening and look out over this gathering of so many members of the campus and Macomb communities. I would like to take the opportunity to thank briefly several of the individuals who are responsible for this lecture series and my participation in it. I wish to extend my thanks to the Dean's Office of the College of Arts and Sciences, particularly Dean Susan Martinelli-Fernandez and Sharon Knight, for their invaluable assistance during my preparation for tonight's program, and to Bob Johnson from Geology for his work on the lecture's promotional materials. The topic of my remarks is one I have been teaching for the better part of 15 years, so I would also like to thank my students, past and present, whose questions and comments have prompted me to continue to develop and refine my thoughts on the subject. Finally, I would like to express my appreciation to the members of the Selection Committee for this tremendous honor and to Professor Lori Baker-Sperry of Women's Studies for nominating me. Tonight's subject is one I find endlessly fascinating, and I hope to justify the Committee's selection through a presentation that will capture your interest as well.

I would be remiss, I think, if I did not extend a special welcome to all of the students in the audience. Many–maybe most, maybe all—of you are here because of a course you are taking. Perhaps you are enrolled in Professor Kernek's Journalism course or in one of Western's many First-Year Experience courses using this presentation as a co-curricular activity. Your attendance tonight is required, and you may have preferred an alternate activity for the Thursday evening of your third week on campus. I make a special plea to you: give me your attention for the next 50 minutes or so, and I will seek to make it worth your while. You will see some great art, meet some great writers and thinkers from the past, and perhaps think about your educational experience in a slightly different way as a result of our time together. I'm an historian – I measure time in centuries, so in the grand scheme of things, 50 minutes is not such a long time.

The Ground Rules

The discussion that follows is purposely designed to be inclusive; although some of you know a great deal about the liberal arts tradition, the Renaissance, and early modern women, others of you do not, so my remarks tonight have been structured in such a way as to ensure that we are all together in the same mental place and time. Many of the concepts I touch on and the terms that I employ are ones routinely contested by modern scholars; to consider fully the chronology and the complexities of their academic conversations would take longer than the time alloted to me for this presentation. I would like to direct our attention instead to a bigger picture.

In his inaugural lecture Professor Hallwas suggested that future speakers discuss the importance of their field for a liberal arts education; accordingly, my goal tonight is to demonstrate that History plays a pivotal role in creating well-rounded, thoughtful, articulate, active and lifelong learners. I will do so primarily through a consideration of the historical period that witnessed the origin of the modern liberal arts; what is known as the "woman question" of early modern Europe serves as my focus, our particular entry point into that period. I will begin with an overview of the historical context and then discuss the broad contours of this "woman question" as it developed during the course of a public literary debate about both liberal education and contemporary perceptions of women's virtues and vices. Finally, I will conclude by reflecting on why ideas and writings more than five centuries old are still of vital importance in our world. The debate on early modern women is more than a women's history topic; it was, in many ways, a debate about access to education, an historical public dialogue about which sorts of people were capable of enjoying the fruits of learning. A study of the evolution of the "woman question" indicates ways in which arguments about the nature of and the desire for a liberal education reshaped ideas about the meaning of learning in the Western tradition. That early modern dialogue resounds through the ages because it is not yet resolved: here in the early twenty-first century, some people are denied access to education or abandon its pursuit not because of lack of aptitude but because of firmly entrenched ideas about what certain types of people can and cannot achieve. The study of History presents students with discourses on such topics as power, belief, self-awareness, gender, and education in a variety of settings and periods. History's emphasis on critical thinking, on careful assessment of evidence, and on argumentation helps make students better informed citizens of their own time and place, all key features of a liberal arts education.

The Girl in the Picture

Let's begin our exploration with a consideration of this woodcut. At first glance, it seems a rather unremarkable image: a woman at study, surrounded by books. We might notice her antiquated style of dress or the serene expression that is somewhat at odds with the chaos of open texts around her, which appear even now to be almost clamoring for her attention. We might observe further that she is depicted indoors, in a small room with two tiny windows, alone. Its composition, depicting neither great triumph nor great suffering, is not particularly striking, and a study of its principal figure triggers no sense of comfortable recognition; she is not one of the handful of women whom we might regard as historical celebrities, whose faces are widely recognized today. This piece is no great work of art by a famous artist; indeed, it might even be considered rather crude in its execution compared to other woodcuts produced in its day. On the balance, then, we might be tempted to return to our original assessment: a rather unmemorable, perhaps even forgettable, piece.

But such conclusions are relative. This image, and the woman whose likeness it features, would have been regarded as shockingly transgressive to some of her contemporaries. Rather than follow the typical journey from girlhood to wife, this woman lived unmarried, pursuing her studies, corresponding with learned men, and seeking to contribute her assessments to the pressing academic debates of her day. The notion of a woman enjoying the company of books and shrugging off more traditional feminine pursuits and responsbilities was held in her time to be inappropriate. That those who knew of her unconventional lifestyle found it troubling is most famously exhibited in an anonymous letter, chastising her for her learning and accusing her of incest with her brother. The unknown author confidently asserted,"an eloquent woman is never chaste,"[i] thus suggesting an irrevocable link between a learned woman's "promiscuity" with words and bodily promiscuity.

Even those who admired her had difficulty deciding what exactly to make of her. One allocated to her "the highest praises, since you have indeed, if I may so speak, overcome your nature. For that truevirtuewhich is proper to men you have pursued with remarkable zeal,"[ii] and for good measure, he quoted the Roman statesman Cicero, "that girl has a man's spirit." He went on to encourage and instruct her in her studies as he would a fellow male scholar, suggesting that he had ceased to think of her as a woman. Another scholar wrote approvingly of seeing her in her libraria or book-lined cell, while yet another celebrated her virginity and wrote admiringlyof her "little cell [cellulam tuam], redolent of sanctity."[iii] Both equated her learning with a purity and nobility of spirit lacking in most women. In so doing, they reaffirmed by a somewhat alternate route the same underlying assessment as her most hostile of attackers, namely, that in adopting a life devoted to study, she problematized notions of "ordinary" femininity. Indeed, it is likely for the same reason that members of her own sex attacked her as well; her extraordinary path confused the gender expectations of which women were both subjects and guardians.

Some who wrote about her used derivatives of the word "cell" to describe her living space, likening her place of study to those sparse, single chambers reserved for members of monastic orders or hermits. We might also imagine that her cell, following more modern connotations of the word, constituted instead a space of virtual imprisonment. Certainly, her life was marked by prolonged periods of isolation and by notable failures. As a young woman, she wrote to one of the most noted male scholars of her day. While we might think of letters as private documents, those exchanged among intellectuals in her period were reproduced for a broader reading audience. When word circulated that her letter went unanswered, public mockery of her audacity in writing such a learned man followed. That prompted a subsequent missive on her part, imploring a response, eventually provided, to spare her continued humiliation. After that frustrating exchange, she continued her correspondence, much of which she produced with the expectation of its wider dissemination, but she lived in seclusion.

Does the image look the same to you now?

Let's leave our learned woman in her book-lined cell for the moment and consider the world she inhabited: the Renaissance.

[i]As quoted in Margaret King, "Book-Lined Cells: Women and Humanism in the Early Italian Renaissance," in Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, edited by Patricia H. Labalme (New York: New York University Press, 1980), 77.

[ii]Lauro Quirini: Letter to Isotta Nogarola in Her Immaculate Hand: Selected Works By and About the Women Humanists of Quattrocento Italy, ed. Margaret King and Albert Rabil, Jr., Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 20 (Binghamton, NY: State University of New York, 1983), 113.

[iii]As quoted in "Book-Lined Cells," 74.

The Renaissance

The educational changes that accompanied the Renaissance were nothing short of an academic revolution. Perhaps you don't immediately equate "Renaissance" with a revolution in education; for some, the Renaissance is, maybe rather exclusively, about dramatic changes in the visual arts, although many great artists of the day—Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello—now seem to have more resonance with my students as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than as initiators of an artistic revolution. Although the term "Renaissance" might cause images like theseto leap readily to mind, scholars and textbooks typically define Renaissance more broadly, as a movement encompassing a number of a political, educational, and literary shifts that began first among the Italian city-states during the fourteenth century and then spread to the emerging nation-states of Europe. Renaissance refers to a period of history marked by an attempt on the part of educated elites to recapture the greatness of the ancient world, particularly classical Greece and Rome, to bring about a "re-naissance" or rebirth of those civilizations then believed to represent the pinnacle of the Western tradition. While by no means secular in its outlook, the Renaissance took as its focus human achievement, emphasizing, as did Pico della Mirandolain his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, the remarkable capacity of Man to improve his condition–note the linguistic exclusion of women here; it is a point to which I will return shortly. Pico concluded that it was Man who represented God's greatest creation, for he alone among all of the creatures of the earth was capable of crafting his own destiny: "To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! Man, when he entered life, the Father gave the seeds of every kind and every way of life possible. Whatever seeds each man sows and cultivates will grow and bear him their proper fruit. If these seeds are vegetative, he will be like a plant. If these seeds are sensitive, he will be like an animal. If these seeds are intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. Who could not help but admire this great shape-shifter?"[i]

During the Renaissance, then, a profound change of Man's condition could be effected through education, but an education significantly altered from its medieval predecessor. During the Middle Ages, education was comprised of the seven liberal arts divided into two categories—the trivium, the three language arts, and the quadrivium, the four mathematical arts. Renaissance scholars, however, believed that curriculum to have ossified past the point of utility, so greatly had it come, in their estimation, to prize rote learning and the project of compiling ever greater compendia of “knowledge” with limited practical application. Much of the educational energy of the medieval period was channeled into theology; while training for the professions existed, the highest form of intellectual activity was devoted toward a greater understanding of the word and will of God. In contrast, a new Renaissance "skill set" was designed to explore and celebrate humanity and its achievements, to create a figure broadly trained and acquainted with knowledge in a variety of fields, an individual whose legacy is still with us today, immortalized and popularized by the descriptor "Renaissance man."

Renaissance reformers wanted a new curriculum, one that emphasized continual self-improvement as well as training for the kind of civic engagement practiced by the ancients. They consequently reoriented the older liberal arts into the studia humanitatis, or the Humanities. The thrust of their changes was made explicit in the title of this revised curriculum itself: the disciplines that made up the Humanities were those that required students to take as their subject the experience of being human: classical language and grammar, rhetoric, history, moral philosophy, and aesthetics, or the nature of art, beauty, and taste. Renaissance humanists believed these subjects capable of training students to write clearly, to argue effectively, and to speak persuasively in contemporary society. In a letter to one of his pupils in 1392, educator Pier Paolo Vergerio the Elderdeclared, “We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains, and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men.”[ii] Vergerio believed education was transformative: it had the power to change lives for those who made the commitment not only to lifelong learning but to social and political action as well: "Respecting the general place of liberal studies, we remember that Aristotle would not have them absorb the entire interests of life: for he kept steadily in view the nature of man as a citizen, an active member of the State. For the man who has surrendered himself absolutely to the attractions of Letters and of speculative thought follows, perhaps, a self-regarding end and is useless as a citizen or as prince."[iii]

Those of you who have been listening closely will likely have picked up on the fact that I have been employing particular language in my description of the proponents and practitioners of this Renaissance revolution in education. First, as you may have guessed, the people at the broad bottom of the socio-economic spectrum in the Italian city-states did not in any real sense have a Renaissance. Education was neither free nor compulsory at that time; only a fraction of the population had access to the kind of reformed course of study I have briefly outlined here. For the poor, life went on much as it always had. Even had education been an option for those of lower status, contemporary political theories and practices prohibited them from serving as "an active member of the State," as they lacked an institutionalized political voice. Renaissance humanism engaged a rather slender portion of the population we might refer to for the sake of expediency as “elites”; it would take subsequent revolutions, in both thought and deed, to popularize and democratize the notions of civic engagement and liberty propounded by those Renaissance thinkers we refer to as the humanists.

The categorically and confidently masculine orientation of the language employed by our reformers should also prompt us to notice that women were missing from the educational vision of the humanists, and now we return to the book-lined cell. In 1977 scholar Joan Kelly famously asked, "Did women have a Renaissance?" and answered her own query with a resounding no.[iv]A consideration of the relationship between women and education and of the debate about women’s virtues and vices during the Renaissance, though, allows us an opportunity through which we may, I believe, examine the nature and utility of the liberal arts.

[i]See for this excerpt.

[ii]As quoted in Discovering the Western Past: a Look at the Evidence: Volume I: To 1789, ed. Merry Wiesner, Julius Ruff, and and William Bruce Wheeler, 5th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 241. Note: wherever possible in the citations that follow, I have attempted to draw on texts I have used for teaching, as such materials are readily available to both students and faculty. The University of Chicago Press's The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series offers modern critical editions of early modern women's writings, and for those within traveling distance to Chicago, the Newberry has a rich collection of writings by early modern women (see for details).

[iii]As quoted in Discovering the Western Past, 241-42.

[iv] Joan Kelly-Gadol, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 137-64.

The Querelle des Femmes: The Woman Question

I noted earlier that I would not spend our time parsing definitions, but I would like to make an exception concerning the term querelle des femmes, a French phrase translated most frequently as "the woman question" or "the debate on women." The "des femmes" portion of the phrase is straightforward; querelleis a bit more complicated. The Latin term querella from which the French is derived has several meanings. It refers variously to a "lament" (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a passionate or demonstrative expression of grief or suffering), a "complaint" in the form of criticism, or a legal charge, particularly concerning women deprived of property rights whose cause had not been championed under the law.[i] These three meanings engender rather different interpretations of phrase as a whole: it could refer to a lament of or for women, or alternatively, a complaint against women. This imprecision requires me to establish specific parameters for usage in the comments that follow. Following other scholars, I will discuss the querelle primarily as a literary debate concerning the capabilities of women, typically seen as stretching from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. The question of woman's nature was not one new to the Renaissance; the early modern debate was shaped in part by a series of medieval texts that emphasized the evil, cunning, and secretive nature of women. What was new to the Renaissance was an information revolution—print—that began during the period to publicize and, to a certain degree, popularize the arguments of the debate. The chief points of contention in the early modern querelle involved female nature, female authority, and female education. Its participants, both men and women, employed various argumentative and rhetorical strategies in their writing either to make or to respond to defamatory claims against women.

In his De Mulieribus Claris/On Famous Women Giovanni Boccaccio established many of these strategies. Boccaccio's piece, completed in the 1360s, is often considered the first of the querelle texts. It consisted of biographies of 106 women identified as exemplary by their performance of the roles of wife, mother, ruler, and warrior. It was a celebration of women, tempered by contemporary gender ideals; some of Boccaccio's famous women were laudibly extraordinary in achievements traditionally assigned to women—motherhood, for example. Others, although still famously exemplary, were unsettlingly unnatural in the field of their endeavors—ruling over men. Boccaccio's On Famous Women established a pattern of discussing the broader category "woman" through the lens of decidedly atypical women of the past, often identified in contemporary parlance as "worthies." Still, Bocaccio's work and those that followed raised the question of what, exactly, constituted female excellence. By doing so, they helped to create a vibrant discourse concerning the abilities of women both past and present.

This discourse overlapped chronologically with Renaissance reforms in education in the Italian city-states, reforms beginning to create a small number of extraordinary women, famed not for their maternal or martial skills but for their learning. Noble and wealthy fathers in a handful of courts and households had begun educating elite daughters, often alongside elite sons, under their own tutelage or that of masters of the classical tradition. To be clear: an expectation that elite women would receive some type of education was common during the Renaissance. Baldassare Castiglione, whose Book of the Courtier provided one of the most notable descriptions of the ideal gentleman of the Renaissance, also turned his attention to the chief characteristics of the educated and "cultivated" woman of the period: "I wish this Lady to have knowledge of letters, of music, of painting, and know how to dance and to be festive, adding a discreet modesty and the giving of a good impression of herself."[ii] Castiglione was far from unique in suggesting that both the parameters and the goals of female education were to be clearly distinguishable from those of male education. Leonardo Bruni, longtime Chancellor of city of Florence, wrote a letter concerning education to Lady Battista da Montefeltro Malatesta of Pesaro, proclaiming, "Rhetoric in all its forms—public discussion, forensic argument, logical fence, and the like—lies absolutely outside the province of women."[iii] "To her neither the intricacies of debate nor the oratorical artifices of action and delivery are oftheleastpracticaluse, if indeed they are not positively unbecoming." How Bruni would have frowned on the Hallwas Selection Committee's decision this year! He continued his letter by enumerating the subjects "properly open" to women, religion, morals, and poetry chief among them. Commentaries like these reflect a gendered vision of Renaissance education that trained men to impact their world, and women to beautify and dignify it.

But some women in the early Italian Renaissance did take up subjects in which female proficiency was dismissed by Bruni as "vain display." A handful dubbed "learned women" or somewhat more problematically "female humanists," like our woman in the book-lined cell, were allowed a masculine style of education that took up the study of classical languages, oratory, History, and moral philosophy. Taken collectively, the careers of such women—if indeed the word career is appropriate—were relatively undistinguished. A few gave well-received public addresses to visiting dignitaries, but modern scholar Margaret King has classified much of their written work as "mediocre."[iv] Most engaged in academic pursuits for only a brief time, for reasons key to the contemporary discourse about female nature. First, only unmarried women possessed the freedom to pursue a humanist education; societal norms during the Renaissance allowed no place for studious wives, whose energies and efforts were to be directed elsewhere, toward the care of husbands, children, and household. For young, prodigious women, then, the end of childhood and the attainment of marrying age required a choice, given written form by Alessandra Scala in a letter to Cassandra Fedele: "Shall I marry, or devote my life to study?"[v] Scala's question exposes a reflexive incompatibility between marriage and study for women. Most, including Scala, selected marriage. Second, if the goal of humanist education was to train individuals to impact the world around them, particularly through service to the state, of what possible use was such an education to women, who were conclusively barred from a life of public action by a theory of femininity that prized chastity, silence, and obedience? There were no female chancellors of Florence, no female tutors or university professors, no female condottiero, the mercenary soliders who often seized control of Italian states during the Renaissance. Indeed, if the project of humanism is conflated with the via activa, or the active life, my reticence about using the phrase "female humanist" earlier becomes clear. Weren't the two words, in fact, mutually exclusive? Weren’t they actually antithetical?

It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that these early female humanists took up as one of the chief subjects of their writings the defense of women. Some sought to rehabilitate their sex through a reconsideration of the most significant extant text: the Bible. The figure garnering the greatest attention was Eve, whose role in the Creation Story, as a physical derivative of Adam, reflected her subordinate status. Let’s return again to the book-lined cell to identify at last the subject. Her name was Isotta Nogarola (1418-1466) of Verona. Nogarola famously took up the task of examining biblical justification for Renaissance ideas about women in an exchange with male scholar Ludovico Foscarini on the topic of Original Sin. While the conventional view held that Eve was more culpable for the loss of Paradise because she had succumbed to the wiles of the serpent, Nogarola countered that Eve was in fact less culpable by virtue of the fact that she was, as a woman, naturally more susceptible to temptation than Adam. Conceding the inherent frailty of the archetypal woman may not seem indicative of a vigorous "defense" of Eve and her descendants. Nogarola's work was nonetheless extraordinary. It represented an eloquent and learned attack on traditional ideas about the origin of female inferiority that drew on her training in History and on her critical analysis and application of the writings of ancient authorities.

Other Italian women took up the cause by emphasizing women's capacity for advancement. Laura Cereta (1469-1499) of Brescia highlighted the strictures placed on learned women by men as well as other women, who struck out against those whom they saw violating traditional roles associated with their own sex. Like Nogarola, Cereta was one of the first female authors to make explicit and public the issue of women's capacity for education and to consider women's participation in the human condition. Cereta exhorted her fellow women to self-improvement, even in the face of overwhelming opposition, proclaiming, "Letters are not bestowed upon us, or assigned to us by chance. Virtue is something that we ourselves acquire."[vi] This notion is strikingly parallel to ideas about the transformative power of a liberal education as articulated by male scholars. In an oration in praise of the liberal arts, learned woman Cassandra Fedele (1465-1558) of Venice delivered a sensitive reflection on the intangible benefits of learning: "even if the study of literature offers women no rewards or honors, I believe women must nonetheless pursue and embrace such studies alone for the pleasure and enjoyment they contain."[vii] Learned women of the later Italian Renaissance submitted more pointed critiques of the constraints that posed obstructions to female success and equality. Both The Worth of Women by Moderata Fonte (1555-1592) and The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men by Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653), for example, struck out at contemporary assumptions they felt limited female achievement, and in the process, mounted spirited defenses of women's many virtues.

As the debate entered the middle decades of the sixteenth century, it took on a greater urgency, in part the product of a shift from theory to practice with regard to women's abilities. The sixteenth century has been called an "age of queens," as it witnessed queens regnant and regent in a number of European states, among them Catherine de Medici in French lands, Marie de Guise and her daughter Mary Stuart in Scotland, and the Tudor sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, in England. Under such circumstances, works posing theoretical questions about female authority gave way to more alarmist prognostications of the very real dangers implicit in female rule. One of the most famous is the work of fiery Calvinist preacher John Knox. His First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, was published in 1558 as a critique of female rulers in England and Scotland. In it, Knox identified the regiment, or rule, of women as abhorrent and a perversion of the natural order: “To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely [an insult] to God, a thing most contrarious to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”[viii] Published responses to Knox quickly followed, offering reassessments of female rule that questioned his interpretation of “nature” and his employment of scripture and history as evidence of his conclusions. In his An Harborow (Safe Harbor) for Faithful and True Subjects, published in 1559, Englishman John Aylmer wrote that Knox’s text misunderstood “nature” as an absolute and hierarchical system. Aylmer depicted nature instead as a continuum that justly allowed extraordinary woman, like the newly crowned Elizabeth I of England, to wield political and legal authority. Addressing Knox directly, Aylmer countered, “Yea, say you, God hath appointed [woman] to be subject to her husband: therefore she may not be the head. I grant that so far as pertaineth to the bands of marriage and the office of a wife, she must be a subject, but as a magistrate she may be her husband’s head.”[ix] He goes on to say that when women rule, they do so under the authority of God: “Though it be for the most part seen that men and not women do rule commonwealths, yet when it happeneth sometime by the ordinance of God and course of inheritance that they bear rule, it is not to be concluded that it repugneth against nature.”

An accompanying theory of the monarch’s “two bodies” helped make female rule somewhat more palatable to men. In short, queens were believed to possess two bodies: the weak, physical, mortal body of woman and the political, immortal body of a sovereign. It was this trope on which Elizabeth I famously drew in the Tilbury speech of 1588. With the Spanish Armada crisis nearing its apex and invasion appearing imminent, Elizabeth reportedly rallied her troops by proclaiming, “I know I have but the weak and feeble body of a woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England, too.”[x]

Texts such as Knox and Aylmer’s joined many others disseminated throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that indicate the dialogic structure of the early modern debate on women. Authors responded directly to one another in print, a clear indication that writings on female virtues and vices had a significant readership. Publishing was, after all, a business that relied on the sale of texts; that the body of literature on the nature of women grew substantially during the early modern period demonstrates a genuine interest in the subject on the part of the ever-increasing reading public. A particular example from early seventeenth-century England known as the “Swetnam Controversy” illustrates this point. In 1615 Joseph Swetnam published a text entitled The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women under the pseudonym Thomas Tell-Troth: Thomas the Truth-Teller. Based on that rather colorfully descriptive title, you can probably make a good guess at the book’s contents. The self-proclaimed goal of Thomas Tell-Troth (aka Swetnam), “being in a great choler [anger] against some women (I mean more than one),” was to reveal for his reader women’s many flaws and foibles. The cover art of a 1682 edition depicts an imagined response of women, indignant at the exposure of their true nature, harassing the author at his desk.

The text was a blockbuster by contemporary standards; it was republished on thirteen occasions by the close of the seventeenth century, with subsequent editions to follow in the eighteenth. Another indicator of the attention that Swetnam’s text garnered came in the form of the swift response of other authors, who rushed to refute publicly his assessments.[xi] Author Daniel Tuvil weighed in first, in 1616’s Asylum Veneris/A Sanctuary for Ladies. Tuvil authored a vindication of women coupled with instruction for proper female behavior, placing his piece in the “courtesy book” tradition that employed print as a medium for the moral instruction of women. There followed a trio of texts published in 1617, all reputed to be the work of female authors. The first was Rachel Speght’s A Mouzell for Melastomus/A Muzzle for a Black Mouth . The piece drew on biblical examples to expose errors in Swetnam’s attack and was likely the only one of the three actually written by a woman. Surely the name of the purported author of Ester Hath Hang’d Haman, “Ester Sowernam,” (she would be the opposite of his “sweet” with her “sower/sour”) is too good to be true. Both Sowernam’s text and The Worming of a Mad Dogge, published under the pseudonym “Constantia Munda” (“pure constancy”), offered “a sharp reproof of the baiter of women” through a sustained criticism of Swetnam’s own learning and writing style. In 1620 a postscript to the Swetnam Controversy followed with the play Swetnam, the Woman-hater, the frontspiece of which shows the author being himself arraigned by women.Scholars suggest that popularity of these works provide access to the vox populior voice of the people, as they were published in affordable formats, putting them solidly within reach of an increasingly literate population in possession of a disposable income.

[i]Margarete Zimmermann, "The 'Querelle des Femmes' as a Cultural Studies Paradigm," in Time, Space, and Women's Lives in Early Modern Europe, ed. Anne Jacobsen Schutte, Thomas Kuehn, and Silvana Seidel Menchi, Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, vol. 57 (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2001), 21.

[ii]As quoted in Discovering the Western Past, 245.

[iii]As quoted in Discovering the Western Past, 242.

[iv]King, "Book-Lined Cells," 69.

[v]As quoted in King, "Book-Lined Cells," 66.

[vi]"Laura Cereta to Lucilia Vernacula," as quoted in Her Immaculate Hand, 86.

[vii]"Cassandra Fedele: Oration in Praise of Letters," as quoted in Her Immaculate Hand, 77.

[viii]As quoted in Kate Aughterson, ed., The English Renaissance: an Anthology of Sources and Documents (London: Routledge, 2002), 89.                 

[ix]As quoted in Aughterson, The English Renaissance, 91-92.

[x]For a readily accessible text of the Tilbury Speech, see the Fordham Internet History Sourcebook at

[xi]For the discussion that follows, see the introductory essay and texts in Coryl Crandall, Swetnam the Woman-Hater: the Controversy and the Play, critical ed. (Lafayette: Purdue University Studies, 1969).

The "So What?" Factor

What, then, is the legacy of this debate on early modern woman? I will address this in a couple of different ways.

First, I would like to point to the importance of the early modern woman question to modern feminist scholars, who have worked to uncover its meaning for contemporary society. As Margarete Zimmerman observes, early twentieth-century feminists looked to the learned women of the past and to those writers who defended women's achievements and abilities as the founders and precursors of their own movement.[i] Subsequent modern phases of the querelle des femmes emphasized the early modern debate as important for the history of women, and they produced both edited collections of early modern texts and modern commentaries that emphasized its significance. One of the most valuable recent publications on the querelle is Lyndan Warner's The Ideas of Man and Woman in Renaissance France, published in 2011. Warner observes that, during the Renaissance, assessments of female virtues and vices, drawing on and questioning historical texts, joined printed commentaries on male virtues and vices as well.[ii] Her work thus suggests that making the early modern woman question a matter only of women's history misses a key point of the debate's lasting significance: the querelle indicates that women and their defenders, many of whom were men, were part of a new, sustained consideration of the human condition that helped to define the liberal arts during the Renaissance. We can, I think, rightly conclude from this that the early modern debate on women and its popularity indicate a growing acknowledgement that, like men, women were a subject worthy of scholarly consideration and, further, that women were capable of participation in that consideration and in liberal education.  

Second, even if their time engaged in the pursuit of learning was limited, the learned women of the Renaissance challenged expectations and contested the contemporary status quo. Education was not a passive process for them but one that required constant effort, energy, and persistence in the face of detractors. We should see them not as imprisoned oddities but as individuals of courage and fortitude. A study of their writing sometimes obfuscates that important point, and here is a place where History's value in the liberal arts comes into stark relief. Remember Alberti, our Renaissance Man, he of the versatile genuis in all of the arts? That was his own language; he authored a record of his array of talents (all the while referring to himself in the third person) in a way that exudes self-confidence and a desire to spread the fame of his achievements. The language of learned women, in contrast, often reads as quite a bit more timid. Consider, for example, Costanza Varano's words in a public address made in the presence of the city fathers of Camerino in 1444: "I quake and tremble not a little, and grow irritated at myself, for I realize that I, ignorant and inexperienced, am in no way adequate for so serious and important a task: for my meagre intellect is weak, and I have scarcely begun my studies of letters and eloquence."[iii] We must be careful not to assume that such self-deprecating speech indicates a woman racked by feelings of inadequacy, however. The study of History, with its emphasis on the careful analysis of primary source content and context, allows students to achieve a more complex reading. The public speeches of early modern women often employed language designed to put male listeners at ease; an awareness of that context allows for the discernment of Varano's self-assessment as an oratorical device, an oratorical formula, rather than a simple reflection of her insecurity. The language in her prefatory remarks strikes a considerably different tone than Alberti's work, but Varano's oration, with its references to classic texts and examples, establishes her as a practitioner of Renaissance erudition nonetheless. An understanding of historical context indicates that in following their thirst for learning, Varano and other women were pushing at the limits antiquity, authority, and their own societies assigned them. I think their work should push us to be similarly bold in following our pursuit of knowledge. According to Dr. Gary Biller, our Vice President of Student Services, somewhere between 55% and 75% of our first-year students are first-generation college students, as I was; no doubt many of them surmounted major obstacles to step foot on this campus. Students, I urge you to continue to pursue your educational goals, and I encourage the rest of us, too, to push ourselves beyond the easy and the comfortable in our quest for knowledge and discovery.

Allow me to illustrate additional lessons from the debate with a few examples from the classroom. When I began my teaching career as a graduate student, I required my Western Civ students to read an article by Margaret King entitled, "Book-Lined Cells: Women and Humanism in the Early Italian Renaissance.” In her assessment of the legacy of Isotta Nogarola and other learned women, King suggests that learned men perceived learned women "as desexualized, or of distorted sexuality, as neither male nor female, but as members of a third sex."[iv] According to King, these men thus simultaneously applauded women's intellectual endeavors while reserving true academic achievement for the masculine mind, even when it seemed to reside, impossibly, in the body of a woman. King closes by arguing that the successes and failures of the learned women of the Italian Renaissance persist into the present: "What the learned women of the Italian Renaissance attained, we have attained, in greater quantity; but what they suffered we have not escaped. We have confined their demons in a Pandoran box, from which they erupt to haunt us."[v] I had encountered the article while preparing for my doctoral exams, and as I began to construct my first course as an instructor, I imagined it was the kind of provocative reading that would promote spirited class discussions and thoughtful essays. I was right, but the lesson was one I did not anticipate. In my novice teacher naiveté, I assumed I would be the one providing the instruction, leading my students through an assessment of the article to a clearer understanding of humanism, but instead it was the students who exhibited the true Renaissance spirit of learning. Like the humanists of the past, my students used the reading to explore and illuminate issues of their present. The female students tended to warm to King's proclamation that women more than men still face difficult choices between career and family, are racked by self-doubt, are the subject of hostility for their achievements. Given the somewhat polemical conclusion of the piece, that response was not entirely unanticipated. What I was far less prepared for were raw, soul-baring comments from students struggling to articulate moments of self-discovery concerning their own anxieties, born of a consideration of the insecurities of the learned women. Something in those Renaissance lives struck a chord in them: would their ambitions be thwarted as well, by those who questioned their abilities or ridiculed their goals? Would they be able to get through their coursework while juggling full-time employment, elder care, child care, as non-traditional students after a lengthy absence from the classroom, as veterans, as young adults struggling to figure out who they were? A lesson in History, then, made the cause of my students' own education urgent and immediate.

Does this mean I think every discrete piece of information presented in a WIU classroom needs to have easily identifiable real-life applications or that we must commodify the liberal arts to make them desirable? I would be rather hard-pressed to make the case that a direct line exists between a student's understanding the Epic of Gilgamesh and a lucrative executive job. In preparation for tonight's presentation, I waded into the waters of another debate, that over the future of the liberal arts in higher education. I sifted through data on perceptions of educational value presented by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, and, thanks to Director of Admissions Dr. Andy Borst, the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education. My review suggests that the same concerns about the perceived decline of the liberal arts highlighted by Professor Hallwas ten years ago persist, amplified now by greater anxiety over employment in these challenging economic times. Yet studies show that the skills employers most value in employees – good communication, problem-solving, critical thinking – are those long associated with training in the liberal arts. Also encouraging are findings of the Association for the Study of Higher Education that among its other benefits, liberal arts education fosters respect for diverse students and diverse ways of knowing, which in turn lead to positive effects in working with people from different cultures, to a greater inclination to lifelong learning, to well-being, and to leadership after college.

In some ways, though, these data miss a key point: I would argue that higher education in the liberal arts is about more than simply job preparation and discrete, measurable outcomes. I certainly do not intend such a statement to be dismissive of the very real challenges that exist in today's job market. But I would also argue that in the disciplines that comprise the College of Arts and Science at WIU, liberal arts education seeks to combine training in a particular academic discipline with the acquisition of a liberal arts skill set that cultivates a desire for continual intellectual growth. Is History worth studying because it is a fascinating window into the human past? Does that study have an intrinsic value and grant the scholar in search of knowledge a sense of pleasure in the pursuit? Absolutely, although I may be slightly biased on that score. Part of the reason we academics do what we do is because we are forever chasing the satisfaction that our studies provide; the most cursory examination of the lectures produced by my predecessors in this series reveals educators passionate about their academic specialties.

History and the fifteen other departments and programs of the College of Arts and Sciences serve more than just educators' pursuit of their own knowledge, however. We are teachers in the liberal arts tradition, in the Natural Sciences, Mathematics, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities, and we must work ceaselessly to promote both the utility and the value of that tradition to our students and to society at large. Most of the students who enroll in my Western Civ sections are not History majors. They might grow to have an appreciation of the subject, but it will never captivate them the way it captivates working historians and historians in training. Does that mean History lacks "value" for them? Absolutely not. Even if my course is the only History course they take at WIU, I want them to leave the third floor of Morgan Hall better informed about their world and more successful readers and thinkers and writers. The liberal arts, at their best, lead us to a greater appreciation of the human experience, something the Renaissance vision of education promoted and something that persists even after the names of the combatants of famous battles may have faded from memory. Let me return to my Gilgamesh example. I might not be able to affix a "market value" to my students' analysis of that specific text, but I could attest with confidence that to demonstrate a comprehension of historical evidence, students must employ vital critical thinking skills as well as the communication skills requisite for positing their ideas in a clear, cogent fashion. I would call that valuable beyond measure.

Let's return one last time to Isotta Nogarola's book-lined cell. Let's not leave her as woman virtually imprisoned and isolated by her learning. Let's make this image instead a call to action, reminding us to see a liberal arts education as a process that strives to open rather than enclose, to create engagement rather than isolation, to cultivate continual self-discovery rather than stasis. Let us not take lightly the edifying struggle of the learned women, and indeed, of all people who seek to defy expectations and strive for growth and excellence in the face of challenges. Let's hold this image in our mind's eye a reminder never to take the opportunity of learning for granted and to be aware of our own limitations and persistent assumptions about who is capable of learning.

I close with a quote from learned woman Laura Cereta on the benefits of liberal education. In a letter striking back at one of her detractors, she confidently asserted, "a mind free, keen, and unyielding in the face of hard work always rises to the good, and the desire for learning grows in depth and breadth."[vi]So may it be with us.

[i] Zimmerman, "The Querelle des Femmes as a Cultural Studies Paradigm," 17-28.

[ii]Lyndan Warner, The Ideas of Man and Woman in Renaissance Florence (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011).

[iii]"Oration to the People of Camerino, delivered to them by Costanza Varano," in Her Immaculate Hand, 42.

[iv]King, "Book-Lined Cells," 79.

[v]King, "Book-Lined Cells," 81.

[vi]As quoted in Jane Slaughter and Melissa K. Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage: Biography and Gender in Western Civilization, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 340.


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