The Concept of Woman - Vol. 2

The Concept of Woman - Vol. 2

The Concept of Woman - Vol. 2

The Concept of Woman - Vol. 2


This seminal work is the second volume of a widely praised study of the concept of woman in the history of Western philosophy. Sister Prudence Allen explores claims about sex and gender identity in the works of over fifty philosophers (both men and women) in the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. Touching on the thought of "every" philosopher who considered sex or gender identity between A. D. 1250 and 1500, "The Concept of Woman" provides the analytical categories necessary for situating contemporary discussion of women in relation to men. Adding to the accessibility of this fine discussion are informative illustrations, helpful summary charts, and extracts of original source material (some not previously available in English). Encyclopedic in coverage yet clearly organized and well written, "The Concept of Woman" will be an invaluable resource for readers interested in a wide range of disciplines.


The initial question raised at the beginning of the first volume of The Concept of Woman — “What is to become of woman and man?” — still compels our attention. Today tensions are increasing about the issue of the respective identities of women and men. These tensions are often fed by conflicting ideologies and by weak philosophical analyses. in this contemporary context, philosophical reflections on the concept of woman between 1250 and 1500 may bring some illumination. the popular historian Barbara Tuchman refers to the fourteenth century as “a distant mirror,” through which we may glimpse something of the emerging modern identities of women and men. Her analogy implies that we can discover something about ourselves by focusing on men and women who lived in late Medieval and early Renaissance Europe.

My goal is to clarify the ways in which selected women and men writers between 1250 and 1500 articulated concepts of woman, to evaluate the ways in which their theories gave evidence of either growth or stagnation in relation to the previous two thousand years of western philosophy, and finally to evaluate the ways in which these theories, with all their conflicting and illuminating dynamics, enter into our cultural heritage along the specific lines of the philosophy of sex and gender identity.

The perspective in this text is clearly a reverse of the traditional philosophical approach: it moves the concept of woman into the foreground of attention while that of man remains in the background. By turning to a metaphor from the history of art, the significance of this shift in perspective may become clearer. the artistic technique of depicting perspective was a great advance of the Renaissance. Two different things are needed to see in three-dimensional perspective: first, an appropriate delineation of foreground and background within a work of art, and second, a viewer who is able to see simultaneously with two eyes. It could be said that traditional western thinkers have used primarily one eye when they focused entirely on

1. Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Ballantine
Books, 1978). the pioneer work of Régine Pernoud on women's identity during the same period
should also be noted. See La Femme au temps des cathédrales (Paris: Stock/Lawrence Pernoud, 1980);
Lumière du Moyen Age (Paris: B. Grasset, 1981); and Pour en finir avec le Moyen Age (Paris: Seuil,

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