One of the tasks of women's history is to call into question accepted schemes of periodization. To take the emancipation of women as a vantage point is to discover that events that further the historical development of men, liberating them from natural, social, or ideological constraints, have quite different, even opposite, effects upon women. The Renaissance is a good case in point. Italy was well in advance of the rest of Europe from roughly 1350 to 1530 because of its early consolidation of genuine states, the mercantile and manufacturing economy that supported them, and its working out of postfeudal and even postguild social relations. These developments reorganized Italian society along modern lines and opened the possibilities for the social and cultural expression for which the age is known. Yet precisely these developments affected women adversely, so much so that there was no renaissance for women—at least, not during the Renaissance. The state, early capitalism, and the social relations formed by them impinged on the lives of Renaissance women in different ways according to their different positions in society. But the startling fact is that women as a group, especially among the classes that dominated Italian urban life, experienced a contraction of social and personal options that men of their classes either did not, as was the case with the bourgeoisie, or did not experience as markedly, as was the case with the nobility.
Before demonstrating this point, which contradicts the widely held notion of the equality of Renaissance women with men,1 we need to
Reprinted from Becoming Visible: Women in European History, edited by Renate Bridenthal
and Claudia Koonz, © 1977 by Houghton Mifflin Co. Used by permission.
I first worked out these ideas in 1972-1973 in a course at Sarah Lawrence College entitled
“Women: Myth and Reality” and am very much indebted to students in that course and my
colleagues Eva Kollisch, Gerda Lerner, and Sherry Ortner. I thank Eve Fleisher, Martin
Fleisher, Renate Bridenthal, and Claudia Koonz for their valuable criticism of an earlier
version of this paper.