More from "The Other Voice" in Early Modern Europe. (Review Essay)

By Jordan, Constance | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

More from "The Other Voice" in Early Modern Europe. (Review Essay)


Jordan, Constance, Renaissance Quarterly


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The relative novelty of women's studies, not recognized as a discipline before the 1970s, is overshadowed by its prominence in the curricula of today. Courses in the liberal arts take account of the different experiences of men and women; some specifically feature the study of cultural practices establishing distinctions of gender; others consider how concepts of masculinity and femininity figure in the exercise and representation of authority and power. The series of works by or about early modern women published by the University of Chicago Press therefore finds a ready market, and its most recent publications, reviewed here, maintain the high standard of editing and translating shown earlier. The choice of what to publish and the degree of information required for these works to be attractive to non-specialist readers make this series a distinguished and necessary addition to early modern cultural studies. It goes far to establish a tradition of women authors and a literature for women at a time when the b est evidence still suggests that most women could neither read nor write.

As interest has grown in analyzing illustrations of power and how it is deployed, the figure of woman has often been equated with that of the male subordinate. Their social functions are often quite comparable: to please their master, to serve his needs, and to echo his thoughts. Such a structuralist vision of gender allows for an understanding of the critical importance of rank: a female prince is a masculine agent, in that she has authority and power; by contrast, a male servant is a feminized entity, in that he is beholden to his superiors. The history of political thought conveys further how the figure of the feminized subordinate informs notions of the state. The self-definition of James I as king of all Britain is illustrative: he is, he declared, the "Husband" of "the Isle, his Wife." Of course, what being a subordinate means is variable: it may entail an obligation to give counsel to a superior, as a wife should do in a marriage; or to withhold support from a sovereign, as a people might do in a const itutional monarchy. In all these discourses, the question of gender, the difference between maleness and masculinity on the one hand, and femaleness and femininity on the other, is critical to an understanding of conflicts of interest.

In the course of some fifty years, from the publication of Ruth Kelso's Doctrine for the Gentlewoman of the Renaissance, 1956, through Joan Kelly's cogent critique of the notion of a genderless Renaissance in "Did Women have a Renaissance," 1977, scholarship on the culture of early modern Europe has progressively defined and refined the perspectives in which the nature and status of women may be regarded. The idea of woman as a functional male, whether as a result of rank (gentle, noble) or status (widow), suggests that concepts of gender were susceptible to improvisation and even playful innovation. As a rule, of course, the figure of the masculine woman was inherently intriguing and celebrated, while that of the feminized male was rejected and derided.

Seeking themes or positions common to the works noted above is a somewhat arbitrary business, given that so much has to be left aside. Nevertheless, I want to begin by making a general claim: in these works, the representation of gender and its difference is linked to the representation of human agency. Where gender is of little interest and provokes no sense of disparate natures or goals as between men and women, history is usually represented as providential. Problems of human agency, whether of a man or a woman, are not at issue. What counts for these authors is a unitary social order, one in which differences of all kinds are subsumed in the concept of a human nature and reason. By contrast, works featuring gender tend to represent agency in human terms and hence also to recognize the decisive effects of circumstance and contingency. …

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