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Understanding Gender Inequality in Renaissance Florence: Personhood and Gifts of Maternal Inheritance by Women Thomas Kuehn For most historians the answer to Joan Kelly's question, "Did women have a Renaissance?" is an emphatic no.1 Women faced numerous restrictions in both civil and canon law.2 In many Italian cities they were excluded from public offices and even from inheritance beyond their dowry.3 Male dominance found expression in the patrilineage and, by means of the prevailing system of dowry, cultural constructs of honor, and modes of contracting marriages, placed women at the service of their fathers or other male kin.4 And to all this the city of Florence added a special legal disability—the necessity of a male guardian, a mundualdus, for women to enter a valid contract or perform a number of legal transactions.5 Yet this legal subordination of women did not preclude them from all forms of agency and did not totally deny them all measure of legal personality. It is the personhood and agency of women—an anthropological way of seeing them in relation to men— that is the subject of this essay. Dominance or Subversion? Certainly women were largely confined to the home. They were only occasionally the object of male attention in familial ricordi and then mainly in procreative and domestic guises, as they married, gave birth, or died.6 Women did not speak to us across the centuries, with exceptions like Alessandra Macinghi negli Strozzi, who was thrust into a peculiar position by the exile of her husband and sons.7 With some justice Christiane Klapisch-Zuber concludes that the female "is portrayed as confined in a straitjacket of irrefutable normative texts and never as an actor in history. She is the plaything of these norms, reduced quite simply to the law applied to her, yet without constituting a legal entity in her own right."8 Against this bleak picture of lack of initiative or autonomy, some historians have pointed to forms of manipulation or subversion utilized by women to escape or mitigate the rigors of patriarchy. Carol Lansing has claimed that the rigorous ascetic sanctity of Umiliana dei Cerchi was a means of self-assertion in opposition to the paternal desire to use her in a © 1996 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 2 (Summer) 1996 Thomas Kuehn 59 marital alliance.9 Sharon Strocchia has urged attention to "the way in which women managed, negotiated, subverted or accepted" structures of male dominance and were able "to elaborate ingenious strategies to assume power."10 Maria Serena Mazzi has gone so far as to intimate that prostitutes were engaged in a form of protest against the restraints on libido sanctioned by the Church and secular authorities.11 This sense that male dominance was punctuated by occasional areas or moments of female autonomy or subversion magnifies the distances between men and women. There is a presumption that gender (as the cultural construction imposed on but not reducible to sexual, namely, biological, differences) is a matter solely of opposition. Yet this sense of the matter does not serve us well in understanding so many acts of Florentine women and men and the texts that tell us about those acts. I would like to try to push further, to question how it was that both women and men managed to sustain such patriarchy. How did they understand their positions and actions within the arena of gender relations? Why were these supposedly autonomous, independent, or subversive actions of women so often compatible with the structures and goals of male dominance? And were men not also constrained by the structures of patriarchy? Certainly, while dowry was a signifier of women's exclusion from their natal patrilineage's property, it placed limits on the men who had to raise it and, following marriage, manage it, and gave a certain power, if not authority, to widows blessed with a considerable dowry.12 Patriarchy had its price, and the mechanisms of law operated quite often to make sure the price was paid.13 Joan Kelly's question and, by and large, the works of other historians rest on implicit assumptions regarding the selves and experiences of women...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 58-80
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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