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Reviewed by:
  • The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England by Sarah Gwyneth Ross, and: The Rule of Women in Early Modern Europe ed. by Anne J. Cruz and Mihoko Suzuki
  • Hannah Chapelle Wojciehowski (bio)
The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England by Sarah Gwyneth Ross. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009, 416 pp., $54.50 hardcover.
The Rule of Women in Early Modern Europe edited by Anne J. Cruz and Mihoko Suzuki. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 240 pp., $65.00 hardcover, $26.00 paper.

Did women have a Renaissance? That question, posed by Joan Kelly in her classic 1977 essay and answered in the negative, helped inspire two generations' worth [End Page 198] of revisionary scholarship investigating the roles of women in early modern Europe and beyond. In her book The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England, Sarah Gwyneth Ross broaches that famous question again, this time providing a very different answer. What Ross offers in her analysis is above all a reframing of the available evidence concerning women intellectuals in early modern Europe. As Ross explains:

Our treasury of information now overflows, but older interpretive models are proving intractable, especially the argument that early modern women writers were considered "exceptional" and transgressive figures, whom society confined to the margins. This is the moment to reassess that claim. Within the last year (as I write), several studies focusing on the sixteenth century have demonstrated that women writers, far from being marginalized, in fact played authoritative roles in contemporary "salons" and "literary circles"—a defining characteristic of which was the collaboration of male and female colleagues. A historical sea change is taking place.


The "older interpretive models" to which Ross refers are by and large those used by feminist historians and literary scholars from the 1960s until comparatively recent times. What Ross contests most strongly is the longstanding assumption that women intellectuals were, in fact, a rarity, and that they were embattled figures or curious anomalies cloistered in book-lined cells.

More strikingly, she argues that "the patriarch was complicit in the creation of Renaissance feminism," thus inverting and contesting Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace's earlier claim in Their Fathers' Daughters: Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Patriarchal Complicity (1991) that "women writers were 'complicit' in serving male interests by toeing the patriarch line" (discussed in Ross, 323-24). Ross contends that at least some patriarchs furthered the interests of women by nurturing the self-expression and intellectual development of their daughters and protégées. Ross also draws our attention to a long-observed though little dwelt-upon phenomenon: namely, that in the Renaissance, men and women collaborated on scholarly projects and on humanist learning in general, and that many of those collaborations between fathers and daughters, patrons and protégées, brothers and sisters, and male and female friends were productive ones that ultimately led to positive social change.

Ross explains the rise of the educated woman during the Renaissance with a model that she calls "the intellectual family": "By publishing their works within the safety of family networks and deploying familial metaphors when approaching male patrons, women themselves used 'the intellectual family' as a rhetorical device for making their novel status as scholars and authors appealing to contemporary culture. They succeeded" (2). By the seventeenth century, the role of the female intellectual was firmly established, and the patronage of fathers would become less of a requirement for women seeking to establish their authority as writers and thinkers. [End Page 199]

The household academy, Ross argues, was the main site for the training of women in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. She begins with an account of the educations of four prominent Italian feminist writers—Christine de Pizan, Isotta Nogarola, Cassandra Fedele, and Laura Cereta—emphasizing the nurturing influence of paternal figures in their formation. She also compares the household academies of the Bembo family in Venice to that of the Mores, Cookes, and Fitzalans in England, analyzing the ways in which fathers shaped the minds of the female and male children in those well-known intellectual families. Despite the fact that...


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pp. 198-204
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