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Protofeminism is a concept that anticipates modern feminism in eras when the feminist concept as such was still unknown. This refers particularly to times before the 20th century, although the precise usage is disputed, as 18th-century feminism and 19th-century feminism are often subsumed into "feminism". The usefulness of the term protofeminist has been questioned by some modern scholars, as has the term postfeminist.
Ancient Greece and Rome
Plato, according to Elaine Hoffman Baruch, "[argued] for the total political and sexual equality of women, advocating that they be members of his highest class... those who rule and fight". Book five of Plato's The Republic discusses the role of women:
Are dogs divided into hes and shes, or do they both share equally in hunting and in keeping watch and in the other duties of dogs? Or do we entrust to the males the entire and exclusive care of the flocks, while we leave the females at home, under the idea that the bearing and suckling their puppies is labour enough for them?
The Republic states that women in Plato's ideal state should work alongside men, receive equal education, and share equally in all aspects of the state. The sole exception involved women working in capacities which required less physical strength.
In the first century AD, the Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus entitled one of his 21 Discourses "That Women Too Should Study Philosophy". In this discourse he argues for equal education of women in the field of philosophy, stating: "If you ask me what doctrine produces such an education, I shall reply that as without philosophy no man would be properly educated, so no woman would be. Moreover, not men alone, but women too, have a natural inclination toward virtue and the capacity for acquiring it, and it is the nature of women no less than men to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these. If this is true, by what reasoning would it ever be appropriate for men to search out and consider how they may lead good lives, which is exactly the study of philosophy, but inappropriate for women?”
While in the pre-modern period there was no formal feminist movement in Islamic nations, there were a number of important figures who spoke for improving women's rights and autonomy. The medieval mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi argued that while men were favored over women as prophets, women were just as capable of sainthood as men.
In the 12th century, the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir wrote that women could study and earn ijazahs in order to transmit religious texts like the hadiths. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters. However, some men did not approve of this practice, such as Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (died 1336), who was appalled by women speaking in loud voices and exposing their 'awra in the presence of men while listening to the recitation of books.
In the 12th century, the Islamic philosopher and qadi (judge) Ibn Rushd, commenting on Plato's views in The Republic on equality between the sexes, concluded that while men were stronger than women, it was still possible for women to perform the same duties as men. In Bidayat al-mujtahid (The Distinguished Jurist's Primer), he added that these duties could include participation in warfare, and he expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that women in his society were typically limited to being mothers and wives. A number of women are said to have taken part in battles or helped in them during the Muslim conquests and fitnas, including Nusaybah bint Ka'ab and Aisha.
Here the dominant view of women was that they were intellectually and morally weaker than men, having been tainted by Eve's original sin according to the biblical tradition. This was used to justify many restrictions placed on women, such as not being allowed to own property, or their obligation to obey fathers or husbands at all times. But this view and restrictions derived from it raised objections even in medieval times. Medieval protofeminists recognized as important to the development of feminism include Marie de France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Bettisia Gozzadini, Nicola de la Haye, Christine de Pizan, Jadwiga of Poland, Laura Cereta, and La Malinche.
Women in the Peasants' Revolt
The English Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was a rebellion against serfdom, in which many women played prominent roles. On 14 June 1381, the Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, was dragged from the Tower of London and beheaded. Leading the group was Johanna Ferrour, who ordered this due to Sudbury's harsh poll taxes. She also ordered the beheading of the Lord High Treasurer, Sir Robert Hales, for his role in the poll tax. In addition to leading these rebels, Ferrour burned down the Savoy Palace and stole a duke's chest of gold. The Chief Justice John Cavendish was beheaded by Katherine Gamen, another female leader.
An Associate Professor of English at Bates College, Sylvia Federico, argues that women often had the strongest desire to participate in revolts, this one in particular. They did everything that men did: they were just as violent in rebelling against the government, if not more so. Ferrour was not the only female leader of the revolt; others were involved — one woman indicted for encouraging an attack against a prison at Maidstone in Kent, another responsible for robbing a multitude of mansions, which frightened servants so much they were too scared to return afterwards. Although there were not many female leaders in the Peasants' Revolt, there were surprising numbers in the crowd, for instance, 70 in Suffolk.
The women involved had valid reasons for desiring to take part, and in instances, to take a leading role. The poll tax of 1380 was much tougher on married women, so it is unsurprising that women were as violent as men, if not more so, in their involvement. Their various extreme acts of violence displayed a mounting hatred for the government.
Hrotsvitha was a German secular canoness, who was born about 935 and died about 973. Her work continues to be seen as important as she was the first female writer from the German Lands, was the first female historian, and is thought to be the first person since antiquity to write dramas in the Latin West. Moreover, since her rediscovery in the 1600s by Conrad Celtis, Hrotsvitha has become a source of interest and study particularly for feminists, as feminists have begun to re-contextualize her work through feminist lenses. This re-contextualization has led some to argue that while Hrotsvitha was not a feminist, that she is important in the history of feminism.
Restrictions on women
At the beginning of the renaissance, women's sole role and social value was held to be reproduction. This gender role defined a woman's main identity and purpose in life. Socrates, a well-known exemplar of the love of wisdom to the Renaissance humanists, said that he tolerated his first wife Xanthippe, because she bore him sons, in the same way one tolerated the noise of geese because they produce eggs and chicks. This analogy perpetuated the claim that a woman's sole role was reproduction.
Marriage in the Renaissance defined a woman: she was whom she married. Till marriage she remained her father's property. Each had few rights beyond privileges granted by a husband or father. She was expected to be chaste, obedient, pleasant, gentle, submissive, and unless sweet-spoken, silent. In William Shakespeare's 1593 play The Taming of the Shrew, Katherina is seen as unmarriageable for her headstrong, outspoken nature, unlike her mild sister Bianca. She is seen as a wayward shrew who needs taming into submission. Once tamed, she readily goes when Petruchio summons her, almost like a dog. Her submission is applauded; she is accepted as a proper woman, now "conformable to other household Kates."
Unsurprisingly, therefore, most women were barely educated. In a letter to Lady Baptista Maletesta of Montefeltro in 1424, the humanist Leonardo Bruni wrote: "While you live in these times when learning has so far decayed that it is regarded as positively miraculous to meet a learned man, let alone a woman." Bruni himself thought women had no need of education because they were not engaged in social forums in which such discourse was required. In the same letter he wrote,
For why should the subtleties of... a thousand... rhetorical conundra consume the powers of a woman, who never sees the forum? The contests of the forum, like those of warfare and battle, are the sphere of men. Hers is not the task of learning to speak for and against witnesses, for and against torture, for and against reputation.... She will, in a word, leave the rough-and-tumble of the forum entirely to men."
Starting with the Malleus Maleficarum, Renaissance Europe saw the publication of numerous treatises on witches: their essence, their features, and ways to spot, prosecute and punish them. This helped to reinforce and perpetuate the view of women as morally corrupt sinners, and to keep in place the restrictions placed on them.
Advocating women's learning
Yet not everyone agreed with this negative view of women and the restrictions placed on them. Simone de Beauvoir states that "the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex" was when Christine de Pizan wrote Épître au Dieu d'Amour (Epistle to the God of Love) and The Book of the City of Ladies, at the turn of the 15th century. An early male advocate of women's superiority was Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in The Superior Excellence of Women Over Men.
Catherine of Aragon, the first official female ambassador in European history, commissioned a book by Juan Luis Vives arguing that women had a right to an education, and encouraged and popularized education for women in England in her time as Henry VIII's wife.
Vives and fellow Renaissance humanist Agricola argued that aristocratic women at least required education. Roger Ascham educated Queen Elizabeth I, who read Latin and Greek and wrote occasional poems such as On Monsieur's Departure that are still anthologized. She was seen as having talent without a woman's weakness, industry with a man's perseverance, and the body of a weak and feeble woman, but with the heart and stomach of a king. The only way she could be seen as a good ruler was through manly qualities. Being a powerful and successful woman in the Renaissance, like Queen Elizabeth I, meant in some ways being male – a perception that limited women's potential as women.
While aristocratic women had greater chances of receiving an education, it was not impossible for lower-class women to become literate. A woman named Margherita, living during the Renaissance, learned to read and write at the age of about 30, so there would be no mediator for the letters exchanged between her and her husband. Although Margherita defied gender roles, she became literate not to become a more enlightened person, but to be a better wife by gaining the ability to communicate with her husband directly.
Learned women in Early Modern Europe
Women who received an education often reached high standards of learning and wrote in defence of women and their rights. An example is the 16th-century Venetian author Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi.The painter Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532–1625) was born into an enlightened family in Cremona. She and her sisters were educated to male standards, and four out of five became professional painters. Sofonisba was the most successful of all, crowning her career as court painter to the Spanish king Philip II.
The famous Renaissance salons that held intelligent debate and lectures were not welcoming to women. This exclusion from public forums led to problems for educated women. Despite these constraints, many women were capable voices of new ideas. Isotta Nogarola fought to deconstruct such literary misogyny through defenses of women in biographical work and the exoneration of Eve. She made a space for Women's voice in this time period regarded as a female intellectual. Similarly, Laura Cereta re-imagined the role of women in society and arguing that education is a right for all humans and going so far as to say that women were at fault for not seizing their own educational rights. Cassandra Fedele was the first to join a humanist gentleman's club, declaring that womanhood was a point of pride and equality of the sexes was essential. Other women including Margaret Roper, Mary Basset and the Cooke sisters gained recognition as scholars in their time by making important translating contributions. Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella were among some of the first women to adopt male rhetoric styles to rectify the inferior social context for women. Men at the time also recognised particular women intellectuals already existed with possibilities and began writing their biographies as Jacopo Filippo Tomasini did. The modern scholar Diana Robin has outlined the history of intellectual women as a long and noble lineage.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a nun in colonial New Spain in the seventeenth century. Sor Juana was an illegitimate Criolla, born to an absent Spanish father and a Croilla mother. Not only was she highly intelligent, but she was also self-educated, having studied in her wealthy grandfather's library. Since Sor Juana was a woman, she was barred from entering formal education, and she pleaded with her mother to let her masculinize her appearance and attend university under the guise of being male. After the Vicereine Leonor Carreto took Sor Juana under her wing, the Viceroy, the Marquis de Mancera, provided Sor Juana with the opportunity to prove her intelligence. Sor Juana exceeded all expectations, and, legitimized by the viceregal court, established a reputation for herself as an intellectual. For reasons still debated, Sor Juana became a nun. While in the convent, she became a highly controversial figure. She advocated for the recognition of women theologians, criticized the patriarchal and colonial structures of the Church, and published her own writing, in which she established herself as an authority. Sor Juana also advocated for universal education and language rights. Not only did Sor Juana contribute to the historic discourse of the Querelles des Femmes, but has also been recognized as a protofeminist, religious feminist, and ecofeminist, and is connected to lesbian feminism.
The Reformation was a milestone for the development of women's rights and education. As Protestantism was based on believers' direct interaction with God, the ability to read the Bible and prayer books suddenly became a necessity to all, including women and girls, and so Protestant communities started to set up schools where ordinary boys and girls were taught basic literacy. Protestants no longer saw women as weak and evil sinners, but rather as worthy companions of men needing education to become capable wives.
Nonconformism, protectorate and restoration
Marie de Gournay (1565–1645) edited the third edition of Michel de Montaigne's Essays after his death. She also wrote two feminist essays: The Equality of Men and Women (1622) and The Ladies' Grievance (1626). In 1673, François Poullain de la Barre wrote De l'égalité des deux sexes (On the equality of the two sexes).
The 17th century saw the development of many nonconformist sects, such as the Quakers, which allowed more freedom of expression to women than established religions. Noted feminist writers on religion and spirituality included Rachel Speght, Katherine Evans, Sarah Chevers, Margaret Fell (a founding member of the Quakers), Mary Forster and Sarah Blackborow This continued in the prominence of some female ministers and writers such as Mary Mollineux and Barbara Blaugdone in the early decades of Quakerism. In general, though, women who preached or expressed opinions on religion were in danger of being suspected of lunacy or witchcraft, and many, like Anne Askew, who was burned at the stake for heresy, died "for their implicit or explicit challenge to the patriarchal order".
Burning of witches]] In France and England, feminist ideas were attributes of heterodoxy, such as the Waldensians and Catharists, rather than orthodoxy. Religious egalitarianism, such as that embraced by the Levellers, carried over into gender equality, and so had political implications. Leveller women mounted public demonstrations and petitions for equal rights, although dismissed by the authorities of the day.
The 17th century also saw more women writers emerging, such as Anne Bradstreet, Bathsua Makin, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Lady Mary Wroth, the anonymous Eugenia, Mary Chudleigh, and Mary Astell, who depicted women's changing roles and pleaded for their education. However, they encountered considerable hostility, as exemplified by the experiences of Cavendish, and of Wroth, whose work was not published until the 20th century.
Seventeenth-century France also saw the rise of salons – cultural gathering places of the upper-class intelligentsia – which were run by women and in which they participated as artists. But while women were granted salon membership, they stayed in the background, writing "but not for [publication]". Despite their limited role in the salons, Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought them a "threat to the 'natural' dominance of men".
Mary Astell is often described as the first feminist writer, although this ignores the intellectual debt she owed to Anna Maria van Schurman, Bathsua Makin and others who preceded her. She was certainly among the earliest feminist writers in English, whose analyses remain relevant today, and who moved beyond earlier writers by instituting educational institutions for women. Astell and Aphra Behn together laid the groundwork for feminist theory in the 17th century. No woman would speak out as strongly again for another century. In historical accounts, Astell is often overshadowed by her younger and more colourful friend and correspondent Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
Liberalization of social values and secularization in the English Restoration provided new chances for women in the arts, which they used to advance their cause. Yet female playwrights encountered similar hostility, including Catherine Trotter Cockburn, Mary Manley and Mary Pix. The most influential of all was Aphra Behn, one of the first English women to earn her living as a writer, who was influential as a novelist, playwright and political propagandist. Although successful in her lifetime, Behn was often vilified as "unwomanly" by 18th-century writers like Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Likewise, the 19th-century critic Julia Kavanagh said that "instead of raising man to woman's moral standards [Behn] sank to the level of man's courseness." Not until the 20th century did Behn gain a wider readership and critical acceptance. Virginia Woolf praised her career: "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."
In continental Europe, major feminist writers included Marguerite de Navarre, Marie de Gournay, and Anna Maria van Schurman, who mounted attacks on misogyny and promoted the education of women. In Switzerland, the first printed publication by a woman appeared in 1694: in Glaubens-Rechenschafft, Hortensia von Moos argued against the idea that women should stay silent. The previous year saw publication of an anonymous tract, Rose der Freyheit (Rose of Freedom), whose author denounces male dominance and abuse of women.
In the New World, the Mexican nun, Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651–1695), advanced the education of women in her essay "Reply to Sor Philotea." By the end of the 17th century women's voices were becoming increasingly heard at least by educated women. Literature in the last decades of the century was sometimes referred to as the "Battle of the Sexes", and was often surprisingly polemic, such as Hannah Woolley's The Gentlewoman's Companion. However, women received mixed messages, for they also heard a strident backlash and even self-deprecation by women writers in response. They were also subjected to conflicting social pressures, one of which was fewer opportunities for work outside the home, and education which sometimes reinforced the social order as much as inspired independent thinking.
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