- Querelle des Femmes
- The "woman question" was a series of literary debates whether women are naturally and inevitably inferior to men (as the received wisdom of European writers had held since ancient times) or whether the obvious inferiority of women in intel-lectual and literary attainments and in nearly all aspects of life was purely a social convention forced on women by the tyranny of men. Some of the first Renaissance authors who expressed sympathy with female complaints of injustice and argued that the low status of women was not inevitable but had been caused by male tyranny were Mario Equicola in De mulieribus / On Women (1500) and the German occultist Agrippa von Nettesheim, whose Declamatio de nobilitate etpraecellentia foeminei sexus /Declamation on the Nobility and Su-periority of the Female Sex (1529) was frequently published both in the original Latin and in translations into most of the major vernacu-lar languages. The status of women was also an important theme in one of the major books of manners published in the early 16th cen-tury, The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castigione, though its advocacy of women was limited. A more spirited defense of women's rights was Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso.The possibility (and actuality) of female succession to the throne made England a center of discussions on this issue. The Spanish hu-manist Juan Luis Vives in his Instruction of a Christian Woman (Latin 1523; English translation 1540), written specifically for Queen Catherine of Aragon, advised that the queen's daughter Mary Tudor should not inherit the throne because of the inherent weakness of fe-male character. The humanist Thomas Elyot in The Defence of Good Women (1540) opposed Vives and argued that although normally women should not rule, they have the ability to do so when condi-tions demand. The actual accession of a woman, Mary Tudor, to the English throne in 1552 made these theoretical debates more real, and since Mary was not only a female monarch but a Catholic one as well, the Scottish reformer John Knox wrote First Blast of the Trum-pet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), a work he never repudiated but did find somewhat inconvenient when the death of Queen Mary brought a Protestant woman, Elizabeth I, to the throne. Defenses of female monarchy became easier to write when the ruler actually was a woman, and both John Aylmer and Edmund Spenser wrote in defense of women's eligibility for the throne, though both authors justified Elizabeth's rule by interpreting it as a special act of divine grace beyond the usual scope of female ability.Debates about the status of women remained frequent during the 17th century, a period when education of women was often dis-cussed. A woman famous for her own learning, Anna Maria von Schurman (1607-1678), published a treatise in 1638 contending that it is proper for a woman of wealth and leisure to study. Marie de Gournay (1565-1645), who avoided marriage in order to de-vote herself to study and who became a friend of Michel de Montaigne and edited his essays, contended that women are intellectu-ally just as able as men but are made inferior because they are excluded from education. The issue of the moral and intellectual equality of women was also discussed by a male author, François Poulain de la Barre, in De l'égalité des deux sexes /On the Equality of the Sexes (1673). Despite the theoretical equality of the sexes, the subordination of women in marriage negated much of that equality. A large proportion of the women who became noted for learning either never married or ceased being active scholars after they married.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.