The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England

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In this illuminating work, surveying 300 years and two nations, Sarah Gwyneth Ross demonstrates how the expanding ranks of learned women in the Renaissance era presented the first significant challenge to the traditional definition of “woman” in the West.

An experiment in collective biography and intellectual history, The Birth of Feminism focuses on nineteen learned women from the middle ranks of society who rose to prominence in the world of Italian and English letters between 1400 and 1680. Drawing both on archival material—wills, letters, and manuscript compositions, some presented here for the first time—and on printed writings, Ross gives us an unprecedented sense of educated early modern women’s lives.

Sponsored and often educated by their learned fathers and other male relatives within a model that Ross terms “the intellectual family,” female authors publicized their works within the safety of family networks. These women, including Christine de Pizan, Laura Cereta, Margaret More Roper, Lucrezia Marinella, and Bathsua Makin, did not argue for women’s political equality, but they represented and often advocated women’s intellectual equality. Ross demonstrates that because of their education, these women had a renaissance during the Renaissance, and that in so doing they laid the foundation for the emancipation of womankind.

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Editorial Reviews

Kate Lowe
A provocative and academic new reading of Renaissance feminism for a post-feminist generation.
Diana Robin
The Birth of Feminism comes to us as a crucial book at this time since--strange to say--we still lack synthetic, comprehensive studies in women's literary and political history prior to 1750. Ross's book spans 300 years and documents the rise of a discourse of women's rights and the culture of feminism in two nations, offering a much needed guide to the period and its chief actors.
Elissa B. Weaver
This is an impressive and very persuasive study. I would recommend it to anyone interested in women's literature, women's history, or in the history of education for the wealth of information Ross has gathered and for the effective way she builds her argument about the education of women within the intellectual family.
Anthony Grafton
Sarah Ross redraws our maps of Renaissance society and culture in this erudite and fascinating book. She recreates a lost world of women humanists, who found new meanings in ancient texts and new literary possibilities in ancient models. She rediscovers, behind them, another forgotten world, one of generous fathers—real and fictive—who helped women learn, write, and make their way into the public world. And through deft close readings of a wide range of texts, she proves that both in Italy and in England, intellectual women had an extraordinary Renaissance.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674034549
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/30/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Gwyneth Ross is Assistant Professor of History, Boston College.
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Table of Contents

  • Note on the Texts
  • Introduction

  1. I: THE HOUSEHOLD ACADEMY, 1400–1580
  2. Her Father's Daughter
  3. Household Academies in Venice and London
  4. The Biographical Tradition
  5. Models of Feminist Argument

  6. II: THE HOUSEHOLD SALON, 1580–1680
  7. Learned Wives and Mothers in Italy
  8. Collaborative Marriages in Britain
  9. Discourses of Equality and Rights

  • Conclusion
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

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