“The Woman Question”: Down the Rabbit Hole of History

With The Virgins of Venice making the rounds of book clubs and garnering some lovely reviews (if you’ve read the novel, would you consider writing a short review on the site of your choice?), I have started work on my next novel, to be set in 1570s Venice and reviving another woman’s lost story.

That includes writing the manuscript of course, as well as applying for grants and especially researching for accuracy and ideas. Such research – usually dusty academic books and esoteric articles that I hope to use to fashion a ripping good yarn – often leads me down fascinating rabbit holes of history. While my new book will focus on one woman in particular (although I’m not yet ready to reveal more!), my research recently made me aware of quite a few women that no one but professors seem to know about. Yet each of their stories deserves to be told, to further enrich our knowledge of women of the past.

Who were these women?

Elena Cornaro Piscopia – This seventeenth-century Venetian noblewoman became the first female in history to receive a PhD, for philosophy from the University of Padua. She was renowned for her abilities in both music and mathematics.

(sec. X, Milano. (book : F. L. Maschietto, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684).

Gaspara Stampa – This Venetian woman who lived just 31 years produced more than 300 poems and was considered one of the greatest poets of the Italian Renaissance.

Marietta Robusti (“La Tintoretta”) – This beloved daughter of Venetian painting master Tintoretto may have painted many works attributed instead to her famous father and brother.

Self-Portrait with Madrigal (c. 1578), attributed to Marietta Robusti. Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence

Eleonora of Naples – Eleanora married Ercole I d’Este to become the first duchess of Ferrara. Known for her political acumen, she ably ruled the duchy during her husband’s frequent absences. She inspired several great writings, including a treatise by Bartolomeo Goggio, who posited not just the equality but the superiority of the female sex.

Portrait of Eleonora d’Aragona, Duchess of Ferrara, from a manuscript “Il modo di regere e di regnare” by Antonio Cornazzano (The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York)

Isotta Nagarola – This fifteenth-century intellectual from Verona was the first major female humanist. Her intelligence apparently was threatening to powerful men, who accused her of incest, forcing her to retreat to a more religious life. Her most influential work was De pari aut impari Evae atque Adae peccato (Dialogue on the Equal or Unequal Sin of Adam and Eve) in which she defends Eve, an important part of the debate at the time known as “the woman question.”

What was “the woman question”?

The “woman question” was a 300-year Renaissance-era debate about the role of women in society, which included their nature and whether they should be allowed to study and write as if equal to men (not to be confused with the other “woman question,” which is more recent and having to do with things like suffrage and bodily autonomy). Many works have been written on the subject, but the crux of it was that some women (often supported by their fathers, who educated them well) said “Yep, I’m as good as and as smart as a man.”

Others begged to differ, positing that such women were loose sexually (see what happened to Isotta Nagarola above) or not even actual women, but with the soul of a man or some sort of third sex. This idea of women as subordinate to men was based on Aristotle, timely since Greek and Roman thought was making quite the comeback during the early modern period.

We – and at least some people of that era – of course know this not to be true – these were just intellectual and ambitious women who didn’t slot easily into society’s strict roles set out for them.

That’s part of the reason why it’s so important to revive women’s lost stories in as accurate a way as possible – so we better understand the past as well as the present.

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