Querelle des Femmes

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Querelle des Femmes

The French phrase querelle des femmes, meaning "the woman question," refers to a literary debate about the nature and status of women. This debate began around 1500 and continued beyond the end of the Renaissance.

The first Renaissance figure to raise the issue of women's status was the philosopher Heinrich Agrippa of Nettesheim. In 1509 Agrippa gave a lecture on the virtues of the female sex. Agrippa re-interpreted biblical, Greek, and Roman texts to support his theory that women were superior to men. He argued that men had oppressed* women not because of natural differences but for social reasons. This claim separated sex, the biological distinctions between men and women, from gender, a social construct.

Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione summarized some of Agrippa's ideas for a wider audience in The Book of the Courtier (1528). However, Castiglione took a far less extreme view than Agrippa. While he acknowledged that men's dominant role in society placed limits on women's freedom, but he did not question the right of men to rule. Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto took a much stronger position in support of women. In 1532 he made several additions to his poem Orlando Furioso that argued that women could be chaste* and that they were morally equal, or even superior, to men. He also encouraged women to write their own history instead of depending on men to do it for them.

In England, the querelle des femmes focused on the issue of women as rulers. Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, had Spanish humanist* Juan Luis Vives's Instruction of a Christian Woman (1523) translated for her daughter, the future Mary I. The book concluded that Mary should not govern because women are weak. Scholar Thomas Elyot countered Vives's claims in The Defence of Good Women (1540), arguing that women can rule as well as men, but they should do so only under special circumstances.

Protestant preacher John Knox renewed the attack on female rule in First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Written while Catholic women ruled France, Scotland, and England, the book did not appear in print until 1558, after the Protestant queen Elizabeth I had assumed the throne of England. Elizabeth's supporters were quick to respond to Knox, arguing that God had made Elizabeth queen because she was unlike other women. Elizabeth's rule also raised another issue for women of her day: the status of women in marriage. During the Renaissance, a woman's husband was her undisputed master. This fact provided a major reason for Elizabeth to stay single.

By the end of the 1500s, most scholars agreed that virtue was the same for both men and women, and they focused on education as a way to bring equality to the sexes. The Dutch scholar Anna Maria van Schurman—one of the most educated women of her time—argued for the education of women in Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated (1638). In The Equality of Men and Women (1622), the French feminist Marie de Gournay declared that men and women could excel equally if they had the same education. She also mocked men for failing to take women seriously and to accept them as equals in a conversation. After 1650 social conversation between men and women began to be accepted in society.

(See alsoFeminism. )

* oppress

to exercise power over others in an unjust or cruel way

* chaste

sexually pure

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)