Women in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Primary Sources
WOMEN IN THE 16TH, 17TH, AND 18TH CENTURIES: PRIMARY SOURCES
ANNE WHEATHILL (ESSAY DATE 1584)
SOURCE: Wheathill, Anne. "A Handfull of Holesome (though Homelie) Hearbs. "In Lay by Your Needles Ladies, Take the Pen: Writing Women in England, 1500-1700, edited by Suzanne Trill, Kate Chedgzoy, and Melanie Osborne, pp. 50-56. London: Arnold, 1997.
In the following excerpt from her 1584 work, Wheathill offers a collection of prayers.
To all Ladies, Gentlewomen, and others, which love true religion and vertue, and be devoutlie disposed; Grace mercie, and peace, in Christ Jesus
For a testimonall to the world, how I have and doo (I praise God) bestowe the pretious treasure of time, even now in the state of my virginitie or maidenhood; lo heare I dedicate to all good Ladies, Gentlewomen, and others, who have a desire to invocate and call upon the name of the Lord, a small handfull of grose hearbs; which I have presumed to gather out of the garden of Gods most holie word. Not that there is anie unpurenes therein, but that (peradventure) my rudenes1 may be found to have plucked them up unreverentlie, and without zeale.
Whereupon of the learned I may be judged grose2 and unwise; in presuming, without the counsell or helpe of anie, to take such an enterprise in hand: nevertheles, as God dooth know, I have doone it with a good zeale, according to the weakenes of my knowledge and capacitie. And although they be not so pleasant in taste, as they can find out, to whom God hath given the spirit of learning: yet doo I trust, this small handfull of grose hearbs, holesome in operation and workeing, shall be no lesse acceptable before the majestie of almightie God than the fragrant floures of others, gathered with more understanding.
But without presumption I may boldly saie, they have not sought them with a more willing hart and fervent mind; nor more to the advancement of Gods glorie, and the desire of acceptation, than I have doon. Which if I may obtaine, with the good judgement and liking of all my brethren and sisters in the Lord, I shall thinke my time most happilie bestowed: for that thereby I did avoid idlenes, to the pleasing of almightie God; and have gained those, whom I know not, as well strangers to me, as my acquaintance, to be my freends, that shall taste these grose hearbs with me.
The Lord Jesus Christ, who moisteneth all his elect3 with his most pretious blood, give us all a sweete taste in him: whome I humblie beseech, from the bottome of my hart, to give unto those that are vertuouslie bent, a desire to increase therein; and those, which have not yet reached thereunto, I praie the holie Ghost to inspire their hearts from above, that they and we may be worthie to meete together, in the blessed kingdome of our heavenlie father, which his deare sonne our saviour Jesus Christ did purchase for us; whose blessed name, with the living father, and the holie Ghost, be praised and magnified now and for ever, Amen, Amen.
Yours in Christ,
1. A Praier for the Morning
O Mightie maker and preserver of all things, God omnipotent, which like a diligent watchman, alwaies attendest upon thy faithfull people, so that whether they sleepe or wake, live or die, thy providence never forsaketh them: looke favourablie upon me, O Lord, thy poore and sinfull servant, which am not woorthie, but through thy great mercies offered to me in Christ, once to lift up mine eies unto thy mercie seat.
Wherefore in the name of thy deere sonne my Lord and Saviour, I offer unto thee, through him, the sacrifice of praise and thanks giving; that thou hast preserved me both this night, and all the time and daies of my life hitherto, untill this present houre. I beseech thee of thy great mercie to illuminate my understanding, that I may lead and frame my life as thou hast taught me in thy holie word, that my light may so shine here on earth, that my heavenlie father may be glorified in me, through Jesus Christ our Lord and redeemer; for whose sake heare me deare father, and send thy holie Ghost to direct me in all my dooings. To thee O glorious and blessed Trinitie, the Father, the Sonne, and the holie Ghost, be given all honor and praise, now and for ever more, Amen.
4. An Evening Praier
O Everlasting light, whose brightnesse is never darkned; looke favourablie upon me thy poore and sinfull servant, who hath not onelie this daie, but all the daies and time of my life hitherto, untill this present houre, offended thy divine Majestie, in thought, word, and deed; wherby I have most justlie provoked thy wrath and indignation against me. And now I bow the knees of my hart unto thee most mercifull and heavenlie father, beseeching thee for Jesus Christ his sake, to forgive me all my sinnes, negligences and ignorances. For I confesse how wickedlie I have mispent the talent that thou gavest me, abusing thy gifts of grace manie waies, burieng the same in obscure darknesse, woorse than the servant that hid his maisters treasure, not putting it to anie increase; for he delivered the principall againe [Matt. 25: 14-30].
But I most miserable creature, can shew unto thy majestie no part of that which thou gavest me, to use to thine honor and glorie: for the which I am most hartilie sorie, and doo unfeinedlie repent, having no meane to helpe myselfe, but onelie to lift up the eies of my faith unto thy deare sonne Jesus Christ, beseeching him most instantlie to make perfect my wants, and to renue whatsoever is lacking in me. For I commit my bodie and soule, this night and evermore, into his most holie hands; hoping, O Christ, thou wilt make me an acceptable sacrifice unto thy father.
I have no place to flie unto, but to shrowd me under the wings of thine almightie power, who wast so loving unto us, that thou wast contented to shed thy most pretious bloud, for the sinnes of the whole world; for the which I most humblie and hartilie yeeld unto thee thanks, honor, praise and glorie.
O lambe of God, sonne of the father, heare thou me, thou that saiedst; I am thy health and salvation, I am thy peace and life; cleave fast unto me, and thou shalt live. O Lord I am the woonded man, and thou art the good Samaritane: powre oile into my wounds, and bind them up [Luke 10: 25-37]. Lord heale thou me, and I shall be whole: for thou art my God and Saviour.
Heare thou therefore my supplications from heaven, and have mercie. Take from me all my sinnes and wickednesse, and give me thy grace and holie spirit. Lighten mine eies, that I sleepe not in death: so shall I joiefullie, after this sluggish sleepe of sinne, rise againe, living in thy feare all the daies of my life. Which grant me to doo, O Father, Sonne, and holie Ghost, three persons and one true God, world without end, Amen.
21. A praier of the creation of mankind, of the true Samaritane, and for strength against temptation
O Father of heaven, of power almightie, which with thine onlie word diddest create and make all the whole world, and all for the profit and service of man, whom thou diddest create of all other a most noble and perfect creature, giving him power upon earth, the waters, and all the fowles and birds of the aire; thou madest him also after thine own similitude and likenes, induing him with a reasonable soule, and all the powers thereof, thou also diddest put him in the pleasant garden of paradise, excepting nothing from him, but the eating of the onelie tree of knowledge of good and evill: and further, for his helpe, comfort, and companie, of a ribbe of his side thou madest for him a woman, and gavest hir to him to be his wife [Gen. 1-3].
There had they instructions given them, and the lawe of life for an heritage. Before them was laid both life and death, good and evill, with a freewill given them to take which liked them best. But their frailtie was such, that they, through a small intisement, chose the evill, and left the good: they left life, and chose death. Thus Lord, through sin and breaking of thy commandements, man lost the freewill that was given him in his creation, and purchased death to all his posteritie.
In the waie as he went to Jerusalem and Jericho, he fell in the hands of theeves, who hurting and wounding him sore, departed, leaving him halfe dead; so that he could have helpe of none, but only the good Samaritan, who, as he passed by the same waie, powred wine and oile into his wounds, and tooke the cure of him.
This onelie Samaritan was thy deare Sonne Christ, which tooke upon him all the iniquities of mankind, and laid them on his backe by his death, purging and clensing him, not onelie from the originall sin of our father Adam, but also from all our sins which we commit from time to time, by the vertue of his passion, and the sacrament of baptisme upon our repentance. For as by Adam, death came to mankind, so by Jesus Christ was mankind restored to life.4
For this great and high benefit of thy sonnes blessed passion for our redemption, we thy poore creatures praise and thanke thee, most humblie acknowledging his inestimable love towards us, in that thou vouchsafedst to die for us, being then sinners, and thy mortall enimies. Neverthelesse, most mercifull father, we are of our selves not able to do any thing that good is, no not so much as to thinke a good thought, without thine aid and assistance. We wander here miserablie, in the lowe parts of the vile earth; our strength will not serve us to clime to the high of the hilles, where thou dwellest in thy mount Sion, a place prepared for thine elect, a chosen inheritance of thy faithfull servant Abraham, and his seed.
Wherefore since we, being burthened with the affects of worldlie pleasures, and also with other cares and troubles, can by no meanes ascend to thee, that art on the top of so high a mountaine, (so manie legions of angels attending on thy Majestie) we have no remedie, but with the prophet David now to lift the eies of our harts and minds towards thee, and to crie for helpe to come down from thee to us thy poore and wretched servants.5
We wander here below as lost sheepe, having no shepheard; we are assailed on every side with manifold enimies; the divell ravening and hungering, seeketh whom he may devoure; the world allureth us also to hir deceitfull vanities; our flesh also, which we carrie about us, is our enimie readie and prone to drawe us unto all vices and pleasures. From this can we by no meanes be defended, but by thee Lord.
Send us therfore thy helpe and holie angell, to assist and strengthen us: for of thee most mercifull Father floweth all bountie and goodnes. Thou O Lord God madest heaven and earth for thine honour, and mans commoditie; establish therefore good Lord the chosen works of thy hand with thy eternall helpe: from heaven send us downe the welspring of thy grace, and thy strong angell to aide us by his helpe, that no assault of our spirituall enimies doo prevaile against us: but from all evils by thy word defend us, Lord, both touching the bodie, and also the soule, that no temptation prevaile against us.
Thou hast beene our protectour, even from our mothers wombe [Ps. 22: 9]; and our trust is that thou wilt so continue all the daies of our life, and speciallie at the houre of our death, that we may ascend to the heavenlie Jerusalem, where we shall reast in the bosome of our father Abraham, the father of all faithfull beleevers, there to praise thee, and thy loving Sonne, and the holie Ghost, world without end, Amen.
31. A praier that we may heare the word of God and keepe it
I am thy servant, Lord, give me understanding, that I may learne thy lawe and decrees: incline my soule to the words of thy mouth, bicause thy talke floweth like unto dew. The Israelites said unto Moses; Speake thou unto us, and we will heare thee, but let not the Lord speake, least we die [Exod. 20: 19]. Howbeit, I praie not so, O Lord, but rather with the prophet Samuel I doo humblie and earnestlie beseech thee thus; Speake on Lord, for thy servant dooth hearken [1 Sam. 3: 9, 10], for thou art the giver and inspirer of life, who art able without anie to instruct me.
Thy Ministers speake for thee thy secreats, but thou unlockest the understanding of the things pronounced; they rehearse to us thy commandements, but it is thy aid and helpe that giveth strength to walke over the same, and givest light unto the minds. Wherefore, bicause thou art the everlasting truth, speake thou Lord my God unto me, least I die, and be made unfruitfull: for thou hast the words of everlasting life. Speake therefore that thing, which may bring both comfort unto my soule, and amendment unto my life, and also may cause glorie and immortall honor unto thee. For man dooth perish, but thy truth indureth, O God, for ever.
Blessed are they therefore, whom thou instructest and givest knowledge unto O Lord, and doost teach thy lawe, that thou maist helpe them in time of trouble, that they perish not. Looke favourablie upon me, O God, and graunt (I praie thee) that thy truth may teach me, keepe me, and bring me unto a happie end. Let the same deliver me from all wicked lusts, and from inordinate love. Thou hast infinit means, and all creatures are at thy commandement; therefore good Lord shewe some signe, whereby I shall be delivered, and send thine holie angell before me, to keepe me in thy waie, and to bring me to the place which thou hast provided for me, that I may live with thee everlastinglie, world without end, Amen.
39. A praier of lamentation, wherein the sinner lamenteth his miserable estate, and crieth for mercie
My God, when I do earnestlie behold mine owne state, whereunto I am brought through sinne, not onelie being naked and bare of all goodnes, but also to be overwhelmed in the depth of all iniquitie; I cannot but lament, moorne, and crie for helpe, as dooth a woman, whose time draweth neere to be delivered of hir child; for she can take no rest, till she be discharged of hir burthen.
No more can I, Lord, as long as I feele my selfe loden with my heavie burthen of sinne, the weight wherof draweth me downe to the deepe bottome of all miserie; from whence I can by none be delivered, but onelie by thee, that art the guide and the eie to those that are blind through ignorance, the succor of the oppressed, the comfort of the weake, the life of those that are dead; so that they repent and turne unto thee.
It is not the long distance of us from thy highnesse, which keepeth our praiers from thee; thine eares are readie in the hearts of all that are willing to crie for the help of thy grace. Who so is made farre from thee, through sinne, by repentance is made neere unto thee. He that is in the bottom of the sea of miserie, if he beginne to call for thy helpe, he shall not be suffered to sinke. From all deepe dangers most mercifull God deliver me.
I crie and call pitiouslie unto thee, which art onelie able to helpe me. Heare therefore, I most hartilie praie thee, my sorowfull praier, and let my poore petition pearse the eares of thy Godhed. And since thy sonne Christ died for to release us of sinne, let not my sinnes be a staie, whereby my praiers should not be heard, but wipe them cleane awaie, that they never more appeere. For I miserable sinner doo flie to the gentlenes, of thy favourable mercie, whose nature and propertie is to have pitie and compassion.
From thee floweth all mercie and grace, which was so great unto us, that it mooved thee to send thine onlie Sonne to die for our redemption; whereby thy justice was satisfied, and thy mercie found that it sought. O how fervent was this thy noble charitie to us vile wretches! It tooke root and beginning in thy mightie deitie, and from thence it was derived to mankind; being an example that we thy christian people should, like loving brethren, beare one anothers burthen.
Wherefore I am most willinglie contented, to remit all injuries doon to me; as it hath pleased thy goodnes to forgive me much greater offenses comitted against thee. And whensoever it shall please thee to scourge and punish me, I will gladlie receive thy chastisement, for that I knowe it proceedeth of love for my wealth and suretie; trusting that after my long abiding and suffering in this life, I shall surelie obteine thy reward, by thy promise, that is; If we suffer with Christ, we shall also reigne with him [Rom. 8: 17].
Such sure hope have I ever had in thee Lord, and by the same hope I trust to have thy favour, and live for ever. For blessed are they that trust in thee, most mercifull Father; and cursed are they that trust in man. Of thy grace and mercie onelie commeth all goodnes; thy mercie forgiveth onelie our sinnes dailie and hourelie, and the painfull death of thy sonne Christ delivereth us from all the paines due for our sinnes. Thou boughtest us not with gold and silver, but with the pretious bloud of that lambe without spot, thy blessed Sonne, whose death had beene sufficient for thousands of worlds.
The greatnes of thy love caused the plentifull paiment of the price of our redemption. The charitie of our Lord Jesus Christ hath burnt up, and consumed, by his death, all our iniquities. Where-fore the faithfull, being thus delivered from all dangers, by thine onlie goodnesse, may now give thanks unto thy mightie Majestie, resting in hope to have, after this life, everlasting joie and felicitie; through Jesus Christ our mercifull Lord and redeemer; to whom with thee O deare Father, and the holie Ghost, be given all honor, glorie, and praise, now and for ever, Amen.
GEORGE SAVILE, MARQUIS OF HALIFAX (ESSAY DATE 1688)
SOURCE: Halifax, George Savile, Marquis of. "Advice to a Daughter." In, The Lady's New Years Gift, or, Advice to a Daughter pp. 24-38. London: Gillyflower and Partridge, 1688.
In the following excerpt, Savile, the Marquis of Halifax, gives suggestions to his daughter concerning marriage.
That which challengeth the next place in your thoughts is how to live with a husband. And though that is so large a word that few rules can be fixed to it which are unchangeable, the methods being as various as the several tempers of men to which they must be suited, yet I cannot omit some general observations, which, with the help of your own, may the better direct you in the part of your life upon which your happiness most dependeth.
It is one of the disadvantages belonging to your sex that young women are seldom permitted to make their own choice; their friends' care and experience are thought safer guides to them than their own fancies, and their modesty often forbid-deth them to refuse when their parents recommend, though their inward consent may not entirely go along with it. In this case there remaineth nothing for them to do but to endeavour to make that easy which falleth to their lot, and by a wise use of everything they may dislike in a husband turn that by degrees to be very supportable which, if neglected, might in time beget an aversion.
You must first lay it down for a foundation in general, that there is inequality in the sexes, and that for the better economy of the world the men, who were to be the lawgivers, had the larger share of reason bestowed upon them; by which means your sex is the better prepared for the compliance that is necessary for the better performance of those duties which seem to be most properly assigned to it. This looks a little uncourtly at the first appearance, but upon examination it will be found that nature is so far from being unjust to you that she is partial on your side. She hath made you such large amends by other advantages for the seeming injustice of the first distribution that the right of complaining is come over to our sex. You have it in your power not only to free yourselves but to subdue your masters, and without violence throw both their natural and legal authority at your feet. We are made of differing tempers, that out defects may the better be mutually supplied: your sex wanteth our reason for your conduct, and our strength for your protection; ours wanteth your gentleness to soften and to entertain us. The first part of our life is a good deal subjected to you in the nursery, where you reign without competition, and by that means have the advantage of giving the first impressions. Afterwards you have stronger influences, which, well managed, have more force in your behalf than all our privileges and jurisdictions can pretend to have against you. You have more strength in your looks than we have in our laws, and more power by your tears than we have by our arguments.
It is true that the laws of marriage run in a harsher style towards your sex. Obey is an ungenteel word, and less easy to be digested by making such an unkind distinction in the words of the contract, and so very unsuitable to the excess of good manners which generally goes before it. Besides, the universality of the rule seemeth to be a grievance, and it appeareth reasonable that there might be an exemption for extraordinary women from ordinary rules, to take away the just exception that lieth against the false measure of general equality.
It may be alleged by the counsel retained by your sex, that as there is in all other laws an appeal from the letter to the equity, in cases that require it, it is as reasonable that some court of a larger jurisdiction might be erected, where some wives might resort and plead specially, and in such instances where Nature is so kind as to raise them above the level of their own sex they might have relief, and obtain a mitigation in their own particular of a sentence which was given generally against womankind. The causes of separation are now so very coarse that few are confident enough to buy their liberty at the price of having their modesty so exposed. And for disparity of minds, which above all other things requireth a remedy, the laws have made no provision, so little refined are numbers of men by whom they are compiled. This and a great deal more might be said to give a colour to the complaint.
But the answer to it in short is, that the institution of marriage is too sacred to admit a liberty of objecting to it; that the supposition of yours being the weaker sex having without all doubt a good foundation maketh it reasonable to subject it to the masculine dominion; that no rule can be so perfect as not to admit some exceptions, but the law presumeth there would be so few found in this case who would have a sufficient right to such a privilege that it is safer some injustice should be connived at in a very few instances than to break into an establishment upon which the order of human society doth so much depend.
You are therefore to make your best of what is settled by law and custom, and not vainly imagine that it will be changed for your sake. But that you may not be discouraged, as if you lay under the weight of an incurable grievance; you are to know that by a wise and dexterous conduct it will be in your power to relieve yourself from anything that looketh like a disadvantage in it. For your better direction I will give a hint of the most ordinary causes of dissatisfaction between man and wife, that you may be able by such a warning to live so upon your guard that when you shall be married you may know how to cure your husband's mistakes and to prevent your own.
First then, you are to consider you live in a time which hath rendered some kind of frailties so habitual that they lay claim to large grains of allowance. The world in this is somewhat unequal, and our sex seemeth to play the tyrant in distinguishing partially for ourselves, by making that in the utmost degree criminal in the woman which in a man passeth under a much gentler censure. The root and the excuse of this injustice is the preservation of families from any mixture which may bring a blemish to them; and whilst the point of honour continues to be so placed, it seems unavoidable to give your sex the greater share of the penalty. But if in this it lieth under any disadvantage, you are more than recompensed by having the honour of families in your keeping. The consideration so great a trust must give you maketh full amends, and this power the world hath lodged in you can hardly fail to restrain the severity of an ill husband and to improve the kindness and esteem of a good one. This being so, remember that next to the danger of committing the fault yourself the greatest is that of seeing it in your husband. Do not seem to look or hear that way: if he is a man of sense he will reclaim himself, the folly of it is of itself sufficient to cure him; if he is not so, he will be provoked but not reformed. To expostulate in these cases looketh like declaring war, and preparing reprisals, which to a thinking husband would be a dangerous reflexion. Besides, it is so coarse a reason which will be assigned for a lady's too great warmth upon such an occasion that modesty no less than prudence ought to restrain her, since such an indecent complaint makes a wife more ridiculous that the injury that provoketh her to it. But it is yet worse, and more unskilful, to blaze it in the world, expecting it should rise up in arms to take her part; whereas she will find it can have no other effect than that she will be served up in all companies as the reigning jest at that time; and will continue to be the common entertainment till she is rescued by some newer folly that cometh upon the stage, and driveth her away from it. The impertinence of such methods is so plain that it doth not deserve the pains of being laid open. Be assured that in these cases your discretion and silence will be the most prevailing reproof. An affected ignorance, which is seldom a virtue, is a great one here; and when your husband seeth how unwilling you are to be uneasy there is no stronger argument to persuade him not to be unjust to you. Besides, it will naturally make him more yielding in other things; and whether it be to cover or redeem his offence, you may have the good effects of it whilst it lasteth, and all that while have the most reasonable ground that can be of presuming such a behaviour will at last entirely convert him. There is nothing so glorious to a wife as a victory so gained; a man so reclaimed is for ever after subjected to her virtue, and her bearing for a time is more than rewarded by a triumph that will continue as long as her life.
DANIEL DEFOE (ESSAY DATE 1719)
In the following essay from 1719, Defoe praises women's natural abilities and argues for their education.
I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women. We reproach the sex every day with folly and impertinence; while I am confident, had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves.
One would wonder, indeed, how it should happen that women are conversible at all; since they are only beholden to natural parts, for all their knowledge. Their youth is spent to teach them to stitch and sew or make baubles. They are taught to read, indeed, and perhaps to write their names, or so; and that is the height of a woman's education. And I would but ask any who slight the sex for their understanding, what is a man (a gentleman, I mean) good for, that is taught no more? I need not give instances, or examine the character of a gentleman, with a good estate, or a good family, and with tolerable parts; and examine what figure he makes for want of education.
The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond; and must be polished, or the lustre of it will never appear. And 'tis manifest, that as the rational soul distinguishes us from brutes; so education carries on the distinction, and makes some less brutish than others. This is too evident to need any demonstration. But why then should women be denied the benefit of instruction? If knowledge and understanding had been useless additions to the sex, God Almighty would never have given them capacities; for he made nothing needless. Besides, I would ask such, What they can see in ignorance, that they should think it a necessary ornament to a woman? or how much worse is a wise woman than a fool? or what has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught? Does she plague us with her pride and impertinence? Why did we not let her learn, that she might have had more wit? Shall we upbraid women with folly, when 'tis only the error of this inhuman custom, that hindered them from being made wiser?
The capacities of women are supposed to be greater, and their senses quicker than those of the men; and what they might be capable of being bred to, is plain from some instances of female wit, which this age is not without. Which upbraids us with Injustice, and looks as if we denied women the advantages of education, for fear they should vie with the men in their improvements.…
ON THE SUBJECT OF…
LAURA CERETA (1469-1499)
Laura Cereta of Brescia, Italy, was one of the first female humanists. Widowed while still in her teens, Cereta devoted herself to writing essays in the form of letters to male scholars and leaders of the church and the state. Her works expressed ideas very unusual for the time. She rejected traditional views of men's and women's roles, argued that housework imposed limits on women's intellectual growth, and portrayed marriage as a kind of slavery. Cereta's bold writings had a strong influence on later feminists of the Renaissance and the centuries that followed.
MODERATA FONTE (1555-1592)
And when it's said that women must be subject to men, the phrase should be understood in the same sense as when we say that we are subject to natural disasters, diseases, and all the other accidents of this life: it's not a case of being subject in the sense of obeying, but rather of suffering an imposition; not a case of serving them fearfully, but rather of tolerating them in a spirit of Christian charity, since they have been given to us by God as a spiritual trial. But they take the phrase in the contrary sense and set themselves up as tyrants over us, arrogantly usurping that dominion over women that they claim is their right, but which is more properly ours.
Fonte, Moderata (Modesta Pozzo). "First Day." In The Worth of Women, Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men, ed. and trans. Virginia Cox (University of Chicago Press), p. 59. 1997. Originally published as Il Merito delle donne (1600).
Moderata Fonte is the pseudonym of Modesta Pozzo, author of Il Merito delle donne (1600; The Worth of Women, 1997), in which seven noblewomen debate the unequal treatment of women in Venetian society, presenting what was, at the time, a revolutionary indictment of patriarchy and misogyny and defense of women's rights by a woman writer. Fonte died during childbirth at the age of thirty-seven, only a day after completing The Worth of Women. The work was published eight years after Fonte's death, by her daughter, Cecelia de' Zorzi.
[They] should be taught all sorts of breeding suitable both to their genius and quality. And in particular, Music and Dancing; which it would be cruelty to bar the sex of, because they are their darlings. But besides this, they should be taught languages, as particularly French and Italian: and I would venture the injury of giving a woman more tongues than one. They should, as a particular study, be taught all the graces of speech, and all the necessary air of conversation; which our common education is so defective in, that I need not expose it. They should be brought to read books, and especially history; and so to read as to make them understand the world, and be able to know and judge of things when they hear of them.
To such whose genius would lead them to it, I would deny no sort of learning; but the chief thing, in general, is to cultivate the understandings of the sex, that they may be capable of all sorts of conversation; that their parts and judgements being improved, they may be as profitable in their conversation as they are pleasant.
Women, in my observation, have little or no difference in them, but as they are or are not distinguished by education. Tempers, indeed, may in some degree influence them, but the main distinguishing part is their Breeding.
The whole sex are generally quick and sharp. I believe, I may be allowed to say, generally so: for you rarely see them lumpish and heavy, when they are children; as boys will often be. If a woman be well bred, and taught the proper management of her natural wit, she proves generally very sensible and retentive.
And, without partiality, a woman of sense and manners is the finest and most delicate part of God's Creation, the glory of Her Maker, and the great instance of His singular regard to man, His darling creature: to whom He gave the best gift either God could bestow or man receive. And 'tis the sordidest piece of folly and ingratitude in the world, to withhold from the sex the due lustre which the advantages of education gives to the natural beauty of their minds.
A woman well bred and well taught, furnished with the additional accomplishments of knowledge and behaviour, is a creature without comparison. Her society is the emblem of sublimer enjoyments, her person is angelic, and her conversation heavenly. She is all softness and sweetness, peace, love, wit, and delight. She is every way suitable to the sublimest wish, and the man that has such a one to his portion, has nothing to do but to rejoice in her, and be thankful.
On the other hand, Suppose her to be the very same woman, and rob her of the benefit of education, and it follows—
If her temper be good, want of education makes her soft and easy.
Her wit, for want of teaching, makes her impertinent and talkative.
Her knowledge, for want of judgement and experience, makes her fanciful and whimsical.
If her temper be bad, want of breeding makes her worse; and she grows haughty, insolent, and loud.
If she be passionate, want of manners makes her a termagant and a scold, which is much at one with Lunatic.
If she be proud, want of discretion (which still is breeding) makes her conceited, fantastic, and ridiculous.
And from these she degenerates to be turbulent, clamorous, noisy, nasty, the devil!…
The great distinguishing difference, which is seen in the world between men and women, is in their education; and this is manifested by comparing it with the difference between one man or woman, and another.
And herein it is that I take upon me to make such a bold assertion, That all the world are mistaken in their practice about women. For I cannot think that God Almighty ever made them so delicate, so glorious creatures; and furnished them with such charms, so agreeable and so delightful to mankind; with souls capable of the same accomplishments with men: and all, to be only Stewards of our Houses, Cooks, and Slaves.
Not that I am for exalting the female government in the least: but, in short, I would have men take women for companions, and educate them to be fit for it. A woman of sense and breeding will scorn as much to encroach upon the prerogative of man, as a man of sense will scorn to oppress the weakness of the woman. But if the women's souls were refined and improved by teaching, that word would be lost. To say, the weakness of the sex, as to judgment, would be nonsense; for ignorance and folly would be no more to be found among women than men.
I remember a passage, which I heard from a very fine woman. She had wit and capacity enough, an extraordinary shape and face, and a great fortune: but had been cloistered up all her time; and for fear of being stolen, had not had the liberty of being taught the common necessary knowledge of women's affairs. And when she came to converse in the world, her natural wit made her so sensible of the want of education, that she gave this short reflection on herself: "I am ashamed to talk with my very maids," says she, "for I don't know when they do right or wrong. I had more need go to school, than be married."
I need not enlarge on the loss the defect of education is to the sex; nor argue the benefit of the contrary practice. 'Tis a thing will be more easily granted than remedied. This chapter is but an Essay at the thing: and I refer the Practice to those Happy Days (if ever they shall be) when men shall be wise enough to mend it.