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In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8, today’s issue of Early Modern Times is devoted to early modern female authors–particularly those my students and I read and discuss in the fourth-year EMSP core course (in its last full-year iteration, as it will be undergoing mitotic division into the doublets EMSP 4001 and EMSP 4002 starting in 2020-21). In chronological order, here are brief descriptions of these groundbreaking early modern thinkers:
Moderata Fonte (1555-1592): This Venetian Renaissance writer was born Modesta Pozzo (‘modest well’) but took on the more assertive pen-name of Moderata Fonte (‘moderate fountain’). She was indeed a fountain of learning and wit, most famous for her romances, poetry, and the dialogue, The Worth of Women: Wherein is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men (1600). The latter, posthumous work was a singular contribution to the querelle des femmes (‘dispute/quarrel on women’), countering male-authored treatises on the supposed natural inferiority of women with a sparkling, dialogical treatment of female superiority (whose social inferiority is artificially imposed). For feminist historians and scholars, her work is Fonte-astic.
Aphra Behn (1640-1689): An English playwright, poet, spy, and novelist who was lauded by Virginia Woolf (and then insulted) for being one of the first professional women writers. Besides her racy plays, she was the author of the gripping but controversial novel Oroonoko: The Royal Slave, an account of an African prince who is kidnapped into slavery and taken to Surinam. Its problematic treatment of slavery and race might suggest to the censorious that Behn wades into an Oroono-go area.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695): Sor (‘Sister’) Juana was a Mexican nun who was renowned in the Americas for her learning, wit, and vast library of books and scientific instruments. She is now considered one of the leading poets in the history of Spanish literature. Although entering the convent was initially an escape from the potential servitude of married life, it eventually proved her undoing. Sor Juana eloquently defended her scholarship and life of letters as a woman and nun in the Answer to Sor Filotea–a tragically futile gesture, as it prompted the zealous Archbishop of Mexico to prohibit further studies and literary output on the grounds that they were sinful and heretical. Nevertheless, her written works were published in her lifetime and posthumously, as admirers recognised Sor Juana’s effortless mastery of words and ideas, i.e., her Cruz control.
Eliza Haywood (c. 1693-1756): Like Behn, Haywood was a professional female author in England who penned drama and novels. She was also an actress. Her most directly political novel is arguably The Adventures of Eovaai: A Pre-Adamitical History (1736). Ostensibly a fairy tale set a long time ago in a land far, far away about a princess who undergoes trials and tribulations, the novel is a scathing satire on the corruption of early 18th-century British society and government under the leadership of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Haywood’s satirical leaps of imagination are a kind of Walpole-vaulting.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797): Wollstonecraft is perhaps the best known feminist writer of the 18th century. Her most famous works, the Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) reflect her political radicalism, unequivocal support (at least initially) of the French Revolution, and strident calls for sexual equality. Equally worthy of note, and deserving of more recognition given its intimations of intersectional feminism, is her unfinished novel The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria, published posthumously by her grieving husband William Godwin in 1798. Wollstonecraft tragically died of complications from giving birth to their daughter Mary (who would later pen the sublime masterpiece Frankenstein). If she had lived longer, she might have authored the following variations on her last novel: a riveting account of the Godmothers and female assassins in the Cosa Nostra (The Wrongs by Women, or Mafia); a satirical portrait of a controversial Russian athlete (The Wrongs of Women’s Tennis, or Maria Sharapova); and a response to male-dominated fantasy literature with a tale of female dwarves mining for Tolkienesque magic talismans (The Rings of Woman, or Moria).
’til next week,
Director, Early Modern Freedom vs. Gender-terminism Studies Program