338. All About Eve: the Defense of Women

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Refutation of misogyny in Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella.



Further Reading

• A. Dunhill (trans.), Lucrezia Marinella: The Nobility and the Excellence of Women and the Defects of Men (Chicago: 1999).

• V. Cox (trans.), Moderata Fonte: The Worth of Women (Chicago: 1997).


• P.J. Benson, The Invention of Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England (University Park: 1992).

• A. Chemello, “La donna, il modello, l'immaginario: Moderata Fonte e Lucrezia Marinella,” in M. Zancan (ed.), Nel cerchio della luna: figure di donna in alcuni testi del XVI secolo (Venice: 1983), 59-170.

• M. Deslauriers, “Marinella and Her Interlocutors: Hot Blood, Hot Words, Hot Deeds,” Philosophical Studies 174 (2017), 2525-37.

• C. Jordan, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca: 1990).

• M.L. King, Women of the Renaissance (Chicago: 1991).

• S.D. Kolsky, “Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella, Giuseppe Passi: an Early Seventeenth-Century Feminist Controversy,” The Modern Language Review 96 (2001), 973-89.

• L. Panizza and S. Wood (eds), A History of Women’s Writing in Italy (Cambridge: 2000).

• M.F. Rosenthal, “Venetian Women and Their Discontents,” in J.G. Turner (ed.), Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: 1993), 197-232.


Alexander Johnson on 1 May 2020


I noticed in these last couple of episodes, that these writings tend to all into two camps, "women are not as inferior as is being supposed" and "women are actually the superior".  Were these two positions being held genuinely?  Or were women using these as rhetorical techniques to chip away at the accusations of inferiority to try to approach equality?  I could imagine using the 1st to chip away at one accusation of inferiority at a time, and the 2nd as ironic satire against misogynist works, but i got the impression that these positions were being held more genuinely.

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 1 May 2020


Yes, that is a great question. Of course it is hard to especially in the ones that are dialogues, where you may have more and less extreme anti-misogynists. But I think it is safe to say that at least some of the authors covered, like Marinella, were at least convinced of the equality of women if not superiority.

An interesting feature of the texts by the way is the extent to which they do, or don't, just take over a scale of values or conception of superiority that was already present in male writers and then say "hey, women have those features too" and maybe even moreso. Ini other words they usually take over, say, Aristotelian conceptions of virtue, or the high value placed on learning and rationality, and then argue that women can compete in these spheres, rather than for instance by emphasizing the value of distinctively female phenomena like motherhood as we saw some medieval authors doing. Maybe this is just because the Renaissance women have been "allowed" to compete on a more even footing by writing works of rhetorical excellence like men were doing, something that wasn't possible with, say, scholasticism since women never attended universities.

Jordan on 19 July 2022

And here's a reason I get…

And here's a reason I get fascinated with history - a lot of it was taught directly to me as a kid! There's so much to question and doubt and relearn, even after all this time.

"Modern attitudes" that are talked about as universal are shared by the people who openly go talk to other people about their attitudes. Not to defend anything, but just to acknowledge that there are many pockets of communities that hold views that are not mainstream. In itself that's not bad, but it makes getting new information or corrections harder, ramping up misinformation and ingraining biases. These pockets of communities seem to gravitate toward the same kinds of attitudes. (I want to say something something American individualism since I'm in the USA, but I'm sure this happens elsewhere to some degree.) In a lot of ways, I have more in common with someone who grew up Mormon or Hasidic than I do with someone who grew up "Christian" with no knowledge of the Bible other than "a book with stories that tells you how to do the right thing." 

I know I bring up religion a lot in my comments, but that's often my only source of reference for these topics! And that's not necessarily unjustified based on how often religion comes up in these archives too.

Anyway, all that to get to the argument around the 11 minute mark - the religion I grew up with would proudly agree that we don't hate women for Eve eating the apple. It's not their fault that women are naturally subservient to men (or in the lingo, a "helpmate," someone who is hypothetically equal but thrives in a service role). Then we'd point to how Adam was just as culpable because he let Eve tell him what to do. So we have this seemingly obvious hierarchy of sin happening because a woman was too strong (not recognizing her own failure of judgment, but confidently doing it anyway) and a man was too weak (taking a woman's opinion as fact). So then you see someone using Eve as an example of how women are evil seductresses and you go, wow, what a misunderstanding of the text. We don't hate women like that. 

Of course, then I grow up and learn more and realize that the nuances of the story are less important than the way it is used - to justify these power structures that seem arbitrary. At some point, if you're labeled female, you have to understand at some level that this stuff is bs because none of this lines up with your experience of the world. If you're still in a community that preaches this, you have to do some real cognitive dissonance and logic leaping. One road to go down is glorifying men - you recognize that you have a lot of good qualities but you have some flaws too. Men are supposed to have fewer flaws, so if you as a woman are pretty cool, men must be amazing. Or you can do what most of us learned in middle school and after - the "not like other girls" move, where you think that having a normal human experience is unique for women, setting you apart. (That sounds egotistical but can also be isolating.)

I need to stop typing now or I'll go on a longer rant! 

Jorge on 23 September 2022

Natural Slavery of (European) Men?

I remember reading (and correct me if I'm wrong) that one of the reasons that Aristotle attributed natural slavery to non-greeks was the influence of the climate on their temperaments. That greeks, being situated in a temperate geography (neither hot nor cold) were, therefore, also in composition balanced. This made them both spirited and intelligent according to him. People from warmer climates (like Asiatics) compensated by being cooler and therefore were intelligent and technically minded, but also cowardly with low spirits. Europeans on the other hand, living in colder climates were more spirited but lacked intelligence.

Considering the predisposition of humanists to come to blows because of their differences, one might say that their spirits and temperature would spare their households from worrying about escalating gas prices if they were to be living today. 

This makes me wonder if this temperature rationale was ever used as a way to justify the superiority of women's temperament (at least in Europe) over men. Seeing that women were believed to be naturally cooler than men (as mentioned in the episode) perhaps a European woman would, following the logic laid out by Aristotle, have the same temperate predisposition as a greek male.

Was this use of Aristotle ever articulated to justify that in colder climates, women were the ones who were actually capable of virtue, unlike their male counterparts?




In reply to by Jorge

Peter Adamson on 23 September 2022

Climate and the patriarchy

Yes you are absolutely right about every part of that. Aristotle did invoke climate in this context and that idea was then expanded by Ptolemy in a more wide-ranging theory of different character types based on climate, which of course had people living around the Mediterranean as the most balanced. Women were then often seen as suffering from insufficient bodily heat, or too much moisture (these go together of course). I think that came up in some episodes, e.g. the interview with Monica Green in the Medieval series. But then at least one Renaissance woman humanist argues that men are too hot, hence their violence and tendency to anger. So that argument could indeed be turned around. (Though I don't remember seeing the variant you suggest, like, in a climate where the men are hotter, the women might be "just right": makes sense though.)

The climate theory was also used pervasively to justify slavery and, to be frank, genocide in the New World and Africa. We'll be looking at that soon when we get to the Valladoid debate where Las Casas objected to this Aristotelian argument to enslaving the so called "Indians."

In reply to by Peter Adamson

jorge on 25 September 2022

Climate and the New World

Thanks for your answer Peter!

Can't wait for getting to that episode and hearing all about that. I'm wondering if this is the explanation used by the Spanish to justify their hierarchy where white "peninsulares" were placed over just-as-white "criollos." Was the land one was raised on (because of its climate) one axis on the matrix that dictated social structure in the Spanish new world (being the other axis the character of one's "blood" or "race")?

Perhaps this question might come in later on in the series, as through Francisco José de Caldas (a 19th century Neogranadine intellectual and later part of the independence movement in that part of the world) about the influence of climate on temperament that was not only limited to temperature but also took air pressure and other factors like electric charge into account. The mountainous region of the Andes from which he hailed is right on the equator. There, the temperature is not dictated by latitude as much as it is by altitude from sea level. Altitude also comes with reduced air pressure and according to Caldas has "purer oxygen" which he argued allowed for better thinking while people living in the higher air pressure and temperature of the valleys would find their capacities of imagination "oppressed" by the heaviness of all that air on top of them. Coincidentally, just as with the Mediterranean thinkers of antiquity, the centers of power where these discussions were being held (Santa Fe or Quito) just so happened to be themselves perfectly located, but in this case not just in terms of warmth but also altitude. Maybe this would be a necessary move for justifying local self-determination by colonial elites while maintaining social hierarchies broadly intact.



In reply to by jorge

Peter Adamson on 26 September 2022


Actually we covered very similar ideas in the Africana series when looking at Africanus Horton:


It sounds like we missed Caldas though! 

More generally I think one could perhaps even go so far as to say that at first, climate was even more important in justifying European imperialism, slavery etc than “race” which doesn’t come into the rationalizations for quite some time. Like, race would not have been part of the debate at Valladolid I don’t think, But I’ll learn more about this along with you as we go along!

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