In Memory of Lucrezia Marinella

Young Lady Writing in a Hymnal by Giacomo Pacchiarotto, turn of 16th c, Siena, Italy

Lucrezia Marinella was an Italian Renaissance writer of poetry, devotional literature, and philosophy. She was born in Venice on an unknown date in 1571, and lived a richly intellectual, family-oriented, long life there until her death on October 9th, 1653.

She wrote on a wide range of subjects, including Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and Mary and her parents’ life family as she imagined it: happy, virtuous, a model for all families to emulate. She identified Mary closely with her beloved native Venice, that lovely city of elegance and refinement, incubator of knowledge and beauty, and welcome refuge to the traveler and those fleeing hardship and strife, referring to both as ‘La Serenissima’ (the Serene) and ‘Star of the Sea.’ Her Life of the Virgin Mary, Empress of the Universe was written two years after her most famous and influential work The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, published in 1600. Her book about the natural and superior virtues of women no doubt inspired her, in turn, to write another about the woman who most exemplified Christian and Renaissance ideals of femininity. Marinella’s conception of feminine virtue included those typical of her religion and culture, such as modesty and dedication to home and family, but went far beyond that, as it did later feminist thinkers and activists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Ernestine Rose.

Marinella’s Nobility was a response to Giuseppe Passi’s anti-woman polemic The Defects of Women, published the year before. Anti-woman treatises such as Passi’s had become a literary tradition at that point, but his stood out for its harshness, to the point that he advocated treating women as little better than other animals since they were likewise naturally devoid of reason and self-control. Defenses of womankind against such attacks had, in turn, also become a literary tradition, but Marinella’s stands out for its clarity, systematicity, and intellectual rigor, so much so that it achieved its standing as a foundational work in feminist philosophy.

Title page of 1601 edition of Lucrezia Marinella’s La Nobilita, et L’eccellenza delle Donne

One element of Marinella’s fascinating and innovative defense of femininity that stood out for me was her case for how the female body itself demonstrated the moral and intellectual superiority of women. Many anti-woman polemicists referred to Aristotle for their arguments to demonstrate the natural inferiority of women, and Aristotle bases many of his arguments on women’s supposedly inferior physical makeup. No doubt, such biological arguments stood out for Marinella; she was the daughter, sister, and wife of physicians, and she was an accomplished and virtuous intellectual, a living counterfactual to the negative conceptions of women of Passi, Aristotle, and their anti-woman ilk. So, she was not going to put up with silly arguments based on such demonstrably untrue empirical claims, from Aristotle or from anyone else. She uses Aristotle’s own arguments, invoked by Passi, against both of them, demonstrating how misogynistic ideas about women as the weaker, less rational, and less virtuous component of the human species are both inconsistent with Aristotle’s other arguments and with observable reality.

For example, Aristotle claims that women’s lower average body temperature revealed their weakness and passivity. Yet Aristotle elsewhere associates heat with vices such as anger and rashness. Marinella grants that women’s average temperatures were lower than men’s (we now know that this isn’t necessarily true), but she argues that this doesn’t at all show that women are less virtuous. In fact, according to Aristotle’s own ethical system, that would imply that women are more virtuous: more temperate, moderate, reasonable, and able to control their passions. For another thing, Aristotle argues that financial well-being, physical attractiveness, and other circumstances that promote happiness are important for promoting virtue. Financial security promotes and enables generosity; exterior beauty inspires appreciation of that which is noble, orderly, balanced, good. Well, Marinella replies, women are generally more beautiful than men, as poets and artists attest, and the beauty of their bodies both reflect the natural superiority of their inner natures as expressed by their divine designer, and the love and passion they evoke echo the love and passion of the soul’s for the ultimate Good.

Learn more about the brilliant and fascinating Lucrezia Marinella’s case for the excellence of women, and about her life, ideas, and accomplishments at:

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Marguerite Deslauriers for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Maria Galli Stampino for Oxford Bibliographies

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Lindsay Smith for

Who Is Mary?: Three Early Modern Women on the Idea of the Virgin Mary ~ by Vittoria Colonna, Chiara Matraini, and Lucrezia Marinella


More sources and inspiration:

Bodnar, Istvan, ‘Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

‘Normal oral, rectal, tympanic and axillary body temperature in adult men and women: a systematic literature review’, by Märtha Sund-Levander, Christina Forsberg, and Lis Karin Wahren. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, Vol. 16, Issue 2, pages 122–128, June 2002

Parry, Richard, ‘Ancient Ethical Theory‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Price, A W. ‘Moral Theories: Aristotle’s Ethics.’ Journal of Medical Ethics, 1985, Vol. 11, p. 150-152

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On Plastic Surgery and Other Cosmetic Interventions

I published this essay about a year ago today. Cosmetic medical intervention is a subject of special interest for me, and problems associated with it, especially those performed for non-functional or non-reconstructive purposes, are often brought to mind at the medical practice I work in.

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I work for a dermatologist who focuses his practice on medical dermatology. While all treat many of the same medical conditions, an ever-increasing percentage of dermatologists devote a substantial portion of their time to performing cosmetic procedures, from Botox and filler injections, chemical peels, and laser treatments to surgeries: facelifts, chin implants, eyelid modifications, and so on. The sign on the door of the medical practice I work for, however, reads ‘Diseases of the Skin’.

To me, this is a reassuring message, as if to say to all who enter ‘We are here to try and cure what ails you.’ It contrasts sharply with the message I get from cosmetic dermatology and surgery ads: ‘We agree that you’re ugly and need to be altered.’

Now, of course, this is only what I read into those ads, especially in my more sensitive moods. I don’t for a moment speak for anyone…

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What Is Happening to the Word ‘Beautiful’? by Tanya Newton

e993b-two2bvenuses2b-2bvenus2bof2bwillendorf2band2bvenus2band2bcupid2bby2bgiampietrino2c2bcopy2bafter2blost2bleda2band2bthe2bswan2bby2bleonardo2bda2bvinci2c2bboth2bpublic2bd‘Beautiful’ has always been a battleground in feminist discussions of representation. While it may seem counterintuitive to argue that we should consider more women as beautiful while also arguing that a woman’s capabilities are worth more than her appearance, tackling the rigid definition of beautiful has been important for intersectional feminism. A traditionally beautiful woman is white; women of colour are more likely to be sexualised instead. A beautiful woman is also normally able-bodied. She usually does not appear to be economically below the middle-class, something that is subtly but pervasively inherent in our ideas of the ideal body shape (too slender for manual labour) and the current trend of tanning (demonstrating leisure time and disposable income). A beautiful woman often also has long hair, a delicate face, and big eyes; she is vulnerable, not strong. So renegotiating this limited meaning of beautiful is a powerful act. Great progress has made with it, which should be cause for optimism. However, recent redefinitions are more troubling than empowering.

Beautiful is being used more and more often to denote a woman’s entire identity. Popular Urban Dictionary entries for beautiful state:

Beautiful is a woman who has a distinctive personality, one who can laugh at anything, including themselves, who is especially kind and caring to others. She is a woman who above all else knows the value of having fun, and not taking life too seriously. She is a woman that you can trust and count on to brighten your day. She is a woman who can inexplicably make you feel really good just by being around her, and yet brings such great sadness when she is gone.  (10,257 positive votes)

Your smile makes you pretty, your body makes you sexy, only your mind makes you beautiful (5,019 positive votes)

The description of anyone who is true to themself (3,272 positive votes)

Yes, it’s Urban Dictionary, but Urban Dictionary is not the only place this idea surfaces. A Buzzfeed video uploaded by Ashly Perez shows women stating that pretty is about “validation” from society, it is taught to young girls, and it is constructed by the media. I’m sure most feminists wouldn’t disagree. However, the video continues to say that beauty is different. “It is something that comes from the inside out: a combination of who I am and what I bring to the table”, one woman says. “I feel most beautiful when I’m using my mind and when I’m around my friends,” another adds. Beauty is made to mean personality. Perhaps this is why Dove’s latest marketing campaign makes women choose to label themselves as either “beautiful” or “average”—not average-looking. Perhaps Dove’s intention is to say that if your personality or capabilities are above average, you are beautiful.

However, beautiful already has a meaning and that meaning can’t simply be erased. It refers primarily to appearance, not identity. The number one definition in the Oxford Dictionary is: “Pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically”. Merriam Webster’s top definition is: “The quality of being physically attractive”. If these definitions were not true, and beauty instead referred to a person’s personality, then the trope beauty is bad wouldn’t exist and men could be called beautiful. Yet Cersei Lannister’s greatest weapon remains her beauty while calling a man beautiful remains an insult.

So Dove’s video, no matter what the intentions are, cannot tell women that if they are above average they are beautiful. Beautiful will not allow itself to be used that way; its meaning of ‘physically attractive’ always twists the message. Dove’s video actually tells women that if they are not beautiful, they are average: their intelligence, their capabilities, and their personality are not as relevant to their identity than their appearance. This video is more problematic than empowering. Buzzfeed’s video links being beautiful to being liked and loved, and while by “beautiful” Buzzfeed means being happy and sociable, we know that being physically attractive really does mean being more loved. Again, using the word beautiful subverts Buzzfeed’s message.

In fact, even if we were able to somehow strip beautiful of its current definition and redefine it to refer to a person’s attitudes and likeability instead of their appearance, that would damage the progress that intersectional feminism has already made. As discussed, beauty’s definition is under contention, and the meaning is slowly broadening. This is too important an accomplishment to discard. Beauty as appearance is a mainstream acknowledgement of visibility and measurement of value. To acknowledge that women of colour, trans women, disabled women, and less wealthy women are beautiful is to say that society considers them equal in appearance to white, able-bodied, cis, affluent women. Beauty meaning identity, on the other hand, does not do this. Stating that the category of beautiful that women have struggled to be included in still does not mean they are considered capable of being physically attractive by mainstream society, but that it’s irrelevant because their friends like them, is a regression.

Buzzfeed’s argument that women should be encouraged to measure their worth by more than their appearance is admirable. Dove’s advocacy of self-confidence is also applaudable. Yet beautiful is the wrong word to adopt to signify a person’s value and self-confidence; it is already laden with too much meaning.

After studying English Language and Literature at King’s College London, Tanya Newton moved to Japan where she teaches English. She loves to read and write, and loves tea almost as much. She is strongly interested in cultures and social structures. (Bio credit: Darrow)

This article was originally published on Darrow. Read the original article.

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