O.P. Recommends – The Good Wife: Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages, by Peter Adamson

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

One of Peter Adamson’s most recent podcast episodes for his History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps particularly delighted me, in the surprises sprinkled richly throughout and its thoughtful yet lively and sometimes humorous exploration of a wide range of religious, social, and literary topics. The history of sexuality and gender attitudes in the medieval Western world was more varied than we might realize, both in sacred and secular contexts.

And don’t stop with this one, by any means: every episode I’ve ever heard of Peter’s multitudinous podcasts are fantastic! Enjoy!

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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 ProjectContinua.org

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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You Can Still Call Me Feminist

 Many women don’t like to be called ‘feminist’ anymore.

Some think the term’s outdated and no longer useful, because when we use it we remind people of, and thereby perpetuate, silly notions about women from the bad old days. Others think it’s too divisive, highlighting the differences between between men and women instead of emphasizing our much more important similarities, which was the whole point of feminism in the first place.

I understand the distaste for the f-word. Second-wave feminists, continuing the fight for equality that the first wave had only partially achieved, sometimes overshot the mark in their zeal. Some thought men had to be taken down a peg or several; others thought that greater separation of the sexes, rather than less, was what it would take to liberate women from men’s intransigent misogyny. Many even thought, and continue to think, that men and women are so fundamentally unlike in the ways they think and feel that they will never achieve true friendship and equality.

I, like those who object to the term feminism, think that these separatists are wrong about human psychology, and am more optimistic about the improving relations between the sexes, especially as gender roles are losing some of their rigidity throughout the world. Though the recent flap over Cannes Film Festival’s kicking women off the red carpet for not wearing high heels might put a damper on this view, the fact that this raised such a huge outcry makes the whole story seem more like a point in its favor. Like the first wave feminists, I hold the view that the similarities between men and women so far outnumber the differences as to render them largely irrelevant, especially when it comes to human rights and political equality. The term feminism itself is a first wave feminist invention.

There are many meaningful terms which make sense because of the history behind them, not because they make literal sense anymore. Take the term film as it’s used in ‘Cannes Film Festival’: it’s used to refer to movies in general. Yet actual film, that specially prepared plastic on which a multitude of images are imprinted to be played back later as a moving picture, are only sometimes used in movie-making today. Movie aficionados who now refer to movies as films don’t mean to imply that actual film was used in any given movie; whether or not it was, they wish to emphasize the craft and history behind the art of movie-making that they all share.

The term under question here also has a meaning that’s evolved over time. Feminism expresses, in the words of that great old tongue-in-cheek slogan, ‘the radical notion that women are people’. Just as humanism was coined as a rallying word to promote the idea that human beings and their achievements are valuable for their own sake, feminism was coined to rally people to the cause of equal rights for women, since women possess the same defining qualities of humanity as men. At one time, it was necessary to prove that point. Now that we take women’s equality for granted in much of the world,  feminism might seem antiquated or divisive. But I don’t think that’s really the case. Almost everyone is familiar enough with the current usage of the term film to know that what we mean now is not exactly what we used to mean, but we still like to use it because of the history it alludes to. Likewise, most people should be familiar enough with feminism to know it’s now generally used in the context of critiquing the more entrenched and obscure problems of sexism in our society, not to demonstrate the basic humanity of women or the depravity of men.

So I still like to identify myself as feminist. Despite the blemishes some put on the term over the last century and a half, I value it because of the way it connects the current pursuit of equal rights and dignity for all to the brave and noble women (and like-minded men) throughout history who fought for their freedom, and mine, under its banner.