Renaissance Women: Constructions of Femininity in England. Ed. Kate Aughterson. New York: Routledge, 1995. xv+316 pp. Cloth ISBN 0-415-12045-5; paper ISBN 0-415-12046-2.
Carrie Hintz
University of Toronto

Hintz, Carrie. "Review of Renaissance Women: Constructions of Femininity in England." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 6.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_hin1.html>.

  1. Those who study the history and writing of women in the early modern period find themselves faced with the challenge, both daunting and exhilarating, of working in discursive fields as diverse as medicine, law, theology, politics, labor history and social history. Kate Aughterson's book Renaissance Women: A Sourcebook , with 107 excerpts pertaining to women in the early modern period, seems designed to address this interdisciplinary imperative. The result is a varied collection of documents ranging from midwifery manuals, housekeeping guides, and letters from women preachers, to defiant prefaces from women playwrights. The collection also includes transcriptions of manuscripts, and hard-to-find printed materials, though these materials are often rendered inaccurately.

  2. Some of Aughterson's remarks in the introductory section require close examination. The aim of the book, in Aughterson's own terms, is to present documents which "described, inscribed, circumscribed, and prescribed" women, and documents women produced that "resisted, inverted and challenged such scripts" (5). Aughterson offers the example of Katherine Stubbes, whose marital compliance places her firmly under patriarchal control, but whose zeal in religious disputation against Catholics and atheists grants her a powerful public voice. With this example, readers of the collection are instructed to find subversive elements in texts by women, who struggle (often in very creative ways) against the dominant ideology.

  3. It is indeed rewarding to read the excerpts Aughterson provides in light of their subterranean messages. However, Aughterson's description of the anthology as reflective of women's struggles with prescriptive discourses does not reflect the range of documents in the collection, which includes genuinely conservative and mixed opinions. For example, the work of Margaret Cavendish is acknowledged to be contradictory; she articulates "varying positions in relation to constraints or otherwise upon women" (286). In the "proto-feminisms" section, both women and men articulate proto-feminist arguments. For example, Daniel Tuvil's Asylum venerisdraws on Plato to conclude that "women and man have in them the same aptitude and ability for the well managing of civil and military places, and it is exercise alone which begets dexterity in the one and the other" (270). Also notable are William Austin's 1637 Haec homo, which argues for women's legal and public liberties (277-279) and Poulain de la Barre's 1672 The woman as good as the man, of the equality of both sexes (289-290). It would have been preferable for Aughterson to refrain from associating all emancipatory documents with women in her opening remarks.

  4. The introduction to the section devoted to Sexuality and Motherhood, makes vexing assumptions about "authentically female spaces," which seem to be limited to women's own writings about motherhood, and romantic love between women, "whether lesbian or not" (105). It seems overly optimistic to assume that women under patriarchy in the early modern period could establish an "authentic" female space, no matter how modest, without prior widespread social change. Aughterson acknowledges, for example, that maternity was "circumscribed...by the masculine discourse," yet somehow women "find a language for celebrating fecundity and maternal love, as well as their fears of childbirth" (105). Granted women's writing on maternity can subvert masculine ideology, but women's writing about love for men can be subversive as well. And how to regard the excerpt from Alexander Niccoles, who instructs husbands in 1615 to increase the knowledge of women "in good things," giving wives "certain assurance and testimony of thy love" so that she "may with hers again the more reciprocally equal thy affection" (124)? Perhaps the search for an "authentically" female space is suspect from the beginning.

  5. In providing such a wide range of texts, Aughterson attempts to demonstrate that the debate on women extended a great deal farther than the notorious querelle des femmes which raged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, due to the number of extracts included in Aughterson's collection, and the wide time span of these materials (from the early sixteenth century to the late Restoration) there is not enough social context to show the movement of arguments, factions, alliances, pressures and opportunities which produced any given document. Introductory material is often too brief: in the theology section, for instance, the impact of the Protestant Reformation, humanism, and the English Civil War on women is dealt with in a few paragraphs. Without this information, it is difficult to fully evaluate these sources.

  6. There are many errors and problems in transcription in this collection, many of which have been dealt with by Janis Butler Holm in a recent review (<URL: http://www.urich.edu/~creamer/mr6.html>). One of many errors is the rendering of Margaret Fell's Women's Speaking Justified as Women's Preaching Justified. There are also several instances where Aughterson does not footnote her sources, including a section where she discusses literacy rates without explaining where her numbers come from.

  7. The book, despite its drawbacks, could help scholars gain a toehold in early modern women's studies; enough of a sample of each text is provided to make further interdisciplinary work easier. But since these texts are not otherwise readily available, this anthology may be of greatest value as a teaching text, stimulating students to explore resonances between literary or historical authors and documents from the wider culture. The brevity of the excerpts might ease the difficulty of delving into primary documents for students. Since the excerpts are organized around the constraints on women from all directions, and women's struggle to speak and control their destiny, the text would certainly be useful in a class devoted to the discussion of the emancipation of women in the period, allowing students to move beyond Aughterson's own opinions and the limitations of her edition.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(August 22, 1996)