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Protofeminism is a philosophical tradition that anticipates modern feminism in an era when the concept of feminism was still unknown, i. e. before the 20th century. Precise usage is disputed, as 18th-century feminism and 19th-century feminism are subsumed under "feminism". The usefulness of the term protofeminist has been questioned by some modern scholars, as has the term postfeminist.
Plato, according to Elaine Hoffman Baruch, "[argued] for the total political and sexual equality of women, advocating that they be members of his highest class, ... those who rule and fight". Book five of Plato's The Republic discusses the role of women:
Are dogs divided into hes and shes, or do they both share equally in hunting and in keeping watch and in the other duties of dogs? Or do we entrust to the males the entire and exclusive care of the flocks, while we leave the females at home, under the idea that the bearing and suckling their puppies is labour enough for them?
The Republic states that women in Plato's ideal state should work alongside men, receive equal education, and share equally in all aspects of the state. The sole exception involved women working in capacities which required less physical strength.
While in the pre-modern period there was no formal feminist movement in Islamic nations, there were a number of important figures who argued for improving women's rights and autonomy. The medieval mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi argued that while men were favored over women as prophets, women were just as capable of sainthood as men.
In the 12th century, the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir wrote that women could study and earn ijazahs in order to transmit religious texts like the hadiths. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters. But some men did not approve of this practice, such as Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (d. 1336), who was appalled by women speaking in loud voices and exposing their 'awra in the presence of men while listening to the recitation of books.
In the 12th century, the Islamic philosopher and qadi (judge) Ibn Rushd wrote a commentary on Plato's Republic in which he examined Plato's views on equality between the sexes. He concluded that while men were stronger than women, it was still possible for women to perform the same duties as men. In his Bidayat al-mujtahid (The Distinguished Jurist's Primer), he added that these duties could include participation in warfare, and he expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that women in his society were typically limited to being mothers and wives. A number of women are said to have participated in or helped direct battles during the Muslim conquests and fitnas, including Nusaybah bint Ka'ab and Aisha.
In medieval Europe, the dominant view of women was that they were intellectually and morally weaker than men, tainted by Eve's original sin according to the biblical tradition. This was used as a justification for many restrictions placed on women, such as not being allowed to own property or the obligation to obey their fathers or husbands at all times. But this view, along with the restrictions derived from it, raised objections already in medieval times. Protofeminists from the Middle Ages recognized as important participants in the development of feminism include Marie de France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Bettisia Gozzadini, Nicola de la Haye, Christine de Pizan, Jadwiga of Poland, Laura Cereta, and La Malinche.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a rebellion of the late Middle Ages against British serfdom, and many women played prominent roles in it. On June 14, 1381, Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury Simon of Sudbury was dragged from the Tower of London and beheaded. The leader of the group was Johanna Ferrour, who ordered this violent action due to Sudbury's harsh poll taxes. Ferrour also ordered the beheading of the Lord High Treasurer, Sir Robert Hales, for his role in the poll tax. In addition to leading these rebels, Ferrour burned down the Savoy Palace and stole a duke’s chest of gold. The Chief Justice John Cavendish was beheaded by Katherine Gamen, another female leader.
According to an Associate Professor of English at Bates College, Sylvia Federico, women often had the strongest desire to participate in revolts, especially this one in particular. These women did everything that the men did; they were just as violent, if not more, in their actions in order to rebel against the government. Johanna Ferrour was not the only female who was a leader within this revolt; there were quite a few more involved—one woman was indicted for encouraging an attack against a prison at Maidstone in Kent, while another female leader was responsible for the robbing of a multitude of mansions, which frightened servants so much that they did not feel safe enough to return afterwards. Although there were not many female leaders within this rebellion, there was a surprisingly large number of women who were a part of the crowd. For instance, there were seventy female rebels in Suffolk.
The women who were involved in this rebellion had valid reasons for desiring to participate, and in some instances, to take on the role of leader. The poll tax of 1380 was much tougher on married women, so it is not the least bit surprising that women were as violent as men, if not more so, in their involvement in the peasants' revolt. The various extreme acts of violence displayed by them exhibited their mounting hatred towards the government.
At the beginning of the renaissance, women's sole role and social value was held to be reproduction. This gender role defined a woman's main identity and purpose in life. Socrates, a well-known exemplar of the love of wisdom to the Renaissance humanists, said that he tolerated his first wife Xanthippe, because she bore him sons, in the same way one tolerated the noise of geese because they produce eggs and chicks. This analogy perpetuated the claim that a woman's sole role was reproduction.
Marriage during the Renaissance defined a woman: she was whom she married. An unmarried woman was the property of her father, and once married, she became the property of her husband. She had few rights, except for privileges granted by her husband or father. Married women were required to obey their husbands and were expected to be chaste, obedient, pleasant, gentle, submissive, and, unless sweet-spoken, silent. In William Shakespeare's 1593 play, The Taming of the Shrew, Katherina is considered unmarriageable due to her headstrong and outspoken nature, in contrast to her mild-mannered sister Bianca. Katherina is seen as a wayward woman – a shrew – who needs to be tamed into submission. When Petruchio tames her, she readily goes to him when he summons her, almost like a dog. Her submissiveness is applauded, and the crowds at the party accept her as a proper woman since she is now "conformable to other household Kates."
Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that most women were barely educated. In a letter to Lady Baptista Maletesta of Montefeltro in 1424, the humanist Leonardo Bruni wrote: "While you live in these times when learning has so far decayed that it is regarded as positively miraculous to meet a learned man, let alone a woman." Bruni himself thought that women had no need of an education because they were not engaged in the social forums in which educated discourse is required. In the same letter he wrote,
For why should the subtleties of...a thousand...rhetorical conundra consume the powers of a woman, who never sees the forum? The contests of the forum, like those of warfare and battle, are the sphere of men. Hers is not the task of learning to speak for and against witnesses, for and against torture, for and against reputation.... She will, in a word, leave the rough-and-tumble of the forum entirely to men."
The famous Renaissance salons that held intelligent debate and lectures were not welcoming to women. This denial of access to public forums led to problems for educated women, and contributed to the unlikelihood that a woman would obtain an education in the first place.
Starting with the Malleus Maleficarum, Renaissance Europe saw the publication of numerous treatises on witches: their essence, their characteristics, ways to spot, prosecute and punish them. This helped to reinforce and perpetuate the view of women as morally corrupt sinners as well as keep in place the restrictions placed on them.
However, not everyone agreed with this negative view of women and the restrictions placed on them. Simone de Beauvoir wrote that "the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex" was when Christine de Pizan wrote Épître au Dieu d'Amour (Epistle to the God of Love) and The Book of the City of Ladies, at the turn of the 15th century. An early male advocate of women's superiority was Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa wrote The Superior Excellence of Women Over Men.
Catherine of Aragon, the first official female ambassador in European history, commissioned a book by Juan Luis Vives arguing that women had a right to an education, and encouraged and popularized education for women in England during her time as Henry VIII's wife.
Vives and fellow Renaissance humanist Agricola argued that aristocratic women at least required education. Roger Ascham educated Queen Elizabeth I, who read Latin and Greek and wrote occasional poems, such as On Monsieur's Departure, that are still anthologized. Elizabeth I was described as having talent without a woman's weakness, industry with a man's perseverance, and the body of a weak and feeble woman, but with the heart and stomach of a king. The only way she could be seen as a good ruler was for her to be described with manly qualities. Being a powerful and successful woman during the Renaissance, like Queen Elizabeth I meant in some ways being male, a perception that gravely limited women's potential as women.
While women of the aristocracy had greater chances of receiving an education, it was not impossible for lower-class women to become literate. A woman named Margherita, living during the Renaissance, learned to read and write at the age of about 30, so there would be no mediator for the letters exchanged between her and her husband. Although Margherita did defy gender roles, she became literate not in order to become a more enlightened person, but because she wanted to be a better wife by gaining the ability to communicate with her husband directly.
Women who did receive an education often achieved high standards of learning and wrote in defence of women and their rights. One example is the 16th century Venetian author Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi, who wrote about the superiority of women.
The painter Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625) was born into an enlightened family in Cremona. She and her sisters were educated to male standards, and four out of five sisters became professional painters. Sofonisba was the most successful of all, crowning her career as court painter to the Spanish king Philip II.
The Reformation was an important milestone for the development of women's rights and education. As the protestant faith was based on each believer's direct interaction with God, the ability to read the Bible and prayer books suddenly became a necessity for everybody, including women and girls. Therefore, protestant communities started to set up schools where ordinary boys and girls were taught basic literacy. Moreover, Protestantism no longer saw women as weak and evil sinners; rather, women were worthy companions of men and should be educated in order to become capable wives.
Marie de Gournay (1565–1645), the last love of Michel de Montaigne, edited the third edition of Montaigne's Essays after his death. She also wrote two feminist essays, The Equality of Men and Women (1622) and The Ladies' Grievance (1626). In 1673, François Poullain de la Barre wrote De l'égalité des deux sexes (On the equality of the two sexes).
The 17th century saw the development of many nonconformist sects, such as the Quakers, which allowed more freedom of expression to women than the established religions. Noted feminist writers on religion and spirituality included Rachel Speght, Katherine Evans, Sarah Chevers, Margaret Fell (a founding member of the Quakers), and Sarah Blackborow This tendency continued in the prominence of some female ministers and writers such as Mary Mollineux and Barbara Blaugdone in the early decades of Quakerism. In general, though, women who preached or expressed opinions on religion were in danger of being suspected of lunacy or witchcraft, and many, like Anne Askew, who was burned at the stake for heresy, died "for their implicit or explicit challenge to the patriarchal order".
In France and England, feminist ideas were attributes of heterodoxy, such as the Waldensians and Catharists, rather than orthodoxy. Religious egalitarianism, such as that embraced by the Levellers, carried over into gender equality, and therefore had political implications. Leveller women mounted large-scale public demonstrations and petitions for equal rights, although dismissed by the authorities of the day.
The 17th century also saw more women writers emerging, such as Anne Bradstreet, Bathsua Makin, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Lady Mary Wroth,, the anonymous Eugenia, Mary Chudleigh, and Mary Astell, who depicted women's changing roles and made pleas for their education. However, they encountered considerable hostility, as exemplified by the experiences of Cavendish, and Wroth whose work was not published till the 20th century.
Seventeenth-century France also saw the rise of salons, cultural gathering places of the upper-class intelligentsia, which were run by women and in which they participated as artists. But while women were granted salon membership, they stayed in the background, writing "but not for [publication]". Despite the limited role played by women in the salons, Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought them a "threat to the 'natural' dominance of men".
Mary Astell is frequently described as the first feminist writer. However, this depiction fails to recognise the intellectual debt she owed to Anna Maria van Schurman, Bathsua Makin and other women who preceded her. She was certainly one of the earliest feminist writers in English, whose analyses are as relevant today as in her own time, and moved beyond earlier writers by instituting educational institutions for women. Astell and Aphra Behn together laid the groundwork for feminist theory in the seventeenth century. No woman would speak out as strongly again for another century. In historical accounts, Astell is often overshadowed by her younger and more colourful friend and correspondent Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
The liberalization of social values and secularization of the English Restoration provided new opportunities for women in the arts, an opportunity that women used to advance their cause. However, female playwrights encountered similar hostility. These included Catherine Trotter, Mary Manley and Mary Pix. The most influential of all was Aphra Behn, the first Englishwoman to achieve the status of a professional writer. She was a novelist, playwright, and political propagandist. Although successful during her lifetime, Behn was often vilified as "unwomanly" by 18th-century writers like Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Likewise, the 19th-century critic Julia Kavanagh said that "instead of raising man to woman's moral standards [Behn] sank to the level of man's courseness". In the 20th century, Behn gained a wider readership and critical acceptance. Virginia Woolf praised her career and wrote, "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn...for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds".
In continental Europe, important feminist writers included Marguerite de Navarre, Marie de Gournay, and Anna Maria van Schurman, who mounted attacks on misogyny and promoted the education of women. In Switzerland, the first printed publication by a woman appeared in 1694: in Glaubens-Rechenschafft, Hortensia von Moos argued against the precept that women should stay silent. The previous year, 1693, saw the publication of an anonymous tract entitled Rose der Freyheit (Rose of Freedom). In it, the author denounces male dominance and abuse of women.
In the New World, the Mexican nun, Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651–1695), advanced the education of women particularly in her essay "Reply to Sor Philotea." By the end of the seventeenth century women's voices were becoming increasingly heard at least by educated women. The literature of the last decades of the century was sometimes referred to as the "Battle of the Sexes", and was often surprisingly polemic, such as Hannah Woolley's "The Gentlewoman's Companion." However, women received mixed messages, for they also heard a strident backlash, and even self-deprecation by women writers in response. They were also subjected to conflicting social pressures, one of which was fewer opportunities for work outside the home, and education which sometimes reinforced the social order as much as inspired independent thinking.