Is there anything more enlightening than listening in while women discuss their role in society? As the recent adaptation of Miriam Toews novel Women Talking shows, this is a pretty fascinating premise. In Toews’ story, which was inspired by real events, eight women from a Mennonite community gather to decide what to do in the aftermath of horrific sexual attacks committed by the men around them against the women and girls. They come to question the immutability of their social roles, and whether it was fair that they had so little agency, so much responsibility, and virtually no education.
In Moderata Fonte’s 1600 book The Worth of Women, seven fictitious women are in a beautiful garden in the outskirts of Venice, considering similar issues. They discuss the way men treat women and pose themselves the ultimate question: how is it that men, ‘essentially inferior’ to women, have come to dominate them? And, crucially, can that be changed?*
Moderata Fonte was born in Venice in 1555, as Modesta Pozzo, literally, ‘modesty well’, before choosing as her pen name the more confident ‘moderate fountain’, replacing the traditionally feminine virtue of modesty (and silence) with the masculine moderation, evoking reason. Orphaned as a child, Fonte had been raised in a convent and at her grandmother’s home and, according to her guardian and biographer Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni, all those around her were impressed by her intelligence. Fonte was an autodidact, and her family’s wealth allowed her great access to books. In 1581, when she was 26, she published her first work, a chivalric romance called Floridoro, under her new pen name. She continued to write throughout her life but, as a wife and a mother, often had little time to do so.
Her most celebrated work, The Worth of Women, was written during a heated intellectual debate that swept European humanists, called the querelle des femmes (literally, ‘dispute of women’, better known as ‘the woman question’). It arguably started with Boccaccio in his 1360s De claris mulieribus (‘On Famous Women’) and Christine de Pizan’s 1405 Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies). This debate went beyond women’s role, dissecting their very nature, defining and describing female qualities and vices, in opposition to men. I use the word ‘dissecting’ here intentionally, as medical and scientific knowledge were key issues in this discussion, being weaponised against women as well as used in their defence. Fonte’s characters talk at length about medicine, alchemy, astrology, and natural philosophy, highlighting how women were involved in these spheres, not only as readers and writers, but as practitioners, much like Caterina Sforza or Isabella Cortese. By discussing these subjects, the characters showcase their rationality and intellectual powers, illustrating how they should be considered equals to men.
The women in Fonte’s work, reflecting different social states (widow, single, married), gathered in Leonora’s palatial garden, where she asked them how men had come to rule over women. Corinna, a stand-in for Fonte, replies that the explanation for gender inequality in sixteenth-century Venice was custom, not natural law, questioning the Aristotelian tradition of understanding men as inherently more rational, superior, and ‘perfect’ than women. This widely accepted idea justified male rule over women, who were ‘naturally’ inferior and weak, lacking reason. The Worth of Women is a unique and clever literary dialogue, not only questioning women’s role and painting a picture of women’s lived experiences but also imagining a world in which women could opt out of marriage, choosing singledom and enjoying female friendship. By denouncing the Aristotelian ‘natural order’ as a creation, Fonte’s women imply that it could change.
Other Renaissance writers questioned this assumption and argued for the equality of the sexes, besides Christine de Pizan and Boccaccio, who wrote two centuries before Fonte. The Worth of Women was published at the height of ‘the woman question’, when ‘pro-women’ works abounded, including Galeazzo Flavio Capra’s 1525 Dell’eccellenza e dignità delle donne (‘On the Excellence and Dignity of Women’) and Lucrezia Marinella’s 1600 La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne co’ difetti et mancamenti degli uomini (‘The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men’). In Fonte’s work, the characters’ erudition, especially in medicine and alchemy, serve to argue for a new kind of society, in which women would control their own lives.
It is telling that, on the ‘pro-woman’ side, there were people like the alchemist Henricus Cornelius Agrippa. In his 1520s Declamatio de nobilitat ed et praeccellentia foeminei sexus (On the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex), he argued that women excelled over men in many aspects, including scientific pursuits. Antifeminists, such as Giuseppe Passi, disagreed. In his 1599 I donneschi difetti (The Defects of Women), he denounced female vanity, sexual excess, and greed. But he also accused women meddling in science and medicine of overstepping their bounds: their practice was no more than witchcraft. Fonte, on the other hand, denounced male alchemists: while women could use this art for the good of the community, such as making medicines, men’s volatile nature could easily be lured by promises of wealth and be blinded by the pursuit of turning base metals into gold. Moreover, this transformation mirrored men’s unreliability and lack of constancy. Again, alchemy and medicine were used to make broader points in the debate over men and women.
Of course, we can and should question these ideas: it is clear that women are as capable of doing harm to those around them as men are (just look at the recent case of Elizabeth Holmes). Also, inspiring as proto-feminists might be, it’s important to keep in mind that both ‘pro-women’ writers like Fonte and antifeminists took for granted the fundamental and essential differences between the sexes, never questioning this rigid binary. This is a very cisgender, heterosexual debate. (Much like the influential 1992 best-seller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray.) In any case, this ‘war of the sexes’, as it was later called, was questioned by many, as illustrated by Virginia Woolf:
“All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides’, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side…”
Still, for Fonte, there was a fundamental paradox in her society. Renaissance Venice was built on the myth of republican sovereignty and liberty, which was incompatible with women’s social status as subjugated to men. She saw women as victims of illegitimate rule by ‘tyrannic’ men, which clashed directly against Venetian values. The characters dare to imagine a different Venice, with Corinna, representing Fonte in the text, choosing to remain single. (It’s hard not to think of the intellectual Jo in Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, forced in the end to get married, which probably went against the author’s wishes and was required by the book’s editor.) Corinna’s choice is also conditional: it’s only possible because the garden in which this conversation takes place is set apart from Venice, with its liminal position allowing for this conjecture. Through Corinna, Fonte makes the case for female autonomy and freedom:
“Wouldn’t it be possible for us just to banish these men from our lives, and escape their carping and jeering once and for all? Couldn’t we live without them? Couldn’t we earn our living and manage our affairs without help from them? Come on, let’s wake up, and claim back our freedom, and the honour and dignity that they have usurped from us for so long. Do you think that if we really put our minds to it, we would be lacking the courage to defend ourselves, the strength to fend for ourselves, or the talents to earn our own living? Let’s take our courage into our hands and do it, and then we can leave it up to them to mend their ways as much as they can: we shan’t really care what the outcome is, just as long as we are no longer subjugated to them.”
Gender equality depended directly on access to legal, political, and scientific knowledge, including alchemy and medicine. Women should be given the same chances as men, including material resources, a point famously developed in the early twentieth century by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Women’s potential had also been described by Fonte, in her romance Floridoro, through the alchemical image of ‘buried gold’, just waiting to be unearthed. Sadly, despite Fonte’s undisputed genius, we will never know how her literary and scientific life could have developed further. Fonte finished writing The Worth of Women the night before she died from childbirth, in 1592. She was just 37 years old.
*Because of the socio-cultural context of the querelle des femmes, I have embraced the binary men vs women in this text, as that was how these authors articulated their views. You can read my statement here about Language and Inclusivity.
Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (London: 1652).
Cristofano Bronzini, Della dignità e nobilità delle donne (Florence: 1624).
Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni, Vita della Sig.ra Modesta Pozzo de’ Zorzi (Venice: 1593).
Galeazzo Flavio Capra Dell’eccellenza e dignità delle donne (Rome: 1525).
Moderata Fonte, Il Merito delle donne (Venice: 1600).
Moderata Fonte, Tredici Canti del Floridoro (Venice: 1581).
Ortensio Lando, Lettere di molte valorose donne (Venice: 1548).
Lucrezia Marinella La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne co’ difetti et mancamenti degli uomini (Venice: 1601).
Paola Malpezzi Price, Moderata Fonte: Women and Life in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Vancouver: The Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003).
Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).