The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men

I recently introduced one of my classes to Lucrezia Marinella, an early modern Venetian writer who published The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men in 1600. I think Marinella can be a lot of fun, but the students were relatively unenthusiastic. Possibly this was because Marinella’s polemic can be read as fitting the stereotypical, though mistaken, view of feminism as the exaltation of women at the expense of men.

In her work, one thing that Marinella deals with is common gender binaries, such as man=mind/woman=body or man=strength/woman=passivity. Her arguments accept that such binaries are natural and essential, but she often reverses their values. That is, the feminine attributes become positive, while the masculine attributes become negative. For example, Marinella argues that women are externally more beautiful than men, and that this bodily beauty (woman=body; woman=superficiality) reveals the superior nobility of women.

I lean toward reading Marinella’s writing as tongue-in-cheek, playfully demonstrating the constructed nature of gender binaries by demonstrating the facility with which their meanings can be altered. (This is especially so in that she is accusing men, point-by-point, of the vices that Giuseppe Passi had attributed to women, thus provoking Marinella’s response.) But on the surface, it’s certainly possible to read Marinella’s work as arguing that, in fact, women are better than men.

In this, Marinella differs from modern feminism quite significantly. But it’s a difference that’s often lost in popular culture discussions of feminism today.
In episode 3.2 of the Christian Feminist Podcast (shownotes here, listen here or on iTunes), Victoria Reynolds Farmer, Lisa Korthals, and Sarah Morrow Cerniglia discuss some of these negative reactions to feminism, both as a movement and as a label for that movement. One recurring feature of modern discussions of feminism, they point out, is a disavowal of the label “feminist” even while arguing for gender equality—the central tenet of feminism.

People can be afraid of the term feminist because they think that feminists are just so many Marinellas shouting that women are noble and excellent and men are defective and vicious. That placing the emphasis on women with the “fem-” root of the word means that men are devalued.

But, as we should all be becoming increasingly aware, bringing attention to the oppression of one group of people does not mean that other people do not matter. Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie puts it beautifully in her well-received TED talk:

Some people ask, “Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?”

Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.

For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

The term feminist isn’t about devaluing men. It’s about valuing women in deliberate contrast to the long global history of diminishing them.

As Dianna Anderson writes, the feminist declaration that “women are people” is radical because of the context—because of the patriarchal structures that treat women as lesser than men, and ultimately, as lesser than fully human.

So, unlike a face-value reading of Marinella, feminism isn’t about reversing the values of gender binaries. (Or about rigidly reinscribing gender binaries; after all, there are more than two genders.) Feminism is about recognizing the personhood of members of traditionally devalued genders. Of course, it is possible for us to do this without claiming the term feminist. But I don’t think it’s something we need to fear, either.

[Image: Bernardino Licinio, Portrait of a Woman | Wikimedia]

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