We have designed this section to be inherently comparative, dividing it into two sections to deal, respectively, with male preoccupations regarding women’s lives and women’s own concerns. Each of the sources was selected with two questions in mind. First, how similarly or differently did early modern men and women think about women’s nature and role? Second, how were women’s views across the globe similar or different?

We recommend starting with men’s views, investigating similarities and differences across cultural boundaries. Male conceptions of women’s nature were quite similar across cultural divides, in one way or another stressing women’s inferiority. Moreover, in most cases, the concept of physical and mental female inferiority was inherited, central to the religio-philosophical traditions upon which the early modern period was built. The question remains: why did early modern peoples across the globe not question misogynist customs? This is perhaps one of the more interesting—and difficult—questions to ask when discussing the excerpts here. The fact remains, however, that the causes for female inferiority were not universally agreed upon—nor where the prescriptions for acceptable female behavior. It might help also to flesh out these differences, to contextualize culturally the study of women during the period.

The second step we recommend is taking the same approach to the sources by women. Did women around the world see themselves—and the world in general—similarly? What would account for those similarities and/or differences? Perhaps most importantly, finally, is to compare the male-authored and female-authored sources and the stances on gender which each espoused. Did women agree with male conceptions of gender difference and its consequent marginalizing of women to the private sphere? In other words, did women embrace or reject traditional patriarchal strictures? As the sources here indicate, they did both. The most challenging issue in the study of early modern women, this concurrent rejection and acceptance of patriarchy is the pivotal subject to discuss. In our experience, it is also the most interesting and thought-provoking for students.

The above approach should help you place early modern women in the context of their cultural worlds, while allowing you to foreshadow future discussions on the questioning of misogynist traditions which emerged most clearly in the 18th through 20th centuries.

Discussion Questions:

  • How were women viewed across the globe during the early modern period? What similarities exist between the views held by the disparate cultures mentioned in the excerpts? What could account for these similarities?
  • What role did religion play in these perceptions? How did different religio-philosophical beliefs, such as Christianity and Confucianism, portray women differently? What do these differences say about the role of women in different societies?
  • How did women see themselves? Did women themselves accept any of the negative images presented of them? If so, why?
  • Despite negative images, what opportunities existed for women to play an active role in their societies? How were early modern women able to make a place for themselves in a patriarchal world?
  • How did the lives of early modern women compare to the lives of women in other historical periods? Was there great change throughout the ages in the way women were treated or seen? How so?