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Book Review: A History of Women’s Political Thought in Europe, 1400-1700 by Jacqueline Broad and Karen Green

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"Women's political thought": is there such a thing? Jacqueline Broad and Karen Green have no doubt that there is, at least in the European tradition. Scanning from 1400 to 1700, the foundational period for our modern political landscape, they look at a diverse range of women, from the obvious, Christine de Pizan, Margaret Cavendish, Marie le Jars de Gournay, to women you'd not normally think of as political theorists, from Queen Elizabeth I of England to Mary Astell.

Their thesis, in A History of Women's Political Thought in Europe, 1400-1700, is that these women first of all share a consciousness of gender: "these women defend their capacity for political virtue, they argue for women's prudence, they defend female monarchs, and they call for female liberty of conscience against the tyranny of men." Yet, the authors have to admit their story isn't all good news: "many are intolerant and conservative, critical of those who bring about social disorder for the sake of religious freedom and they are committed to individual virtue and passive obedience to authority."

They divide the period, and their writers, into two broad groups: those who celebrate heroic and even actively fighting women, such as Joan of Arc, exceptional examples of their sex who nevertheless demonstrate what women are capable of. The authors broadly locate this approach in the earlier period and then identify a rival, and largely supplanting, more "feminine" model of female excellence, including in political life, dating from around the middle of the 17th century.

The authors see this as driven particularly by Madeleine de Scudery, who "was enormously influential in developing a form of feminism that became so acceptable as to cease to be recognised as feminist. Indeed, it is arguable that Rousseau's romantic conception of the place of love in society, and his representation of feminine difference, were influenced by Scudery, whose novels he read with his father at a very young age."

As the authors point out, there are curious parallels here with the 20th century "turn from feminisms of equality to feminisms of difference." They agree with Joan DeJean that women in this different way maintained political engagement, but differ from her in rejecting any claim that there was anything radical or democratic about their politics. (DeJean rejects Habermas's claim that "the public sphere" began in the English coffee house, locating its origins instead in late 17th-century France during the "battle between ancients and moderns.")

This reflects the explanation that Broad and Green give, which is representative of the book's approach: while this is clearly a solidly academic monograph, it is also perfectly accessible to a general reader, and it gives a delightful introduction to many interesting women of the period. It's a pity then that it's only available in academic hardbook, at prohibitive library prices.

Every woman (and man) should have been taught about Christine de Pizan and her Book of the City of Ladies — clearly an outstanding thinker of the ages — at school. Those with a closer interest in European history should see how her influence continued after her death, particularly on women rulers. As Board and Green chart, her books were prominent in the libraries of royal and powerful aristocratic women, including Anne de Beaujeu, Anne of Brittany and Louise of Savoy, while they argue that Elizabeth I was almost certainly exposed to the books, and certainly to a set of tapestries depicting the City of Ladies, reported in an inventory of the possessions of the 14-year-old Elizabeth.

The authors are not, however, concerned only with royalty and aristocracy. There are also chapters on the women of the English civil war era (including Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Poole), Quaker women (Priscilla Cotton, Mary Cole and Margaret Fell), and the women of the Glorious Revolution (Elinor James — nee Banckes and Anne Docwra — nee Waldegrave).

Bringing all of this together, the authors conclude that the traditional account of the history of men's political ideas as a progress towards liberalism, with feminism depicted as an offshoot of this, is profoundly defective:

"Long before Descartes, Christine grounded her defence of women on her own independent reason and experience, and her influence on women is significant up until the 16th century. Seventeenth-century women's political thought is more often opposed to Machiavelli and Hobbes, rather than built on them. Marie le Jars de Gournay defends women's equality with men, but is influenced by Montaigne, and not by Descartes. Quaker women are egalitarian but ground this on biblical injunctions, not modern political texts. Madeleine de Scudery explores models of egalitarian love and friendship between the sexes, independently of ideas about the social contract, and while 17th-century English women do engage with Locke, this engagement is as often critical as it is complimentary."

Furthermore, the authors say, there's a logical, continuous tradition here:

"Mary Astell had read at least some of the works of Madeleine de Scudery; Scudery herself had earlier attempted to initiate a correspondence with Anna Maria van Schurman, as well as referring to Maurgerite de Navarre, and Madeleine and Catherine des Roches. Anna Maria van Schurman corresponded with Marie le Jars de Gournay and Elisabeth of Bohemia, and she was acquainted with Christina of Sweden. Schurman had also read Lucrezia Marinella, who acknowledged Moderata Fonte and earlier learned women such as Cassandra Fedele and Isotta Nogarola. Both Fonte and Marinella influenced Arcangela Tarabotti, whose ideas are sufficiently similar to those of Gabrielle Suchon to make one suspect some influence."

As the authors conclude, their work here is preliminary. A vast amount of more research needs to be done into this almost buried and forgotten tradition. And then, maybe one day, it will take its proper place as a respected, central part of our history.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.