When Suzanne W. Hull published Chaste, Silent and Obedient, English Books for Women 1475-1640 in 1982, what little work there had been done on Renaissance women was directed towards the “conduct” literature that suggested women’s behaviour fitted the first half of that title.
Her work, which identified and detailed the books directed towards the female market, was a vital step towards a more sophisticated view, which today recognises that if books about how women should behave — frequently written in a hectoring tone — kept being published, that women were not behaving in that way. More, she helped to develop a more sophisticated idea of what literacy might have meant then — including the recognition that many women (and men) were able to read but not write.
Behind these conclusions were vast amounts of library work, much of it on texts previously little noticed. From English Books for Women, page 127:
Only twenty-four books printed between 1475 and 1572 can be classed as women’s books. In the next decade there was a sudden and dramatic increase in the number of books directed to women and nineteen appeared between 1573 and 1582.
But Hull did more than the heavy labour of collecting these texts, which often survive in single copies, in libraries scattered around the world. She analysed and understood the complexities of their writing and consumption.
The books for women gave much direct information (and misinformation) to their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century female readers; they give just as much information indirectly today about the lives, rights, and roles of those women readers. The messages about women that come down through the centuries, revealed through the guides, romances, prayers, and polemics written for them by contemporaries are many; a few messages are clear and consistent. (p. 133)
I learnt of her death this month at the age of 84 from an obituary in the LA Times (registration required):
Her writing was a way to “stitch together her feminist views and her love of England,” said her son, Jim Hull. “She was interested in the idea that women were already beginning to struggle against chauvinism at that time.” …
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1943 from Swarthmore College, she married fellow student George Hull.
An amateur architect, Hull designed a home that was built around 1960 in Woodland Hills.
In 1967, she received a master’s in library science from USC and joined the Huntington two years later.
Unfortunately, however, the most sophisticated thing the Times can find to say about the book is: “Scouring texts for clues to what it was like to be a woman then, she found advice on how to make a poultice, keep skin white and bake live birds into a pie.”
Hull changed our view of the women of the Renaissance; for the women of today, we’ve still got a lot more work to do.