The Creation of Feminist Consciousness

Volume 2 of Gerda Lerner’s Women and History (Vol 1 The Creation of Patriarchy) shows how the exclusion of women from history has affected women. Her introduction brings forth an idea I hadn’t considered—the debate during the drafting of the U.S. Constitution that compromised in slaves being counted as 3/5 of a person hadn’t even brought forth the idea of women as voters even though they were counted as full people for the purpose of representation in Congress.

The educational disadvantaging of women is her next big point. Education was granted to the elites (political, military, or religious), primarily men. Women who wanted to study found their only option to join a convent and seclude themselves with other like-minded women. Latin was taught in convents up until the 12th century, then came the rise of universities and Latin became the sole domain of university-educated males. In the U.S. well into the 19th century, education for girls ended at elementary level, while boys of all classes could continue on toward higher ed with scholarships. “In this dreary landscape of educational discrimination against women, extending over more than a millennium, there appear several islands of privileged space for women. From these emerge groups of educated women, exceptional for their attainments only because of the abysmal ignorance out of which they appear and against which they are measured.” These are the nunneries of 8th-13th centuries, double monasteries of 7th & 8th centuries, urban centers of Holland and Rhineland in 12th centuries (beguinage movement allowed women without money to join convents), some Renaissance courts, and centers of Protestant Reformation. Until the late 17th century, women’s best chances for being educated were to be a wealthy daughter in a family without sons and with a father who was broad-minded enough to encourage women’s education.

“The fame and notoriety of ‘learned women’ of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance attest to their rarity—with few exceptions, they were noted more for existing at all than for their accomplishments,” e.g. the dancing poodle effect. Those that somehow clawed their way to an education were met with derision, incredulity, accusation of plagiary of their father or husband’s work. Perhaps the first recorded trolling of a woman in history was the anonymous writer in 1438 Verona accusing Isotta Nogarola of incest with her brother.

Learned about the incredible life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz of Mexico (1651-95) who was one of the few women intellectuals of her time not upper class by birth, born to an illiterate mother as one of six illegitimate children she was sent to her grandfather’s home in town to be raised and tricked her older sister’s tutor into teaching her to read at age 3. She read all the books in his library and was writing at age 6. After being sent to Mexico City at age 8, she had 20 lessons in Latin and then studied on her own. She became a lady-in-waiting to the court, and then court poet, but eventually became a nun, saying, “Considering the total negative opinion that I had of matrimony, it was the least unsuitable and the most decent station that I was able to select in order to bring about my salvation… I conquered all the stupidities of my disposition which included the desire to live alone and to have no obligatory occupations in order to enjoy complete freedom to study without communal obligations which would interrupt the peaceful silence of my books.” Lerner cites these sources as her references on Sor Juana: A Sor Juana Anthology, 1988, translated by Alan Trueblood; A Woman of Genius: The Intellectual Autobiography of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, 1982, ed by Margaret Sayers Peden; Sor Juana: or the Traps of Faith by Octavio Paz, plus a few articles in journals.

Lerner goes a step beyond education, “far more detrimental than the inferior training offered to women was the misogynist explanatory system that dominated Church doctrine and shaped ideas of gender in society in general.” The so-called inferiority of women was codified by the Church in the years after 300 when it became a hierarchy run by a male clergy. The concept that women were inferior with a weaker mind and intellect had a devastating effect on women’s minds. “Each thinking woman had to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy apologizing for the very fact of her thinking.”

Despite this, women struggled to learn and think and teach, finding the courage either through the rare encouragement of male mentors, or self-actualizing by heeding their own talents for writing, finding a voice as a mystic and proclaiming god’s word, or the thousand year feminist critique of the Bible. Women like Hrosvitha hid her writing on the threshing floor of the abbey of Gandersheim, much like Harriet Beecher Stowe hid her manuscript of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in her sewing basket, and like Austen pretended to be writing letters instead of working on her novels.