In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and Learning

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Book Collecting, Printing, and Publishing
  • Public Speech
  • Reading Practices
  • Biographies

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Renaissance and Reformation Women and Learning
Margaret L. King
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0032


In 1977, Renaissance scholar and pioneering feminist Joan Kelly posed the disturbing question: Did women have a Renaissance? Was the period characterized by change and innovation in the cultural realm dominated by men also a period of gains for their wives and daughters? The tsunami of scholarly studies of women’s lives since the late 20th century has suggested that, on the contrary, women suffered setbacks: their economic activities were restricted, their options within the family were limited, and even their opportunities for religious expression, as a consequence of Protestant and Catholic Reformations, were curtailed. In the area of cultural expression, however, more recent work shows that the net result is positive, and that the Renaissance was, in fact, a fulcral moment for women. During the period 1300–1700, the misogynistic consensus of the learned (medical, legal, philosophical, theological) was modified; women entered the mainstream of European intellectual life as authors of Latin and vernacular poetry and prose. They were producers, performers, patrons, and critics of the arts; they engaged in public discourse, including in the philosophical, scientific, and political domains; and they gained access to education. By 1700, the foundations were sturdily in place for women’s further advancement in public, private, and academic life. This enormous shift in women’s role as cultural agent and subject is visible in many areas of concern to Renaissance scholars. This article is concerned with the attitudes of the learned, the debate over women’s essential nature and capacity, and the participation of women in main areas of intellectual life. (For a fuller treatment of women authors, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation articles on “Women Writing in English,” “Women Writing in French,” etc., and for the gender relations of other cultural domains, see “Women and the Visual Arts,” “Women and Science,” etc.) The scholarly literature on women and learning has peculiar characteristics worthy of note. It is very recent (with about half the citations given here published since 2000), it is overwhelmingly anglophone, it is dominated more by collections of essays loosely organized by theme than by monographs, and it has been accompanied by a massive project of the editing and translation of works authored by women.

General Overviews

The problem of women and learning has as yet received no single-volume synthesis, although the diverse essays of numerous collections and an array of monographs provide many fruitful avenues of inquiry.

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