The First Feminists (Early Modern Empowerment)

Sometimes when I’m browsing in Waterstones, Foyles, or other similar shops, I come across books entitled ‘Famous Feminists of History’, or ‘A Complete Guide to Feminism’s History’ or even ’10 Women in History’. I am unfortunately always disappointed to learn that these books only ever go back as far as the 19th and 20th centuries. It is almost as if Feminism appeared out of nowhere in 1800, and only then did women start caring about their oppression. I am here to tell you that is simply not true. I study predominantly early modern history and there were women fighting long before 1800. Whilst ‘Feminist’ is a tricky term, and one that is hard to apply to figures of the past, I believe there are many women from the early modern period worth celebrating in the History of Feminism, women who were fighting to prove that their sex was just as capable, powerful, intelligent and worthy as the men.

Below I have listed a three of my favourite early modern women, who I would consider feminists. Please enjoy reading about the lives and works of the women who (I would argue) prove that the fight for feminism and equality has been going for a long time.


1. Christine de Pizan –Writing in the Middle Ages, Christine had grown up at French court and married a nobleman. Her contacts amongst the nobility allowed her to write and publish work in a time when women really did not do so. More importantly Christine was the first European woman in recorded history to write in defence of her sex. She had become involved in a debate known as the ‘Querelle du Roman de la Rose’ – Christine actually started this debate by responding to Jean du Meun’s Romance of the Rose, an extremely misogynistic text. After Christine had written a short response to Meun’s text, she decided to write her own book, to defend her sex. This book was called The Book of the City of Ladies. Within this book Christine pinpointed ideas about women that society believed, and argued against them, to prove that women were not as bad, weak or stupid as people believed. What I think was particularly clever, is that Christine wrote herself into the book. The story she told was that she was visited by 3 angels; the virtues Justice, Rectitude and Reason, she told them the ideas about women and THEY argued against them. In this way, Christine was learning alongside the reader, she presented her book as lessons from Angels, therefore giving them and the ideas authority. She would never have had this authority if she presented the book as simply her own views – in this way she showed how clever she was, and how well she understood her position in society. Her book was popular in the medieval period, and many historians have called Christine the first ‘feminist’. Christine of course, had to be careful with what she was writing, and she never specifically called for gender equality – the world was not quite ready for that yet. Christine had to write what would be acceptable in medieval France: there was only so far she could go, but she set a precedent for future women.

2. Rachel Speght – At 20 years old, Rachel Speght is the youngest woman on the list. She was also the first to respond to Joseph Swetnam’s Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women – in which he attacked various types of women. Speght responded to Swetnam in a piece titled A Muzzle for Melastomus, published in 1615. Swetnam’s pamphlet, Speght’s response and other responses at the time contributed to the Querrelle des Femmes – this was started by Christine and continued long into the eighteenth century. I would highly recommend researching it more for a detailed overview of all the women involved. Speght responded with enough sass to put Swetnam in his place (she called him a dunce and said his writing was ‘intollerable absurdity’). Swetnam’s work was highly popular and HIGHLY SEXIST. Speght was the only woman to use her real name in her response to Swetnam – and we should acknowledge this as an act of bravery. The reason Swetnam’s work was so popular, was because it was printed in a very male dominated genre, and because it was quite comedic. Readers typically wanted something that would make them laugh, and something that confirmed their (sexist) ideas about women. Speght did the opposite of this, she took her pamphlet very seriously and defended women against Swetnam’s comments in a clever and reserved manner. The fact she printed this pamphlet, under her own name, as a WOMAN proved how much she cared about defending her sex, and that she was willing to face backlash to get her ideas across. Rachel Speght later defended these ideas AGAIN in another publication, and even rejected claims that her father had written the response to Swetnam. Two other responses to Swetnam were written under pseudonyms, they were a lot more exaggerated and angry, but historians have no idea whether they were actually written by women, or whether they were written by men to garner more attention to Swetnam’s work. Rachel Speght’s arguments were (like Christine’s) very religious, but she worked hard to find examples that proved men and women were equal under the eyes of God. Many historians have critiqued Speght for being too ‘mild’ or ‘weak’ in her defense of women, but I think she did a terrific job. She risked a lot to get her point across, and presented herself as more educated, and respectable than many of the other writers of that period. She again, was working within the limits of what was acceptable for this period, but she wrote a fair defense of her sex, and at 20 years old this was a pretty impressive feat, and something that she seemed proud of for the rest of her life.

3. Emilia Bassano – My most favourite of the bunch. My first ever blogpost was actually written about Emilia, and can be viewed here. Emilia Bassano was the daughter of Tudor Court Musicians. She was raised under the patronage of several different ladies at court. At the age of 42, she published an anthology of poems titled Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, and became the first women in England to call herself a poet. In 2018 Morgan Lloyd Malcolm wrote and released a play dedicated to her life, which was performed at Shakespeare’s Globe by an all female cast (Emilia is thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’). Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is effectively a love letter to all the women in Emilia’s life, including the Queen and the ladies who helped raise her. Like Christine and Rachel Speght, Emilia relies heavily on biblical analogies in her writing, Religion gave women’s words authority and was one of the only ways that they could get their work published in the period. It was also integral to everyday life, and all 3 women probably cared deeply and believed in everything they were writing about in regards to religion. Bassano uses her anthology to promote the excellence of women, through her real-life examples and in doing so her work is a celebration of the female sex. She was not directly involved in the Querrelle des Femmes as she did not argue AGAINST sexist ideas, she merely wrote to celebrate women because that is what she wanted to do. My favourite section of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, is in her address to the reader. Within this she justifiably calls out sexist behaviours and says: “evill disposed men, who forgetting they were borne of women, nourished of women, and that if it were not by the means of women, they would be quite extinguished out of the world, and a finall ende of them all, doe like Vipers deface the wombes wherein they were bred“. She goes on to explain all the reasons that men should respect and honour women as their equals, and it is all fantastic, but that line in particular always gets me. I think a lot of people tend to assume that before the suffragettes, or Mary Wollstonecraft, women just accepted how they were treated. But Emilia Bassano didn’t accept it, and not just that but she knew misogyny was wrong; she knew women were important.


Hilda Smith wrote in the 1970s that views on women change “not because they have been demolished but because people realise they are wrong”. Christine de Pizan, Rachel Speght and Emilia Bassano did not change the world, they did not even argue to change the world. They didn’t call for equal rights or better work opportunities, or law changes, they just began by calling out sexist ideas that women were lesser than men. I think a lot of people forget early modern feminism because they didn’t form a coherent movement, women were not working together, they were having these ideas individually. But that was all they could do, and what is important is that they started something. They published work that fought for women, that defended women. This work meant that other people began writing too, it meant that there was literature that women could read, where women were celebrated rather than insulted. These three women were part of a much longer, more tiresome journey which ultimately led to changing opinions and  a ‘feminist’ movement. They were important, because they were brave enough to stand up and write what they believed. They set a precedent for others to follow – and that should not be forgotten.

(to read more about the Querrelle des Femmes, I recommend Joan Kelly’s article ‘Early Feminist Theory and the “Querelle des Femmes”, 1400-1789’. For Specific work on each women, there is Rosalind Brown-Grant’s Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women : Reading beyond Gender, Christina Malcolmson and Mihoko Suzuki’s Debating Gender in Early Modern England and Simon Shepherd’s The Women’s Sharp Revenge)

One thought on “The First Feminists (Early Modern Empowerment)

  1. Loved this post – and yes, you’re right – the idea of feminism is rarely acknowledged before the 1800s. Thanks for putting the record straight!


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