That the English Renaissance saw a marked increase in the numbers of women writers is clear: while few works are known to have been published by women in England before 1500, over one hundred works were composed or translated by Englishwomen between 1500 and 1640. Though this is an impressive increase, it was, of course, a mere fraction of the thousands written by men. Writings by Elizabethan women included prose narratives, poetry, prayers, essays, confessions, diaries, letters, prefaces, and translations. Titled and middle-class women wrote on subjects ranging from religion to motherhood to social commentary. Most of the published works by English women in the Renaissance were religious, while secular works were usually left in manuscript form.[fn?]

During Shakespeare's time, changing social, economic, political, technological and religious factors affected literacy and the practice of writing for both men and women. The advancement of capitalism segregated the private and public spheres of work and home, causing a gendered division of labor in which men left the household to make money, while women (in theory) stayed home to manage the domestic affairs involved in "huswifery." This rise of professionalism was part of the humanist movement which emphasized the potential, freedom and dignity of "Man." Humanists, however, were divided on whether this potential for self-actualization extended to women, or whether women were too inferior to properly benefit from a secular humanist education. Humanism, despite its belief in the potential and dignity of Man, was essentially part of a patriarchal social system. Many humanists who believed that women should be educated and allowed to write believed this because it would make them better Christians*; women were still very much subordinated to men.

The dissolution of the monasteries, however, meant that women no longer had the option of entering a nunnery to get an education.

More about the education of women.

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A commentary by a Renaissance woman on contemporary women's writing.*

Margaret Tyler, in a letter "to the Reader" prefacing her translation of The Mirrour of Princeley Deeds, protested restrictions on women's writing:

... if men may and do bestow such of their travails upon gentlewomen, then may we women read such of their works as they dedicate unto us, and if we may read them, why not farther wade in them to the search of a truth? ... my persuasion hath been thus, that it is all one for a woman to pen a story, as for a man to address his story to a woman.

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Did women have a Renaissance?

Well, perhaps. During the Renaissance women lost economic power*, but, at least briefly, gained status and opportunities for education*. While women were given the education to become writers, they became increasingly sheltered* from the largely male worlds of commerce and government.

With increased urbanization, and changes in technology that favoured mass production, many activities that had been domestic industries -- weaving, brewing, making malt, and so on--became the province of professional men.

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In De republica Anglorum, Sir Thomas Smith wrote that husband and wife form the "naturalist and first conjunction... after a diverse sorte ech having care of the familie: the man to get, to travaile [work] abroad, to defende: the wife to save that which is gotten, to tarrie at home to distribute that which commeth of the husbandes labor for the nurtriture of the children and family of them both, and to keepe all at home neat and cleane." De republica Anglorum went through eleven editions between 1583 and 1640.

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The death of Elizabeth was followed by a reaction against women's intellectual aspirations, with a corresponding decline in published secular works by women. James I, a notorious misogynist, is said to have remarked about one erudite woman, "But can she spin?"

Footnotes

  1. A woman protests

    Margaret Tyler, in a letter "to the Reader" prefacing her translation of The Mirrour of Princeley Deeds, protested restrictions on women's writing:

    ... if men may and do bestow such of their travails upon gentlewomen, then may we women read such of their works as they dedicate unto us, and if we may read them, why not farther wade in them to the search of a truth? ... my persuasion hath been thus, that it is all one for a woman to pen a story, as for a man to address his story to a woman.

  2. The changing role of women

    With increased urbanization, and changes in technology that favoured mass production, many activities that had been domestic industries -- weaving, brewing, making malt, and so on--became the province of professional men.

  3. Lost opportunities

    The dissolution of the monasteries, however, meant that women no longer had the option of entering a nunnery to get an education.

    More about the education of women.

  4. A division of labour

    In De republica Anglorum, Sir Thomas Smith wrote that husband and wife form the "naturalist and first conjunction... after a diverse sorte ech having care of the familie: the man to get, to travaile [work] abroad, to defende: the wife to save that which is gotten, to tarrie at home to distribute that which commeth of the husbandes labor for the nurtriture of the children and family of them both, and to keepe all at home neat and cleane." De republica Anglorum went through eleven editions between 1583 and 1640.