Isabella Whitney and the Status of Women during the Renaissance

During the Renaissance, the writers who gained prominence were all male writers and today when we read about the Renaissance we usually tend to read the male writers like William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, Francis Bacon, Thomas Wyatt, Earl of Surrey, Edmund Spenser, Milton, John Donne and others, but almost no female writers of the time are being read in most of the syllabi of the courses on the Renaissance as very few writings by women writers exist to prove that they had made a significant contribution to the literary landscape of the Elizabethan times. It is not that women did not write during that time, but most of their writings were not preserved as they were not thought to be good enough to be preserved for future generations.

One of the significant document of a Renaissance female writer that still exists is a Pamphlet by a woman is by Jane Anger. It’s a pamphlet called Her Protection for Women, which was in some ways a reaction against the Puritans writing against Women. One line of the Pamphlet is worth mentioning, where Jane Anger writes “if our virtues decay daily, it’s because men’s virtue decay hourly.” It shows the rage of Jane Anger which must have made her react in such vehement manner against the men of those times.

In this context, it is necessary that one brings into discussion the pamphlets of Stephen Gosson, who being a puritan not only wrote against the women but also against theatre. According to Stephen Gosson, both theatre and Women are transgressive in nature. The Elizabethan people thought that the women are by nature transgressive and therefore they needed to be kept in patriarchal surveillance. Stephen Gosson is of the view that women are a threat to the larger patriarchal economy because of their transgressive nature and therefore requires a highly structured process involving their passage from the house and surveillance of the father to the house and surveillance of the husband.

Therefore Joan Kelly in the essay “Did Women have a Renaissance?” compares the status of women in Renaissance with that of the so called Dark Age (Medieval Age) and comments that there was “no renaissance for women,” as the situation worsened for the “fairer sex.” And almost all the works of the Renaissance establish “chastity” as the female norm and restructure the relation of the sexes to one of “female dependency” and “male domination” as Catherine Belsey says in her Essay “Disrupting Sexual Difference” – “Women, then as now, were defined in relation to men and in terms of their relations with men.”

Thus the whole of the Renaissance Literature portrays women to be second rate creatures and does not provide any space to her in the societal roles except from that of the “angel in the household” or “the whore in the market place”. These two are the only roles for females as if the women are obedient to the patriarchal culture then they are thought to be “the angel” and if they question, critique or even show their dissatisfaction with the patriarchal whims and wishes then they are termed as the ‘whore.’ In such a situation, women are generally seen to be very “inconstant” and are always looking for ways in which they can break up the patriarchal chains to assert their individual self and question the patriarchal dictates.

One can easily figure this out in Shakespeare’s play Othello, where Iago could trick Othello to his own doom as he could make Othello believe that Desdemona is “inconstant.” Othello believes in Iago much more than having faith in Desdemona. In an age when women are seen and shown to be ‘unfaithful’ creatures, Isabella Whitney’s poem “I. W. To her Unconstant Lover” is a grim reminder that it is not the women who are “inconstant” but the males are.

The Critical Appreciation of the I. W. To her Unconstant Lover must have given you a fair notion of the ways in which Isabella Whitney has tried to represent her version of her lover’s inconstancy. The poem can be read as a means by which the women’s voice differs from the male voices of the age. It is true that men are always the privileged race in a patriarchal society and therefore their creations, imaginations and representations are taken to be absolute truth and are the dominant discourse of the times. In a male dominated society, women are not allowed to speak; they are often silenced through different means (often by repression or gender stereotyping or submission); and even if they have a voice which they try to represent to the society they are mutilated / crushed with such vehemence that they are often not heard. In such circumstances it becomes difficult for a woman not only to speak out, but also to have a voice which goes against the patriarchal system.

In such a patriarchal society, if Isabella Whitney is able to have a voice of her own and even be heard to some extent; it shows she that she must have had a much rebellious voice which she modified and subdued to some extent to be accepted in her society. That she somehow sugar coated her discourse on the inconstancy of men by offering advice to her estranged lover is necessary so that men of the Renaissance accept her writing. In that sense, she may be termed as a very conscious, perceptive and wise female writer who knew the sensibilities and consciousness of her age and wrote in a way which would serve her purpose and yet at the same time be accepted by the society.

Isabella Whitney is usually not considered to be a feminist writer in the feminist discourses, but one needs to remember that at a time when she is writing, she had to deliberately make her writing so that she is accepted than just be feminist. So she wrote in a way which is politically correct and not just politically just.

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