“You forbid women to learn so they are incapable of defending themselves against your schemes and then proclaim how stupid they are and how you triumphed over them,” (108) proclaimed Arcangela Tarabotti, a nun cloistered in Venice’s Sant’Anna convent in the first half of the 17th century. She spent much of her life railing against the patriarchal rules that kept her in her cell, even though she voluntarily took her vows to become a bride of Christ.
Born 412 years ago this week, on February 24, 1604, Arcangela died 364 years ago today in 1652. In her era, there was a saying: maritar o monacar–marry or become a nun. Since Arcangela was born with a physical disability, “ugly and maimed in body” as she put it, she knew her father would not raise a dowry to marry her off. So she accepted her fate to become a nun, then railed against the system that forced her to do so. “I bear a holy envy of the religious life of true nuns,” she confessed, knowing that she lacked this true calling, but that it was the best option open to her.
Despite being walled up in her convent, surrounded by the same 70 or so women her whole life, Arcangela put her time to good use. She published a number of works, first being her letters: Lettere Familiari e di Complimento. With help from literary patrons like Giovanni Loredan and her brother-in-law Giacomo Pighetti, she received some books and corresponded with other writers and thinkers of her day. Though Loredan did publish some misogynistic works, he also gave Arcangela the opportunity to hone her thinking skills through this kind of epistolary relationship.
A year later, in 1651, Arcangela published again in conjunction with the writer Francesco Buoninsegni; he had written the polemical treatise Satira, attempting to prove women’s inferiority, and Arcangela responded with her own Antisatira to refute his arguments. Though Arcangela’s work railed against Francesco Buoninsegni’s writing, a crafty publisher knew that readers would feast on the two works together. That same year another of her polemical works hit the bookstalls: Che le donne siamo delle specie degli uomini (Women Do Belong to the Species Mankind). It, too, refuted an earlier misogynist work attributed to “Orazio Plata Romano” titled Women Do Not Belong to the Species Mankind, according to editor and translator Letizia Panizza (“Introduction” 11). Arcangela’s response uncovered Romano’s misreadings of scriptures and showcased her superior reasoning skills; she quoted extensively from the Bible, as well as displaying her knowledge of theology, philosophy, rhetoric, and literature, all principally self-taught. Disappointingly, though Arcangela’s tone in this treatise was light and her reasoning sound, many of her admirers turned against her, writing denunciations against her ideas or claiming that, because the style of this piece differed from others, Arcangela must not have authored it. She was angry to begin with, and these criticisms must have made her seethe.
Paternal Tyranny and L’Inferno Monocle are Arcangela’s best known works, where she lays out her arguments against the patriarchy. Her position, grounded in scripture, returned time and again to the Humanist precept that God “has granted free will to His creatures, whether male or female, and bestowed on both sexes intellect, memory, and will!” (44). She espoused these ideas two centuries before Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, yet most people have never heard of Tarabotti. “On my word of honor,” she wrote in Il Paradiso Monacale, her later work, “I testify that I have allowed my words to overflow in defense of my own sex only for the sake of refuting the wicked and false slander written by men over so many centuries to the detriment of women.” She adhered to many of the ideas of her era, such as the value of women’s chastity, but she wasn’t afraid to promote equality in education, even if it brought on criticism. “Once you have lost liberty,” Arcangela said, “there remains nothing else to lose.”
“But you do well . . . to keep us away from intellectual pursuits,” Arcangela wrote, “since you realize that once knowledge is added to a woman’s natural lively disposition, she would usurp the honors and earnings you amass by unlawful means” (101). Today in her memory, I thank Arcangela for her strident, early voice to promote women’s education and equality.