Hard to imagine? Having no direct access to power, rights or legal recognition may seem foreign to many women in the twenty-first century, but it was a reality for European women of the Renaissance. However, the powerlessness of these women is often exaggerated. They did have avenues to access power, but these avenues were ingeniously indirect and involved the manipulation of others to act on their behalf. As such, this power is often hard to recognise.
What were these channels that allowed Renaissance women to access power? The family, the sottogoverno which was the abuse of patronage power, and the ruling courts provided the opportunity for upper-class women to have a great deal of influence. Once they had power, how did women evade the stigma associated with it? Female power was unruly, disastrous and destabilising. It went against all the laws of nature, so these women had to adopt creative methods with which to calm public outrage.
The sottogoverno was a well-used avenue for women with powerful families to access power. Noblewomen used their family relationships to develop patron-client ties. They helped their clients to catch the eye of a male relative, recommended them, and manoeuvred them into positions of power. These bonds were then exploited once their clients had attained office. This enabled noblewomen to exert political influence. Alfonsina Orsini, for example, helped her chancellor to gain citizenship and into the office responsible for drafting laws. She then wrote to him requesting political favours such as one of her friends be exempt from paying tax for the year. The family was another context in which women could exercise power. Renaissance households were matriarchies. The home and family was a wife’s domain and the social and economic power she held within it was not trivial. Women were responsible for running the household which was often a huge responsibility because they were usually very large. Historian Sharon Kettering tells us, in The Patronage Power of Early Modern French Noblewomen (1989), that Catherine de Medici had a household of 666! Female power superseded male power in this domain. This can be seen in the dispute between Clarice and Lorenzo Medici in which they disagreed over the education of their sons. Clarice dismissed the tutor her husband appointed and whilst Lorenzo was furious, he failed to force her to re-hire the tutor. The family was a female realm and female power within it should not be underestimated. Ruling women and wives of male rulers could also access power. Ruling women inherited power, but wives of rulers could also wield power by adopting responsibilities for their husbands. Isabella de Este married Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua and only 18 months into their marriage she was left to manage the affairs of state during his absence- a huge responsibility!
So how did these women legitimise their power? How did they make it acceptable? Due to the entrenched fear of authoritative women in positions of power, any power held by women had to be justified and legitimised. Within the patronage system female patrons represented themselves as ‘mothers’ or saintly intercessors for their clients which lent legitimacy to their actions by tying their power to women’s traditional domestic role. Another common practice of justification was the transfer of masculine qualities onto the woman in a position of power. This often resulted in an androgynous public image which projected male attributes such as capability and strength. Alfonsina was a fan of this method and encouraged her male relatives to publically allude to her masculinity. Female rulers also used this practice of conflating gender images to stabilise their rule. Elizabeth I of England is one example. She represented herself as mother, female and male, queen and king. Historian Natalie Tomas, in The Medici Women (2003), states that this is most famously demonstrated by Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury, ‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.’ Other ruling women, including Isabella d’Este, used their courtiers to construct literary propaganda campaigns in an attempt to dismantle the myth of female inferiority. Female power within the household was easier to justify. As long as it could be tied to their domestic roles it was legitimate, and in this way their roles as mothers and wives created acceptable ways for women to access power.
Having no formal or direct power or rights did not cripple Renaissance women. It just necessitated the adoption of inventive and resourceful methods to access power. These women were highly successful both in disguising their power, and if it was blatant power, in skilfully manipulating society’s perception of them. Their institutional power masked and disguised the very real power that these Renaissance noblewomen had access to.
James, Carolyn. “Machiavelli in Skirts: Isabella d’Este and Politics” in Virtue, Liberty, and Toleration: Political Ideas of European Women 1400-1800, edited by Jacqueline Broad and Karen Green, Dordrecht: Springer, 2007, pp.57-75.
Kettering, Sharon. “The Patronage Power of Early Modern French Noblewomen.” The Historical Journal 32 (1989): pp.817-841.
King, Margaret. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Tomas, Natalie. The Medici Women: Gender and Power in Renaissance Florence. Burlington: Ashgate, 2003.