I am not a feminist. I am not one of those women who protests, speaks up and publicly upholds women’s rights. Sometimes I also feel annoyed by the overuse of a feminist rhetoric. However, and despite my “aversion” to a certain type of feminism, during a research I chanced upon “The Worth of Women”. It grabbed my attention, so I leafed through it.
I imagine we are sitting in an elegant and quiet garden, I can breathe the scent of flowers and the salty-sea smell coming from the nearby channels. I’m still struggling against my sumptuous and voluminous dress to find a comfortable position, while the conversation is already lively and interesting. The scholarly Corinna discusses her intention to renounce marriage and devote herself to the pursuit of literature and learning, and Leonora, our host, announces her decision to never remarry. We spend the whole afternoon discussing the possibility that a woman might not get married or have children, and the control a woman should have on her own body. Once it’s dark we are still criticizing violence against women, and the social prejudice that leads fathers to treat a girl’s birth as a tragedy.
Who hasn’t spent a whole day chatting and conversing with a group of friends?
What it is surprising is that the conversation described doesn’t refer to a situation actually experienced by my friends and me; it indeed refers to a group of seven Venetian noblewomen that gets together at the house of one of them. These seven women are the characters of a book written in 1592, “The Worth of Women”, by Modesta Pozzo di Forzi, an Italian female author of the 16th century who wrote under the pen name of Moderata Fonte.
I’ve just begun reading it, and the opening pages have already involved me and taken me into that same Venetian garden where the conversation is taking place. It is amazing how contemporary the themes covered by the dialogue are: difficulties and frustrantions expressed by the group of nobelewomen aren’t so different from the problems we, women, have to deal with today. How is it possible that we are still coping with the same prejudices that have been persecuting us since the beginnig of time?
We are back in the garden of Leonora’s house. A question distinctly emerges from our pleasant conversation: how have men managed to achieve such a dominant position over women? “If women are men’s inferior in status, it is the result of an abuse introduced by men, and gradually translated into custom to such an extent that men actually believe in their superiority and think they have the right to mistreat and bully women”.
These words seem to be taken from a feminist article, but the speech is the expression of the thought of a woman who lived during the 16th century and belonged to the rigid and conservative republic of Venice. The whole book is unified under the main theme of women’s worth and men’s injustice in failing to recognize it. I’m amazed. Modesta wrote these things when feminism was a long way off. I’m fascinated by the acuteness of Modesta’s reflections and by her audacity in writing. “The Worth of Women” is, to all intents and purposes, an ante litteram feminism’s manifesto. She was one of the first woman challenging a male establishment by doing what she loved the most: writing. What is more, she used her talent not only to criticize, through literarture, women’s condition, but also to assert women’s value.
I think about what I would do if I were her, would I be so brave? Would I fight for women’s rights? Would I be a feminist in a historical period where this word didn’t even exist yet?
I realize that maybe I can say “I am not a feminist” only because there were women like Modesta. I have the privilege of saying that because I don’t live in a condition of clear discrimination and violation of my rights. I still can not imagine myself as a hardened fighter, but there is a lesson I have learned from “The Worth of Women”: I can be proud of my distinctiveness as a person and as a woman, and I want to share such an awarness with other people in my daily life.
Well, if that is what it seems like to be a feminist, probably, after all, I am.
 Moderata Fonte (Modesta Pozzo), The Worth of Women. Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their nobility and Their Superiority to Men, Edited and Translated by Virginia Cox, The University of Chicago press, London, 1997, p. 61.