gender and sexuality
love and marriage
imagined worlds
places and spaces
danger: love
writing and fame
la querelle femmes

Writing and Fame
Ariane Helou

Early modern women writers faced numerous challenges, not only in producing literary work, but in making their works accessible to the public and creating a readership. Faced with disadvantages that stemmed from a lack of formal education or avenues into public life, as well as from cultural taboos against female intellectualism, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women writers had to find creative ways of publishing their works and publicizing themselves. The “Tenth Muse phenomenon” arose not merely in acknowledgment of certain women’s artistic talents, but also as a way for these women to earn publicly sanctioned fame.

Women who had previously been confined to a domestic sphere now had to negotiate for themselves a life in the public eye. Female writers needed to be able to engage their male peers in dialogue about art and letters, women’s intellectual abilities and the ways in which they could be employed. The discourse that arose from these women’s writings, and from those of the men who alternately supported or dismissed their efforts, developed into the querelle des femmes.  By publishing their works, women writers could contribute to this discourse in a substantial and important way.

However, there was a vast difference between engaging in dialogue within an elite group of intellectuals, and creating a broader readership (both male and female). The crucial issue in accomplishing this had to do not simply with the quality of an author’s literary output, but with her social and cultural acceptability. It was rare for women to be well educated, and rarer still for them to produce any work outside of the domestic arts. Social and religious institutions looked askance at those who did. A successful early modern woman writer often had to find a way of marketing herself as a good woman as well as a competent artist.

Education and Public Opinion

Private and public life existed as strictly separate worlds during the early modern period. The private world consisted of the domestic sphere, the domain of women and families; domestic and fine arts such as needlework and cookery, music and dance could be taught or studied but not publicly exhibited. The public world was the domain of men, the world of politics, academics, economics, theology, the military . . . in short, all subjects forbidden to women, and all subjects that could be studied, debated, argued over, and written about by men. The private worlds of a few women, such as those born into royal families, may have overlapped with the public one. However, the public perceived attempts by women to invade male social or intellectual territory as not only transgressive, but even immoral.

The education of women in early modern Europe, and the ways in which they were encouraged (or, frequently, forbidden) to develop their minds varied among social classes and ranks. Aristocratic women were the most likely to be schooled in letters, foreign languages, and sciences, especially if they displayed an inclination toward scholarly pursuits. They would have had the leisure time and the funds or social connections necessary to receive tutoring in gender-appropriate subjects. Like the storyteller Isabel in María de Zayas’ The Disenchantments of Love (1647), such women could be instructed in “not only the qualities that make one a virtuous Christian but also the edifying exercise of reading, writing, playing music, dancing, and all the other requisites in a person of [their] category” (Zayas 44). Nuns were usually taught reading and Latin. Upper-echelon nuns disposed to scholarship could become well versed in Biblical and patristic writings, although they could not write or vocalize their scriptural criticisms or theological beliefs without censure. For example, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, though one of the most highly respected intellectuals in seventeenth-century Mexico, was attacked by Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, the Bishop of Puebla, for her criticism of a contemporary male theologian’s work. Even bourgeois families could usually obtain a more than basic education for a daughter. Skill in certain fine arts, such as playing music or writing letters and poetry, could increase her social worth, making her as accomplished as her wealthier neighbors, and therefore potentially appealing to a husband of higher rank.

Thus, some women were able to expand their spheres of knowledge within limits determined by their social or economic status. An intellectually curious female could even approach such esoteric subjects as mathematics or natural philosophy, as long as that approach was made within the bounds of the domestic sphere and with no intention to take her inquiries into a public, academic arena of discourse. Accordingly, the topic that was most strictly forbidden to women, the study of which by women was most vehemently protested, was that most public of disciplines: rhetoric.

Rhetoric, with its emphasis on analytical thought and persuasive speech and writing, formed the basis of male education. Expertise in rhetoric allowed men to enter the public spheres of law, politics, academia, and even theology. A woman who acquired proficiency equivalent to a man’s in this subject, the greatest enabler of public discourse, would then have the resources to enter into public life. Forbidding young women to study rhetoric effectively restricted them to the domestic sphere. A woman’s pursuit of rhetorical studies, therefore, was an act of transgression against that appointed sphere, especially if the woman put her theoretical learning into practice by engaging with men in discourse or debate or, worse yet, publishing her works. For a woman to venture into public discourse was regarded as a form of intellectual promiscuity, just as morally reprehensible as sexual promiscuity. In fact, male authors of early modern education treatises employed a rhetoric that explicitly describes a “link between loose language and loose living” (Jones 319).

Women who wanted to publish their own writings had to find ways to negotiate these cultural and social taboos. Due to their high social position, female members of royal or prominent aristocratic families may have had to face fewer obstacles. For bourgeois as well as elite women, there was another avenue: religious sisterhood. Nuns had remarkable educational opportunities, and ranked among the few privileged women who could, if they chose, devote their lives largely to scholarship. Even women writers who had not taken the veil could produce works of a spiritual, devotional and reflective nature. As long as their work steered clear of theological argument, the province of men, these women could carve a socially suitable niche for themselves in writing about human virtues. Furthermore, literary work that focused on private life and family relations not only did not transgress the domestic sphere, but could even exemplify feminine virtue.

Finally, there was a more extreme way in which women writers could make their works, and themselves, appealing to literary consumers. Rather than try to fit within socially acceptable norms, these women exploited their uniqueness, even exaggerated it. They created personae for themselves that existed apart from familiar cultural categories, or in the simplest cases, used the uniqueness of their situation to play on the sympathies of their audience.

Novelty and Originality:  Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan became, almost inadvertently, one of the originators of the querelle des femmes. The daughter of an Italian aristocrat living at the French court, Christine was educated and literate, and well read in classic and contemporary French authors. She embarked on a career as a professional writer, something unheard of for a woman of her time, very nearly by accident. The deaths of her father and her husband left her to support a family whose monetary fortune had all but vanished. Christine only learned of their financial situation months after she had taken charge of the household. Her shock at discovering her family’s fiscal ruin led her to speak strongly on behalf of women’s education, years later, in her autobiographical Christine’s Vision (1405):

For it is customary for married men not to discuss financial matters in detail with their wives, a practice that often leads to great problems, as I have learned from experience, and does not make any sense at all when a woman is not stupid but prudent and wise in her dealings. (1993, 10)

The necessity for new sources of income, for social connections, and for her sons’ education, led Christine to seek patronage or assistance from members of the royal court. Even more unusual, she pled her own cause in front of the law courts in the cases regarding her inheritance. It was in this environment that her works first became public. Copies of Christine’s poems, first distributed as personal gifts to the monarchs and their courtiers, circulated locally and spread to other French courtly circles as well. In the age before printing became the dominant method of textual dissemination, Christine de Pizan earned a remarkably large manuscript-based readership.

However, Christine does not attribute her success to any innate skill.  She humbly suggests that her readers were simply intrigued by the idea of a female author, not by the substance of her work, and read her poetry out of mere curiosity:

It is true that news of my studious way of life had already spread, contrary to my wishes, even among princes; but since this was so, I sent those nobles a number of my meager writings as gifts, thinking they might appeal by way of their novelty; and the gifts were accepted joyfully and with a graciousness befitting the nobles’ rank. I attribute this reception not to the value of my works but rather to the fact that they had been written by a woman, a phenomenon not seen in quite some time. Thus, quite quickly, my writings became known and were read in many different lands. (1993, 18)

Christine does not claim that she had any intent to publish her works at the time. Describing these events in her autobiography years after they occurred, Christine employs a trope of humility. She never sought fame, she says, and the acclaim she received was not due to the artistic value of her works but to their novelty as products of a female writer. Furthermore, she produced these works as a means of caring for her family, since they were gifts to the aristocrats who looked after her interests and her children’s. This circumstance only reinforced Christine’s feminine virtue in the eyes of her readers. Her exquisite and polemical Book of the City of Ladies (1403-04) could have been banned or condemned. Instead, as a result of Christine’s good reputation, it received a lasting readership and established Christine as the foremost woman of letters of her generation. The success of The Book of the City of Ladies is due in great part to the attitude of humility Christine assumes in presenting her works to the reader, and to the spiritual nature of her work and its commendation of virtue.

Spiritual Writing and Humility: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Anne Bradstreet

The published works of these two prominent women earned each of them the title of “Tenth Muse” during the seventeenth century. They came from vastly different circumstances. Anne Bradstreet was born in England and came to America as an adult colonist, while Sor Juana was born in Mexico. Bradstreet was married, and a mother; Sor Juana was a cloistered nun. Bradstreet lived in small, sheltered and close-knit Puritan communities of newly-settled Massachusetts, while Sor Juana grew up amid the Baroque splendor of the Mexican viceregal capital. Sor Juana earned a reputation for brilliance at an early age, while public recognition of Bradstreet’s poetic talents came late in her life. Both women’s works, however, were eventually published in Europe through the efforts of friends, by Bradstreet’s brother-in-law John Woodbridge on a voyage to London, and by the former vicereine of Mexico upon her return to Spain.

The prefatory material to Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) consists of a foreword and several dedicatory poems addressed to the author by her publisher and several male admirers. In his “Epistle to the Reader,” a prose preface to The Tenth Muse, Woodbridge claimed to have copied Bradstreet’s poems and taken them to England to be printed without her knowledge or consent. “Contrary to her expectation,” he wrote, “I have presumed to bring to public view, what she resolved should (in such a manner) never see the sun” (Bradstreet 3). Where early modern authors would often open their publications with a poem introducing the book, perhaps dedicating it to a noble or royal patron, Anne Bradstreet’s first poem offers her collection of writings to her father, Thomas Dudley. The idea of publication is neither implicit nor explicit, and the address to Dudley establishes Bradstreet’s work firmly within the domestic sphere. Her poems on political and historical events (“A Dialogue between Old England and New”) and public figures (the elegies on Sir Philip Sidney and Queen Elizabeth I) are woven with threads of humility. Bradstreet apologizes for her “bleating” verse and her “rudeness” in writing on such exalted themes (“In Honor of…Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory,” 16, 19). She admits that “To sing of Wars, of Captaines, and of Kings” (“Prologue” 1) is beyond the scope of most women’s writings, and tempers her wider-ranging topics by interweaving them with poems about her husband, children and parents: acceptable, familiar and appropriate territory for a Puritan woman.

By emphasizing her lack of agency in the publication of her works, Woodbridge acquits Bradstreet of any sin of pride or untoward desire for public exposure.  Moreover, he stresses her feminine virtues: she is “honoured,” “esteemed,” “gracious,” “pious,” “courteous,” and “discrete.”  Poetry, claims her editor, is not her life’s work, but something extraneous, “the fruit but of some few hours.”  In accordance with the Puritan work ethic, these few hours do not constitute true leisure time, but labor of a different sort, since they encroached upon “her sleep and other refreshments” ( Bradstreet 3). 

It cannot be determined what role Bradstreet played, if any, in having her works printed.  A skeptical reader might think Woodbridge’s disclaimer a mere publicity stunt, or imagine that Bradstreet deliberately cultivated a pious, matronly persona in order to mitigate the unseemliness of publication. In any case, Woodbridge as her publisher contributes to, even creates her public image as a virtuous wife and mother.  From the perspective of her male readership, Bradstreet’s spirituality and familial piety become her defining qualities.  The elegance of her poetry matches her personal grace and courtesy, which allows her to be classified as tenth among the Muses.

Anne Bradstreet seems to have accepted her newfound status as a published author with gracious humility.  By contrast, in her “Reply to Sor Philothea de la Cruz” (1691) Sor Juana lashes out at the Bishop of Puebla for the clandestine and unsanctioned publication of a theological treatise she had written, which disputed a forty-year-old sermon of a Portuguese Jesuit.  As far as we know, Sor Juana’s friend, the Bishop of Puebla, had asked for a personal copy of the treatise.  He later had it printed, along with a prefatory letter from a certain Sor Philothea de la Cruz (the Bishop’s nom de plume) scolding Juana for indulging her “great . . . mind” in “lowly earthbound knowledge” and asserting, essentially, that women had no right to debate theology with men (Trueblood 202).  Sor Juana’s “Reply” is a finely wrought and forcefully argued defense of her intellectual pursuits.  It addresses the subject of publication and public recognition in the context of both her recent treatise and her earlier body of plays and poems. 

The “Reply” is part rhetorically sophisticated legal defense, part autobiography.  Sor Juana describes herself as a child prodigy in the past, and in the present as a woman of enormous intellectual energies.  Her self-portrait is self-contradictory, probably deliberately so, especially in terms of her ambition to publish.  On the one hand she maintains that she wrote poetry only at the behest of her patrons, never for her own pleasure.  On the other, she emphasizes that even as a child her inclination to write was unquenchable and undeniable.  Juana contests that it is not only her right, but even a necessity to educate herself in such a wide variety of topics.  Logic, physics, music, astronomy, mathematics, history, law, and even rhetoric are necessary tools for reading and understanding “the book which takes in all books, and the knowledge which embraces all knowledge” (Trueblood 214).  The book to which Sor Juana refers is, of course, the Christian Bible.  She points out that she cannot fulfill her duties as a member of a religious order if she lacks the tools to understand the text that guides her life.  Nonetheless, before presenting this argument, Sor Juana employs the familiar humility trope, addressing Sor Philothea as her superior and softening the eventual blow of her polemic with the “clustering formulas of self-abasement with which she tries to shield herself at the outset” (Trueblood 8). 

“Sor Philothea” (the Bishop) considers Sor Juana’s approach to reading and understanding Scripture as well as her literary pursuits to be inappropriately intellectual for a woman, and accuses Juana of not focusing her attention on purely religious matters.  For Juana, however, religious zeal takes its form in the pursuit of knowledge itself, and her personal spirituality arises from the acquisition of knowledge.  All types of knowledge, religious and secular, are interconnected.  Faith and learning, in Juana’s view, are intimately linked and indispensable to each other.  Her devotional studies cannot be separated from her private spirituality.   Piety and devotion privileged Bradstreet’s writings.  In a similar way, Juana’s emphasis on knowledge as an aid to religious faith makes her feminist discourse less transgressive in the eyes of male readers.  For both Anne Bradstreet and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, women’s writing becomes more acceptable for public readership when couched in the language of spirituality.

The Cult of Personality: Catalina de Erauso and Margaret Lucas Cavendish

While some women writers de-emphasized the more unconventional aspects of their education or upbringing, others employed an opposite tactic and called attention to their eccentricities.  The “Lieutenant Nun” Catalina de Erauso, perhaps more than any other figure of her era, absolutely defied categorization.  As a young girl, she did the unthinkable by escaping from her convent and running off to South America.  There she lived as a man (and a soldier, and an outlaw) for years, before confessing her true identity, returning to Spain and becoming an instant celebrity.  The life of Margaret Lucas Cavendish followed a rather less shocking path.  She was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria before her marriage to the Duke of Newcastle, and she and her husband followed the court into its French exile during the English Civil War.  However, as an author Margaret Cavendish went to extremes in fashioning herself as another “Tenth Muse.”  She wrote verse prefaces to her work in praise of her own exceptional beauty and creativity, and sought inclusion in the same category as her laudable literary predecessors.

Catalina de Erauso defined herself in action first and then in writing.  Her memoirs narrate travels and events with surprisingly little introspection or interiority.  Except for a few poignant moments, such as when she goes unrecognized by her father or mourns her brother’s death, Catalina does not dwell on emotions.  Her writing style is action-driven and almost stereotypically masculine.  In this respect it reflects Catalina’s interior state, her true sense of self, better than does her biological form.  The narrative itself follows Catalina’s many changes of persona, from female to male, from nun to soldier, seducer, virgin, fratricide, and outlaw, from Basque noblewoman to Peruvian mercenary to Spanish courtier.  Her constant journeying between cities and settlements mirrors her transformations: for every new destination, it seems, there is a new Catalina.

This prodigious ability to change and adapt not only makes the Lieutenant Nun’s memoirs fascinating and terrifically entertaining, but also accounts for the remarkable way in which Catalina seems to have captivated the imaginations of her European readership.  In 1625 she returned from America and petitioned the Spanish Crown to reward her, ostensibly for her military service and accomplishments in the New World.  Yet the petition itself, even as it describes Catalina’s career as a soldier, emphasizes the uniqueness of her “extraordinary life” as reason enough in itself for reward.  It requests the King to commend Catalina for “the worthiness of her deeds and for the singularity and prodigiousness of her life” (1996, 37; emphasis added).  Prodigiousness, excess, the shocking and the bizarre shaped the Baroque aesthetic.  Like the King, the Baroque world at large ought to admire Catalina for the spectacular and marvelous aspects of her person and personality, and not merely for her achievements.  Catalina’s public appeal was immeasurably increased by her status as a nun and, despite having lived for nearly two decades in the company of men, a virgo intacta.  Her life was now marked not only by extraordinary accomplishments, but by a virginity dedicated to God.  Contemporary readers may even have seen connections between Catalina’s life story and the hagiographies of transvestite female saints.  Her lifelong association with the Catholic Church endeared her to a religious readership that might otherwise have been offended by her unorthodox lifestyle.  Catalina even earned a dispensation from the Pope that allowed her to continue dressing as a man.

Every time that Catalina de Erauso put on a new suit of clothing, as asserted above, her public persona changed to match it.  Somewhat analogously, Margaret Lucas Cavendish went so far as to invent entirely new clothing for herself alone.  She designed and constructed her own gowns in new shapes and forms according to her fancy, inventing new structures and silhouettes, improvising on the established modes of fashion and creating a wardrobe unlike that of any other woman in the world, or so she hoped.  Cavendish’s determination to excel, to live outside of social expectations, to sculpt her life out of idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, also defines her writing.

Cavendish is also remarkable vis-à-vis predecessors such as Christine de Pizan, Anne Bradstreet, and Sor Juana for another reason.  Unlike them, she published her own works (with her husband’s support).  The humility trope is all but absent from her prefaces and dedications.  When Cavendish does warn her audience of imperfection in her writing, she addresses the question of her craft rather than of her innate shortcomings as a woman author:

Although I expect my Playes will be found fault with, by reason I have not drawn the several persons presented in a Circular line, or to a Trianglar point, making all the Actors to meet at the latter end upon the Stage in a flock together; likewise, that I have not made my Comedies of one dayes actions or passages; yet I have adventured to publish them to the World.  (1662, vii)

Cavendish’s approach is bold and uncompromising.  She adventures to publish her writings.  The prefatory material does not ask forgiveness for her unconventional style, but practically boasts of it.  Her plays will be criticized because they do not follow the prescriptions of dramatic composition, but in her view, that is their greatest virtue.  Given that Cavendish has the unique freedom to publish her own works and has full control over the publication process, she is able to emphasize the idiosyncratic aspects of her work and to create with impunity a full-fledged public image of herself as a prodigy and an iconoclast.  Her high rank made it possible for her to move with relative ease in the public sphere, and her wealth negated the conflictive issue of women writing for profit.  Above all, Cavendish’s cultivation of an eccentric persona placed her outside the bounds of the domestic sphere (therefore rendering her literally ex-centric), and freed her from many of the restrictions placed on other women writers.


Early modern women had much to contend with in carving authorial niches for themselves.  Seeking to publish one’s own work was problematic, as forays into any arena of public life were seen as transgressions of the female-centered domestic world.  Women writers had to negotiate the obstacles of cultural acceptability, religion and propriety, and their success in gaining a readership depended upon their astuteness in finding ways around these impediments.  The so-called Tenth Muses, and those who aspired to be Tenth Muses, in addition to being accomplished and remarkable authors, were successful in developing strategies to make themselves appeal to audiences of both male and female and readers.


Cavendish, Margaret Newcastle. Paper Bodies: a Margaret Cavendish Reader.  Ed. Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson.  Canada: Broadview Press Ltd., 2000.

---.  “Playes Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious And Excellent Princess, The Lady Marchioness of Newcastle” in Plays (prefatory and concluding matter), 1662.  Women Writers Project, Brown University, 2005.

Erauso, Catalina de.  Lieutenant Nun: Memoirs of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.  Trans. Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto.  Boston: Beacon, 1996.

---.  “Petition of Catalina de Erauso to the Spanish Crown, 1625.”  Trans. Stephanie Merrim, Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, 43 (1990): 37-41.

Bradstreet, Anne.  The Works of Anne Bradstreet.  Ed. Jeannine Hensley.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Jones, Ann Rosalind.  “Surprising Fame: Renaissance Gender Ideologies and Women’s Lyric” in Feminism and Renaissance Studies, ed. Lorna Hudson.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor.  A Sor Juana Anthology.  Ed. and trans. Alan S. Trueblood. Boston: Harvard, 1998.

Pizan, Christine de.  The Book of the City of Ladies.  Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards.  New York: Persea Books, 1982.

---.  The Writings of Christine de Pizan.  Ed. Charity Cannon Willard.  New York: Persea Books, 1993.

Zayas y Sotomayor, María de.  The Disenchantments of Love.  Ed. and trans. H. Patsy Boyer.  New York: State University of New York Press, 1997.

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