When Looking Back At The Various
When looking back at the various viewpoints on women and gender itself, some authors that are important to take into account are Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Olympe de Gouges, and Virginia Woolf – all because of their varying sentiments on the matter. If they were all to attend a dinner party and engage in a discussion pertaining women and their overall role in society, one would be able to see the differing attitudes very clearly; throughout history, the differences between a man and a woman have always been a matter for discussion. Particularly, society’s attitude towards women and their rights, roles, and privileges have been widely discussed, all the while changing and evolving throughout history. Women have been seen as creatures who were easily influenced by sinful and lustful urges, evolving to seen as being deserving of equality due to being inherently equal to man. Heinrich Kramer and Joseph Sprenger, who had their work Malleus Maleficarum published in 1487 in Germany, would feel very negatively about the subject matter at hand due to their incredibly misogynistic approach. Olympe de Gouges, publishing her work Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen in 1791, argued vehemently for women and their capabilities to make moral decisions, reason appropriately, and of their basic right to free speech – so, de Gouges would also feel very strongly about this matter, but in a completely different way than Heinrich Kramer would. Finally, Virginia Woolf, writing A Room of One’s Own in 1929, discusses the viewpoint of women’s intelligence and women’s scholarship, and how the beliefs and constraints established by men have contributed to the damaging image of women and their potential. Engaging in a discussion on women’s rights, roles, and privileges would be incredibly interesting, and passionate, if all of the previous authors attended the same dinner party.
Heinrich Kramer and Joseph Sprenger collaborated together to produce Malleus Maleficarum, written during a time where women’s role in society was already a hot topic of discussion. During this time in history, women were seen as being second class citizens to men, with many questioning if they should have rights at all due to their perceived level of inferiority. Their work ultimately focuses on witchcraft and the horrors associated with the practice of such, but placing emphasis on the idea that women are far more likely to fall into the grasps of witchcraft. Kramer and Sprenger believed that this was due to the underlying belief that women had insatiable lust that caused them to act in sinful ways, prompting them to go against their faith, thus becoming prey for the Devil to turn them into witches.
While Kramer and Sprenger do not exclusively say that all witches are women, they do emphasize the fact that women have “inherently evil nature,” and are inferior to males, making them more susceptible to the Devil’s influence (95). Based upon these ideals, de Gouges would argue that women are, in fact, not at all inferior to males, because, “woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights,” (1). She would question the validity of their claims by further arguing that women and men have more in common than they may believe, and that women are not only equal, but deserve “…the right to mount the scaffold,” meaning the right to protest and speak in a public forum, an idea that Kramer and Sprenger would be wholly against. Kramer and Sprenger frequently mentioned a woman’s sexuality as being the root cause behind many of the unexplained problems associated with mankind, such as impotence, infertility, and miscarriages or the deaths of children. They argue that, “…they can cast an obstructive spell on the procreant forces, and even on the venereal act, so that a woman cannot conceive, or a man cannot perform the act,” and have control to “bewitch them so that a man cannot perform the genital act with a woman…or by various means to procure an abortion…to cause some disease in any of the human organs… to take away life” (115). Essentially, the reasons behind these unexplained tragedies can be solely attributed to the fault of the woman, according to Kramer and Sprenger.
If Virginia Woolf were to respond to ideals such as these, she would emphasize the fact that women are treated unequally in society merely as a product of patriarchal belief, having nothing to do with witchcraft. Woolf strongly believes that many of the reasons why women are seen as being inferior – such as in writing, thinking, and reasoning – were due to their situations that they were forced to be in based upon society, which was controlled by men and their thinking. “I am asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting-rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one…” she remarks, associating gender roles established by men as being reasons behind the woman’s inability to write poetry, or any work for that matter (34).
Woolf uses Shakespeare and an imagined sister of Shakespeare as a metaphor to illustrate how the difference of being a woman and a man can affect whether or not they are going to be writers or scholars in the future, arguing that while Shakespeare would be sent off to school, his sister would, “remain at home…she was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let along reading…” simply because she was born a woman, and that is not what women were expected to do throughout the majority of history. “How could it have been born among women whose work began almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom?” she would argue, and that “genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes…but certainly it never got itself on to paper” (36).
Kramer and Sprenger would not agree with Virginia Woolf’s viewpoints and opinions, believing that women who are not pious, pure, and subservient to men were sinful, at risk for temptation and carnal desires, and an overall danger to humankind. Woolf would argue that, “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at,” (36). The futile attempts that women have made over the course of history in order to pursue academia or other forms of scholarship would be quickly demoralized by men in power, causing, “a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty” (36).
One of Woolf’s primary arguments surrounds the placement of the woman in the private sphere as the homemaker, caretaker of the children and of the husband, and procreator. She argues that this situation that women are in is due to men’s thinking, but that it directly prevents her from being able to read, learn, and portray her thoughts and feelings onto paper. Since she is expected to remain in the home for the majority of her life, taking care of the family and tending to whatever the home may need, she is unable to make time or have a place for her to sit down and think critically about issues that are of importance to her. Essentially, women were not provided with leisure time in which she could spend doing these tasks, and as a result, their history and thoughts failed to be documented to their greatest potential. Olympe de Gouges would completely agree with Woolf’s viewpoint on the matter, as she fervently believes that women have the right to be in the public sphere, stating that, “the contributions of woman and man are equal…she must have the same share in the distribution of positions, employment, offices, honors, and jobs” (2). Allowing women to believe that they are able to succeed outside of the home is tantamount to de Gouges and Woolf, as the potential of woman is equal to the potential of man. Man is, essentially, only depicted as superior as a result of societal constructs created by man, which are intentionally created to exclude women due to their alleged inferiority.
While all of the authors – Friedrich Kramer, Joseph Sprenger, Olympe de Gouges, and Virginia Woolf – were all from very different points in history, their varying and similar beliefs concerning women’s roles, rights, privileges, and the general influence that a woman has on society and mankind have mimicked the timeline of history. Kramer and Sprenger have stated that they believe in the subservient nature of the woman, where she is to be pious, pure, and to ensure her own spiritual health and safety in order to protect herself, her children, and mankind. Their second-class nature is to be taken into account as a precautionary measure that men must take in order to prevent her dangerous influence from impacting his fertility, virility, and good fortune. Olympe de Gouges fervently disagrees with the belief that women are inferior to men in any way, and that any type of prevention by men is unjust, wrong, and not deserved. Virginia Woolf ardently believes that many of the problems that women face in society can be attributed to men’s influence on culture, regarding politics, education, etc., and that women are able to reach the same level of potential that men are; ideas which Kramer and Sprenger would utterly disagree with. These four authors illustrate the evolution of how women were depicted and treated in the public and private arenas, and exemplify how strong of an impact books, poems, and other scholarly works can have on society’s thinking. This trend continues throughout history, with a growing number of individuals arguing about concepts that are of importance to them, inciting change and inspiring individuals to question previously held beliefs that have possibly been passed down throughout generations, regardless of whether it concerns the idea of race, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, or gender.