Susan D. Amussen and Adele Seeff, eds. Attending to Early Modern Women. Newark: U of Delaware P; London: Associated UP, 1998. 338pp. ISBN 0 87413 650 4.
Suzanne Trill
The University of Edinburgh

Trill, Suzanne. "Review of Susan D. Amussen and Adele Seeff, eds." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 14.1-4 <URL:

  1. This is the second volume to emerge from the conference of the same name held at the University of Maryland. It self-consciously pursues and develops the issues raised in its predecessor by extending its interrogation of the effects of interdisciplinarity upon the field. The book reflects the structure of the conference in both form and content in an attempt to capture the dynamism of the event. Accordingly, it is organised around the plenary topics (Our Subjects, Our Selves; Women's Places; Placing Women; and Teaching a Gendered Renaissance) and each section includes both formal essays and summary reports upon the associated workshops. These summary reports are stimulating, as they provide important suggestions for both textual and critical sources and indicate areas for future debate; however, for practical reasons, this review will concentrate on the formal essays in the collection.

  2. Our Subjects, Our Selves focuses on methodological questions: 'How did women in the past work? How do we work? What are the connections between ourselves and our subjects?' (12). In '"Displacing and Displeasing: Writing about Women in the Early Modern Period", Natalie Zemon Davis re-visits Joan Kelly's question, '"Did women have a Renaissance?" and reformulates it by considering how her research on the Early Modern Amerindian world decentres European categories and assumptions (25-37). A similar concern with shifting perspectives is evident in '"Weaving with Clio and Moriscas of Early Modern Spain" by Mary Elizabeth Perry (58-73). With reference to the theoretical observations of Trinh Minh-ha and bell hooks, Perry addresses 'the methodological question of how historians can possibly avoid colonizing the people they describe' (62). She proposes combining three approaches to accomplish this: "recognizing subtexts, contextualising our subjects' lives, and listening to our dialogues with them" (63). Josephine A. Roberts addresses the issue of voice from a different angle. In '"The Phallacies of Authorship: Reconstructing the Texts of Early Modern Women Writers," Roberts examines the rhetorical device of "prosopopeia" in order to assess the (in)validity of aligning signature with authorial consciousness (38-53). Corine Schleif analyses the difficulties of inserting women into a male-dominated canon and argues for a rethinking of categorisation within and between particular disciplines ("The Roles of Women in Challenging the Canon of 'Great Master' Art History" [74-92]). Sheila Ffolliott's "Putting Women into the Picture: Gender and Art History in the Classroom" provides advice on how to achieve this in practice (278-96).

  3. Women's Places was conceived as a means to explore what "freedoms and powers, if any, women might obtain inside traditionally female spaces," whether actual or imaginary (14). In the event, the papers indicated that women's places "were invariably intruded upon by men" (14). This is certainly the case in "Women's Community and Male Spies: Richard Schön's How Seven Women Complain about Their Worthless Husbands"' by Diane Wolfthal (117-54), but is challenged by Ann Rosalind Jones's "Apostrophes to Cities: Urban Rhetorics in Isabella Whitney and Moderata Fonte" (155-75). In the latter essay, Jones demonstrates how her two subjects adopt existing discourses to widen and expand them to articulate their concerns. Placing Women addresses the fact that early modern women could not always choose their places, and examines how issues of marginality were affected by class, religion and occupation as well as gender. These questions are most impressively interrogated by David Underdown in "Yellow Ruffs and Poisoned Possets: Placing Women in the Early Stuart Political Debate" (230-43). Questioning both "traditional" and revisionist historians' abilities to integrate the concept of gender into their narratives, Underdown focuses upon the gendered dynamics at work in the representation of court scandals during the early seventeenth century. Rather than concerning himself with the historical accuracy of the events, Underdown examines the impact of their representations and argues powerfully for the need to shift "the anxieties about powerful women form the periphery to the central place that they deserve" (241).

  4. Teaching a Gendered Renaissance builds upon the explicit demand for further discussion on this topic. In "Changing Our Originary Stories: Renaissance Women on Education, and Conversation as a Model for Our Classrooms", Jane Donaworth argues that Margaret Cavendish, Madeleine de Scudéry, and Mary Astell provide a historical context for contemporary feminist pedagogy, as their model of teaching was based on conversation, collaboration and fruitful ambiguity (263-77). In the final essay in the collection, Merry Wiesner-Hanks addresses the problems of writing a historical survey within male-generated paradigms ("The Hubris of Writing Surveys, or A Feminist Confronts the Textbook" [297-310]). This final section is particularly useful for, as the editors acknowledge, the subject of teaching is itself often marginalised in academic debates.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).