The Renaissance is a historical period that ushered in the “rebirth” of values in science, art, politics, and commerce in 14th–16th-century Europe. Coming from feudalism in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance saw a shift in political systems as a result of this humanistic change. The focus on individuality was a key component that led many scholars to believe the Renaissance to be the beginnings of modern Western society.
However, even with these advancements in thinking, Renaissance society remained highly patriarchal. The surge of individuality was exclusively enjoyed by men, as women continued to be deemed unworthy or incapable of expressing their own individuality and ability. Women’s subjugation was enforced by law. A woman did not marry out of her own choice, as she was subject to the decision of her father, who based this on the potential fortunes acquired from such bonds.
Women were also denied a higher education. The ideal woman was one who was silent, pleasant, and hardly seen in public. The way she dressed determined her social class.
Aristocratic women had only two vocations to choose from: marriage or the nunnery. A dowry was required either way in order to economically compensate for a woman’s inability to earn. Because of this, girls were often seen as liabilities to families, particularly to those who were not as well-off. They would decide to marry off only the most eligible daughter, and leave the rest to end up in nunneries where the dowry cost significantly less.
Women were also married off considerably young compared to men. Girls would be prepped to wed in their teens, while the men commonly married in their thirties. This made the existence of young widows common in society, and they would be encouraged yet again by their families to marry in order to maintain economic bonds or generate new ones.
A married woman had a rigid role cut out for her. She was to take care of domestic matters, assist her husband in his business, and remain publicly unnoticed. She was not to draw too much attention to herself by being too expressive, however she was required to decorate herself finely. She must, after all, bring honor to her (extended) family at all times.
An upper-class woman was socially expected to appear at church as well as functions related to her husband’s business or family. She was to be relieved of any work, including breastfeeding her own young, which was assigned to a lower-class woman—called a wet nurse—to do.
As for the non-elite, they enjoyed more social freedom despite their economical disadvantage, as they experienced more freedom to work and thus be seen in the streets. Female artisans were not as socially restricted to forming bonds only with their husbands and families as the elite women were. They mingled and formed friendships with others. Prostitution existed as a means for economically-disadvantaged women to survive a society that was explicitly male-dominated.
Amidst all the spirited changes that dealt with the artistic, political, and technological revival that shook up the scene, it seems the Renaissance period was not exactly a renaissance for the women during this time. Presently however, historians are paying more attention to the then-overlooked role of women. Joan Kelly Gadol wrote an article in 1972 called “Did Women Have a Renaissance?,” which served to ignite historians's fervor in uncovering the remarkable contribution women made during this era:
Forgotten lists of accomplished women began to surface, and (they) paid more attention to the role of women as patrons, purchasers and creators of art. Current scholarship reflects a wide interest in women's history, from studies of convents and nuns, to reflections on the lives of prostitutes and noblewomen, to examination of the work of female artists.