Women on the Margins

by Natalie Zemon Davis

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

Women on the Margins by Natalie Zemon Davis is the story of three different women with different faiths and how they navigate their passions in restrictive societies. 

Davis opens the book with a dialogue between the women she writes about and herself. They argue about the content of the book and their relations to each other. It's clear that religion is one of the defining factors of each woman and that the women's individual faiths played a large role in determining how their choices were shaped. 

The first section of the book, "Arguing With God," tells the story of Glikl Bas Judah Leib –– a Jewish woman. Leib was known for writing an autobiography about her life, which was something a Jewish woman in her position had never done before. She was first married at 13 and eventually widowed, at which point she managed her husband's business and continued to take care of her family. At the same time, she expanded, importing items from other countries, selling pearls, and producing stockings to sell. Since Leib lived in Germany, she was marginalized on the basis of her religion because Christianity was the most prominent religion in Europe. 

The next section of the book, "New Worlds," is about Marie De L'Incarnation –– a Catholic woman. Despite her desire to pursue a religious life, she was married and lived happily with her husband for two years. She was widowed at nineteen when she was still Marie Guyart. She and her child were left in poverty and had to move in with family to survive. Eventually, she became an Ursuline nun and was renamed Marie L'Incarnation. Through her order, she worked with Indian populations to help teach them. In the end, she founded the first Amerindian Christian school and became Mother Superior to her order.

The final section of the book, "Metamorphoses," is the story of Maria Sibylla Merian –– a Protestant woman. Merian was a painter from Germany who became a naturalist. Merian grew up in a family of artists and was encouraged to learn their skills from a young age. When she and her husband moved to Nuremberg, she became a mother. They eventually had two children. Merian studied insects, a lifelong interest, and published illustrated books about them. Unlike the men of her time with similar interests, she had to self-fund her entire education and balance it with the demands of her family. Eventually, Merian took her daughters, left her husband, and moved to live in a Protestant religious community. Though she only stayed five years, her faith continued to inform her work and she kept observing and writing about nature –– particularly metamorphoses –– until her death. 

Though each woman in the book is very different, with unique religions, interests, and families, they each had to make choices about their passions and priorities. Each experienced some kind of marginalization in society, whether it was from their religion, their gender, or their status. Each woman also left behind a body of work that has endured long after she was gone. 

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