Centuries after the end of the Renaissance, people still face obstacles when pursuing education, a Western Illinois University history professor said Thursday.
Jennifer McNabb gave the 10th annual John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture series on Thursday night in the University Union Grand Ballroom. More than 150 people — mainly students and faculty — were in attendance.
During her lecture, McNabb highl ight e d on the struggles that women faced during the Renaissance, an era known for its endeavors in education and the arts. While men were encouraged to pursue academics, women were often urged to focus more on marriage, as it was considered improper
for them to educate themselves as men did.
According to McNabb, women who pursued an education were often ridiculed or publicly humiliated by their male peers.
“This image and the woman whose life it features would have been regarded as shockingly transgressive to many of the people of her day,” McNabb said, referring to a woodcut of a woman at study.
“She pursued her studies, she corresponded with learned men and she sought to contribute her assessments to the pressing academic debates of the day.”
Fur t he rmo r e , women who studied were considered to not be truly feminine. McNabb described a letter from a scholar that was written to the
woman featured in the woodcut, explaining that he thought of her as having the mind and spirit of a man.
“Even those who admired herhad difficulty deciding exactly what to make of her,” McNabb said. “[Scholars] equated her learning of a purity and nobility of spirit lacking in most women.
“In so doing, they reaffirmed, by pursuing an alternate route, the same underlying assessment as her most hostile attackers — namely, in adopting a life devoted to study, she proselytized notions of ordinary femininity,”
She explained that other women of the period were confused by the female scholar’s pursuits as well, and often attacked her as much as male scholars did.
“Her extraordinary path confused gender expectations, of which women were both subjects and guardians,” McNabb said.
According to McNabb, marriage and education were also thought to be separate paths, and that women who decided to study seldom married.
Furthermore, she reminded her audience that education during the Renaissance was neither free nor compulsory, but rather something reserved for the societal elite.
McNabb also noted the fact that many studentstoday still face difficulties when trying to pursue a higher education, particularly if they are first generation college students.
“According to Dr. Gary Biller, our vice president of student services, somewhere between 55 and 75 percent of our first year students are first-generation college students, as I was 22 years ago,” McNabb said. “No doubt many of them surmounted major obstacles to set foot on this campus.
“Students, I urge you to pursue your educational goals,” McNabb said. “I encourage the rest of us, too, to push ourselves beyond the easy and the comfortable in our quest for knowledge and continual self-discovery."