Tuesday, September 12, 2017

María de Zayas - pioneering feminist writer

María de Zayas y Sotomayor (1590 – 1661) was a pioneering feminist writer during Spain's Golden Age of literature. She was the first Spanish woman to earn an international reputation as a writer, which lasted nearly 200 years, and used her stories to address feminist issues in Spanish society in the 17th century.

She was born in Madrid in 1590, probably a few days before her baptism which was recorded on September 12. It was the height of the Spanish Inquisition, a period of approximately 350 years of enforced Catholic orthodoxy where those deemed to be heretics were tortured and murdered, and others who fell afoul of the proscribed behavior risked fines or imprisonment. Women were expected to be subservient to their fathers and husbands, and aside from being a nun or a prostitute, their roles were limited to that of wives and mothers. Not surprisingly, this oppressive culture gave their fathers and husbands an inordinate amount of power over them.

As the daughter of an infantry captain, de Zayas was privileged in that she had enough wealth to afford to live somewhat on her own terms, and that provided her access to education and the freedom to write. She used her writing as a means to address the patriarchal system and how it bound women in often dangerous positions. In 1637, de Zayas published her first collection of novellas which told the stories of violence women experienced and illuminating their vulnerability in a society where this kind of brutality is acceptable. It was an instant hit and quickly spread across Spain and throughout Europe. Her second collection was published in 1647 and continued her mission to illustrate the challenges facing strong women.

It has been argued that de Zayas' female characters exist in within an interesting paradox. While they are all strong women, they are powerless to change the system. She was not telling the stories of the average woman, but instead of women with financial and intellectual means who were still unable to break down the societal forces against them and who then turned to using whatever small power they had to change their own circumstances. Certainly she must have realized it would be impossible for any one individual to change the entire social structure, especially with the power of the state and the church supporting it, but within the system each woman could fight for a measure of independence, and each man could address his own tendencies toward violence.

Her two collections remained immensely popular for nearly 200 years, and only fell into obscurity in the late-19th century when women's roles in society began to shift again. More emphasis was on the purity of womanhood, and critics' attitudes toward her work turned sour. Although you or I might think a review calling her work "the filthiest and most immodest that I have ever read" intriguing, readers of the 19th century did not.

It wasn't until the 1970s that her work again began to attract attention as the second wave feminist movement encouraged more interest in women authors of the Golden Age of Spanish literature. Since then there have been several excellent analyses of her work, as well as important study of its changing reception over the past 370 years. I have not read more than a few pages of a recent English translation, but I am certainly intrigued. In many ways her story reminds me of the experiences of Emilia Bessano Lanier, another female writer of that era. I only recently finished a new fictionalized biography of her life, and am beginning my own research into her work, which also addresses the experiences of women. (A review of that book is coming soon!) It would be interesting to compare the lives and works of each woman, and find the ways they may have influenced other women who came after them.

You can read her first collection Novelas Amorosas y Ejemplares online.

[Image: Mary Magdalene by Spanish painter José de Ribera, 1641]

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