Women and Agency: Transnational Perspectives, c.1450–1790

On the 24th and 25th of June 2021, we hosted the two-day virtual symposium, Women and Agency: Transnational Perspectives, c. 1450 – 1790. The key aim of this symposium was to examine early modern women’s agency from a transnational perspective. Conversations about women’s agency continue to ripple across the world, from new, passionate campaigns in Mexico and Poland that have fought to address femicide and sexual violence, to the Women’s Marches, which have annually inspired global response. With this symposium, we turned with fresh urgency to early modern women’s participation in intellectual, literary, and artistic cultures that bridged regional, national, and transnational divides. We sought to foster discussions about questions such as, what did a woman’s agency at this time look like and how was it expressed in different spaces and mediums? How does situating women in an international network alter our reading of female-authored texts and/or representations of women?

While we regretted that we were unable to hold this symposium in person, we were delighted that the event was made more accessible. We witnessed the attendance of participants from across all continents and a range of fascinating discussions that arose from the eight panels across the two days. During the first four panels, speakers investigated the ways in which women created, crafted, embodied agency, and challenged female representation. Papers ranged from explorations of female agency on the page, to the stage, to the theatre of the royal court; we heard how women practiced this agency through instruments ranging from the pen to the sword. Throughout the second day, using various examples from different disciplines, speakers contemplated how women engaged in various practices, became mobile agents, and participated in diverse networks of agency. Papers explored the multifaceted ways in which women’s agency was experienced and imagined, and how this agency found imaginative, religious, and political expression across the global stage.

A highlight of the symposium was the keynote paper by Professor Merry Wiesner-Hanks , entitled ‘Agency and Activism: Then and Now’, which brought the first day to a thought-provoking close. This paper brilliantly captured recent thinking about agency across disciplines and highlighted key issues around the understanding of agency both in the early modern period and in our current COVID-19 world, which has laid bare the fragility of many gains for women. In light of this, Professor Merry Wiesner-Hanks concluded by urging further study of early modern women’s agency and activism.

On the second day of the symposium, we were delighted to welcome Professor Bernadette Andrea, Professor Suraiya Faroqhi, Professor Rosalind Smith, and Dr Nadia Cattoni for a fascinating roundtable discussion, which perfectly drew together the key themes and questions of the symposium. The speakers offered insightful reflections on the papers presented and, taking up the questions raised by Professor Wiesner-Hanks’ keynote, discussed how we might move forward with conversations about agency by using the concept as a starting point rather than a conclusion.   

We would like to thank for TORCH their generosity in funding the symposium through the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund and for providing invaluable support throughout the organisational process. For more information about this project, follow our Twitter account @womenandagency and visit our website https://womenandagency.wordpress.com/.

women and agency

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game (1555)