In Paternal Tyranny, “Book Two,” Tarabotti argues against the belief that women are to blame for adultery. She describes this view writing,
"With artful casuistry, you spread it around that adultery is more justly condemned and punished in the wife than the husband on three counts: the damage done to the husband’s honor; the possibility of inheritance by illegitimate sons; and the threat to the safety of the husband’s life (since the adulterer supposedly kills her husband to protect his own life and allow himself greater freedom to sin). But these are not reasons; they are the ravings of evil, unbridled thoughts to allow yourself greater freedom to commit crimes without fear of reproof." (110)
Tarabotti carefully responds to each claim outlined above. She begins by arguing against men who claim that women endanger the honor of their husbands when they commit adultery. Tarabotti uses the sexist reasoning of men which says that only they can bestow honor onto another to show that women, in turn, cannot hurt the honor of their husbands through adultery.
She writes, “First you claim that a woman of base lineage who marries into a noble family cannot lower her husband’s status, just as a noble lady cannot raise the status of a commoner whom she marries” (111). Tarabotti argues that if a woman does not hold the power to raise or diminish the status of her husband in marriage, then, even if she commits adultery, she still cannot affect her husband’s honor. She concludes, “a woman’s dishonorable conduct… cannot bring dishonor to a house, but rather it is the man’s defects, the same man who boasts of dispensing honors to others” (111). Here, Tarabotti appeals to men’s “own weapons,” or reasoning, to defend women against unjust charges in adultery (111).
Tarabotti then responds to the second claim: that women are to blame for illegitimate children and the loss of rightful inheritance. Tarabotti stresses that men are also to blame for their participation in adulterous acts. Addressing men, she writes, “for without your participation and your intrigues, illegitimate children would not be born, whose inheritances you usurp” (112). Tarabotti reframes the problem of illegitimate children as a result of men seducing women to usurp the legacy of rightful heirs. She quickly responds to the third claim, that adulterous women endanger the lives of their husbands, by referencing the story of King David and Bathsheba. In the biblical story, King David impregnates Bathsheba who is married to Uriah. Tarabotti asks her reader to “remember that it was… King David who, unknown to Bathsheba, had her husband Uriah killed” (112). She argues that King David was the direct cause of Uriah’s death, not Bathsheba who was unaware of King David’s actions. Again, Tarabotti calls her audience to recognize that women do not act alone in adultery.
Finally, Tarabotti claims that the “double sexual standard” held against women in adulterous affairs opposes teachings of the Catholic church (113). She argues that “throughout the Scriptures, male and female are on equal footing when it comes to marital legislation” (113). Tarabotti references Saint Paul as an advocate of women and her views. She writes, “listen to Saint Paul agreeing with me on the reciprocal obligations between husband and wife: ‘If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she consent to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And if a [believing wife] hath a husband that believeth not, and he consent to dwell with her, let her not put away her husband’ (1 Cor 7:12-13)” (113). Tarabotti argues that by using the adjective “believing” to describe the wife and not the husband, Saint Paul “appreciates women’s naturally Catholic soul and sides with it” (113). Tarabotti uses Saint Paul to argue that, as seen in Catholicism, men and women should be held to the same standards in marriage. Tarabotti underlines the shared participation between men and women in adulterous acts and argues that blaming only women opposes Catholic teaching and contradicts other misogynist views held by men. Within this argument, Tarabotti showcases her ability to reconstruct opposing arguments and tactfully respond to each claim while utilizing important texts and impressive reasoning.
Source info: Paternal Tyranny. Edited and translated by Letizia Panizza. The University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Image info: The Woman Taken in Adultery. Guercino. Italy, 1621.
Olivia Branscum is a PhD student in Philosophy at Columbia University. She is co-producer of the ENN New Voices podcast