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An Interview with Dr. Iona Italia on 1694-1770, Sex and Gender Dynamics in History, and Universal Sympathy (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/07/15


Dr. Iona Italia is an Author and Translator, and a Sub-Editor for Areo Magazine, and Host of Two for Tea. She discusses: Margaret Atwood, a feminist frame for research, feminisms, and 1694 to 1770; equality playing out in the daily lives of ordinary women; social equality and legal equality; impacts on the further equality of women; the reaction of men when they came back from the war, and the counter-reaction of women; precedents of women entering into new arenas as a trend; sex and gender divide by disciplines; and sympathy.

Keywords: Areo Magazine, Iona Italia, Margaret Atwood, Parsi, Two for Tea, Zoroastrianism.

An Interview with Dr. Iona Italia on 1694-1770, Sex and Gender Dynamics in History, and Universal Sympathy: Host, Two for Tea & Sub-Editor, Areo Magazine (Part Two)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When you were talking earlier about a feminist frame for the research, what was the understanding of a women’s movement, of feminism, at that time?

Because we live in a time when there are, more properly framed, “feminisms.” I know Margaret Atwood commonly states it is probably at least 50 things, depending on who you’re talking to. At the time, from 1694 to 1770, what did they mean?

Dr. Iona Italia: When I was doing my Ph.D., I was interested in women’s position in society and how the way that they talked about themselves and they represented themselves as women reflected those kinds of stereotypes. The way that they played with those stereotypes, e.g., the old maid being one of the obvious ones.

Jacobsen: Right.

Italia: Yes. It wasn’t necessarily that those stereotypes created a victimhood stance. I was interested in that, in women, their position in society, women as writers, et cetera. I wasn’t exclusively interested in that, but that was what I began being interested in for my Ph.D.

Then I noticed that there were five women – well, four and the maybe. They are all anonymous. The one whose identity we haven’t yet discovered was probably a woman. There are various theories, though. I thought five is the perfect number for a Ph.D. It is one per chapter, and then the introduction and conclusion. That is why I decided to focus on the women essayists, rather than looking at women poets or novelists.

They did not think of themselves as feminist. That term wasn’t used. Feminism as we know it, I would say, did not begin until 1788, with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. What we have in earlier works, pre-Wollstonecraft, with people like Mary Astell, I would say they are classic battle-of-the-sexes style things. It is all about which sex is better, men or women.

There were some people in the early 18th century. A lot of people published. For example, there is one called From Abbasia to Zenobia. It is a biographical mini-encyclopedia or dictionary of famous women. It is a book celebrating famous women throughout history.

There are also some works that are addressed to usually upper-class women, which are educational works, which are encouraging women to study botany or astronomy or mathematics, often framing that as a man teaching his daughter or a brother teaching his sister and it is “The Lady’s Guide to” whatever. There are also those kinds of works.

There are some works, like Mary Astell’s, which advocate a pseudo-nunnery style situation, a pseudo-university for women. (What Mary Astell is advocating is a college.) Then there are also a lot of polemical works that have titles like “The Proof that Woman is Superior to Man,” and things like that. This is the battle of the sexes. None of those things are what I would describe as feminism. Although, you could say that these are women-centric writings and concerns.

But feminism begins where it is not a battle, but it is about equal rights. That begins with Mary Wollstonecraft. The systematic definition of that begins with Mary Wollstonecraft.

2. Jacobsen: How was women’s position in society transitioning towards more equality in the 1694 – 1770 period? How was this played out, not necessarily in thematic things like a battle-of-the-sexes form? How was this playing out in the daily lives of ordinary women?

Italia: I would say that I do not think there were a huge number of legal changes happening, but, of course, the Enlightenment was happening. That had a couple of knock-on effects for women, I think. One was that education became much more highly valued, so the proportion of women who were illiterate went down considerably over this period.

Then also, because of this emphasis on rationality, there was more emphasis on education. I was talking earlier about, mostly for upper-class women, this spread of books teaching women different subjects. That became democratized in the 1760s with the magazines.

The original magazines were huge tomes, monthly tomes. They had lots of this educational material inside them. You would pick up a magazine, open it up. There would be an article on the flora and fauna of Sri Lanka with fold-out illustrations and things like that.

Magazines were affordable. They were often available in public spaces, like cafes and coffee houses and in people’s houses, where domestic servants would have access to reading them. You did not have to buy a copy to be able to see it. I think that also helped women’s education and self-awareness.

The decline in superstition. 1733 was the last time that a witch was burned in Great Britain, in Tring, in Hertfordshire. Clearly, that also improved women’s lots.

In general, during the Enlightenment, there was a strong emphasis on questioning authority, on not accepting authority, of any kind, blindly. That began with not accepting the divine right of kings. That began with The Glorious Revolution.

Then, of course, the questioning of religion and Christianity, which the church was able to fight back against in Europe. But in the UK much less so, the church was so much weakened by what had happened during The Glorious Revolution. Of course, it was a logical next step from there to questioning the authority of husbands over wives.

3. Jacobsen: What came first, social equality or legal equality?

Italia: I think it depends on the specific law. Sometimes, laws are changed to reflect what is already common behaviour. Other times, laws are changed first and then behaviours gradually change.

4. Jacobsen: After 1770, what were some major developments in other parts of the world that were directly or even derivatively impacted by this development of further equality for women?

Italia: That is a good question. If you’re talking globally, then I do not know. If you’re talking about the West, then, eventually, women began to enter the professions. That happened around the 1870s, 1880s, starting with medicine. There were a couple of famous women in the 18th century who dressed and lived as men and entered the medical profession, as everybody knows. Women began officially entering the professions starting with medicine in the 1870s, ’80s.

Then you had the suffrage movement. Women got the vote. I think largely as a result of the First World War; women began entering the workforce in greater numbers. Those are some of the larger developments that happened.

5. Jacobsen: After the world wars, when the men came back, what was the reaction of the men? What was the counter-reaction of the women, in general?

Italia: There was a strong backlash against feminism after the Second World War, after the First World War I think even more so. There was a strong backlash among many men who had been to war who felt that women were complaining about nothing. They had it too easy because they hadn’t had to go to war.

In the meantime, of course, during the war, women had had to take over many jobs that had previously been male jobs. For example, here in Buenos Aires, there is a bridge called Puente de la Mujer, the “Woman’s Bridge,” which was entirely designed by women engineers and built by women construction workers because the men were at war. That was a genie that it was not possible to put back into the bottle.

6. Jacobsen: Does this reflect a common trend for centuries, women seen as not being able to do something, some cultural or historical event requires women to simply do something when the men are not there, or the women making their way in some way and then that basically being continual waves of genies’ bottles being opened up and then the genies not being able to put back into the bottles? I guess the current example is Will Smith now, in the new Aladdin.

Italia: [Laughing] I think so. There is also the question of average preferences. This is the other side to the coin, which is if women are not within a profession, to what extent is that social? To what extent do women prefer certain professions over others?

Also, I do not think there is anything particularly and intrinsically good about every profession having a 50/50 male/female balance. That is only good if otherwise, it is stopping people who would be happier doing that profession from being in that profession. Otherwise, there is no intrinsic reason why every profession must have 50/50.

There may be a reinforcing factor, which, maybe, also, that women prefer to be in professions where there are some other women around. That may also put the brakes on opening of new areas. Then, obviously, there are things that require more upper-body strength, or which call for more risk. Women are less keen to take physical risk than men.

I do not know. I think that it is hard to tell always how much of a thing is socialized and how much is nature. That is an impossible question to answer unless we do “the forbidden experiment.” I do not know if you have heard about this. You would kidnap a bunch of babies and throw them together on a deserted island and leave them with enough food and resources that they wouldn’t die and wait to see what society they would build.

A few people have attempted to do crazy things like this, like Rousseau, on a small scale. Since you cannot do that experiment—it is not ethical—we do not know how that experiment would turn out, so we’re always working with what we have and developing from where we are. I think that there is a tendency in some strings of feminism—I’ve noticed it a lot in the men’s rights movement, as well—to completely disregard biology.

For example, the wage gap may not at all be at all due to discrimination, but it may be due to women’s voluntary choices of certain professions and those professions being less well paid. “Why they are less well paid?” is another question, but it may not be a sexual discrimination factor.

And then men’s rights activists always complaining about men are committing suicide more often, living less time, I think it is a nine-year average shorter lifespan and performing less well in academics during puberty and early adulthood. All of those could be due to biology, for obvious reasons. Testosterone is not conducive to concentrating or focusing. One would expect men to have more trouble focusing during the period when your testosterone is highest, which is school, early university.

Also, men dying sooner than women is what we would expect from biology. There is a cuts-both-ways thing, here, going on. When we see disadvantages, we do not know if disadvantages are the result of discrimination, or the result of biological factors which we could mitigate, as we did, for example, with birth control, or biological factors that we cannot easily mitigate. Hard to say, but it is a complicated issue.

7. Jacobsen: It is a complicated issue. It requires extensive conversation. It also requires a courage, in the current moment somewhat limited, to look at the facts, admit them, of which there are fair points on all sides, not two, and then having a distanced, relatively objective analysis of things insofar as one can attain it.

However, if we look at English literature, or English, psychology, and medicine, we can see a stark split by sex and gender, in general, compared to physics, cosmology, mathematics, engineering. We see these. We note them. In some reportage, there does seem to be an indication of quiet – within admissions offices – selection for more men in certain areas, simply to balance things out in terms of the ledger of gender or sex in the universities.

Italia: There seem to be some preference things at stake, as I understand it, at school, if they are taking sciences. In some educational systems, you can stop taking it at a certain age, like 16. Girls’ and boys’ performances are equal, or girls generally outperform boys in all subjects except maths.

They outperform them in sciences at school, but they do not choose to take science at university in the same numbers. Certain sciences, they do. Biology, I think, is now equal. Medicine has more women than men, but physics, engineering, et cetera. That suggests that something is going on, some factor is going on there that is not aptitude related. It could be socialization. It could be choice. We do not know.

I do slightly have some sympathy with positive discrimination in favour of men in arts and humanities. Because, I feel, in science, it is not important what the sex is of the person doing the work; although, I would love to see more women in science. I do not think science suffers from having fewer women in it.

I do not think there is a feminine approach that would benefit science. However, in arts and humanities, I think that your subjective approach can be much more coloured by your personal experience, so I think it is actually more important to have more gender balance in those subjects. That is my personal feeling. But I do not think it should be forced, either. I do not generally like positive discrimination much because it is unfair, but I have a little more sympathy with it in that case.

8. Jacobsen: In my own perspective, everyone has my sympathy because, in a way, we’re at a historically unprecedented moment. I think everyone is trying to figure it out at the same time, and not on this question or this set of questions alone, and so everyone has my sympathy.

Italia: [Laughing].

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Host, Two for Tea; Sub-Editor, Areo Magazine.

[2] Individual Publication Date: July 15, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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