Historians who study European women of the
Renaissance try to measure "independence,"
"options," and other indicators of the degree to which
the expression of women's individuality was either
permitted or suppressed. Influenced by Western
individualism, these historians define a peculiar form
of personhood: an innately bounded unit, autonomous
and standing apart from both nature and society. An
anthropologist, however, would contend that a person
can be conceived in ways other than as an "individual."
In many societies a person's identity is not intrinsically
unique and self-contained but instead is defined within
a complex web of social relationships.
In her study of the fifteenth-century Florentine
widow Alessandra Strozzi, a historian who specializes
in European women of the Renaissance attributes
individual intention and authorship of actions to her
subject. This historian assumes that Alessandra had
goals and interests different from those of her sons,
yet much of the historian's own research reveals
that Alessandra acted primarily as a champion of
her sons' interests, taking their goals as her own.
Thus Alessandra conforms more closely to the
anthropologist's notion that personal motivation is
embedded in a social context. Indeed, one could argue
that Alessandra did not distinguish her personhood
from that of her sons. In Renaissance Europe the
boundaries of the conceptual self were not always firm
and closed and did not necessarily coincide with the
boundaries of the bodily self.