In the 15th Century, Christine de Pizan Wrote a Book for Feminism.
Medieval Europe was not kind to women. Without a male benefactor – father, husband, or another family member – most women were doomed to poverty and a life of begging.
Christine de Pizan learned this all too well when her husband, a royal secretary to the court of Charles VI of France, died in 1390. She was left to support herself and her three children. However, she did something revolutionary at the time: she became a published author and supported her family as a writer. De Pizan produced over 40 works that spanned multiple topics and included poems, books, and letters.
The Book of the City of Ladies
In 1405, de Pizan published her most well-known work, The Book of the City of Ladies. In this book, she criticizes the misogyny of male authors and culls from Boccaccio’s On Famous Women to provide examples of historical and contemporary women who demonstrated capabilities on par with, or superior to, men.
The story begins with the protagonist, named Christine, lamenting how horribly male authors debase and demonize women. In her distress, she is visited by three allegorical women: Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice. They explain to Christine that for too long, women have been left defenseless against the attacks by male writers.
Christine is then commissioned to build a beautiful city for virtuous women in order to protect them from indictments of the past and future.
Through the conversations between Christine and the Three Ladies, de Pizan uses three tactics to argue against the anti-woman writers:
- She discredits the authors personally
- She proclaims that men and women are equal in the eyes of God
- She furnishes examples of righteous women
Reason Discredits Misogynist Authors
Lady Reason points out that an author will condemn women because of his own vices, be they jealousy, physical deformities, impotence, or because of their slanderous ways towards both men and women. She illustrates this with the story of Ovid. He was castrated for his philandering and thenceforth wrote in an effort to make women unattractive. He wanted other men to be unable to enjoy the company of a woman because he could not anymore. Reason also supplies a number of other examples.
By analyzing the motivations of the misogynist authors, Reason creates a solid foundation for the City of Ladies and the basis of de Pizan’s feminism.
Equality between the Sexes is not the Physical, but of the Soul
Reason argues that it is not the physicality of the male or female form that makes the sexes equal, but rather, their mind and soul. She states that the soul has no gender. Reason tells Christine, “God created the soul and placed wholly similar souls, equally good and noble in the feminine and in the masculine bodies.”
In addition, Reason explains that while Eve was formed from the rib of Adam, she was not to be subservient to him. The woman was formed by bone from a man’s side in order to stand by his side, not at his feet as a slave, but as an equal.
Education was another area in which de Pizan fought against the misogynists. In her story, Rectitude says it is just wrong to be against a woman’s education. Rectitude uses the story of Novella Andrea. A woman, who with her advanced studies in law, occasionally taught her father’s law classes for him.
In The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pizan claims both men and women are equal in God’s eyes. In fact, the soul is genderless.
Examples of Great Women in History
Interspersed throughout The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pizan has the Three Ladies provide many examples of women from history that debunk the premises put forth by the chauvinists. Most of the book is filled with clauses about women that de Pizan selected from Boccaccio’s On Famous Women. From Argia, the daughter of King Adrastus, who captured the city of Thebes in retribution for her husband’s death, to Zenobia whose courage in battle helped put Mesopotamia under her husband’s rule. After his death, she then governed wisely.
The gold roofs Lady Justice provides represent amends to women in history. She fills-in the holes that male authors have left in their accounts, and she proffers many examples of great women.
Christine Addresses the Women of the City of Ladies
At the end of The Book of the City of Ladies, the city is completed and populated. Christine addresses the women and informs them that, regardless of social class, they need to be well-informed and always defending their honor. Christine instructs the women to remain virtuous, so as to make liars out of the misogynist authors.
During Christine de Pizan’s time, women were second class citizens and were abused in literary works. Through her writings, and especially with The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pizan built a foundation on reason, erected walls of rectitude, and provided a shelter of justice with her commentary against the degradation of women. She is the western world’s first feminist.
De Pizan, Christine. The Book of the City of Ladies. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards, New York: Persea Books, 1982.
De Pizan, Christine. The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan. Edited by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee, Translated by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinki. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Brown-Grant, Rosalind. Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women: Reading Beyond Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2007.