Christine de Pizan’s ‘Book of the City of Ladies’, modern feminism and women’s aspirations

tweet.pngI tweeted an image of the cover of the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ edition of The Book of the City of Ladies in the first post-Trump-election days, and I was immediately insulted by a man.

I went back to find his tweets, but he has deleted them and – indeed – himself from twitter. I’m also kind of glad that lets me off the hook of showing the conversation in which my husband jumps in to tell him he’s an idiot, which doesn’t paint me in the most virtuous feminist light, but then again it was my professional twitter, and my husband has a personal one that he basically just uses to insult internet Nazis and “MRAs” so he felt a lot more able to speak his mind than I did.

But just as beautiful old Christine (beautiful in mind, I stress) causes consternation to twitter bros in the modern day, what she calls for in the City of Ladies is also peculiarly modern. So modern, in fact, that on my Scholars Programme course I teach it alongside Helene Cixous.

At the start of The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine frames her young self as a naive reader, taking the words of authoritative men at face value and believing the slanderous things that they say about women, but Lady Reason appears to her in a waking vision to correct her misunderstandings.

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A

(A) Here, Christine suggests that the men who slander women wrote in good faith and that she shouldn’t blame them. Lady Reason is having none of this.

She points out that maligning an entire sex is ‘plain ignorance’ and attacks the logic of those who apply their own bad experiences (real or taken from literature) with women to the entire group is foolish.

As Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Lady Reason argues for the value of experience over authority, terms that recall the contemporary emphasis on ‘lived experience’. Sure, it’s a buzzword, but the new emphasis on the ‘lived experience’ of  women as opposed to the stereotypes that are so often peddled by those in more authoritative positions owes much to the age-old debate that Christine engages in here: what can women do when their own experience of themselves is so different from what they read about themselves?

Lady Reason has a ready explanation for misogyny, especially in old clerks. They are ‘impotent old [men]’ who are no longer able to enjoy the ‘affairs with many different women’ they enjoyed in their youth. The idea that the men who hate women the most are those who see them as disposable sexual objects is not, then a new idea.

Christine goes on to question Lady Reason on the words of famous male authors Ovid, Cecco d’Ascoli and Cicero, all of whom are negative about women. Lady Reason, again, insists on the sexless nature of virtue:

It is he or she who is the more virtuous who is the superior being: human superiority or inferiority is not determined by sexual difference but by the degree to which one had perfected one’s nature and morals. 

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(B)

Christine points out what so many of those who want to use biological essentialism to talk about women as the ‘weaker sex’ have done: women are not as physically strong as men. This is true. But Lady Reason has something to say about that as well (B).

Women have other values, and strength is not the only virtue. Lady Reason offers a catalogue of women from the Classical past who are strong, wise, and who invented new realms of knowledge.

The book is framed as an antidote to a male tradition – like last year’s Wonderwoman Film was framed as an antidote to a male-dominated superhero genre. Nowadays we can ‘if you see it, you can be it’ – that is to say that we need to show women in roles as thinkers, athletes, politicians etc. in order to encourage girls to aspire to these things. And Christine is providing her own offerings here – fighting against a tradition that tells girls that they are sinful. Christine says: yes, women are generally physically weaker, but not always, and those who are not have other qualities.

The struggle to establish spaces in which women are allowed to represent themselves, or in which female voices are heard and valued, goes on. It’s heard in the #timesup movement, and it was a huge part of #gamergate – and the latter brought with it doxxing and rape and murder threats.

No one (to my knowledge) threatened Christine de Pizan with such things, though she was around before the days of the internet and it’s strange that now, six hundred and fifty years later, the request that we might have women doing interesting roles in blockbuster movies is a source of anger, violence and protest. Think of the outcry at the female reboot of Ghostbusters.

Of course, women aren’t the only group who don’t get to tell their own stories, but this is what Christine was asking for six hundred and fifty years ago, and we still don’t have it now. I want to read a crime/thriller novel where no women get raped or murdered. I want to watch a tv show where women are allowed to be older and not “tv” pretty. I want female characters who have interests outside of men. These things exist, but they’re few and far between.

Christine’s work is fascinating to me because it stands as proof (not that we ought to need it) that women were aware and critical of their place in the literary hierarchy and that they did not meekly or compliantly accept the position of oppressed. Of course they didn’t – how would women’s liberation ever have happened? We didn’t wake up at the turn of the C20th deciding we needed rights. It’s a long dream, and it’s still going, and I don’t doubt it started before Christine de Pizan.

 Well worth a read is this BL Discovering Literature piece on women writers. 

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