I was recently asked by a student in my Introduction to Poetry seminar, Was Shakespeare a feminist?
The question floored me, because I didn’t even know how to begin to answer it, not because it was an unreasonable question for an eighteen year old to ask. All it spurred in me were other questions. Is it possible to decide if someone is ‘feminist’ or not when they were born in a time long before ‘feminism’ had a name or a social movement? Does it matter whether or not a writer is ‘feminist’ if we see evidence in their work that they considered women full people with the same emotional and intellectual complexity and validity as men? Should we care whether or not literature is “feminist” or “empowering”? Surely if we disregarded every sexist piece of literature, we’re left with precious little to study? Shakespeare himself is particularly slippery in this regard: alongside complex dramatic women like Rosalind, Viola and Cleopatra (though I have fought with people over whether the latter is simply a sexist stereotype), we have the abject misogyny of the sonnets. I couldn’t answer the question, and I didn’t.
And yet, when I teach on my Reading and Writing Medieval Literature course, which I am doing this afternoon, I teach Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies alongside Hélene Cixous’s 1976 ‘The Laugh of the Medusa.’ Without suggesting that Christine is a time-travelling suffragist, there are some striking similarities.
At the outset, Christine is distressed because every book she reads slanders women and says that they are morally and intellectually inferior to men. She is visited by the female figure of Reason who tells her that the wealth of male textual tradition is not as powerful or valuable as her own personal experience:
Believe me, despite what you’ve read in books, you’ve never actually seen such a thing because it’s all a pack of outrageous lies. My dear friend, I have to say that it is your naivety which has led you to take what they come out with as the truth. Return to your senses and stop worrying your head about such foolishness.
Let me tell you that those who speak ill of women do more harm to themselves than they do to the woman they slander.
What underpins Lady Reason’s argument in the opening section is the juxtaposition of female experience and male textual authority. She offers Christine the analogy of the joke of the man who wakes to find he is dressed as a woman, and who – despite his own inner knowledge – is convinced by his friends that he is, in fact, a woman. The meaning, of course, being that just because everyone else says something doesn’t mean that it’s true. Just because women are ‘dressed up’ as weak and inclined to vice does not mean that these misogynistic texts deserve any credence when Christine knows that this is not true.
And we should not forget that Christine is writing this – she is not just the interlocutor, she is Lady Reason as well. She is asserting the need for the voice of female experience to challenge that of male authority.
To me, this shares much in common with Cixous’ famous exhortation:
I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women into writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement.
And with the wider thesis of ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’. Christine, like Cixous, contemplates the difficulty of being a woman writing in a male-dominated tradition. Of women trying to articulate their own experience in an arena dominated by men.
Does it then follow that Christine is a “proto-feminist” of some kind? I’m not sure about that question. Much ink has already been spent in debating if Christine herself is empowering to women or not. I’m not here to answer that question or tell you if Christine is a “feminist”.
What is far more interesting to me is that this stands as evidence that medieval women were not simply passively accepting the status quo, or things that were written about them. Anyone who has ever marked an essay on women by undergraduates knows the pitfalls all too well. Either women are medieval wokeness warriors, smashing the patriarchy since 879, or they’re passively accepting their status as downtrodden underlings.
Texts like The Book of the City of Ladies are hard evidence that women were intensely aware that they stood at a disadvantage and they had some pretty strong opinions about that, and about male writers who were slandering them. Of course, there is internalised misogyny everywhere. Not everything Christine ever writes is a medieval Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It still persists today. Flawless angel and feminist icon Beyoncé is pretty widely held up as an empowering figure, but dig down into the lyrics of many of her songs (all of which I love, by the way) and she’s always wearing ‘six inch heels’. Partition, which features a mini-discussion of feminism and sex also includes the line ‘I just wanna be the girl you like.’ Does that mean we cross this off our ’empowering’ list? To me, no.
Medieval women and men were aware of the barriers to women, and the wealth of clerical misogyny in the literature that they read and wrote.
In the most famous medieval assertion of the experience/authority dichotomy, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue (written, of course, by a man) Chaucer has the Wife say:
For trusteth wel, is an impossible
That any clerk wol speke good of wyves
Not just ‘clerks are rude about women’ but it is an impossible. Just as Cixous argues that in the language that already exists it is ‘an impossible’ for women to express their own experiences without misogyny unless they use their own language, Chaucer’s Wife argues that no clerk can possibly speak well of women. And, of course, in her constant recourse to male-authored textual sources, the Wife (as with so many of Chaucer’s narrators) undermines her own pseudo-empowering position and reveals herself to be irreparably deeply entrenched in the same misogyny she claims to be debunking.
For me, then, this is the crux of the issue when teaching the medieval and feminism: we imagine that we live in a world now in which things are different. Things are better – I’m absolutely not claiming that women have not made progress! But we must guard against saying medieval women did and could not consider their own societal limitations just because we do not see “perfect feminism”. And, as Chaucer proves, this is not something that only women writers contemplated.
When I teach my course, I don’t offer students an analogy with contemporary books. There’s lots of contemporary literature that is still lazily sexist, but I don’t expect them to have read Rabbit Run (sorry, but it is). Instead I ask them to think of all of the women in superhero movies. How many of them are fully clothed? How many of them are the head of the franchise? How do they compare to the male superheroes? In a world of aliens and supertechnology, why is it so unbelievable that women could do these things?
Christine de Pizan was not a feminist. There are centuries between her and feminism. But she understood the weight of a male-authored textual tradition pressing down on her, and she fought against it. She wanted her voice to be heard. She wanted to speak against the slander piling up against women. She wanted a women’s canon. I’m still waiting, but I think I have good reason to be more optimistic about it than perhaps Christine might have been.