Gender Focus Reads: The City of Ladies

by | March 10, 2012
filed under Books, Feminism

by Jarrah Hodge

This is a response to the February book selection for Feminist Classics Book Club: Christine de Pizan’s The City of Ladies (1405). Here’s some of the background from their site:

Christine de Pizan (1363-c.1430) was quite a well-known poet in her day. She was born in Venice, but her father accepted a position at the French court soon after[…]In her book, Christine builds an entire metaphorical city out of noble, heroic, or righteous women.  She creates three allegorical women, Reason, Justice, and Rectitude, who engage in a dialogue with her about why women are slandered and how to show that women do not deserve this reputation.

There are two aspects of Christine’s treatise that I want to examine: the basis for her defense of women, and the attacks she identifies against them. The former – her defense – was no doubt revolutionary at the time. Rosalind Brown-Grant, who wrote the introduction to the edition I read, asks us to remember that Christine was responding to attacks that were based in Aristotelian philosophy and Christian scripture. Therefore, she examines the contradictions in these sources and uses them to help her respond. Her extensive use of references to mythology wouldn’t pass peer-review nowadays, but what she was doing was using the very weapons of women’s attackers against them. According to Brown-Grant:

“At the heart of Christine’s defense of women…was her profound conviction that it is a human – and not a specifically female – trait to be prone to sin. However, she also believed that if men and women are alike as sinners, they are equally capable of adopting rational forms of behaviour and of making informed choices.”

However, few of the arguments she makes in regards to women’s virtue or natural roles would be palatable to feminists today.While Christine contends that women are equally capable of virtuous behaviour, intelligence, and rational decision-making, she nevertheless adheres to the idea of separation of spheres. For example, in one section Christine asks Lady Reason why women are not allowed in courts of law. While Reason replies that they are capable of doing so, she adds:

“One could say that just as a wide and prudent lord organizes his household into different domains and operates a strict division of labour amongst his workforce, so God created man and woman to serve Him in different way sand to help and comfort one another, according to a similar division of labour…Even though God has often endowed many women with great intelligence, it would not be right for them to abandon their customary modesty and to go about bringing cases before a court, as there are already enough men to do so. Why send three men to carry a burden which two can manage quite comfortably?”

Christine ends her piece by addressing all women, encouraging them to live as shining examples of the ideals of feminine nature: “Since it is true that the more virtuous someone is, the more this makes them meek and mild, this city should make you conduct yourselves in a moral fashion and encourage you to be meritorious and forebearing.” While I think it strengthens her credibility that she doesn’t claim all women are naturally virtuous, her argument that women’s entitlement to be rights should be based on a Christian ideal of purity and virtue is again a fairly dated message.

What I found much more resonant, somewhat disturbingly, was the list of criticisms Christine identified that were raised against women. It was extremely interesting to me just how many of the same criticisms exist today, raised against feminists or any women who step out of the box on gender roles. Here are a few examples. Any of these sound familiar?

So while obviously we think about women’s rights differently now, it’s interesting to see how we’re fighting a lot of the same stereotypes that were around in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Also can I just say I had no idea a woman invented the Latin alphabet? That’s pretty wicked.


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