Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A City for Women: Comparing Early and Modern Feminism

Book: 'The Woman Reader' by Belinda Jack
Context: Christine de Pizan and 'The Book of the City of Ladies'

 Living in what I have been told is a post-feminist world, you can hardly go three paces without coming into contact with something which either illustrates women’s oppression or knocks it down. I’m not going to discuss here how this or that trend is indicative of female empowerment, or how such and such a thing keeps women locked and limited underneath a glass ceiling. A quick google search, or following your twitter feed for a few hours, will reveal many examples of these. And although I do think that we still have a long way to go until all women are given the respect in society that we deserve, we are lucky in this century that we can publicly discuss issues affecting women. Women, and men, can easily voice whatever concerns they have online. Women’s writing has such a large platform, even though there might be many problems with the way it can be presented. And it’s a lot more than just so-called ‘chick lit’ and 50 Shades of Grey.

‘The Woman Reader’ by Barbara Jack traces the history of women’s literacy, both reading and writing, from the earliest records to the present day. It’s a truly gripping story which encompasses all of gender history; because the way that women have been able to express themselves in reading and writing has had profound echoes on everything they were able to accomplish. Jack presents countless examples of women who re-wrote the rules on what women were allowed to say in public – amazing women who stood up against people who tried to define them in one particular way. She also shows us men who wrote about women, and how important these portrayals were to how women were perceived. But there was one individual who really caught my interest when I read about her. Amongst the whole of women’s history, Jack could spend only a couple of pages on this woman, but I wanted to learn much more about her.

 Christine de Pizan comes across as someone who really addressed things which mattered to her – and these were the women’s issues of her day. Living in the mid-14th to early 15th centuries, Christine’s world was one where men’s opinions and words were the ones that counted – and the men that she encountered in her reading depicted women as morally and intellectually inferior. As the successors of Eve, women were shown as sexually depraved, even to the point that they were to blame if they were raped. If a woman was attractive, then she must by nature not be chaste, and men were not to blame if they lost control around them. The women in fact enjoyed it. This sounds horrific and outrageous to us today, but was perfectly logical to many in the medieval age. And, it isn’t really so very far removed from debates raging today about the nature of rape, several commentaries placing at least some blame or culpability on women for dressing provocatively.

Christine saw what was written about women, and felt that she had to do something about it. She wrote several books, which are classics or early feminist writing and very important for that reason. Many of these riled the misogynist authors of her day, and one of the most well-known of these was The Book of the City of Ladies. With the help of the spirits of Reason, Rectitude and Justice personified within the narrative, Christine clearly and passionately discusses the falsely-based prejudice that women have to contend with, and sets up a utopia where women’s virtues are appreciated and rewarded, and women themselves are protected from male harm. On the subject of rape, Christine is vocal:

‘It therefore angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped and that, even though a woman may verbally rebuff a man, she won’t in fact mind it if he does force himself upon her. I can scarcely believe that it could give women any pleasure to be treated in such a vile way.’

No-one could really disagree with her. But while Christine’s writing and feminism were radical for her time, it can’t really be compared with modern feminism. While reading The Book of the City of Ladies, I was hugely impressed with Christine’s courage and intelligence, and at first I wanted to buy copies for all my friends, shouting: ‘Look look look! This woman completely understands. She lived 600 years ago and she stood up for our rights to be treated as equals!!!’ Except, she kind of didn’t. Yes, she railed against chauvinism and misogyny. Yes, she paved the way towards feminism. But in no modern sense does her work stand up for female equality as we would know it today. Obviously any idea of equal working rights, marriage rights, voting rights would have been unimaginable. But the way that Christine defends women is by accepting their traditional place as nurturers, home-makers, virgins and saints. There is no room for sexual assertiveness, as there is now. She is not outraged that men cannot accept women’s sexuality, keeping them trapped in a passive role. She is outraged because she feels that women’s sexuality is something made up by men. Women are to be defended because they are virtuous, not because they should be allowed to be sexual. In fact, it is because they are passive that they are ‘better’ than men think they are. You can imagine how an argument like this would play out today. Now to be a feminist, you must reject traditionally ‘feminine’ values. Christine de Pizan, however, extols them.

On the other hand, I quite like Christine’s world view up to a point. Women need to be free to express themselves however they wish, in their dress, in what they say, in how they say it. But I don’t think it’s necessary to ‘reclaim’ derogatory terms like ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ in order to do so. Women’s sexuality is not something to be feared, but celebrated. But I wonder whether by having multiple sexual partners and non-committal relationships we are in danger of creating a world where our bodies are not respected – by men or women.  


The Treasure of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan

Dit de la Rose by Christine de Pizan

L'Epistre au Dieu d'amours by Christine de Pizan

Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc by Christine de Pizan

'Unladylike Polemics: Christine de Pizan's Strategies of Attack and Defense' by Christine Moneera Laennec, published in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (Spring, 1993)

'With Ink and Mortar: Christine de Pizan's 'Cité de Dames' by Sandra L. Hindman, published in Feminist Studies (Autumn, 1984)