Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Christine de Pizan's City of Ladies

50 Book Challenge #14: The City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant, Penguin Classics, 1999).

Christine de Pizan, writing in the year 1405, writes a treatise on feminist equality by way of a dialogue with personifications of Reason, Rectitude and Justice. These three "sisters" help Christine to edify and fortify her "City of Ladies" wherein women are able to celebrate their full potential, unhindered by the malevolent misogyny so prevalent to the time.

While Reason, Rectitude and Justice rattle off a laundry list of historical female exemplars, the real value of the treatise lies with Christine herself. While the Christine in the book plays the part of the virtuous, but naive, young woman, the subtext makes clear that Christine de Pizan is an intellectual force with which to be reckoned. She demonstrates a knowledge of literature, philosophy, and rhetoric that was inaccessible to many women of the time. If her argument fails in any sense, it is only in that she fails to address how women might rise above their station.

And while Christine focuses on negating the misogynistic assertions of other writers, her own feminist thought has its limits. She admits, through the voice of Reason, that it would "not be right for [women] to abandon their customary modesty and to go about bringing cases before a court." It is, however, necessary for Christine to abandon her own modesty, which she does in several instances, particularly through self-referencing her earlier related works. The dialogue style enables her to do this without too much self-aggrandizement.

While none of the ideas contained within The City of Ladies will shock the 21st century western mind, the larger lesson on the power of the word is invaluable.