The First Western Feminist

In this episode, we explore the life of the medieval writer Christine De Pizan, who in her famous book the City of Ladies debunked a long-standing tradition of misogyny.

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Summary:

Medieval feminism sounds like an oxymoron. The medieval ages inherited a caustic tradition of misogyny from the ancient world. The 15th-century writer Christine de Pisan argued in her work The City of Ladies that the ideas of both her predecessors and contemporaries were delusional. Pisan explained the inherent equality between men and women. For Pisan, both sexes had a capacity for virtue, and both ought to be educated in the same manner.

Further Reading:

Feminism and Women’s Rights

Libertarian Feminism: An Honorable Tradition, written by Sharon Presley

Feminism Does Not Demand Collectivism, written by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

 

00:02 Paul Meany: Today, the idea that men and women deserve equal rights is widely if not universally accepted in the United States. There are many issues facing women’s equality, but for the most part we are pushing towards a more humane and fair society for both sexes. But this has not always been the case. In most societies, across human history, women have been brutally subjugated. They’ve been denied the most basic civil rights, among them the right to own and inherit property.

00:26 Paul Meany: They’ve been barred from all kinds of professions and perhaps most oppressively been denied an education. Most people would probably name the suffragettes or move members of the Seneca Falls Convention as the first Western feminists. However, feminism’s history stretches much further back than the 18th century.

00:42 Paul Meany: Christine de Pizan of the 14th century is one of the first recorded feminists in the Western world. She single-handedly debunked 1000 years of misogynistic rhetoric and argued that women should not be prohibited from pursuing a scholarly education similar to their male counterparts. Christine de Pizan was born in medieval Italy in roughly 1364 AD. During this period only a select few aristocrats were even capable of reading. Even in wealthy families women’s education was minimal.

01:12 Paul Meany: Thankfully, Christine’s father Thomas was a well-read man who was part of the burgeoning humanist movement which emphasized the wisdom of the ancient Greek and Roman authors. Thomas saw the value of an education regardless of sex. He gave Christine a similar education to his sons. Eventually Thomas was invited to become a member of the court of the French king, Charles V as an astrologer.

01:32 Paul Meany: In the French court Christine had access to one of the largest libraries in Europe, which she voraciously read through. When Christine was 15, she was married off to a man named Etienne du Castel. Despite the arrange nature of the marriage and the age gap between the pair, they both fell deeply in love and had three children together. Etienne became a notary and a royal secretary at the French court, and throughout her life Christie With hold Etienne as a model of a perfect husband.

01:56 Paul Meany: In 1389 Christine found herself plunged into a life of hardship. Her father died, and then quickly afterwards her beloved husband, Etienne succumbed to plague while working abroad. Suddenly, Christine had to look after her mother and children alone. When she tried to recover money from her father’s estate and pension she constantly faced legal complications, to her stunted legal status as a woman, in medieval French law.

02:18 Paul Meany: Without access to her husband or father’s wages or estates, Pizan turned to writing in order to support her family. She began by writing poetry that lamented her widowed state, and her husband’s passing. However she quickly branched out into a variety of literary genres, including warfare, history, politics, prose, and most importantly for today, the status of women. Pizan faced a tough adversary, a long-standing and universal tradition of misogyny that spanned hundreds of years.

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02:48 Paul Meany: Two pillars upheld this tradition, ancient philosophers and selective quotations from the Bible. The works of Aristotle became some of the most prominent tools in a future misogynist’s arsenal. Aristotle believed that there was always a superior and an inferior in everything. Action being superior to inaction, completion is superior to incompletion, and finally possession is always better than deprivation.

03:07 Paul Meany: Aristotle believed the male sex was always aligned with the superior and the female sex was always aligned with the inferior. In his work entitled ‘Physics,’ he writes: “The male principle in nature is associated with active, formative and perfected characteristics, while the female is passive, material and deprived.” In Aristotle’s book, ‘The Generation of Animals,’ he discusses reproduction and in his view, the point of reproduction was replication.

03:32 Paul Meany: By this logic, if a man attempts to reproduce and a woman is born, well, she’s a mistake. Therefore according to Aristotle every woman is born either somehow defective or at best a mutilated male. This view of women is completely bizarre to the modern day reader. Are women not needed to continue the human race?

03:49 Paul Meany: Sadly, Aristotle was not a lone voice. The famous and renowned researcher Galen also believed that women are an ineffective and inferior sex. In Greek medical practice there was a theory that all things consist of four elements, earth, fire, air and water. When these elements are equally balanced a person will be healthy. However, women were considered to be incapable of moderating the elements due to menstruation and were therefore considered intellectually and physically inferior.

04:13 Paul Meany: The second pillar are selective quotations from the Bible. Christianity was the dominant religion of Europe during the medieval ages and had dominantly influenced people’s lives and opinions. The writings of St. Paul were the first to articulate the role of the women in the Christian church. He wrote that women must submit themselves to their husbands. He says, “The head of every man is Christ and the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”

04:34 Paul Meany: However, Paul’s writings are complicated and while he views women as inferior in the previous quote, he also states that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Jesus Christ.” Adam was created first from dirt while Eve was molded from Adam’s rib. Many extrapolate that men are therefore superior to women because they’re created first in God’s image.

04:55 Paul Meany: Authors such as Saint Augustine would later argue that women were created in God’s likeness, not his image. Crucially, Eve tempted Adam to eat from the apple from the Garden of Eden. The fall of man, ultimately unleashed are therefore the fault of Eve. Over time, Eve came to represent the stereotypical vices of women.

05:13 Paul Meany: The church father, Tertullian, later described women as the devil’s gateway as he among others believed they’re easily influenced by the devil.

05:20 Paul Meany: Christine’s ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’ opens with a 13th century poet Matheolus his work at the Lamentations. In this book Matheolus argues that women make men’s lives utterly miserable through marriage. Matheolus being a cleric was celibate. He reasons, if a man has to be with a woman don’t get married. Instead have a harem of mistresses and, I quote, “Treat them as if they’re no more important than straw.”

05:43 Paul Meany: After reading such harsh words Pizan ponders why so many men loathe women. She wonders what the causes and reasons could be that have driven so many men, clerics and others to slander women and reprimand their conduct whether in speaking or in their treaties and writings.

05:58 Paul Meany: Christine is confused because all the women she knows in real-life are good people as she writes not only princesses and great ladies, but also women of a middling sort of rank and those of no rank. There’s a contradiction between the theory Pizan reads and the experience she lives in a day-to-day basis. Philosophers and poets of authority tell her that women are treacherous and vile but her own experience shows her that women are not the monsters that she has read about in books.

06:24 Paul Meany: Christine writes that she was, “Plunged into such disgust and consternation that I came to disparage myself and the entire female sex as if nature had made us all monsters.” Lady Reason appears to Christine and explains that the esteemed authorities have been wrong before. Lady Reason explains that it only looks like these great authorities and great thinkers are correct about women’s inferiority because no one has argued against them yet. Lady Reason remarks that, “Even the strongest city will fall immediately if it’s not defended and even the most unjust law case will win by default if a plaintiff pleads unopposed.”

06:54 Paul Meany: Emboldened by Lady Reason’s words, Christine embarks upon a journey to prove that women are capable of the same virtues as men. ‘The City of Ladies’ is broken into three sections. The first part, Christine and Lady Reason construct the foundations and walls of the city. Here, she discusses women’s achievements in war, politics, and letters, traditionally male domains. In the next part, the houses are built with the help of Lady Rectitude. In this section, Pizan discusses women who have shown moral virtues, such as charity, piety, and generosity. And lastly, the highest towers are built with Lady Justice, which she discuss is biblical heroines, female saints, and martyrs. Christine innovates by listing virtuous women to show that, in fact, all women are capable of virtues. Women are even capable of virtues which have traditionally been exclusive to men, such as war and politics.

07:39 Paul Meany: Christine listing virtuous women was not wholly original. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio had undertaken a similar task of listing virtuous women in his book entitled ‘On Famous Women’. But Boccaccio believed that the women he recounted were exceptions to the rule. Most women will not achieve the great virtues of the list of his ladies, and that is why they are special. Unlike Boccaccio, Christine, talking through Lady Justice, exclaims, “I could adduce an infinite number of women, from all walks of life and all points in the life cycle, maidens, widows, and wives, in whom divine power manifested itself with a singular force and extraordinary constancy.” Christine innovates by listing virtuous women to show that, in fact, all women were capable of virtues.

08:17 Paul Meany: It can be argued that Christine’s ‘City of Ladies’ is one of the first examples of what we call today Women’s Studies, as she organizes existing knowledge from a feminist point-of-view. Importantly, Christine argues that women possess the same potential as their male counterparts, if only it’s allowed to flourish. Lady Reason remarks that, “If it was customary to send little girls to school and to teach them all subjects systematically, as one does in the case of boys, the girls would learn and understand the finer points of all arts and sciences just as well as the boys can.” The message is clear, “If you give men and women the same opportunities, they can both flourish.” And importantly, Christine’s view of history is not exclusionary. She does not believe that her advice is solely for educated or noble ladies, or the daughters of aristocrats, moral virtues for all people, regardless of gender, rank or economic standing.

09:02 Paul Meany: Pizan ends the book with a call to action. She says, “All of you, my ladies, whether you’re women of great, middling or humble station, above all else, be on your guard and vigilant in defending yourselves against the enemies of your honor and virtue.” Christine’s thought on men and women being equal might seem mundane to modern readers. However, in her day, her argument for women’s intrinsic merit and autonomy was unprecedented in scale. The writings of Christine became part of what was known as, ‘The Querelles des Femmes,’ which translates literally to, ‘The Woman Question,’ a debate over what was the nature and role of women in society. Many who defended women’s statuses as autonomous beings were inspired by Pizan’s work. The famous 20th century feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, would later write that, “Christine represents the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex.”

09:47 Paul Meany: By defending half of the world’s population and their fundamental freedoms, I believe Christine de Pizan deserves an honorable mention in any history of liberty.

09:57 Paul Meany: Thanks to all for listening. I hope you enjoyed this podcast and if you did, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you may listen to podcasts. Visit the website www.libertarianism.org to find more podcasts like this one. I hope to see you next time.