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What are some of the earliest feminists you can think of? Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Susan B. Anthony? Simone de Beauvoir?
But did you know that feminists were alive and kicking even before the great-great-great-grandmothers of these early feminists were born? Christine de Pizan was one such 14th century feminist whose powerful prose would influence generations of women’s activists to come.
Christine de Pizan was one of the most prolific female writers in medieval Europe. She wrote poetry, literary and religious commentaries, ballads and even biographies. At a time when few women were educated or had the chance to write, de Pizan was quick to challenge common misogynistic ideas about women, making her one of the first feminists of the Middle Ages.
De Pizan was born in Italy in 1364 and died in France in 1430. Her father, Thomas de Pizan, was a royal secretary and astrologer who gave her a classic education in Latin, Greek and the ancient philosophers. This thorough education meant that she was well-versed in the art of rhetoric, a skill which she would adapt for her own use during her writing career.
When she was only fifteen years old, she married Etienne du Castel and had two children with him before his death only ten years later. De Pizan was left a widow at only twenty-five and had to find a way to support herself, her children and her mother. She turned to writing, at first only writing poetry and love ballads for the French royal court, but gradually extending her reach into more intellectual areas.
In 1405, she published two of her most famous works, “The Book of the City of Ladies“ and “The Treasure of the City of Ladies.” These books are largely allegorical, with Christine herself as a character who discusses the plight of women with three Ladies: Reason, Rectitude and Justice.
These Ladies explain why misogyny exists in the world and Christine comes to the conclusion that it is due to “ignorance” and “ingratitude” that many men are prompted to speak ill of women.
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She realizes the importance of an education for women, as literacy allows them to express their dislike for sexist language and behavior. She writes, “If it were customary to send little girls to school and teach them the same subjects as are taught to boys, they would learn just as fully and would understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences.”
Around the same time these two books were published, de Pizan got involved in a debate about how women were represented in literature. The main focus of her disgust was the poem “Romance of the Rose” by Jean de Meun. When Jean de Montreuil published a treatise asserting why he supported the poem, de Pizan decided to express her objections with a stern response, entitled “Le Débat Sur Le Roman de la Rose.”
In her response, de Pizan uses her rhetorical abilities to pretend apologetic about her upcoming argument. Once any anger toward her is placated by the apology, she dives straight into a fierce rebuttal of the sentiments of both the poem and de Montreuil’s response.
She says, “[I]f you seek in every way to minimise my firm beliefs by your anti-feminist attacks, please recall that a small dagger or knife point can pierce a great, bulging sack and that a small fly can attack a great lion and speedily put him to flight.”
Despite her feminist attitude, de Pizan was a popular author, probably because she combined feminism with instructions for women to be moral and virtuous. She didn’t stop writing until her death in 1430. To this day, she is known as one of the most prolific feminist writers of the Middle Ages, using the strength of her intellect to rebut the misogyny she witnessed in literature of the time. Undoubtedly, she was a woman to be reckoned with.