A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Louisa May Alcott and the Wise Woman

This is my second contribution to this month’s discussion of Little Women.

One issue which is seldom discussed when appraising feminist themes in literature is the role of women in old age. Too often older women are invisible, just as Doris Lessing observed in her novel The Summer before the Dark.

Last year, when we discussed Herlandby Charlotte Perkins Gilman,

I was impressed by Gilman’s description of an all-female society where older women are both honored for the lives they have led and employed for their wisdom and self-control. Here the male visitors are greeted:

“If they were only younger,” he muttered between his teeth. “What on earth is a fellow to say to a regiment of old Colonels like this?”

In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy.

“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother.

Although Louisa May Alcott is writing about a real 19th-century world – not a fantasy like Herland – she also recognizes the powerful role older women can take in understanding and counseling the young as they try to make their way in life. Marmee in Little Women is a clear example. Her opinions are usually conservative.

“Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg.”

Also,

“I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, a fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I would accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune; but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures.”

At the same time, Marmee unites with Mr. March in not accepting poverty passively. When the girls propose to find work,

“Believing they could not begin too early to cultivate energy, industry, and independence, their parents consented, and both fell to work with the hearty good-will which in spite of all obstacles is sure to succeed at last.”

What is most striking to a modern parent is not that the girls’ mother gives advice – all mothers do that – but that the girls take the advice so seriously.

Alcott’s next successful children’s book after Little Women was An Old Fashioned Girl. In it, Alcott continues to show the strong role an older woman can take in a sometimes dysfunctional household. Young Polly – pretty, gifted and poor – comes to stay in the Shaw household. The Shaw children are friendly but spoiled. Polly receives understanding and support not from their mother, but from their grandmother. When they meet, unsophisticated country Polly is praised by Grandmother Shaw because she is still a child:

“Well, dear, I’ll tell you. In my day, children of fourteen and fifteen did n’t dress in the height of the fashion; go to parties, as nearly like those of grown people as it’s possible to make them; lead idle, giddy, unhealthy lives, and get blas, at twenty. We were little folks till eighteen or so; worked and studied, dressed and played, like children; honored our parents; and our days were much longer in the land than now, it seems to, me.”

But children were not idle at all:

“Yes, and we all learned to make bread, and cook, and wore little chintz gowns, and were as gay and hearty as kittens. All lived to be grandmothers and fathers; and I’m the last, seventy, next birthday, my dear, and not worn out yet; though daughter Shaw is an invalid at forty.”

“That’s the way I was brought up, and that’s why Fan calls me old-fashioned, I suppose,” said Polly.

This function of advice giver and reinforcer of conservative family values is given to Uncle Alec in another successful children’s book, Eight Cousins. But still, the many aunts in the story sometimes get a word in and the elderly great aunts, Peace and Plenty, stand firmly for the good old days and good old values.

Even in her adult novel, Moods, Alcott finds a place for a wise woman. When Sylvia is grieving over the unfortunate marital choice, she has a “sudden memory”:

“If ever you need help that Geoffrey cannot give, remember cousin Faith.”

This was the hour Faith foresaw; Moor had gone to her in his trouble, why not follow, and let this woman, wise, discreet, and gentle, show her what should come next.

Faith diagnoses that Sylvia has two spirits contending in one body, and “…each rules by turns, and each helps or hinders as moods and circumstances lead.” Advice and comfort are then given and gratefully received.

Louisa May Alcott wrote two sequels to Little Women. In Little Men and Jo’s Boys Marmee does not completely disappear, but Jo is now clearly in charge of the family destiny. Whereas she was once the harum scarum tomboy who wanted independence of action, now she follows the fortunes of others and guides them on their various ways. Jo is now the wise woman.

Little Women – Feminist Novel?

I would like to open the discussion of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel for girls, with a proposition. Some readers find in the book a feminist message of independence and self-expression, while others find a message of social conformity. So which is it – a liberating view of female possibilities or an imposition of community expectations? My proposition is that Little Women delivers both messages. The tension between them is what makes the book so real and so memorable.

The March sisters receive a letter from their father in which he expresses his ideals for his “little women.”

Let’s start with the conformity message. In Little Women, Mr. March is the absent father, leaving the four sisters and their mother to fend for themselves while he serves as a military chaplain in the Civil War. His presence is strongly felt, however, as he presses for the girls to grow up in accordance with his ideals.

 “I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”

If they must fight their bosom enemies and conquer themselves, then they must suppress their true natures in favor of a standard set by him, the father. This is reinforced when, near the end of part one of the book, Mr. March comes back from the war and proclaims:

“I see a young lady [Jo] who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither whistles, talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale just now, with watching and anxiety; but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower; she doesn’t bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl; but if I get a strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied.”

A “strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman” is no bad ideal, but it is Mr. March’s ideal, not Jo’s. Alcott realistically shows that when a girl is as energetic and ambitious as Jo, she can expect loving parents will try to get her to conform. Most books for girls at that time would leave it there, with Jo seeing the error of her ways and finding happiness in meeting family expectations. Alcott is a better writer than that. She depicts a Jo who is fully appreciative of love and support; she is not rebelling against her family but against the role of a girl:

“It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with papa and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!”

After she publishes her first story, Jo does not reject her family role, but desires to be independent within it, to support those she loves as – dare we say it! – a boy would have been expected to do.

 Jo’s breath gave out here; and, wrapping her head in the paper, she dedewed her little story with a few natural tears; for to be independent, and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.

By the time she wrote Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott was establishing herself as a professional writer. Like Jo, she wanted to support her chronically-needy family, by any honest means. She did, in fact, try various jobs including teaching, sewing and serving as a paid companion. Writing paid best, besides being satisfying in other ways. She wrote plays, poetry, short stories, thrillers, and an account of her nursing experiences in a Civil War hospital – whatever would sell. Her greatest affection was for her “adult” novels, such as Moods, with their emphasis of emotional states and high romance. She wrote Little Women on assignment so, rather than trying to move the reader as in Moods, she told the story, as in Hospital Sketches. When the story is told – drawing on her own experiences growing up with three sisters in the poor but worthy Alcott family – her true values are expressed in the story itself and the choices she made in telling it.

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

People talk like that. These are real girls, not models of perfection. Whatever your concept of feminism may be, for me it is the belief that women define their own natures; they are not defined for them by the male half of humanity. If women are entirely noble and good or entirely evil and dangerous, that is a patriarchal construct which separates females from the rest of the human race where everyone is a mixture of good and bad characteristics.

Jo does want to make money for her family, but she also knows that with money comes power, and she wants that too.

 …Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house….

Jo enjoyed a taste of this satisfaction, and ceased to envy richer girls, taking great comfort in the knowledge that she could supply her own wants, and need ask no one for a penny.

She also has ambition for herself, for her own sake.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, — something heroic or wonderful, that won’t be forgotten when I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

This is important because so often, in stories about girls or biographies of women, their accomplishments are portrayed as done entirely for the sake of others, to fulfill a helper role. Jo does not reject being a helper, but she also wants her own satisfactions and achievements. Within the realities of 19th-century life, Jo gets them. She rejects the suitor she does not love, she leaves home to support herself, she sells her stories, she writes a good book, and, finally, she does marry, but it is an unconventional union which enables her to become the manager of a school.

  1. Which is the stronger message within Little Women – conformity or independence?
  2. What other messages to you find there?
  3. What are the roles of Marmee and of Jo’s sisters?  Do they support or deny feminist values?

For more information about Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, and the interesting town of Concord, visit my blog page: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/courses-and-presentations/little-women-by-louisa-may-alcott/

An Apology

Some of you are probably wondering what happened with this month’s title, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. Unfortunately our host for the month was unavailable, so we decided to postpone the group read and discussion to February 2013. The Year of Feminist Classics schedule will carry on as planned, and we’ll be back next month with a discussion of Little Women. See you then, and once again our apologies. Sometimes life gets in the way of blogging despite our best intentions.

ETA: I realise this post is coming considerably late, so if any of you already read and blogged about the book, feel free to drop us your link and we’ll do a round-up.

Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea: Discussion questions

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Hi everyone – Iris asked me to apologise on her behalf for not having been able to post these sooner, but life got unexpectedly busy for her. But it’s never too late, right? Here are some possible discussion topics she and Jodie had planned for this month’s titles, Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. As usual, feel free to incorporate as many as you want in a post or comment, to add questions of your own, or to approach the books from a completely different angle. Different perspectives are always welcome.
  • Do you think Jane Eyre is a feminism text? Which aspects of the story do you think could be read as feminist, and which do you think perhaps couldn’t?
  • How does Jane Eyre’s development as a (possibly) proto-feminist character narrative compare to the development of the other female characters in the novel?
  • Do you think any of the male characters can be read along feminist lines? Do you, for example, think that Rochester as presented in Jane Eyre fosters Jane’s growth towards becoming an independent woman? Do you think this is restrained to his treatment of Jane, or does it go for all women?
  • How did reading Wide Sargasso Sea change your perception of Rochester, or possibly even of Jane Eyre as willing to accept Rochester’s role as “victim”?
  • Do you think Wide Sargasso Sea can be read as a feminist text independently from Jane Eyre? Is it even possible to read the two books separate from each other?
  • The following are all quotes from Jane Eyre describing Bertha Mason:

    Edward Fairfax Rochester, of Thornfield Hall, in the county of —, and of Ferndean Manor, in —shir, England, was married to my sister, Bertha Antoinetta Mason, daughter of Jonas Mason, merchant and of Antoinetta his wife, a Creole, at —church, Spanish Town, Jamaica.

    ‘Bertha Mason is mad; and she came from a mad family’ idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard! – as I found out after I had wed the daughter; for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parents in both points. I had a charming partner – pure, wise, modest: you can fancy I was a happy man. I went through rich scenes! Oh! My experience has been heavenly, if you only knew it!…You shall see what sort of being I was cheated into espousing, and judge whether or not I had a right to break the compact, and seek sympathy with something at least human.’

    ‘What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’

    Did reading Wide Sargasso Sea change or add to your perception of Jane Eyre’s portrayal of Bertha’s ethnicity?

  • How do you feel about intersection of gender and ethnicity in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea? Do you think Wide Sargasso Sea supplements an omission in the original by providing an alternate reading of some of the characters’ lives? How do you feel about the way Jean Rhys went about this? Is her rewriting enough to address some of the gaps in Jane Eyre?
  • Do you think revisionist fiction has an important role to play as a feminist enterprise by addressing some of these gaps in early texts, which were often constrained by their societies and contributed to dehumanising certain groups of women? Do you see revisionism as a tool for questioning dominant narratives, even within feminist, and giving a voice to women who were previously voiceless? Why or why not?

Introduction to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I cannot wait to read and discuss Jane Eyre with all of you. I know this is a book that many love, but also one that some people have major issues with. Personally, I fall into the former category. I read Jane Eyre in high school, but it was a little too spooky for me. Almost two years ago, I became slightly obsessed with the book, and reread it a number of times, during a few months of studying abroad. I am a little nervous, but also very excited, to pick it up again for this project.

Charlotte Brontë, by George Richmond, 1850.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 in Thornton, Yorkshire. She was the third of six children, all of whom were girls except Branwell, who was born in 1817. In 1820, the family moved to Haworth village, the village where the Brontës would write most of their novels. In 1824, Charlotte went to a Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, together with her older sisters Maria and and Elizabeth, as well as her younger sister Emily (who we know for her novel Wuthering Heights). Maria and Elizabeth died at school, leaving Charlotte the eldest child of the Brontë family. The circumstances and Charlotte’s experiences at school were to serve as inspiration for Lowood school in Jane Eyre.

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne (the latter known for her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) started making up stories about fictional kingdoms at a young age. Branwell and Charlotte wrote about a kingdom called Angria, while Emily and Anne wrote about Gondal. Some of these stories still exist, though (I think?) they are believed to have been heavily edited (and several stories thrown away) by Charlotte.

Charlotte and Emily enrolled in a boarding school in Brussels in 1842, but their stay was cut short when their aunt died. Charlotte returned to the boarding school to teach. During her stay she felt lonely and isolated, and became attached to Constantin Heger, who ran the school together with his wife. Her attachment provided inspiration for Charlotte’s novels The Professor (written before Jane Eyre, but published posthumously) and Vilette.

Jane Eyre was written while watching over her father’s operation on his eyes. It was published in May 1846, and was very succesful, even though there was also criticism that her writing was coarse, doubts about the gender of the author, as well as questions about the morality of the novel, to which Charlotte responded with a preface to the second edition of the novel, in which she refutes the attacks on her views of morality and religion.

Jane Eyre was published under the pen name Currer Bell. The fact that Charlotte and her sisters all used pseudonyms when they published their work may in itself be an interesting starting point for the discussion of gender, as their pen names were meant to disguise their gender but retain their initials (C.B. for Currer Bell and Charlotte Brontë).

After the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë kept writing. First, she worked on Shirley (published in 1849). However, before publication she suffered the loss of both her brother and her two other sisters. Her third novel, Vilette, was published in 1853.

Charlotte married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nichols in 1854. While pregnant, she became ill, and both she and her unborn child died on 31 March 1855. Charlotte’s father and Elizabeth Gaskell, with whom Charlotte became friends from 1850 onwards, subsequently worked together to write a biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Further reading:

If you would like to know more about Charlotte Brontë and her sisters (I am in no manner an expert on her or her sisters!), I would recommend the fictional account of their lives written by Jude Morgan: The Taste of Sorrow. Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography might be interesting, but I have heard that it is very much a sanctification of her life. I have been recommended The Brontës by Juliet Barker as a good biography, as well as The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller as a cultural history of the Brontës as cultural icons.

Jane Eyre

I hardly think it is necessary to introduce Jane Eyre, but in short it is the story of Jane Eyre, and her growth to adulthood. Jane is an orphan who grows up with her aunt and cousins, is subsequently sent away to Lowood school where she experiences the harsh regime that religion can provide (according to Charlotte Brontë, this is not true Christianity), but also finds her first and only friend, Helen Burns. When Jane Eyre finishes her education, she becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester…

Jane Eyre is available in many versions, in print and online. I will be reading the Oxford World’s classics version, with an introduction by Sally Shuttleworth. I think it would be interesting to compare notes on what the introductions of different versions might tell us about feminism in Jane Eyre. The novel is also available in the public domain, for example here on Project Gutenberg, and here on girlebooks.

Reading Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre can be read as an enjoyable love story (also as a creepy one), but also has a lot to say on the topics of feminism, religion, schooling, etcetera (I know I will have a hard time not being distracted by the love story and the topic of religion myself, eek).  When it comes to feminism, the story of the girl Jane Eyre is interesting, but I also think it would be interesting to look at the portrayal of other women in the story. The former will provide more than enough to discuss, but I think in comparison with Wide Sargasso Sea, the whole cast of female characters will be interesting to look at.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I hope you will feel free to look at the text in any way you want. I look forward to sharing thoughts! Discussion questions will be posted somewhere closer to the middle of March. Feel free to comment or email with suggestions [email: irisonbooks (at) gmail (dot) com].

May: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

In May The Year of Feminist Classics group will be reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Jodie, as my co-host, and I, believe that reading these books together will lead to a nice juxtaposition and complimentary view of feminism in literature, and the position of women from different backgrounds as portrayed by novelists. Today, I will post an introduction to Jane Eyre . The introduction post to Wide Sargasso Sea will follow shortly. I believe this month’s reading can be approached in several manners, and I welcome each and any of them: You can read Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea separately, or in comparison with each other. You could start chronological, and read Brontë’s work before reading Rhys’ interpretation, but you could also read them the other way around, and juxtapose Rhys’ interpretation with Brontë’s earlier portrayal. I am curious to see what you will come up with! In a week or so, I will put up some discussion questions, hopefully covering both books separately and in comparison with each other.

I am looking forward to discussing both books with you in the upcoming weeks! Feel free to contact me with suggestions for discussion topics, or guest posts.

Introduction to Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

Cover of "Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Wo...

Cover via Amazon

Welcome to (a belated, sorry about that) April, everyone! Lets talk about one of my favorite books of all time!

Why Whipping Girl?

Well, to put it succinctly, I recommended that Whipping Girl be included in the Feminist Classics Project because it changed my entire understanding of the intersection of feminism, femininity, and trans identities. This book is kiiiind of a big deal to me and the prospect of discussing it with the fabulous FCP participants was too enticing to resist. (Don’t you love when I pander?)

There are two books I recommend to anyone who is interested in learning more about being transgender: Sex Changes: Transgender Politics by Patrick Califia and Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano. I read both books for the first time in 2007, while I was living in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and struggling to understand my ex-girlfriend’s recent announcement that he was a trans man.  While Sex Changes helped me understand more about what this whole trans thing actually meant (that book includes a chapter where Califia compares and contrasts two of my favorite books of all time, Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and S/He by Minnie Bruce Pratt, and oh boy, is it dreamy), Whipping Girl was able to help me connect my understanding of feminism and my personal experience as a cisgender, femme-identified queer person with trans identities. It was… mind-blowing.

So no pressure or anything to enjoy this book, people. You may not agree with every argument (or most arguments), but I can promise that Whipping Girl will make you think and will challenge your understanding of feminism.

About Julia Serano

From JuliaSerano.com:

Julia Serano is an Oakland, California-based writer, spoken word performer, trans activist, and biologist. Julia is the author ofWhipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press, 2007), a collection of personal essays that reveal how misogyny frames popular assumptions about femininity and shapes many of the myths and misconceptions people have about transsexual women. Her other writings have appeared in anthologies (including Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine and Word Warriors: 30 Leaders in the Women’s Spoken Word Movement) and in magazines and websites such as Bitch, AlterNet.org, Out, Feministing.com, Clamor, Kitchen Sink, make/shift, other, LiP and Transgender Tapestry. In recent years, Julia has gained noteriety in transgender, queer, and feminist circles for her unique insights into gender. She has been invited to speak about transgender and trans women’s issues at numerous univerisites, at queer, women’s studies, psychology and philosophy-themed conferences, and her writings have been used as teaching materials in college- and graduate-level gender studies, queer theory, human sexuality and psychology courses across the North America.

Discussion QuestionsIntroduction & Trans Woman Manifesto

1. The Introduction begins with a quote from the amazing Audre Lorde: ” If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Can you find a way that this quote could apply to your own experience, either with feminism or as a member of a sexist society?

2. Whipping Girl introduced a new phrase to the feminist lexicon: “trans-misogyny” (p. 15). What are some examples of trans-misogyny that you’ve witnessed?

3. What do you hope to learn or explore within Whipping Girl? What are your initial impressions of the book? What are your expectations for the essays?

The Book of the City of Ladies: Wrapup

The City is completed and the Queen welcomed in

Here we are at the end of March (well, close enough), and it’s time to wrap up our reading of the Book of the City of Ladies.  I hope you all enjoyed it or at least got something out of it.  I know my rather one-sided enthusiasm for Christine’s amazing book is not necessarily shared by all of you!

I was so pleased to have the chance to learn about this international debate, the “Querrel du Roman de la Rose,” and the resulting discussion about the status of women in society.  I would love to read more of the documents from that debate, and hope to get that chance sometime.

Thanks so much for joining in this month’s reading.  If you haven’t yet linked up your blog post, this is the place to do it.  Please tell me your thoughts about medieval society, women, and Christine’s challenge to her contemporaries.

The Book of the City of Ladies: Discussion Post

I hope you’ve all been able to find copies of the book and are enjoying it.  I have been having a great time with Christine!  Her book is so medieval in its logic and sort-of-allegory, and so different in content from any other medieval text I’ve ever read.  I enjoy how Christine poses a question about the misogynist point of view and then answers it with examples from history (or legend, as the case may be).  I particularly like how she takes tradition and Christianity and uses them to support her points.  She makes her ideas sound obvious and like plain common sense, and yet they must often have been quite stunning to her readers.

Some questions we might discuss:

Sometimes Christine changes the story she’s telling for her own purposes: Minerva, Ceres, and other figures we know as mythological goddesses become historical women, Biblical characters act a little differently than we might remember, or stories from history are changed.  Some of this probably comes from Christine’s source material; she worked from fewer texts than we have now.  Some of it must come from Christine herself.  What do you think about this, and was it effective for her purposes?

Some people argue over whether Christine de Pizan can really be called a feminist.  What is your opinion?

Once you get to the end, tell me what you think of Christine’s recommendations for society. What changes does she imagine?  What do you think of her critique of her society and women’s place within it?

Introduction to The Book of the City of Ladies


I’ve so been looking forward to this book!  I’ve never done a group discussion blog or anything before, though, so I hope you’ll forgive me for being a newbie.

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.  Christine grew up in Paris, privileged with with unusual opportunities for self-education, which she pursued with zeal.  She married at 15 and was widowed at 24, at which point she started writing as a professional pursuit in order to support herself and several dependents.  Over a 30-year career, she wrote exclusively in Middle French and moved from ballads and courtly poems to longer works and discussion with literary intellectuals of the time.  She was deeply involved in the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose,” an argument over the merits of of that work, and her Book of the City of Ladies is her answer to that rather misogynistic poem (which I just read!) and other texts that slandered women as weak, morally corrupt, and generally impossible to live with.

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.  They help her to build the City of Ladies out of stories: first by dismantling literary lies about women, and then by building their city out of stories about great deeds done by women.  Finally they choose a queen for their city, and Christine appeals to her readers to refute the lies of men.

The Book of the City of Ladies was a big deal in 1405, but in the intervening centuries it fell into obscurity–in the English language, at least.  Simone de Beauvoir knew of it, but a modern English translation did not appear until the early 1980’s.  Scholars have brought Christine de Pizan back into prominence over the last few decades, for which I am thankful.  I hope you’ll join us in reading this early defense of women’s rights.

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