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The City of Ladies, by Christine De Pizan.

March 25, 2012

The City of Ladies, by Christine De Pizan. Persea, 1982. 273 pages. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards. Read for the Feminist Classic Challenge.

A medieval statement that women’s virtue and intelligence is equal with men’s, written by a 15th century French noble lady.

Christine dePizan was a young, educated widow when she wrote one of the first documents praising women and declaring their ability to live and even rule wisely. In her account, she is visited in her study by three “Ladies” sent by God to advise her. Reason, Rectitude and Justice who have come to help her build a “City of Ladies” where virtuous women may take refuge. When Christine questions Reason about the awful statements that men make about women, Reason explains that such attacks are misguided and erroneous. Using examples of women from the sometimes mythical past, she affirms that women can be just as virtuous and wise as men. Reason explains that women were created by God as men’s essential equal. Rectitude offers her examples of the ways in which women have aided their husbands. Justice welcomes the Virgin Mary to preside over the completed City.

I must admit I was reluctant to reread City of Ladies. I dreaded the medieval language. After Hooks’s statement that feminism must include change across boundaries of race and class, I was sensitive to the need for any expansive view of feminism. I couldn’t imagine dePizan writing anything that addressed any women other than ladies of her own class. Actually I was pleasantly surprised to find that City of Ladies was more insightful and relevant that I had expected—despite my discomfort with some of dePizan’s statements.

First and foremost, dePizan affirms that men and women are fundamentally equal. She does this in religious language, the language of her time for debating such big questions. You may or may not accept her religious justifications, but the issue of women’s equality is still controversial. Are women equally capable of making decisions about their bodies, for example? Are women intelligent and wise enough to be trusted? DePizan would have no patience with men who claim they know best.

Second, although DePizan is a creature of her times and knew little about women unlike herself, she makes a point of including virtuous women of all classes in her City. Her discussions of virtue and justice leave little room for exploitation of others.

And the translation by Earl Jeffery Richards was pleasure to read. The stories of wise and virtuous women were fun. OK, I did skim some of them.

Where I remain critical of De Pizan is her total orientation to women being married, heterosexually of course, and in her commitment to women being obedient to their husbands. When she tells women whose husbands abuse them to be patient and know God will reward them, she is simply being too conventional.

I do recommend City of Ladies. It expands all our understanding of the various ways in which women, past and present, affirm themselves as human beings, a basic element of all feminisms.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2012 8:59 pm

    I really liked your point here about the different classes of women–especially how you tie that in to her understanding of virtue and justice. There were certainly some stories in here that made me raise an eyebrow, particularly the stories of queens early on who conquered others through force of arms. Some of them seemed quite unjust to me! But she moves on quickly to a very inclusive set of narratives of women of many different social positions, and is explicit about allowing virtuous women of any social status into the city, and I appreciated that.

  2. April 17, 2012 7:53 am

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the book more than you thought you would – I had the same expectations and findings. Though I certainly wouldn’t want to be a virtuous woman in her time, sounded quite unpleasant!

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