This week, I was talking to my public university students about medieval literary luminary Christine de Pizan. Christine, widowed at 25, was left with a household to support and no income, but managed to parlay her excellent education and social connections into an astonishingly successful literary career. The rich and literate scooped up Christine’s works, including her gorgeously illustrated editions of “The Book of the City of Ladies,” in which Christine argues, among other things, that men write misogynist lies because they are ignorant or resentful of women’s abilities. She also makes the case for women: women can rule empires with wisdom; they are just as capable of learning as men; they are steadfast friends. It is inspiring stuff.
But as Tracy Adams, historian and author of “Christine de Pizan and the Fight for France,” notes, readers who want to believe Christine is a feminist heroine may be disappointed. Considering law school? Don’t, Christine says – it would be immodest to speak in court. Giving a lecture at the university? Great. Just put up a screen between you and the audience, so they are not distracted by your beauty. Have a terrible, abusive husband? Be patient, and know that people feel sorry for you. Immodesty in a woman is unforgivable, and suicide preferred to being unchaste. Christine takes “bad feminist” to the next level.
It is this quality about Christine that makes her a potentially dubious figure for Women’s History Month. Should she really have a seat in the feminist canon? Is she an empowering figure? Is there anything to be gained from reading her?
This is the Christine de Pizan problem: The fact that women of the past do not fit with our current ideas – as diverse as those ideas may be – for understanding gender, power and freedom. It’s what happens when we go beyond the superficial celebratory vignettes trotted out for Women’s History Month and find a reality of complicated – and insufficiently “feminist” – historical figures.
The messiness of history, however, has a lot to teach us. It’s good to feel ambivalence toward the past. If we recognize complexity, we can approach historical figures in the critical space between hagiography and excommunication. When we don’t demand that historical figures fit into a contemporary category – either feminist, or anti-feminist – we begin to understand women in history on their own terms.
To understand Christine de Pizan, Adams says, we need to understand what kinds of ideas about gender existed during her time. She thought about women’s power and authority through the lens of feudal law, for example, which “assumed, paradoxically, that women were politically as capable as their male counterparts even though they were legally inferior. This meant that women wielded primary authority in the absence of a husband, son, or brother, but only then.” Christine also seized on theories about men and women’s complementarity: “Men are hot and therefore react impulsively,” explains Adams, while women “are moist, cold and peaceful, and therefore integral to maintaining order.”
Even if we don’t read Christine because we think she may be onto something when she explains gender in terms of humoral theory (women are phlegm!), we still might understand why, surveying the various ideas about gender available to her, she built on ideas that – at the time – were most sympathetic toward women, even if, from our perspectives, those ideas left the patriarchy still very much unsmashed.
In her recent book, “Women and Power,” Mary Beard looks at how women have historically been silenced in the public sphere.
Still, Beard notes, “we have inherited many of the assumptions about women’s silence from antiquity, and we should look those ideas in the face. The deep ideas we have inherited from the ancient world … are hard wired into what we have learned.”
As Adams points out, for better or worse, Christine de Pizan’s ideas have enjoyed a long and influential legacy: “The idea that women and men are fundamentally and naturally different from each other but mutually necessary,” is still alive and well.
For all of Christine’s extremely limiting assumptions about women’s roles, those assumptions “also allowed for women to wield real authority” notes Adams. We ought not to look to history to find good feminists, but to understand women on their own terms, and to find common cause with the alloyed quality of women’s power, where gender, then as now, is a treacherous line, at once authoritative and limiting.