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Christine de Pizan: Sexism in the Canon of Male Dominated Scholarship and Literature
Christine de Pizan lecturing to a group of men
In The Book of the City of the Ladies, Christine de Pizan argues, with the use of allegorical references, that women deserve the same access to reading, writing, knowledge, and argument that men have. It is this equal right to reason that Pizan suggests will counter the male dominated production of literature, rendering it unbiased against women. Equal female involvement in the scholarly realm will also help to break the tradition of sexist beliefs which result from male authors writing what male authors before them have written on the nature of women as inherently bad. It is also suggested that men and women should not be considered equal in the sense of being both being two congruent halves of a whole, rather that women and men must have equal access to scholarship in order for them both to add their own different voices to the world’s wealth of knowledge.
Pizan opens her dialogue in Section 1 by drawing herself as a woman who is very knowledgeable and reads by the hour in her study. She reads critically for study and leisure, contemplating the thoughts of others and immersing herself in various forms of literature for pleasure. A problem that she often faces during her study is that much of the work by male authors she encounters attacks the female sex in general. Despite her real life experiences with many different women, learning from them some of their deepest thoughts and that most women (people) are of good nature, she still internalizes the constant bombardment to male assertions regarding the inherent faults of women, and starts to truly believe in them. She recognizes herself as an intellectual, but feels that she must be wrong about the general good of women in light of so many male writers who speak against women, stating: “I relied more on the judgement of others than what I myself felt and knew” (Pizan 266).
It is in Section 4 that the answer to the problem comes to her from a woman named Reason, who asks Pizan is to build the City of Ladies. This city is a metaphor for the body of work Pizan is to create as a series of arguments based on reason to counter the disjointed arguments by men against women, which Lady Reason suggests is not at all based on reason (herself). It is in this way that the City of Ladies (arguments) will be built strong enough (with reason) to withstand “numerous assaults” (267) by “jealous enemies” (267) who do not have the solid foundation of reason to back up their attacks against women.
[1.8.1] Then Lady Reason responded and said, “Get up, daughter! Without waiting any longer, let us go to the Field of Letters. There the City of Ladies will be founded on a flat and fertile plain, where all fruits and freshwater rivers are found and where the earth abounds in all good things. Take the pick of your understanding and dig and clear out ditches wherever you see the mark of my ruler, and I will help you carry away the earth on my own shoulders” (268).
This paragraph at the beginning of Section 8 is a metaphor for the physical act of taking pen and paper to begin writing the arguments in defence of women based on reason. “The Field of Letters” with its “flat and fertile plain” is an obvious allusion to paper and the “pick” used to “dig and clear out ditches” on the “mark of [Lady Reason’s] ruler” is a metaphor for using a pen to write, guided by the lines on a ruled sheet of paper.
What follows is a dialogue between Pizan and Lady Reason which is a metaphor for Pizan’s use of reason to understand why men attack women in their literature and what can be done about it. Reason tells Pizan that men attack women with the intention of protecting other men from the potential harm of being mixed up with a woman who will make him indulge in indecency and obscenity. Reason concludes that while the women that men outline in their literature and use as a basis of attacking all women do exist, they are the exception to the rule of generally good women and that such an exception should not be the focus of study in the first place.
It is necessary for women to have the opportunity to voice their own reason lest men be allowed to attack them unchecked. It is of fundamental importance for both sexes to have equal opportunity for scholarly contribution. If it is only men who are given full range of scholarship then there is nothing to stop them from using their unopposed position to exploit women, “just like someone who has a long and wide robe cut from a very large piece of cloth when the material costs him nothing and when no one opposes him, they exploit the rights of others” (268-9).
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that Pizan makes effective use of allegory by personifying reason as a woman (muse) who inspires her to build a city of ladies which is a metaphor for a strong argument in defence of women in the scholarly realm. The basic purpose of Pizan’s argument is that women are a necessary component to scholarship and their exclusion is not only a loss to the realm of advanced knowledge, it also leaves women, in their silence, vulnerable to vicious literary attacks by men.
Pizan, Christine de. “From The Book of the City of Ladies: From Part One: I. Here Begins the Book of the City of Ladies, Whose First Chapter Tells Why and for What Purpose this Book was Written.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 265-69.