Christine de Pizan’s Contestable Feminism

Author: Felix Kimber

Sub-editor: Charlotte Allan

Christine de Pizan’s Cité de Dames is a remarkable work for a number of reasons, not least because of its sheer literary and metaphorical creativity.  It is more well known, however, as being one of the first pieces of literature in western canon to provide a distinctly female and anti-misogynist voice to the debate concerning women’s rights; this was a debate which had, for millennia, been populated almost solely by men, and one which had been overwhelmingly discriminatory.  De Pizan’s work is situated in a fascinating period of gender discourse, in a historical and intellectual time period often called the querelle des femmes. This was a period in which both men and women sought to agitate the traditionally held views surrounding gender and inferiority which had permeated European society for millennia.  Although de Pizan’s arguments are widely considered to have been radical for her time and should not be overlooked as an incendiary piece of western literature, scholars have long debated whether her contribution to the querelle des femmes warrants her the title of an early feminist.  This essay will argue that Christine de Pizan should be credited with laying the intellectual and literary foundation for what would become feminism, however, she should not herself be considered a feminist.

The first part of this essay will outline and justify criteria, evaluating de Pizan’s title as an early feminist, thus providing brief definitions of potentially ambiguous and ideological terms.  The second part of this essay will contend that while de Pizan provides a critical voice to the querrele des femmes, she is ultimately writing from within a very exclusive echelon of French society, therefore failing to offer a truly intersectional and feminist treatise.  This essay will then argue that de Pizan’s arguments do little to challenge the structural features of a patriarchal early-modern Europe.  Finally, it can be highlighted that de Pizan should be considered an incipient feminist, rather than an early feminist; although she may lack the credentials to be classified as belonging to the feminist movement, she undoubtedly provides an impassioned argument for the personhood and humanity of European women. 

To begin to assess the validity of de Pizan’s title of an early feminist, we must first arrive at some sort of definition of what it actually means to be a feminist.  This is a naturally controversial task, and one which scholars and commentators have not been able to resolve.  Karen Offen, in her article Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach, notes that asserting the definition of any ‘ism… conservatism, liberalism, socialism,’ is a difficult project, given that these terms are often weaponised against those that are thought to belong to these groups. Furthermore, identifying a singular ‘mission’ for a widespread societal movement proves difficult.  Historically, where those in the Anglo-European sphere regarded feminism as the development and expression of some distinctly feminine identity, those in an American context saw the feminist project as the pursuit of tangibly equal rights between men and women.  I have, therefore, attempted to judge de Pizan’s qualifications as a feminist against a set of criteria separate from any weaponization and without prioritising any geographical scholarly bias.  In line with the Anglo-European school of thought, her ability to present and articulate a representative female voice will be assessed.  Furthermore, inspired by the American school, her ability to establish tangible change within her patriarchal society will be evaluated.

Although the word ‘patriarchy’ is similarly prone to sparking lively debate in our modern society, it is relatively uncontroversial to claim that early modern Europe possessed many tangible structural features of a patriarchal system.  As the Sixteenth-century Sicilian writer Paolo Caggio surmises, ‘women follow the customs of their husbands as the law of their life; this rule is established by the Rector of Heaven, nature, and the Holy institution of marriage’; women were ordained as being the inferiors of men, mere imperfect recreations of the male form with diminished intellectual faculties, and were therefore expected to assume subservient roles.  This was a notion which had its origins in classical thinkers, along with Judeo-Christian conceptions of divine creation. Although some historians have claimed that any singular definition of the patriarchy will be unnuanced and lacking, these are the prejudices de Pizan would have been subjected to in her day-to-day life, and so will suffice. 

Christine de Pizan, valuable though her contribution to the querelle des femmes may have been, was a woman who was reared from within an elite echelon of French society.  Furthermore, in her magnum opus, Cité des Dames, many of the women she used as examples of female intellectual capacity, moral sensibility, and piety belonged to a similarly exclusive class.  Christine’s father, the person who was perhaps the most supportive of her literary endeavours, was appointed as chief astrologer to the French King Charles V, and it is likely that Christine and her family resided within one of the King’s subsidiary residences. Christine was also a party in an arranged marriage with the nobleman Etienne Castel, another man in the employ of the French monarch.  Although she suffered financial hardship following the death of her father and husband, it is clear that Christine de Pizan was a woman who was socialised within an extremely aristocratic milieu, an upbringing which had a profound effect on the sort of women she populated Cité des Dames with. 

Feminist historian Sheila Daley in her article, Mothers to Think Back Through: Who are they? The ambiguous example of Christine de Pizan, is vocal in her condemnation of Christine de Pizan’s narrow cast of characters, and its effect on the sort of argument it offers to the querelle des femmes.  Daley identifies that where de Pizan provides ample historic examples of female monarchs, warriors, intellectuals, and deities, she completely ignores the swath of influential French women who were her intellectual and artisanal contemporaries.  Daley is damning in her criticism of de Pizan, prosecuting the case that this exclusion arose from de Pizan having ‘little affection’ for ‘the realm’s trouble-makers’, and for those who existed outside of her courtly setting.  This does appear to be, however, unreasonably censorious.  De Pizan did indeed provide advice to women who belonged to artisanal families, instructing them to try and familiarise themselves with their trade so that they may ‘oversee… workers if [their] husband is absent’.  She also encouraged them to attain economic acumen so that they may advise their husbands in business transactions.  This advice is, however, infused with an inherent perspective bias.  De Pizan assumes a level of education which would have been unrealistic for many women, regardless of their station in life; de Pizan was the beneficiary of a relatively progressive father who saw the value in providing his daughter with an education.  Not all women were so lucky.  Her account of women is incomplete, and when she does peer down into the lower echelons of French society, she does so with myopic vision.  Where Delaney may suspect some malevolent motive or disdain for the lower classes, it is more likely that de Pizan’s upbringing and socialisation proscribed any genuine empathy with those from lower classes. 

Some will be quick to point out that Christine de Pizan was, in fact, an ardent proponent of the education of women, and that we should therefore incorporate her seemingly glib advice to women into a broader argument concerning female education. To make this claim, however, one must carefully examine the sort of education she encouraged women to attain, challenging the structural features of her patriarchal society.  Although many of de Pizan’s arguments are indeed progressive, the totality of patriarchy in which she lived meant that there were severe limitations applied to the change that she was actually able to make.  When she compels women to attain an education, she does so in the pursuit of Christian virtue theory which possesses an intrinsically sexist strain.  She proposes that for the common woman of the merchant or working class, all intellectual growth should be fostered in order to more properly service their husband, a rule established by ‘the Rector of Heaven’ as we previously saw.  Under de Pizan’s guidance, women were still expected to adhere to the division of labour which had been allocated by God; they were to be confined to the private sphere of early modern life, safely separated from anything so confronting as interaction with broader society. Furthermore, her aristocratic prejudice once again finds its way into her arguments regarding education; only high-born women ought to be versed in classical literature, for ‘such a lady will read books of moral instruction,’ casting texts of ‘dishonesty and lubricity’ out of her court. Where highborn women are thought as worthy to learn classical texts of moral instruction, those unfortunate enough to be lowborn must placate their thirst for knowledge, something which de Pizan values so highly, with the specifics of their household or trade.  Rather than urging women to question the legitimacy of the power structures in which they found themselves, de Pizan further entrenched power disparities by instructing women on how they can best exercise their ordained roles.

If we are not able to call Christine de Pizan an early feminist, what should we call her?  We should by no means disregard her input or consider her a minor figure in the history of gender discourse.  While we may not be able to produce a convincing argument for her feminism, we can credit her with laying the intellectual foundation upon which the feminist movement would be built.  To do this, it is helpful to step back from the specific arguments de Pizan makes in her texts, focussing instead on the function her texts played in the epistemological ecosystem of early modern Europe.  Early on in her Cité des Dames her character, Christine, ventures into and eventually clears a metaphorical ‘field of letters’, depicted in an illuminated manuscript in figure 1.  This textual feature has Christine wade through a sea of vitriolic, misogynistic, and purportedly scholarly literature so that she may clear the site upon which she will build her city of women. This task having been completed, Lady Reason quips to Christine that ‘men base their own writings upon what they have found in books,’ and that they merely ‘repeat what other writers have said’.  De Pizan calls to attention the patriarchal scholastic vacuum in which European society has existed for the last fifteen hundred years, and refutes the credibility of her misogynistic counterparts by contending that they have merely regurgitated the unsubstantiated claims of earlier writers.  By doing this, de Pizan opens a fissure within the intellectual fabric of her society.  She renders her patriarchal literary paradigm, which had previously appeared impenetrable, fallible, and creates a channel through which future feminist thinkers can articulate their ideas.  This did not have an immediate effect on the women of her time, nor did it challenge the everyday patriarchal features to which women were subject.  It did, however, make it easier for future female writers to emerge, knowing that de Pizan had identified and called out the erroneous nature of a staunchly misogynistic literary edifice. 

Fig 1. Christine De Pizan, Cité des Dames Flemish translation, Christine and Lady Reason Clearing the ‘Field of Letters’, 1475, courtesy of British Library London.

The question of whether or not we should call Christine de Pizan a feminist is neither trivial nor pedantic; deciding who should belong to and be a spokesperson for a social movement has profound implications for the mission of that very movement.  That is why a reader can actually do de Pizan a disservice by approaching her arguments from a staunchly feminist perspective.  This perspective finds de Pizan wanting and forces a reader to make concessions for her conservative views which were nothing short of inescapable during her era.  As a result, we should consider her an incipient feminist.  Her arguments and literary contributions were a step in the journey towards the articulation of a truly feminist movement and can be better appreciated if we divorce ourselves from a term as ideologically prescriptive and culturally contingent as ‘feminism’.  Just as scholars have suggested that the term ‘patriarchy’ is historically static, so too does the term ‘feminism’ lead a reader to form an unnecessarily harsh judgement of Christine de Pizan.  Her texts may lack intersectionality and fail to establish tangible change, but they are representative of an intellectual and literary awakening which would inspire a social movement which still exists today. 

Image credit

Christine De Pizan, Cité des Dames Flemish translation, Christine and Lady Reason Clearing the ‘Field of Letters’, 1475, courtesy of British Library London.


Primary Sources

De Pizan, Christine, The Treasure of the City of Ladies: or The Book of the Three Virtues. Trans.: Sarah Lawson. N. Y.: Penguin, 1985, pp. 130-133 and pp. 162-164.

De Pizan, Christine, Flemish translation “Cité des Dames,” 1475, British Library, London.

De Pizan, cited in Quilligan, “Allegory and the Textual Body: Female Authority in Christine de Pizan’s” Livre de la Cité des Dames,” 228.

Paolo Caggio in “Iconomica del Signor Paolo Caggio gentil’huomo di Palermo nella quale s’insegna brevemente per modo di dialogo il governo Famigliare, etc,” quoted in Kovesi, Catherine ‘Society, Family, and Gender in the Later Middle Ages 1320- 1520’, in Isbella Lazzarini (ed.), Short Oxford History of Europe, 1320-1520 (forthcoming, 2020).

Secondary Sources

Bell, Susan Groag. “Christine de Pizan (1364-1430): Humanism and the problem of a studious woman.” Feminist Studies 3, no. 3/4 (1976): 173-184.

Christine de Pizan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies: or The Book of the Three Virtues. Trans.: Sarah Lawson. N. Y.: Penguin, 1985, pp. 130-133 and pp. 162-164.

Delany, Sheila, and Laurie A. Finke. “Mothers to Think Back Through”: Who Are They? The Ambiguous Example of Christine de Pizan. Cornell University Press, (2019): 190.

Dembowski, Peter F. “Christine De Pizan, “the Book of the City of Ladies”, Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (Book Review).” Romance Philology 39, no. 1 (Aug 01, 1985): 125, (accessed May 29, 2021).

Ferguson, Margaret W., Maureen Quilligan, Nancy Vickers, and Catherine R. Stimpson, eds. Rewriting the Renaissance: the discourses of sexual difference in early modern Europe. University of Chicago Press, (1986): 109.

Hindman, Sandra L. “With Ink and Mortar: Christine De Pizan’s “Cité Des Dames”.” Feminist Studies 10, no. 3 (1984): 457-83. Accessed May 20, 2021. doi:10.2307/3178038.

Jansen, Sharon L., “Reading Women’s World’s from Christine de Pizan to Doris Lessing.” 2, Palgrave macmillan no. 3 (2011): 8-41.

Offen, Karen. “Defining feminism: A comparative historical approach.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14, no. 1 (1988): 119-157.

Quilligan, Maureen. “Allegory and the Textual Body: Female Authority in Christine de Pizan’s” Livre de la Cité des Dames”.” Romanic review 79, no. 1 (1988): 222.

Smith, Nicholas D. “Plato and Aristotle on the Nature of Women.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 21, no. 4 (1983): 467-478.

1 thought on “Christine de Pizan’s Contestable Feminism”

  1. A really articulate and methodical article. Reminds me of taking “Medieval War, Plague and Heresy” back in the day! Really interesting discussion about how to consider historical figures and their ideas, including relating to modern ideas (such as feminism).


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