The World’s First Feminist?

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Why you should care

Because the fight against patriarchy began long before the burning of bras.

Meet the badass women that history forgot — but we didn’t. Check out the rest of this OZY series here.

If you ask a feminist today who her idol is, she might say Simone de Beauvoir. But if you had asked the French intellectual, she would probably have told you it was Christine de Pizan — a woman from the 1400s. 

In de Beauvoir’s best-known book The Second Sex, she wrote that de Pizan was the “first woman to take up a pen to defend her sex.” This French medieval author and intellectual, who served in the court of Charles V, not only managed to make a name for herself as a writer in a time when few women knew how to read, she was also a prominent defender of women’s rights. Of course calling de Pizan a “feminist” is an anachronism, and there’s no evidence to support that she was “the first,” as de Beauvoir wrote. But she certainly made the most of her exceptional upbringing and natural gift for the quill. 

De Pizan was born in Venice in 1364 to an astronomer father who moved her to France at the age of 5 and taught her to read and write. She married a royal secretary at 15, and her new husband continued to encourage her studies. It was his death, however, that would put de Pizan on a path to fame. Lawsuits tied up her husband’s estate for years, so she turned to writing, not as a pastime but as the only way to provide for her mother and three young children. 

The idea of a woman writer was so strange that it intrigued the court’s patrons, who began asking her to write ballads for them.

She began with one of the only literary tasks women were involved in at the time: copying and illustrating books. But she also started writing long, mournful ballads about her departed husband. “It is very difficult to keep one’s pain bottled up,” she wrote. “Fortune could not hurt me so deeply to keep me from having the company of the poets’ muses. They induced me to write tearful complaints in rhyme, to lament my dead beloved husband.” 

The idea of a woman writer was so strange that it intrigued the court’s patrons, who began asking de Pizan to write ballads for them. Her reputation grew parallel to her productivity. Between 1393 and 1412, she composed more than 300 ballads and became a well-respected author. 

Besides a talented scribe, de Pizan was also an intellectual who enjoyed engaging in the literary debates of her time. And no book did she despise more than the Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), written in the 13th century by Jean de Meun. De Pizan thought this classic of courtly literature slandered women by depicting them as vain, manipulative seducers and spoke openly against it.

“Yet if women are so flighty, fickle, changeable, susceptible and inconstant (as some clerks would have us believe), why is it that their suitors have to resort to such trickery to have their way with them? And why don’t women quickly succumb to them, without the need for all this skill and ingenuity in conquering them? For there is no need to go to war for a castle that is already captured,” de Pizan argued in her 1399 text, “The Letter of the God of Love.”

Determined to fight the negative gender stereotypes of her time, she wrote her most famous book, The Book of the City of Ladies, a surprisingly entertaining read about an allegorical city built by history’s greatest ladies. Its founders are three female figures called “virtues” — Reason, Justice and Rectitude — who appear to de Pizan when she’s debating with herself whether men could be right about women’s vile nature. The virtues answer her questions and reassure her by telling her tale after tale of talented and powerful females throughout history.

In between the stories of Helen of Troy, Dido and the Queen of Sheba, de Pizan makes a strong case for the education of women. “Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.” 

Women particularly should concern themselves with peace because men by nature are more foolhardy and headstrong …

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies

Yes, women’s rights have come a long way since the times of knights and princesses, but Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize suggests that the pledge of that exceptional medieval writer is still needed today. And perhaps there’s never been a better time to think about de Pizan’s views on women’s role as peace builders. 

“Women particularly should concern themselves with peace because men by nature are more foolhardy and headstrong, and their overwhelming desire to avenge themselves prevents them from foreseeing the resulting dangers and terrors of war.”

Video by Charlotte Buchen


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