NOTE: As I was looking at grad school this past year, I realized part of my goals – to be more well-versed in feminist history and theory – didn’t require actually going to school; it just required more reading and thinking. As such, I picked up The Essential Feminist Reader (which I’ll be shortening to TEFR) a collection of 64 essays and excerpts on feminist from the last six hundred years. Because they’re all delightfully short (an average of about seven pages each) it seems like an approachable way to dive into what I hope will be a much larger self-directed course of study. My goal is to read at least one essay a week from TEFR and respond to each one over the course of the coming months. I expect the responses to be varied a summary and commentary (like today), a free-writing process, a poem, whatever feels right at the time.
The first selection from TEFR is by Christine de Pizan (1365-1430), an excerpt from one of her books, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405). It was striking in thar – up until the very end – the piece seemed incredibly contemporary. Undoubtedly, part of that is due to the translation and part due to the selection of excerpts (an entire book boiled into six pages). Still, take this quote:
I could hardly find a book on morals where, even before I had read it in its entirety I did not find several chapters or certain sections attacking women, no matter who the author was. This reason alone, in short, made me conclude that, although my intellect did not perceive my own great faults and, likewise, those of other women because of its simpleness and ignorance, it was however truly fitting that such was the case. And so I relied more on the judgement of others than on what I myself felt and knew. (Emphasis added)
That final line resonantes strongly with me. It is certainly true that women have a better place in society than they did in 1405. No argument there. And yet, if someone wrote the above paragraph today, they might be accused of exaggeration or hyperbole, but their point would still be well understood.
If it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons.
The gender gap in education: nature or nurture? A discussion still being held today.
Men allow themselves liberties which they are unwilling to tolerate in women and thus they – and they are many – perpetrate many insults and outrages in word and deed.
It would be difficult to come up with a better description of ‘double standard.’
Where de Pizan loses me is in her final conclusion. I’m right with her that women should be “well-informed in all things” so as to “make liars” of those who would call women stupid or less than men. I don’t agree, however, that women need to be “cautious in defending [their] honor and chastity” and to “show forth their virtue.” de Pizan seems to be arguing that women should elevate themselves beyond reproach, rather than redefining gender roles to allow women and men more flexibility.
I realize part her conclusion is a stylistic choice, and to make her writing more palatable to a hostile audience. Still, it makes me think of the gay rights movement and gay marriage, in contrast with LGBT rights and marriage equality. They former has gotten a lot of a lot of millage out of the “we’re just like you” mantra, and it’s understandable why: it’s an emotionally resonant argument, and has enough truth to be incredibly compelling. But it leaves out the people who aren’t “like you” – who do want non-monogamous marriages, or to identify as genderqueer, or to otherwise operate outside of social norms. With de Pizan, it does seem unrealistic to expect someone born 650 years ago to jump on the bandwagon of a sexual revolution that wouldn’t occur for over half a millenium.
All in all, I am impressed (and pleasantly surprised) at how easy TEFR is to dive into, and how satisfying it is to have what seemed like a scary reading project broken into really manageable chunks. I’m psyched for what’s next.