Christine de Pizan: The Forgotten Renaissance Feminist

Christine de Pizan and The City of Ladies” (CC BY 2.0) by Cea.

Most discussions about the origins of the feminist movement pinpoint the 18th century and the Age of Enlightenment as the time when women’s rights were first contemplated and defended by philosophers and writers.

Pioneering thinkers of the period such as Jeremy Bentham advocated equal rights for women, sexual freedom, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the abolition of slavery and animal rights. Around the same time, Mary Wollstonecraft established herself as one of the first prominent feminist philosophers, before her life was tragically cut short by septicemia in 1797.

However, almost 400 years before Wollstonecraft was born, another important commentator on the rights of women was born in Venice, Italy. Her name was Christine de Pizan.

The astrologer’s daughter

Originally born as Cristina da Pizzano, her name was altered after her family moved to France when she was just four years old. Her father was a physician who also practiced astrology, which had become popular amongst the royals and nobles of the time. As a result, he was invited to France by Charles V of France to work as the King’s Astrologer.

Unlike modern times, where people can easily access astrological readings and advice online and on the phone, as we see from the popularity of platforms such as TheCircle, which recommends a roster of talented psychics, astrology in the late Middle Ages was a practice exclusive and reserved for the European upper classes. Most Kings and Queens hired personal astrologers who often worked alongside their religious advisors, and de Pizan’s father was one of those.

Christine de Pizan in her Studies” (CC BY 2.0) by Cea.

Writing career

After the death of her father in 1388, followed by that of her husband from the plague a year later, there was a dispute over the family estate and Christine began writing to support her mother and family. In 1402, she wrote a book titled ‘The Tale of the Rose’, which challenged the misogyny of another book, ‘The Romance of the Rose’, written by Jean de Meun. The two authors debated their respective points via a series of letters in the following years.

In 1405, de Pizan published her most famous work, ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’, which imagined a city where women were appreciated for their achievements and contributions to society, and where their rights were defended.

Through the allegorical voices of Reason, Justice, and Rectitude, the book opens a dialogue that brings confidently to the fore a female perspective – a concept that was unheard of at the time. It suggested that female stereotypes could be dispelled by bringing women into the conversation at every level and sector of society.

Rediscovered

Overall, the feminist pioneer published 41 pieces of work including poetry and prose, and made a point of collaborating with other women on her projects including illustrators and editors. Her work remained in print until the 16th century. She was rediscovered in the 20th century, becoming a source of inspiration for modern feminist thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir.

Between 1974 and 1970, artist Judy Chicago created the work known as ‘The Dinner Party’, which features 39 place settings for mythical and historical famous women including Cristina de Pizan. It became an icon of 1970s feminist art and can still be viewed at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn Museum.

Christine de PIzan presents her book” (CC by 2.0) by Cea.

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