The City of Ladies is heralded as being one of the earliest and most important works of feminist literature. Christine de Pizan (1365-1430) was one of the first women in Europe to earn a living as a writer. Her education, to which this text will attest, is a startling accomplishment at a time when the world was largely illiterate. However, as de Pizan makes clear, she is only one among an illustrious group of learned women who are as pious and virtuous as they are intelligent.
The City of Ladies centers on Christine, who is pondering the misogyny of the literary world until she is visited by three otherworldly (and metaphorical) ladies: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. These goddesses ask her, through her reason and her writing, to build for them an allegorical city of ladies to which they will invite women of intelligence and virtue from all over the world to come and live, with the Virgin Mary as their queen. While this city is being erected, Christine poses questions to each of the three ladies about the claims and stereotypes made about women by scholarly men. Such questions include women's ability to learn, their talent for leadership and government, and why men believe that women want to be raped.
While this text is mainly a response to Boccacio's On Famous Women, it also references a very famous text at the time - The Romance of the Rose by Jean de Mehun, as well as Ovid, Matheolus, and others. The City of Ladies is de Pizan's attempt at a dialogue with respected and learned male philosophers and writers who claim that women have no capacity for education and are imperfect in mind, body, and soul. Through Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, she shows that throughout history, women have proven to be men's equals intellectually, as well as being paragons of virtue. Such women as Sappho, Lucretia, St. Catherine, Queen Ceres, Nicostrata, and many more are used as examples to refute the male claims of female inferiority.
I do have some problems with this as a feminist text. Throughout, de Pizan refers to the monstrous women, those who go against the female nature, which is to be pure, meek, and timid. This book makes it clear that the only worthwhile woman is pious and chaste, and that if she is married, she must live only for her husband and cater to his every need. At least a couple of examples are cited of this - Portia, who killed herself because she couldn't live without her husband, who was slain after he assassinated Julius Caesar; and Queen Hypsicratea, who gave up all her comforts of home to follow her husband as he went into battle. Both are held up as examples to be emulated. Women's physical inferiority is also discussed, and it is concluded that women are delicate and weak compared to men, although this is contradicted when Reason tells the tales of the Amazons, who were brave women warriors.
For such a slim volume, The City of Ladies packs a lot of both Biblical and mythological history. Rosalind Brown-Grant's modern translation makes it easy to read, so it is accessible to everyone. While there are several chapters missing, what does remain makes Christine de Pizan's case convincing - that there has been a long history of women who have done much for society, and are unfairly slandered in literature. This might not be a particularly good leisure read, but its importance as a scholarly, historical, and feminist text makes it worthwhile.