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Rethinking Womens History

As I was driving home from taking a class this week, I gave thanks for the opportunity to get an education. My great-grandmother was not so blessed—because she was a woman.

When I watch “Sense and Sensibility,” I have to remind myself that not so many years ago women were disallowed from inheriting property.

When I voted in the general election last year, I exercised a right that my female ancestors didn’t share (and that women in Iraq are only now beginning to enjoy).

When I worked for an insurance company, I was paid on the basis of my performance, not my gender.

How easy it is to take such blessings for granted. Not so many decades ago, circumstances were much different. And the changes for the better are thanks, in great part, to the Bible….

On the first day of a secular class I took in “Women and Revolutions,” a fellow student with a master’s degree in theology gave her take on the biblical story of Adam and Eve: she saw it as presenting men and women as equals. Another student immediately suggested that such a reading of the text, though laudable, was probably a recent invention by modern feminists rather than the intent of the original author.

Assigned readings throughout the course included documents written during the Restoration Period, and they often included godly women who used the Bible as the intellectual foundation for pro-woman arguments. So I proposed a hypothesis that the use of the Bible to argue for women’s equality began not (as I had been taught) as a result of second-wave feminism; rather, it developed earlier, during the time of the revolutions. While people rethought equality as it related to citizenship, I supposed, they also reconsidered their views about men and women.

Yet I, too, turned out to be mistaken.

I had begun by looking at some key 18th- and 19th-century female influencers and was able to establish that, indeed, many arguing on behalf of women used the Bible to bolster their defenses. Yet I ended up having to go back much further in history to answer the question, “At what point did people begin to believe that the Bible and pro-woman perspectives were compatible?”

I stopped around A.D. 1400, when I found the earliest known female freelance writer—Christine de Pizan (c. 1365-c.1430). She pre-dated the printing press, and it was difficult to find many women’s writings before that time. But what we learn from de Pizan tells us a lot.

To put her in her context, we must know that writers from Boccaccio to Mary Wollstonecraft writing in the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries worked furiously to address a key question: Do women have any virtues? Their debate about the nature of women is called the querelle des femmes. Those who wrote in defense of women as part of this debate participated in an exercise through which most early pro-equality thinking evolved. Much of the discourse appeared in the form of written dialogue. And Christine de Pizan figures prominently in this debate.

Historian Joan Kelly pointed to de Pizan as the first modern woman. Earl Jeffrey Richards, in his Introduction to a translation of de Pizan’s The City of Ladies, places her among both the outstanding writers of world literature and the most neglected. He notes that she was the first to speak in the vernacular about women’s issues, doing so by providing intellectual opposition to misogyny.

Christine de Pizan moved to Paris at age three when her father became astrologer and physician in Charles V’s court. Against the counsel of his wife, de Pizan’s father personally provided his daughter with a classical education (unheard of!), enabling her ultimately to excel at writing both verse and prose.

Through her literary skills, Christine de Pizan challenged misogynous views, particularly those expressed in a widely read thirteenth-century composition, Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose). This and numerous other works had done much to persuade the populace that women lacked the virtues men possessed.

De Pizan launched an attack on such views. Drawing on multiple sources, including Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women (c. 1360) and the Bible, De Pizan also combined elements from mythology and Roman history (such as the mythical queen Dido’s building of Carthage) with imagery from Augustine’s City of God to make her case. The allusion to Augustine’s work in her own book’s title places her within the Christian tradition of political philosophy.

Writers of dialogues from Plato to Castiglione used historical persons engaging in fictional conversations to add authority to their words, but the ultimate validation in the Early Modern Period was to provide a religious basis for understanding female inferiority. De Pizan’s result was a brilliant didactic allegory that catalogued the achievements of historical, mythological, biblical, and contemporary women.

De Pizan’s positive view of the Bible is evident throughout her book as she cites examples of biblical women, carefully selecting those who challenge her culture’s misogynistic ideals. Such biblical women included (but were not limited to) Queen Esther, who involved herself in a political struggle to save her people (II.32.1); the prophetess, Deborah, who judged Israel (II.4.1); the virgin Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, who prophesied about the child in Mary’s womb before Mary even announced her pregnancy (II.4.1); and the queen of Sheba, who traveled for miles to gain an education from wise King Solomon (II.4.2).

Yet de Pizan used more than the stories of women’s triumphs in the Bible to argue her case. Referring to Genesis 1:26–27, she wrote this:

“There Adam slept, and God formed the body of woman from one of his ribs, signifying that she should stand at his side as a companion and never lie at his feet like a slave, and also that he should love her as his own flesh… She was created in the image of God. How can any mouth dare to slander the vessel which bears such a noble imprint?” (1.9.2).

What’s most significant about de Pizan is that she demonstrates conclusively that from a time that predates the printing press, we find a woman, a godly woman, using the biblical text to argue for women's social equality.

A secular scholar concludes that it was the language of religious texts and the examples of pious women who preceded them which were used most often to argue in defense of all humans. And as has been demonstrated, that tradition continued through—rather than finding its beginning in—the period of revolutions.

Thus, faith (and, more specifically, words from the biblical text) appears to have played a significant role in woman’s advancement. Influential advocates—male and female alike—saw in the Bible words, stories, and ideas that provided them with the foundation they needed to argue for and eventually create a world in which women could learn, inherit, vote, and make a just wage.

We give modern secular feminists far too much credit.

Related Topics: History, Women's Articles