When we think of early feminist theorists, Mary Wollstonecraft and other founding members of the women’s liberation movement come to mind. Feminist ideology is definitely not traditionally associated with the Renaissance.

But one of the earliest examples of feminist political thought can indeed be found in this hive of courtly virtue, religious divides, and absolute monarchy.

A feminist was born

While sources argue about exact dates, Christine de Pizan (or de Pisan) was born in Venice, Italy, in the 1360s.

Her father Thomas was a physician and astrologer who took up employment in the French court under Charles V.  Unique for the age, and despite her mother’s protests, Thomas encouraged his daughter to learn under his tutelage, an education that continued when she married Etienne de Castel.

By 1390 disaster had struck: Charles V had died, her father had lost his job and then his life, and her husband succumbed to an epidemic. Faced with supporting her mother and four young children, de Pizan utilised her extensive aristocratic networks to establish a career as a court writer.

And write she did. Over the course of her 30-year career, de Pizan wrote around 40 works, including both prose and poetry, providing advice for princes, princesses, women, and military commanders.

In 1418, de Pizan retired from writing and the court, joining her daughter in a convent outside of Paris. She died in 1430, after one last literary foray lending her support to the famous French heroine in The Poem of Joan of Arc.

Perhaps most important was de Pizan’s input into the Querrelle de la Rose, paving the way for the Querrelle des Femmes that followed a century later. A poem called Roman de la Rose, expanded by Jean de Meun and attacking women’s rationality and virtue, had become incredibly popular.

De Pizan went on the attack against what she saw as a misogynistic diatribe, becoming the world’s first feminist ‘letter to the editor’ writer.

She wrote scathing critiques of the poem and a rational defense of women, which she sent to the Queen of France, book publishers and the like.

A place in history

While it seems that de Pizan cannot claim to have directly influenced modern feminist thought, her works were incredibly influential and well respected within the aristocracy of Europe, both during her life and in the century that followed.

There is no denying de Pizan is a product of her times. She never sought political franchise for women and encouraged them to be submissive to their husbands, fathers, and the Church.

Instead, her plea for respect is more subtle and, arguably, more relevant to the demands of modern feminists than those of the Suffragettes at the turn of the 19th Century.

My blog series on Christine de Pizan is a part of my goal to ensure that her contribution to feminist theory, and political thought in general, is finally given the attention it deserves. I plan to juxtapose de Pizan’s arguments for female rationality and intelligence with those of modern political thinkers to explore how far, or not, we have come in the fight for gender equality.

De Pizan called for the recognition of ‘herstory’ 500 years before the term entered the feminist discourse. It is testament to our lack of progress that she is relegated to a relative unknown in political history.

By ignoring de Pizan and her potential for influence, modern feminist thinkers have fallen into the same trap as the male writers who came before them. As Christine de Pizan herself argues, ignorance can be forgiven in the reader but never in a writer. My work is an attempt to counteract that ignorance.

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