Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Building a City of Ladies with Christine De Pizan and Arkansas State University Honors Students

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Building a City of Ladies with Christine De Pizan and Arkansas State University Honors Students

Article excerpt

In "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," Adrienne Rich--American poet, feminist, and social critic--expressed exhilaration and confusion in being alive "in a time of awakening consciousness" (18). Self-knowledge, Rich emphasized, eludes us until we recognize and question the basic assumptions that shape our perspectives. Re-visioning is an important part of this process. For Rich, re-visioning is not the meticulous correcting of our comma splices and dangling modifiers but "the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction" (18). The task Rich set before herself is not just the work of a feminist poet in the 1970s but an appropriate intellectual challenge for honors students in any decade. Interdisciplinary honors seminars should encourage students to move beyond the platitudes and prejudices of the past and examine a variety of issues with fresh perspective.

In the fall of 2003 I taught an honors seminar at Arkansas State University that engaged students in the act of re-visioning. The course focused on medieval and early modern women writers and was designed to dispel the misconception that the literary, artistic, and cultural contributions of these women were nil or at best insignificant. The audience for the course was a group of junior and senior students from the ASU Honors Program. Their majors were diverse and included Psychology, Radio-TV, Graphic Design, History, Marketing, Theatre Arts, English, and even the ubiquitous Undecided. Not all of these students took the course because they were interested in the subject; some simply needed an honors seminar to fulfill requirements for graduation.

In part at least the model for the course was Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine de Pizan was engaged in the act of re-visioning long before Adrienne Rich ever addressed the subject. As Maureen Gillespie Dawson has noted, the aim of The City of Ladies "is to contest the contemporary, pervasive belief that women are unintelligent, unfaithful, insatiable, and immoral. The book systematically challenges what men have written about women; it builds an alternative, authoritative female identity grounded in the intellectual, artistic, and moral contributions of women" (17). Recognized as an important contribution to the history of the psychology of oppression, The City of Ladies begins by depicting the process by which a despised person accepts the judgment of her oppressor and consequently despises herself and all her sex. At the beginning of the work, the character Christine is ready to succumb to the misogynist views of the male authorities she has read, especially Matheolus. Just as she is about to be overwhelmed by self-contempt and despair because she is female, the three daughters of God-Reason, Rectitude, and Justice--appear to her and engage her in the task of building a city of women, a project whose end is to vanquish from the world the same error into which Christine had fallen. Appearing to Christine because she has always been a diligent searcher for truth, the divine ladies proceed to address negative stereotypes about women prevalent in the time by summoning countless examples of those whose lives refute the stereotype. These examples are drawn from scripture, mythology, history, literature, and Christine de Pizan's contemporary experience. In highlighting the capabilities, virtues, and achievements of numerous women, the work counters misogynist voices throughout time.

Unlike Christine de Pizan, our seminar did not have the heavenly assistance of three crowned ladies; rather, we had to muddle through without divine intervention. The course, however, was intended to demonstrate to students that there really were learned women in the medieval and early modern period, that some of these women were responsible for significant works that continue to speak to us today. Our city of women was populated by Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Christine de Pizan, Aemilia Lanyer, and Elizabeth Cary. …

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