History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

By Judith M. Bennett | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Feminist History and Women’s History

In 1405, Christine de Pizan, an Italian humanist who spent most of her life in France, set out to rebut the misogynistic literature of her time. Crafting what was to become the first major feminist tract in the Western tradition, Christine de Pizan turned, again and again, to the feminist promise of history. In The Book of the City of Ladies, she described a city populated with the great women of the past—Queen Esther, who saved the Jews; the Sabine women who solidified peace between the Romans and their neighbors; Clothilda, who brought Christianity to the Franks; and of course, the Virgin Mary and various other notable female saints. By focusing on the accomplishments of these admirable women, Christine de Pizan used women’s history to demonstrate the grievous errors of those who lambasted the female sex as inherently weak and evil. She also turned to these historical women to inspire ordinary women in her own day: “My ladies, see how these men accuse you of so many vices in everything. Make liars of them all by showing forth your virtue, and prove their attacks false by acting well.” In the hands of Christine de Pizan, history was a feminist tool for celebrating women’s past accomplishments, rebutting the accusations of those who maligned women, and urging women to greater goals.1

Some six hundred years later, probably no one would consider The Book of the City of Ladies an ideal example of feminist history; its tone is too polemical, its sources too mythical, its perspective too elitist, and its examples too much in the mode of “women worthies.” But Christine de Pizan inaugurated a tradition of feminist history that has long endured.2 In the centuries since she wrote, some of our greatest feminists have found inspiration in history (think, for example, of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Simone de Beauvoir), and some of our greatest historians have been motivated, at least in part, by feminism (Catherine Macaulay, Eileen Power, and Mary Beard are a few classic examples). In the 1970s, the link between feminism and history was simultaneously broadened and deepened. On the one hand, the fern-

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