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Breaking Down Patriarchy - Amy McPhie Allebest EPISODE 6, 29th December 2020
The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, by Gerda Lerner
00:00:00 01:17:15

The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, by Gerda Lerner

Amy:

Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we are going to discuss another of Gerda Lerner’s contributions to Women’s History. It’s a logical follow-up to her book The Creation of Patriarchy, which showed the way human beings instituted societal structures wherein men ruled women, from prehistory through the time of the Greeks. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness picks up right about where The Creation of Patriarchy leaves off, at the beginning of the common era, and it continues through the 19th Century. It’s also an exciting text because it documents women’s own writings as they began to wake up and become aware of their subordinate status and try to free themselves of their own internalized sense of inferiority. 

But before we start, I’d like to introduce my reading partner, Janette Canare. Hi, Janette!

Janette:

Hi, Amy! Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here! 

Amy:

Can you tell us about yourself?

Janette:

Well, I currently live in California with my husband Jeff and our two kids, a daughter in high school and a son in college.

I’ve lived in California for most of my life now, moving to Silicon Valley for a tech start up in the early 90s. Most people that I meet tend to assume that I grew up in California, but I was born and raised in Virginia. My parents were the first generation to immigrate from the Philippines, moving to Norfolk in the mid-1960s, where my dad was in the Navy. I grew up attending parochial school through high school, but since my 20s I’ve considered myself a lapsed Catholic.

These days, I’m currently working towards a master’s degree in the humanities, as you know. Being back to school has kept me pretty busy, but I do enjoy being outdoors--whether hiking, gardening, or for photography. I also love art, theatre, and travelling and hope one day to be able to resume that.

Amy:

I hope so too - when you finally make it to Paris I am going to visit you there!! And then I also want to ask you what interested you in this project. 

Janette:

My interest in the topic of the patriarchy is two-fold. First, from an academic standpoint, my first year of graduate school was spent reading the foundational texts of the Western canon. In two quarters, we covered 2,000 years reading over 20 books, but of those 20, only two were written by women! I recall that it was a “collective lightbulb moment” shared between most of the women in my program...that in 2 millenia, only two books from women were represented. It was crushing to consider that for some reason, women had produced so few surviving works during the same period that gave us Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Descartes, and so on. Just saying these names, we think of their contributions to Western Civ. But where were the women?

My second interest in this topic is more personal. Looking at the literature of women’s history is also motivated by my desire to better understand my own mother. She was born in the 1930s and whether due to World War II or other reasons, she herself grew up to be very motivated to pursue both her education and a career. From the stories she told me as I grew up, she was very proud of her career in the Philippines, and coming to this country, she continued to work in her field. Yet, growing up I was very aware of the fact that when it came to decision-making, my mom would always default to my father. I never really understood why until I started to understand more about the patriarchy. Suddenly, things started to click into place--patterns of behavior that I noticed in my mom and now sometimes notice in myself.

So thank you for asking me to participate in this project! I’m excited to discuss Gerda Lerner’s book with you.

Amy:

I’m excited too! So to set the stage, I thought we could share some quotes by prominent men during the centuries that this book covers, the 1st through 18th Centuries, in the part of the world that this book covers, which is basically Christianized Europe. It’s a small part of the world, but these attitudes have had a big impact through the spread of Christianity and colonization all over the world. So in preparation for discussing the book, let’s take turns reading these thoughts on women from some of the influential thinkers of the time.

Janette, do you want to start, and we’ll just take turns.

Janette:

“[For women] the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.”

–Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c. 150-215) 

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Amy:

“In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell.”

 Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c. 160-225)

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Janette:

 “Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.”

 –Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius (354-430)

(JC) This is the same Augustine who wrote Confessions and City of God.

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Amy:

“Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one's guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”

 –Saint Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century

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Janette:

“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence." 

—Saint Thomas Aquinas, 13th century  

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Amy:

 “Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children.”

 –Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546) 

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Janette:

“Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.

John Calvin, Reformer (1509-1564)

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Amy:

“Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. . . . of what importance is your character to mankind, if you were buried just now. Or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God?”

 –John Wesley, founder of Methodist movement (1703-1791), letter to his wife, July 15, 1774

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Amy:

So throughout the podcast my readers and I will talk about the definitions of words - a couple of episodes ago Malia and I talked a lot about the terms patriarchy and matriarchy, and what they technically refer to. We talked about cultures being matrifocal, or matrilocal, or matrilinear, etc., and I think it’s really useful to have a working vocabulary that is as precise as possible. So I want to use this opportunity, as we just read all of those quotes, to talk about the word misogyny. Misogyny is used to describe all kinds of practices and attitudes that are unfriendly to women, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the etymology of the word is Greek: it’s miso, which means “hatred of,” like some of my kids have a condition called “miso-phonia,” where they have an extreme hatred of certain sounds. Or someone who is mis-anthropic hates people, because anthro means people. So the other half of miso-gyny, is gyny, which means woman. Like gynecology is the study of women’s bodies. Or andro means man, and gyny means woman, so androgyny means man-woman, or both (or neutral). 

I think it’s worth pointing out that most of the quotes we just heard are not benevolently patriarchal, like a dad that wants to protect his daughter and accidentally limits her because he’s too protective. They’re not misguidedly sexist, like the Victorian cult of domesticity that tells women that the most noble and beautiful calling is motherhood, so they shouldn’t leave home and should be content being “the angel in the house.” No. This is real misogyny. And there’s power in calling it what it is, and in reserving that word for real contempt against women.

Anyway… we started with quotes by Church fathers because that’s where we are on our historical timeline, and I’ll read just one quote from Lerner about the role of Christianity during these centuries in Europe.

Whether women were religious or not, they were confronted by the core texts of the Bible, which were used for centuries by patriarchal authorities to define the proper roles for women in society and to justify the subordination of women: Genesis, the Fall and St. Paul. Since male objections to women thinkin , teaching and speaking in public were for centuries based on biblical authority, the development of feminist Bible criticism can be seen as an appropriate and perhaps not unexpected response to the constraints and limitations imposed upon women’s intellectual development by religiously sanctioned gender definitions. These biblical core texts sat like huge boulders across the paths women had to travel in order to define themselves as equals of men.

[Also], the Bible was the one text available to them. (138)

So we are going to dive into the text now, taking turns highlighting a few of the main points that stood out most to us. 

Janette:

Here’s our first point...

Point 1. Women absorbed the message of their own inferiority

This is what Gerda Lerner says about this:

The fact that women were denied knowledge of the existence of Women’s History decisively and negatively affected their intellectual development as a group. Women who did not know that others like them had made intellectual contributions to knowledge and to creative thought were overwhelmed by the sense of their own inferiority or, conversely, the sense of the dangers of their daring to be different. Without knowledge of women’s past, no group of women could test their own ideas against those of their equals, those who had come out of similar conditions and similar life situations. Every thinking woman had to argue with the “great man” in her head, instead of being strengthened and encouraged by her foremothers. For thinking women, the absence of Women’s History was perhaps the most serious obstacle of all to their intellectual growth. (12)

Example: Lerner gives written evidence from as early as the 8th century of women experiencing this sense of inferiority. She writes about Hugeburc [HHOO-ger-borg], a nun who settled in Germany in 762. Hugeburc [HHOO-ger-borg] was educated and well-known in her time for writing two biographies about two brothers, a bishop and an abbott.  Her biography for the abbot also chronicled the conversion of the Germans and Franks to Christianity. Therefore, her work is considered to be a historical text. Yet, despite her achievements and renown, this is how she speaks of herself in the Prologue of one of her books:

“I am unworthy… I who am as it were a puny creature compared with my fellow-Christians… especially corruptible through the womanly frail foolishness of my sex, not supported by any prerogative of wisdom or exalted by the energy of great strength… [she also calls herself] an ignorant creature… (51)

Now during the middle ages, Lerner explains, there was a literary convention called the “humility topos.” This was the practice of writers to use the argument of their ignorance as a foil to “heighten the power and effect of their miraculous inspiration” (51). In other words, for dramatic effect, writers of this time would claim their ignorance until they received divine inspiration. Despite this custom, Lerner points out that Hugeburc’s prologue differs from the humility topos. In essence, Hugeburc’s [HHOO-ger-borg’s] words are an apology to her reader for being a woman who thinks and writes. Her plaintive words indicate her belief in her own inferiority. As a result of this inferiority, Hugeburc’s  words reveal the “agonizing struggle” within her mind and soul (51).

Amy:

Point 2: **Iconic Gerda Lerner concept: Reinventing the wheel:

Men develop ideas and systems of explanation by absorbing past knowledge and critiquing and superseding it. Women, ignorant of their own history, did not know what women before them had thought and taught. So, generation after generation, they struggled for insights others had already had before them. I illustrate this by surveying women’s bible criticism over a period of one thousand years and show the endless repetition of effort, the constant reinventing of the wheel. (19)

[Lerner highlights SO MANY women in this book, all through the centuries when I didn’t know any women were writing at all. She points out, “notice that this is exactly what so-and-so said hundreds of years before. She had no knowledge of her writings.” And I have had this experience myself! If I go back through my own personal journals I see myself laboring and struggling to figure out what I was perceiving and why things felt “off.” In reading these books I have discovered exact ideas and trains of thought that took me YEARS of mental toil to develop - I could have saved myself so much heartache and effort if had known someone else had already thought of it!! And I wouldn’t have felt so alone all those years.]

Janette:

[These points drive home for me why the book is so powerful! Points 1 & 2 are inextricably linked. While Lerner speaks of both points in terms of the effects on groups of women, I think each of us women experiences both of these points on an individual level.

Much of our own self-perception of our inferiority derives from feeling alone...not realizing that countless other women before, after, and during our time HAVE EXPERIENCED AND FELT THE SAME.

My hunch is that there are mechanisms embedded in the patriarchy so that this experience of being a remote “Other” who is outside acceptable norms comes with a type of "social shame" so that we are less likely to speak of our experiences and come together in support of each other. It is why Lerner is right that we need to know our own history as women.]

Amy:

I absolutely agree! In terms of mechanisms embedded in patriarchy, I think specifically of the prohibition of education. That’s a really common tactic for oppressors to restrict the education of the people they want to subjugate because they know if they start to read, they will start to ask questions, and they’ll find camaraderie with like-minded people and become emboldened to question the oppressor’s power.

Janette:

Point 3: The Educational Disadvantaging of Women

The word that comes to mind for this section of Lerner’s book is the term “deprivation,” which she repeats in her description of Sarah Grimké. Born in 1792 in Charleston, South Carolina, as the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, she later became an abolitionist and suffragist.

In her youth, Grimké was aware of the shortcomings of her education, particularly in contrast to the classical education received by her brothers. 

Here’s a quote from Grimké: “With me learning was a passion… Had I received the education I craved and been bred to the profession of the law, I might have been a useful member of society, and instead of myself and my property being taken care of, I might have been a protector of the helpless.

Many a woman shudders… at the terrible eclipse of those intellectual powers which in early life seemed prophetic of usefulness and happiness… It is because we feel we have powers which are crushed, responsibilities which we are not permitted to exercise… rights vested in us as moral and intellectual beings which are utterly ignored and trampled upon.. It is because we feel this so keenly we now demand an equal education with man.” (22)

Reading these words gave me immediate pangs of restless frustration for Grimké. She was absolutely aware that she was being deprived from developing into her full potential.  Her pain is palpable as she is fully conscious of the unfairness that she is deprived from education due to gender. Her parents recognized her intelligence, but they were both adamant that she would not cross over the expectations for women of their class. Her father was a prominent attorney and judge and she also wanted to pursue a career in law. Her father let her borrow his law books, but would not allow her to learn Latin to further her studies. There is a sense of hard limits placed on the education of women, without any account of their intellectual ability or personal agence. In contrast to Sarah, her brothers received every educational opportunity.

This sense of “not being chosen” by a power of authority, in this case, both her father and mother, also feeds into the experience of inferiority that we pointed out earlier. It also maddeningly encodes and ensures the pattern that men should lead and women should follow.

[Not sure if this belongs in the Podcast, but would love to know your thoughts and feelings in response to this part of the quote.]

Education becomes institutionalized when elites - military, religious or political - need to assure their position in power by means of training a group to serve and perpetuate their interests. ...Since women were excluded from military, religious and political elites, they were considered to have little need for formalized learning. On the other hand, daughters of the elites, such as princesses and noble women who might have to serve as stand-ins for sons or husband, were as carefully tutored and trained as their brothers. Education was a class privilege for both sexes. (23)

Example: A law promulgated by King Henry VIII of England prohibited “all women other than gentle- and noble-women together with artificers, journeymen, husbandmen, labourers and serving men… from reading the Bible in English either in private or to others.” All women except noblewomen are classed with lower-class men. (30)

[Also,] the fame and notoriety of “learned women” of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance attest to their rarity- with a few exceptions, they were noted more for existing at all than for their accomplishments. (29)

[For women, the only opportunity for education was in convents. So women were forced to choose between sexuality/marriage/children OR education. “Cloistered virginity or domestic drudgery.” Women could not have both, unlike men who were not faced with that decision.]

[I also want to point out that this practice of educating women of the elite in order to perpetuate the interests of that group point to the way that we as women, in order to survive and flourish within the patriarchy, have to adapt to the patriarchy’s definitions of “success.” Without knowledge of Women’s History, women who through class privilege received an education also became part of the invisible restraints and binds that allow and enable for systemic suppression of women from less-privileged classes.]


A second example of educational disadvantaging is Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-95) from Mexico. [Sor was the religious title of Sister given to a nun. Sor Juana chose to become a nun in order to avoid marriage so that she could pursue her intellectual interest.] She was a scholar who kept breaking the rules by reading and writing poetry. For context, she lived in the 17th century, more than a hundred year prior to Grimke.

Here’s a quote from Sor Juana:

“Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do? Well, then, why cannot a woman profit by the privilege of enlightenment as they do? ...What divine revelation, what rule of the Church, what reasonable judgement formulated such a severe law for us women? … I have this inclination [to study] and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus- I was born with it and with it I shall die.” (34)

Wow. The logic in her words is powerful. There is so much here, but what jumps out to me most is her inference that women’s ability for independent thought is part of our humanity, not a “sin” or digression from nature. She also directly addresses the irrationality of rules and conventions that prevent women not only to pursue a public education, but their own private studies. Before leaving this quote, I also want to point out the limited choices for women at the time. Sor Juana, like so many other women, had to choose either the cloistered life of the nunnery or marriage. With marriage came certain ascribed roles--either running or maintaining a household as the wife [hmmm, it’s taken a long while for this to change. And possibly with the pandemic, I wonder if these gendered roles have reasserted themselves?] 

Returning to the issue of educational disadvantaging of women, the ability to write was considered a craft which was difficult to teach and therefore was taught by men. Lerner distinguishes the difference between learning to read and learning to write. Because it was considered a preparation for jobs, writing was for over a hundred years taught mainly to boys in town-supported schools, staffed by schoolmasters. From 1690 on some girls won access to these schools, but schools were closed to most girls until the middle of the 18th Century, when in 1760, Dedham, Massachusetts, became the first town to provide regular summer sessions for them. New London, CT, admitted girls to school in the summer, and only during the hours from 5 - 7 am. 

Boys were to be educated for social usefulness and political leadership as citizens of a republic; girls were to be educated for their social usefulness as wives and mothers.

Most of the female academies offered a curriculum which stressed accomplishments, and which reinforced the girls’ indoctrination to as strictly gender-defined role in life. (42)

One Lucinda Foote was denied the admission she sought to Yale University in 1792 with the comment that she was qualified in all respects “except for her sex.” Lucinda Foote may have been only moderately talented or possibly she may have been gifted with genius. We will never know, for she was female, and that was all that mattered. (45) [Same with Margaret Fuller at Harvard in the 19th Century, and Pauli Murray at Harvard Law School, in the 20th Century]

Amy:

Point 4: Women who broke through:

The concept that women are born inferior, have a weaker mind and intellect, are more subject to emotions and need to be ruled by men, had a devastating effect on women’s minds. Even extraordinary women, talents which occur once or twice a century, had to struggle against this notion which deprived them of authenticity and authority. Each thinking woman had to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy apologizing for the very act of thinking. (47)....

[But some women broke through!! And we are going to talk about three of them: Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, Hildegard von Bingen, and Christine de Pisan.

Janette:

Hrosvitha of Gandersheim (932-1002) [Rhoss-VEE-tah of GUN-der-shīm]

Poet and dramatist of the middle ages.

[She] came from high nobility, and [is thought to] have entered the convent early in her life, where she received an excellent education which included not only religious subjects but Latin, mathematics, astronomy and music. The convent’s rich library may have helped to foster her education. At the time she was at Gandersheim this powerful abbey was freed both from Church and royal rule, which the Abbess having supreme authority. The Abbess of Gandersheim had her own court of law, sent the nobles on her lands to battle and had a seat in the Imperial Diet. Some of the nuns, presumably Hrosvitha among them, were actually canonesses. They had to take only vows of chastity and obedience, not vows of poverty and with permission were free to move in and out of the cloister. They could own books and some property and were permitted to have servants and receive visitors (251).

Hrosvitha left a major body of work consisting of eight verse legends, six rhymed plays, a poem depicting scenes from the Apocalypse and two historical poems. ...there is good evidence that her plays were performed or at least read aloud at court during her lifetime. What is of special interest here is not only her talent as a writer and her being the first known European female playwright but the fact that all of her work is concerned with history and especially the history of women. [Also] she reveals her concern for solid scholarship, writing “So if in either book I have included anything false in my composing, I have not misled of my own account, but only by incautiously imitating misleading sources.” This rudimentary effort at documentation and source-critical analysis is quite remarkable in an age in which literature freely combined real stories, fabulous and miraculous events, legends, biblical sources and fantasy without distinction. (252)

Hrosvitha also wrote extensively about rape through three of her dramatic plays that, according to Lerner, comes closest to expounding her views about the power of women. In these plays, her female protagonists are threatened by rape from masculine figures of authority such as a Governor and an unwanted suitor (of an already married protagonist). In these plays, Hrosvitha empowers the women by stressing a major theme: the power of chastity over male power [which I read as a woman’s right to say No as a means of asserting her personal will and power]. With the lens of today, I know this appears problematic, but for her time Hrosvitha is eking out a resistance that demonstrates the ability of women to think for themselves despite the costs. In another play, she depicts the rapist “as a ludicrous fool whose power is illusionary”....which Lerner sites as “a remarkable evidence of female consciousness at this early period” (253).

Amy:

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Led a life of constant activity, strenuous travel and public appearances, exhausting mental work that lasted well into old age. ...She was privileged in her ability to free herself from traditional gender roles by living as part of a female community, enjoying what Sara Evans has listed as a precondition for feminist consciouness, “free space.” This was the free space provided by convent life, and the absence of women’s domestic and reproductive responsibilities, ; but it must be understood that this relatively “free space” was a space within a patriarchal institution, the Catholic Church, in which all the higher offices and positions of power were held by the male clergy.” (58)

[She could only go so far, raised on the Bible and the Greeks]: She repeatedly asserts that women and men are different in their physical and psychic structure from men and therefore destined to be subordinate to man. Man was transformed from clay into flesh and is therefore stronger; woman was made directly from flesh and is thereby weaker.” [can’t think beyond exegesis of scripture]

Only if the man and the woman love one another and the man’s seed is strong will a strong boy be born. If one or the other partner is lacking in love, the offspring will either be a girl or an embittered boy.” This explanation upgrades the role of woman in the process of conception from a merely passive one to one whose feelings and attitudes have a decisive influence on the outcome. [very optimistic - really stretching to see this as progress!] (60)

In her telling of the Fall, removes the blame for the Fall from Eve and all women. Instead, the Fall becomes almost preordained by the bodily weakness built into Eve by the Creator. We will see this version of the Fall retold by many women in the later centuries.

Lots of feminine figures in her visions and her art - Wisdom (Sophia), the figure of Scientia Dei knowledge of God)  - who embodies both kindness and terror - and Sapientia, representing divine wisdom in Church and cosmos….illuminations of her visions abound in circles, curves, and waves, in mandala-like designs, which avoid any concept of hierarchy in favor of wholeness, roundedness and integration. (62-63)

[Believed she derived her authority from God Himself]. Art:In three of the illuminations appearing in her late work, Hildegard has painted herself into the visions. The visions are abstract and interpretive in her subject matter. Each of these illuminations shows a mandala with many circles, representing various aspects of the universe, with a human figure at its center. In the left-hand corner of each of these pictures there is the figure of a seated nun, writing on two tablets shaped like the Mosaic tablets. Her face is lifted up and touched by some sort of radiance. This self-conscious self-representation may very well be the first of its kind for a woman. No longer merely “God’s little trumpet,” who wished to be seen in the art of writing down her visions, in the act of authorship. Wishing to be remembered in her own right, she became the first female inspired by mystical revelation to claim her place in history. (64)


Janette:

Christine de Pisan (1364-1430)

Born in 1364, first known woman to make a living by her pen (49).

Christine was born in Venice in 1364. Her father Thomas was a famed astrologer and physician, and early in Christine’s childhood, the family moved to Paris as the King of France, Charles V summoned her father to become the astrologer of the royal court; during this time, astrology was considered a science. Christine obtained an excellent education, although her mother opposed her studying, thinking that it was unnecessary since their family’s position in society would guarantee a “good match” in marriage for Christine. However, Thomas objected to this and encouraged his daughter to read and learn as much as she could, in particular the writers of history. Christine read both the classical texts as well as the Church father.

Lerner tells us that “at the age of fifteen, [Christine] married Estienne de Castel, a notary. Her husband encouraged her literary activities and from all accounts, their marriage was very happy. Her husband died of the plague in 1389, not long after her father had died mpoverished. At the age of 25, Chrstine was widowed, without income and faced with her husband’s debts. She supported herself, her mother and her three young children by copying and producing books, creating illustrations and even the work of a notary, all the while making her reputation as a writer. She also earned income as a popular ballad writer. She lived her life in the world, engaged in the court and politics, and was soon recognized as a poet and received a commission to write the biography of Charles V (143).

She made her reputation as a defender of women when she attacked Jean de Meung’s popular Roman de la rose for its mockery of women. This led to an exchange of letters with some of the leading male humanists of her head, in which her reputation was attacked and which started a three-century-long debate on the status of women, known as the Querelle des femmes [khuh-RELL-du-FAMH] (144).

Christine continued her argument in her major work, The Book of the City of the Ladies (1405), a spirited defense of women and a deliberate effort to constitute a history of women. (258) 

Amy, if you could, please tell us more about The City of Ladies.

Amy:

She began the book with a marvelous account of her own transformation of consciousness. Sitting in her study reading one of the many misogynist tracts of the day, she began to wonder “how it happened that so many different men… are so inclined to express … so many wicked insults about women… it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth.” She examined herself and her experience and could find no evidence to support the claims of these men. Yet, she bowed to the authority of the male experts. “And so I relied more on the judgement of others than on what I myself felt and knew.” Here, for the first time in the written record, we have a woman defining the tension every thinking woman has experienced - between male authority denying her equality as a person and her own experience. Christine was deeply depressed by this recognition, when, as in a vision, three ladies appeared to her to comfort her and to bring her out of the ignorance which had blinded her intellect. Lady Reason explained to her that she had been selected to “vanquish from the world the same error into which you had fallen” and that she was entrusted with the task of building a city of ladies in which all valiant women might find refuge from attacks and slander. The other two ladies, Rectitude and Justice, would help her in this task. Awed and elated, Christien asked the three women to explain to her why men had so universally attacked and slandered women. The ladies offered various explanations, [and] the ensuing long dialogue with the three spiritual guides allowed Christien de Pizan to develop her historical argument and to illustrate by exampla the virtues of women. 

This allegorical framework, which assumes that the patriarchal explanatory system is built on error, structures the book. (259)

Her attempt at creating a unifying ideology is deliberately broadly based; she speaks at various  points of “all women - whether noble, bourgeois, or lower class.” Her essential contribution was not only to attempt to rebut misogynist arguments by means of historical evidence but to insist that patriarchal generalizations and dicta would have to be evaluated and tested in light of the female experience, past and present.

What Christine de Pizan had to offer to women was the insight that women must look to other women for their defense and that the collective past of women could be a source of strength to them in their struggle for justice. (261)

Janette

[This book] responded to and demolished all the major and minor charges leveled against women. She did this by raising all the misogynist charges against women in a dialogue with Lady Reason, an allegorical figure of real serenity, who answered each charge with arguments, examples from history, myth or fable and with appropriate excerpts from the Bible. What is most unusual about Lady Reason’s defense of women is that it confidently reversed the existing order of gender- she unabashedly depicted women in a better light than men and praised their virtues without apology. 

Christine’s culling the Bible for worthy heroines and examples set a precedent which would be followed for centuries, yet none of the women writing in the same vein ever cited her. Nor is there any evidence that they knew of her or her work. Yet it was Christien de Pisan who launched women’s participation in the debate over women’s status in society represented by the querelle des femmes which would go on for three centuries in various parts of Europe and in England. It developed as a playful and at times bitter exchange between feminists and antifeminists of both sexes and represented the first serious discussion of gender as a social construct in Wester European history (146).

And there I have it...because of this project, I’ve learned about a woman author from the Middle Ages who not only wrote, but was also outspoken and celebrated! 

Amy:

Thanks so much for all of this, Janette. Wrapping up, what’s one of your main takeaways from this book?

Janette:

I found the stories of these women--their struggles to live their lives as full and complete individuals both motivating and humbling. The sense of deprivation they encountered is mind-boggling on one level--to see the artificial limits placed on their lives, purposefully thwarting their education and repressing their ability to think...simply for the reason that they are women. But on another level, it’s hard not to see the consequences of such practices even today, in our own time. 

And what’s one of your takeaways, Amy?

Amy:

I think one of the themes that emerged for me as you talked about your mom at the beginning, and then we read through those awful misogynistic quotes, and then we saw the ways that even brilliant, revolutionary female thinkers were limited in their vision of women’s capacity, is that people really do internalize the message of their diminished capacity or their subservient role in the world, if that’s what they’re raised to believe about themselves. I have work to do in breaking down the patriarchal constructs that exist in my own mind. 

Thank you so much for being here, Janette! This was a fabulous discussion.

Janette:

Thank you! As always, I’ve learned so much from our time together, Amy! 

Amy

On our next episode, we will be discussing our first primary source document; rather than being a history book written about women of the past, this will be a text written by a woman in her own time about the patriarchal practices of the day. The author is Olympe de Gouges, and the essential text is “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” written right after the French Revolution in 1791. You can find it online, or there’s a really lovely bound book complete with commentary and illustrations available at bookstores if you’re inclined to buy it. It’s a short read and I highly recommend reading it if you can... Or just join us for a stimulating discussion of Olympe de Gouge’s “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.


Didn’t make it into the episode:

Authorization through Motherhood

Over many centuries some women find their identity primarily in motherhood and that they think of their group identity first as mothers, long before they egin to conceive of the possibility of “sisterhood.”

The two earliest known femlae writers in Europe, Dhuoda and Frau Ava, grounded their quest ofr self-expression in their status as mothers. Dhuoda, born in 803 into a noble family in the Frankish kingdom, ...wrote a letter to her son: 

“Knowing that most women in the world have the joy of living with their children and seeing that I, Dhuoda, am withheld from you, my son William, and am far away - as one anxious because of this and full of longing to be useful, I am sending you this little work of mine… I’d be happy if, since I am not physically present, the presence of this little book call to you're mind, as you read it, what you should do for my sake… I, Dhuoda, though frail in sex, living unworthily among worhty women, am nonetheless you're mother, my son William. (117)

Frau Ava, died in 1127, wrote in German:

This book was written by the mother of two children…

The mother loved these children, one of whom left this world.

Now I ask you all, great and small,

Whoever reads this book, command his soul to grace.

And the one who is still alive and who for his work does strive,

Wish him grace as well as his mother, who is AVA.




Amy:

Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we are going to discuss another of Gerda Lerner’s contributions to Women’s History. It’s a logical follow-up to her book The Creation of Patriarchy, which showed the way human beings instituted societal structures wherein men ruled women, from prehistory through the time of the Greeks. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness picks up right about where The Creation of Patriarchy leaves off, at the beginning of the common era, and it continues through the 19th Century. It’s also an exciting text because it documents women’s own writings as they began to wake up and become aware of their subordinate status and try to free themselves of their own internalized sense of inferiority. 

But before we start, I’d like to introduce my reading partner, Janette Canare. Hi, Janette!

Janette:

Hi, Amy! Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here! 

Amy:

Can you tell us about yourself?

Janette:


Well, I currently live in California with my husband Jeff and our two kids, a daughter in high school and a son in college.


I’ve lived in California for most of my life now, moving to Silicon Valley for a tech start up in the early 90s. Most people that I meet tend to assume that I grew up in California, but I was born and raised in Virginia. My parents were the first generation to immigrate from the Philippines, moving to Norfolk in the mid-1960s, where my dad was in the Navy. I grew up attending parochial school through high school, but since my 20s I’ve considered myself a lapsed Catholic.


These days, I’m currently working towards a master’s degree in the humanities, as you know. Being back to school has kept me pretty busy, but I do enjoy being outdoors--whether hiking, gardening, or for photography. I also love art, theatre, and travelling and hope one day to be able to resume that.


Amy:

I hope so too - when you finally make it to Paris I am going to visit you there!! And then I also want to ask you what interested you in this project. 

Janette:

My interest in the topic of the patriarchy is two-fold. First, from an academic standpoint, my first year of graduate school was spent reading the foundational texts of the Western canon. In two quarters, we covered 2,000 years reading over 20 books, but of those 20, only two were written by women! I recall that it was a “collective lightbulb moment” shared between most of the women in my program...that in 2 millenia, only two books from women were represented. It was crushing to consider that for some reason, women had produced so few surviving works during the same period that gave us Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Descartes, and so on. Just saying these names, we think of their contributions to Western Civ. But where were the women?

My second interest in this topic is more personal. Looking at the literature of women’s history is also motivated by my desire to better understand my own mother. She was born in the 1930s and whether due to World War II or other reasons, she herself grew up to be very motivated to pursue both her education and a career. From the stories she told me as I grew up, she was very proud of her career in the Philippines, and coming to this country, she continued to work in her field. Yet, growing up I was very aware of the fact that when it came to decision-making, my mom would always default to my father. I never really understood why until I started to understand more about the patriarchy. Suddenly, things started to click into place--patterns of behavior that I noticed in my mom and now sometimes notice in myself.

So thank you for asking me to participate in this project! I’m excited to discuss Gerda Lerner’s book with you.

Amy:

I’m excited too! So to set the stage, I thought we could share some quotes by prominent men during the centuries that this book covers, the 1st through 18th Centuries, in the part of the world that this book covers, which is basically Christianized Europe. It’s a small part of the world, but these attitudes have had a big impact through the spread of Christianity and colonization all over the world. So in preparation for discussing the book, let’s take turns reading these thoughts on women from some of the influential thinkers of the time.

Janette, do you want to start, and we’ll just take turns.

Janette:

“[For women] the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.”

–Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c. 150-215) 

---

Amy:

“In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell.”

 Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c. 160-225)

---

Janette:

 “Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.”

 –Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius (354-430)

(JC) This is the same Augustine who wrote Confessions and City of God.

---

Amy:

“Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one's guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”

 –Saint Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century

---

Janette:

“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence." 

—Saint Thomas Aquinas, 13th century  

---

Amy:

 “Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children.”

 –Martin Luther, Reformer (1483-1546) 

---

Janette:

“Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.

John Calvin, Reformer (1509-1564)

---

Amy:

“Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. . . . of what importance is your character to mankind, if you were buried just now. Or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God?”

 –John Wesley, founder of Methodist movement (1703-1791), letter to his wife, July 15, 1774

---

Amy:

So throughout the podcast my readers and I will talk about the definitions of words - a couple of episodes ago Malia and I talked a lot about the terms patriarchy and matriarchy, and what they technically refer to. We talked about cultures being matrifocal, or matrilocal, or matrilinear, etc., and I think it’s really useful to have a working vocabulary that is as precise as possible. So I want to use this opportunity, as we just read all of those quotes, to talk about the word misogyny. Misogyny is used to describe all kinds of practices and attitudes that are unfriendly to women, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the etymology of the word is Greek: it’s miso, which means “hatred of,” like some of my kids have a condition called “miso-phonia,” where they have an extreme hatred of certain sounds. Or someone who is mis-anthropic hates people, because anthro means people. So the other half of miso-gyny, is gyny, which means woman. Like gynecology is the study of women’s bodies. Or andro means man, and gyny means woman, so androgyny means man-woman, or both (or neutral). 

I think it’s worth pointing out that most of the quotes we just heard are not benevolently patriarchal, like a dad that wants to protect his daughter and accidentally limits her because he’s too protective. They’re not misguidedly sexist, like the Victorian cult of domesticity that tells women that the most noble and beautiful calling is motherhood, so they shouldn’t leave home and should be content being “the angel in the house.” No. This is real misogyny. And there’s power in calling it what it is, and in reserving that word for real contempt against women.

Anyway… we started with quotes by Church fathers because that’s where we are on our historical timeline, and I’ll read just one quote from Lerner about the role of Christianity during these centuries in Europe.

Whether women were religious or not, they were confronted by the core texts of the Bible, which were used for centuries by patriarchal authorities to define the proper roles for women in society and to justify the subordination of women: Genesis, the Fall and St. Paul. Since male objections to women thinkin , teaching and speaking in public were for centuries based on biblical authority, the development of feminist Bible criticism can be seen as an appropriate and perhaps not unexpected response to the constraints and limitations imposed upon women’s intellectual development by religiously sanctioned gender definitions. These biblical core texts sat like huge boulders across the paths women had to travel in order to define themselves as equals of men.

[Also], the Bible was the one text available to them. (138)

So we are going to dive into the text now, taking turns highlighting a few of the main points that stood out most to us. 

Janette:

Here’s our first point...

Point 1. Women absorbed the message of their own inferiority

This is what Gerda Lerner says about this:

The fact that women were denied knowledge of the existence of Women’s History decisively and negatively affected their intellectual development as a group. Women who did not know that others like them had made intellectual contributions to knowledge and to creative thought were overwhelmed by the sense of their own inferiority or, conversely, the sense of the dangers of their daring to be different. Without knowledge of women’s past, no group of women could test their own ideas against those of their equals, those who had come out of similar conditions and similar life situations. Every thinking woman had to argue with the “great man” in her head, instead of being strengthened and encouraged by her foremothers. For thinking women, the absence of Women’s History was perhaps the most serious obstacle of all to their intellectual growth. (12)

Example: Lerner gives written evidence from as early as the 8th century of women experiencing this sense of inferiority. She writes about Hugeburc [HHOO-ger-borg], a nun who settled in Germany in 762. Hugeburc [HHOO-ger-borg] was educated and well-known in her time for writing two biographies about two brothers, a bishop and an abbott.  Her biography for the abbot also chronicled the conversion of the Germans and Franks to Christianity. Therefore, her work is considered to be a historical text. Yet, despite her achievements and renown, this is how she speaks of herself in the Prologue of one of her books:

“I am unworthy… I who am as it were a puny creature compared with my fellow-Christians… especially corruptible through the womanly frail foolishness of my sex, not supported by any prerogative of wisdom or exalted by the energy of great strength… [she also calls herself] an ignorant creature… (51)

Now during the middle ages, Lerner explains, there was a literary convention called the “humility topos.” This was the practice of writers to use the argument of their ignorance as a foil to “heighten the power and effect of their miraculous inspiration” (51). In other words, for dramatic effect, writers of this time would claim their ignorance until they received divine inspiration. Despite this custom, Lerner points out that Hugeburc’s prologue differs from the humility topos. In essence, Hugeburc’s [HHOO-ger-borg’s] words are an apology to her reader for being a woman who thinks and writes. Her plaintive words indicate her belief in her own inferiority. As a result of this inferiority, Hugeburc’s  words reveal the “agonizing struggle” within her mind and soul (51).

Amy:

Point 2: **Iconic Gerda Lerner concept: Reinventing the wheel:

Men develop ideas and systems of explanation by absorbing past knowledge and critiquing and superseding it. Women, ignorant of their own history, did not know what women before them had thought and taught. So, generation after generation, they struggled for insights others had already had before them. I illustrate this by surveying women’s bible criticism over a period of one thousand years and show the endless repetition of effort, the constant reinventing of the wheel. (19)

[Lerner highlights SO MANY women in this book, all through the centuries when I didn’t know any women were writing at all. She points out, “notice that this is exactly what so-and-so said hundreds of years before. She had no knowledge of her writings.” And I have had this experience myself! If I go back through my own personal journals I see myself laboring and struggling to figure out what I was perceiving and why things felt “off.” In reading these books I have discovered exact ideas and trains of thought that took me YEARS of mental toil to develop - I could have saved myself so much heartache and effort if had known someone else had already thought of it!! And I wouldn’t have felt so alone all those years.]


Janette:

[These points drive home for me why the book is so powerful! Points 1 & 2 are inextricably linked. While Lerner speaks of both points in terms of the effects on groups of women, I think each of us women experiences both of these points on an individual level.

Much of our own self-perception of our inferiority derives from feeling alone...not realizing that countless other women before, after, and during our time HAVE EXPERIENCED AND FELT THE SAME.

My hunch is that there are mechanisms embedded in the patriarchy so that this experience of being a remote “Other” who is outside acceptable norms comes with a type of "social shame" so that we are less likely to speak of our experiences and come together in support of each other. It is why Lerner is right that we need to know our own history as women.]

Amy:

I absolutely agree! In terms of mechanisms embedded in patriarchy, I think specifically of the prohibition of education. That’s a really common tactic for oppressors to restrict the education of the people they want to subjugate because they know if they start to read, they will start to ask questions, and they’ll find camaraderie with like-minded people and become emboldened to question the oppressor’s power.

Janette:

Point 3: The Educational Disadvantaging of Women

The word that comes to mind for this section of Lerner’s book is the term “deprivation,” which she repeats in her description of Sarah Grimké. Born in 1792 in Charleston, South Carolina, as the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, she later became an abolitionist and suffragist.

In her youth, Grimké was aware of the shortcomings of her education, particularly in contrast to the classical education received by her brothers. 

Here’s a quote from Grimké: “With me learning was a passion… Had I received the education I craved and been bred to the profession of the law, I might have been a useful member of society, and instead of myself and my property being taken care of, I might have been a protector of the helpless.

Many a woman shudders… at the terrible eclipse of those intellectual powers which in early life seemed prophetic of usefulness and happiness… It is because we feel we have powers which are crushed, responsibilities which we are not permitted to exercise… rights vested in us as moral and intellectual beings which are utterly ignored and trampled upon.. It is because we feel this so keenly we now demand an equal education with man.” (22)

Reading these words gave me immediate pangs of restless frustration for Grimké. She was absolutely aware that she was being deprived from developing into her full potential.  Her pain is palpable as she is fully conscious of the unfairness that she is deprived from education due to gender. Her parents recognized her intelligence, but they were both adamant that she would not cross over the expectations for women of their class. Her father was a prominent attorney and judge and she also wanted to pursue a career in law. Her father let her borrow his law books, but would not allow her to learn Latin to further her studies. There is a sense of hard limits placed on the education of women, without any account of their intellectual ability or personal agence. In contrast to Sarah, her brothers received every educational opportunity.

This sense of “not being chosen” by a power of authority, in this case, both her father and mother, also feeds into the experience of inferiority that we pointed out earlier. It also maddeningly encodes and ensures the pattern that men should lead and women should follow.

[Not sure if this belongs in the Podcast, but would love to know your thoughts and feelings in response to this part of the quote.]

Education becomes institutionalized when elites - military, religious or political - need to assure their position in power by means of training a group to serve and perpetuate their interests. ...Since women were excluded from military, religious and political elites, they were considered to have little need for formalized learning. On the other hand, daughters of the elites, such as princesses and noble women who might have to serve as stand-ins for sons or husband, were as carefully tutored and trained as their brothers. Education was a class privilege for both sexes. (23)

Example: A law promulgated by King Henry VIII of England prohibited “all women other than gentle- and noble-women together with artificers, journeymen, husbandmen, labourers and serving men… from reading the Bible in English either in private or to others.” All women except noblewomen are classed with lower-class men. (30)

[Also,] the fame and notoriety of “learned women” of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance attest to their rarity- with a few exceptions, they were noted more for existing at all than for their accomplishments. (29)

[For women, the only opportunity for education was in convents. So women were forced to choose between sexuality/marriage/children OR education. “Cloistered virginity or domestic drudgery.” Women could not have both, unlike men who were not faced with that decision.]

[I also want to point out that this practice of educating women of the elite in order to perpetuate the interests of that group point to the way that we as women, in order to survive and flourish within the patriarchy, have to adapt to the patriarchy’s definitions of “success.” Without knowledge of Women’s History, women who through class privilege received an education also became part of the invisible restraints and binds that allow and enable for systemic suppression of women from less-privileged classes.]


A second example of educational disadvantaging is Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-95) from Mexico. [Sor was the religious title of Sister given to a nun. Sor Juana chose to become a nun in order to avoid marriage so that she could pursue her intellectual interest.] She was a scholar who kept breaking the rules by reading and writing poetry. For context, she lived in the 17th century, more than a hundred year prior to Grimke.

Here’s a quote from Sor Juana:

“Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do? Well, then, why cannot a woman profit by the privilege of enlightenment as they do? ...What divine revelation, what rule of the Church, what reasonable judgement formulated such a severe law for us women? … I have this inclination [to study] and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus- I was born with it and with it I shall die.” (34)

Wow. The logic in her words is powerful. There is so much here, but what jumps out to me most is her inference that women’s ability for independent thought is part of our humanity, not a “sin” or digression from nature. She also directly addresses the irrationality of rules and conventions that prevent women not only to pursue a public education, but their own private studies. Before leaving this quote, I also want to point out the limited choices for women at the time. Sor Juana, like so many other women, had to choose either the cloistered life of the nunnery or marriage. With marriage came certain ascribed roles--either running or maintaining a household as the wife [hmmm, it’s taken a long while for this to change. And possibly with the pandemic, I wonder if these gendered roles have reasserted themselves?] 

Returning to the issue of educational disadvantaging of women, the ability to write was considered a craft which was difficult to teach and therefore was taught by men. Lerner distinguishes the difference between learning to read and learning to write. Because it was considered a preparation for jobs, writing was for over a hundred years taught mainly to boys in town-supported schools, staffed by schoolmasters. From 1690 on some girls won access to these schools, but schools were closed to most girls until the middle of the 18th Century, when in 1760, Dedham, Massachusetts, became the first town to provide regular summer sessions for them. New London, CT, admitted girls to school in the summer, and only during the hours from 5 - 7 am. 

Boys were to be educated for social usefulness and political leadership as citizens of a republic; girls were to be educated for their social usefulness as wives and mothers.

Most of the female academies offered a curriculum which stressed accomplishments, and which reinforced the girls’ indoctrination to as strictly gender-defined role in life. (42)

One Lucinda Foote was denied the admission she sought to Yale University in 1792 with the comment that she was qualified in all respects “except for her sex.” Lucinda Foote may have been only moderately talented or possibly she may have been gifted with genius. We will never know, for she was female, and that was all that mattered. (45) [Same with Margaret Fuller at Harvard in the 19th Century, and Pauli Murray at Harvard Law School, in the 20th Century]

Amy:

Point 4: Women who broke through:

The concept that women are born inferior, have a weaker mind and intellect, are more subject to emotions and need to be ruled by men, had a devastating effect on women’s minds. Even extraordinary women, talents which occur once or twice a century, had to struggle against this notion which deprived them of authenticity and authority. Each thinking woman had to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy apologizing for the very act of thinking. (47)....

[But some women broke through!! And we are going to talk about three of them: Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, Hildegard von Bingen, and Christine de Pisan.

Janette:

Hrosvitha of Gandersheim (932-1002) [Rhoss-VEE-tah of GUN-der-shīm]

Poet and dramatist of the middle ages.

[She] came from high nobility, and [is thought to] have entered the convent early in her life, where she received an excellent education which included not only religious subjects but Latin, mathematics, astronomy and music. The convent’s rich library may have helped to foster her education. At the time she was at Gandersheim this powerful abbey was freed both from Church and royal rule, which the Abbess having supreme authority. The Abbess of Gandersheim had her own court of law, sent the nobles on her lands to battle and had a seat in the Imperial Diet. Some of the nuns, presumably Hrosvitha among them, were actually canonesses. They had to take only vows of chastity and obedience, not vows of poverty and with permission were free to move in and out of the cloister. They could own books and some property and were permitted to have servants and receive visitors (251).

Hrosvitha left a major body of work consisting of eight verse legends, six rhymed plays, a poem depicting scenes from the Apocalypse and two historical poems. ...there is good evidence that her plays were performed or at least read aloud at court during her lifetime. What is of special interest here is not only her talent as a writer and her being the first known European female playwright but the fact that all of her work is concerned with history and especially the history of women. [Also] she reveals her concern for solid scholarship, writing “So if in either book I have included anything false in my composing, I have not misled of my own account, but only by incautiously imitating misleading sources.” This rudimentary effort at documentation and source-critical analysis is quite remarkable in an age in which literature freely combined real stories, fabulous and miraculous events, legends, biblical sources and fantasy without distinction. (252)

Hrosvitha also wrote extensively about rape through three of her dramatic plays that, according to Lerner, comes closest to expounding her views about the power of women. In these plays, her female protagonists are threatened by rape from masculine figures of authority such as a Governor and an unwanted suitor (of an already married protagonist). In these plays, Hrosvitha empowers the women by stressing a major theme: the power of chastity over male power [which I read as a woman’s right to say No as a means of asserting her personal will and power]. With the lens of today, I know this appears problematic, but for her time Hrosvitha is eking out a resistance that demonstrates the ability of women to think for themselves despite the costs. In another play, she depicts the rapist “as a ludicrous fool whose power is illusionary”....which Lerner sites as “a remarkable evidence of female consciousness at this early period” (253).

Amy:

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Led a life of constant activity, strenuous travel and public appearances, exhausting mental work that lasted well into old age. ...She was privileged in her ability to free herself from traditional gender roles by living as part of a female community, enjoying what Sara Evans has listed as a precondition for feminist consciouness, “free space.” This was the free space provided by convent life, and the absence of women’s domestic and reproductive responsibilities, ; but it must be understood that this relatively “free space” was a space within a patriarchal institution, the Catholic Church, in which all the higher offices and positions of power were held by the male clergy.” (58)

[She could only go so far, raised on the Bible and the Greeks]: She repeatedly asserts that women and men are different in their physical and psychic structure from men and therefore destined to be subordinate to man. Man was transformed from clay into flesh and is therefore stronger; woman was made directly from flesh and is thereby weaker.” [can’t think beyond exegesis of scripture]

Only if the man and the woman love one another and the man’s seed is strong will a strong boy be born. If one or the other partner is lacking in love, the offspring will either be a girl or an embittered boy.” This explanation upgrades the role of woman in the process of conception from a merely passive one to one whose feelings and attitudes have a decisive influence on the outcome. [very optimistic - really stretching to see this as progress!] (60)

In her telling of the Fall, removes the blame for the Fall from Eve and all women. Instead, the Fall becomes almost preordained by the bodily weakness built into Eve by the Creator. We will see this version of the Fall retold by many women in the later centuries.

Lots of feminine figures in her visions and her art - Wisdom (Sophia), the figure of Scientia Dei knowledge of God)  - who embodies both kindness and terror - and Sapientia, representing divine wisdom in Church and cosmos….illuminations of her visions abound in circles, curves, and waves, in mandala-like designs, which avoid any concept of hierarchy in favor of wholeness, roundedness and integration. (62-63)

[Believed she derived her authority from God Himself]. Art:In three of the illuminations appearing in her late work, Hildegard has painted herself into the visions. The visions are abstract and interpretive in her subject matter. Each of these illuminations shows a mandala with many circles, representing various aspects of the universe, with a human figure at its center. In the left-hand corner of each of these pictures there is the figure of a seated nun, writing on two tablets shaped like the Mosaic tablets. Her face is lifted up and touched by some sort of radiance. This self-conscious self-representation may very well be the first of its kind for a woman. No longer merely “God’s little trumpet,” who wished to be seen in the art of writing down her visions, in the act of authorship. Wishing to be remembered in her own right, she became the first female inspired by mystical revelation to claim her place in history. (64)


Janette:

Christine de Pisan (1364-1430)

Born in 1364, first known woman to make a living by her pen (49).

Christine was born in Venice in 1364. Her father Thomas was a famed astrologer and physician, and early in Christine’s childhood, the family moved to Paris as the King of France, Charles V summoned her father to become the astrologer of the royal court; during this time, astrology was considered a science. Christine obtained an excellent education, although her mother opposed her studying, thinking that it was unnecessary since their family’s position in society would guarantee a “good match” in marriage for Christine. However, Thomas objected to this and encouraged his daughter to read and learn as much as she could, in particular the writers of history. Christine read both the classical texts as well as the Church father.

Lerner tells us that “at the age of fifteen, [Christine] married Estienne de Castel, a notary. Her husband encouraged her literary activities and from all accounts, their marriage was very happy. Her husband died of the plague in 1389, not long after her father had died mpoverished. At the age of 25, Chrstine was widowed, without income and faced with her husband’s debts. She supported herself, her mother and her three young children by copying and producing books, creating illustrations and even the work of a notary, all the while making her reputation as a writer. She also earned income as a popular ballad writer. She lived her life in the world, engaged in the court and politics, and was soon recognized as a poet and received a commission to write the biography of Charles V (143).

She made her reputation as a defender of women when she attacked Jean de Meung’s popular Roman de la rose for its mockery of women. This led to an exchange of letters with some of the leading male humanists of her head, in which her reputation was attacked and which started a three-century-long debate on the status of women, known as the Querelle des femmes [khuh-RELL-du-FAMH] (144).

Christine continued her argument in her major work, The Book of the City of the Ladies (1405), a spirited defense of women and a deliberate effort to constitute a history of women. (258) 

Amy, if you could, please tell us more about The City of Ladies.

Amy:

She began the book with a marvelous account of her own transformation of consciousness. Sitting in her study reading one of the many misogynist tracts of the day, she began to wonder “how it happened that so many different men… are so inclined to express … so many wicked insults about women… it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth.” She examined herself and her experience and could find no evidence to support the claims of these men. Yet, she bowed to the authority of the male experts. “And so I relied more on the judgement of others than on what I myself felt and knew.” Here, for the first time in the written record, we have a woman defining the tension every thinking woman has experienced - between male authority denying her equality as a person and her own experience. Christine was deeply depressed by this recognition, when, as in a vision, three ladies appeared to her to comfort her and to bring her out of the ignorance which had blinded her intellect. Lady Reason explained to her that she had been selected to “vanquish from the world the same error into which you had fallen” and that she was entrusted with the task of building a city of ladies in which all valiant women might find refuge from attacks and slander. The other two ladies, Rectitude and Justice, would help her in this task. Awed and elated, Christien asked the three women to explain to her why men had so universally attacked and slandered women. The ladies offered various explanations, [and] the ensuing long dialogue with the three spiritual guides allowed Christien de Pizan to develop her historical argument and to illustrate by exampla the virtues of women. 

This allegorical framework, which assumes that the patriarchal explanatory system is built on error, structures the book. (259)

Her attempt at creating a unifying ideology is deliberately broadly based; she speaks at various  points of “all women - whether noble, bourgeois, or lower class.” Her essential contribution was not only to attempt to rebut misogynist arguments by means of historical evidence but to insist that patriarchal generalizations and dicta would have to be evaluated and tested in light of the female experience, past and present.

What Christine de Pizan had to offer to women was the insight that women must look to other women for their defense and that the collective past of women could be a source of strength to them in their struggle for justice. (261)

Janette

[This book] responded to and demolished all the major and minor charges leveled against women. She did this by raising all the misogynist charges against women in a dialogue with Lady Reason, an allegorical figure of real serenity, who answered each charge with arguments, examples from history, myth or fable and with appropriate excerpts from the Bible. What is most unusual about Lady Reason’s defense of women is that it confidently reversed the existing order of gender- she unabashedly depicted women in a better light than men and praised their virtues without apology. 

Christine’s culling the Bible for worthy heroines and examples set a precedent which would be followed for centuries, yet none of the women writing in the same vein ever cited her. Nor is there any evidence that they knew of her or her work. Yet it was Christien de Pisan who launched women’s participation in the debate over women’s status in society represented by the querelle des femmes which would go on for three centuries in various parts of Europe and in England. It developed as a playful and at times bitter exchange between feminists and antifeminists of both sexes and represented the first serious discussion of gender as a social construct in Wester European history (146).

And there I have it...because of this project, I’ve learned about a woman author from the Middle Ages who not only wrote, but was also outspoken and celebrated! 

Amy:

Thanks so much for all of this, Janette. Wrapping up, what’s one of your main takeaways from this book?

Janette:

I found the stories of these women--their struggles to live their lives as full and complete individuals both motivating and humbling. The sense of deprivation they encountered is mind-boggling on one level--to see the artificial limits placed on their lives, purposefully thwarting their education and repressing their ability to think...simply for the reason that they are women. But on another level, it’s hard not to see the consequences of such practices even today, in our own time. 

And what’s one of your takeaways, Amy?

Amy:

I think one of the themes that emerged for me as you talked about your mom at the beginning, and then we read through those awful misogynistic quotes, and then we saw the ways that even brilliant, revolutionary female thinkers were limited in their vision of women’s capacity, is that people really do internalize the message of their diminished capacity or their subservient role in the world, if that’s what they’re raised to believe about themselves. I have work to do in breaking down the patriarchal constructs that exist in my own mind. 

Thank you so much for being here, Janette! This was a fabulous discussion.

Janette:

Thank you! As always, I’ve learned so much from our time together, Amy! 

Amy

On our next episode, we will be discussing our first primary source document; rather than being a history book written about women of the past, this will be a text written by a woman in her own time about the patriarchal practices of the day. The author is Olympe de Gouges, and the essential text is “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” written right after the French Revolution in 1791. You can find it online, or there’s a really lovely bound book complete with commentary and illustrations available at bookstores if you’re inclined to buy it. It’s a short read and I highly recommend reading it if you can... Or just join us for a stimulating discussion of Olympe de Gouge’s “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.


Didn’t make it into the episode:

Authorization through Motherhood

Over many centuries some women find their identity primarily in motherhood and that they think of their group identity first as mothers, long before they egin to conceive of the possibility of “sisterhood.”

The two earliest known femlae writers in Europe, Dhuoda and Frau Ava, grounded their quest ofr self-expression in their status as mothers. Dhuoda, born in 803 into a noble family in the Frankish kingdom, ...wrote a letter to her son: 

“Knowing that most women in the world have the joy of living with their children and seeing that I, Dhuoda, am withheld from you, my son William, and am far away - as one anxious because of this and full of longing to be useful, I am sending you this little work of mine… I’d be happy if, since I am not physically present, the presence of this little book call to you're mind, as you read it, what you should do for my sake… I, Dhuoda, though frail in sex, living unworthily among worhty women, am nonetheless you're mother, my son William. (117)

Frau Ava, died in 1127, wrote in German:

This book was written by the mother of two children…

The mother loved these children, one of whom left this world.

Now I ask you all, great and small,

Whoever reads this book, command his soul to grace.

And the one who is still alive and who for his work does strive,

Wish him grace as well as his mother, who is AVA.