60 in 60: #28 – Christine de Pizan’s The City of Ladies (Penguin’s Great Ideas)


This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

The City of Ladies
by Christine de Pizan

Memorable Line
“My dear friend, as you yourself know, there are so many wives who lead a wretched existence bound in marriage to a brutish husband who makes them suffer greater penance than if they were enslaved by Saracens. Oh God, how many fine and decent women have been viciously beaten for no good reason, heaped with insults, obscenities and curses, and subjected to all manner of burdens and indignities, without uttering even a murmur of protest. Not to mention all of those wives who are laden down with lots of tiny mouths to feed and lie starving to death in penury whilst their husbands are either out visiting places of depravity or living it up in town or in taverns.”

The Skinny
A sly, clever defense of women that is designed to disarm men even as it engages them head-on…

Relevance? Argument?
I think The City of Ladies might be one of my favorites in the second set of the Great Ideas series . This could be because of its clarity and striking intelligence, or it could be due to the sheer craftiness of the author–de Pizan has done an excellent job of not merely setting out an argument, but doing it in a way that it already includes the answers to any rebuttal. There’s a kind of statescraft or diplomacy, mixed with strength and bluntness, that gives the text an elegance and power.

The book begins a couple of times, to give de Pizan room to maneuver, introducing and reintroducing ideas slowly so that readers can acclimate themselves. There’s an almost apologetic tone to the way she relates finding a book by Matheolus denigrating women, setting it aside, and coming back to it only to find its arguments baseless.

She then enters into a conversation with God, which nicely elevates the stakes, and puts the argument above the heads of mere men. To God, she says:

Unless I commit an error of faith, I cannot doubt that you, in your infinite wisdom and perfect goodness, could make anything that wasn’t good. Didn’t you yourself create woman especially and then endow her with all the qualities that you wished her to have? How could you possibly have made a mistake in anything? Yet here stand women not simply accused, but already judged, sentenced and condemned! I just cannot understand this contradiction.

With God either neutralized or implicitly on her side, de Pizan then turns to a vision she had in which she encounters three women: Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice. With each she enters into lengthy conversations that while not as informal as Plato’s recollections in The Symposium serve much the same purpose: to create a debate in which all sides of an argument are examined, along with rebuttals.

From the perspective of de Pizan, who I believe is not just trying to rally women to her cause but to convert men to it, the distance created between the arguments and the author by inserting the three Ladies is essential. Then they, not de Pizan, can make the strongest arguments, can be aggressive. And not only are they not the author, who will suffer more than figments of her imagination should readers disagree, they represent sterling qualities or themes. Thus, as with the section in which she invokes God, she summons the abstract and all-powerful to her defense.*

And what a wonderful journey through time and space the reader gets as a result! From discussion of why women aren’t allowed in courts of law (and why they should) to an examination of the Amazons, ladies blessed with great learning and intelligence, Sappho, Minerva, the ten Sibyls, and much more, de Pizan provides a high-powered tutorial on women in history, society, and myth. It’s a tour de force of movement, most section just the right length, the pacing nimble and carefully thought out.

By the time I got to the Lady of Rectitude, the construction of the City of Ladies that forms one of the lasting metaphors of the book is well underway: “[it] now has plentiful housing all along its wide streets. The royal palaces are completed and the defence towers and keeps are now standing proud.”

It struck me as telling that de Pizan thinks of constructing a city of one’s own much as Virginia Woolf thought of constructing a room of one’s own–and, in part, for the same reason: so much of what men do imposes upon and impedes women that a natural thought is simply to find a place apart, where men’s presence cannot bring to bear their baleful influence.

After having made all of her arguments, de Pizan turns to address “all women,” for the construction of the city is at an end. In this section, she offers advice and comfort to the inhabitants of the City of Women, in their interactions with men. The most interesting part of this section is when she makes a very concerted effort to tell women to be nice to good men and to punish bad men. Again, she’s cloaking a radical book in less radical rhetoric. Any woman who wants to could use The City of Ladies as a rallying cry for revolution, but in it any man could find the promise of both a ceasefire mutual understanding.

* On a very humble, different level, this is part of the philosophy behind my own Evil Monkey, who on occasion haunts this blog.

Christine de Pizan might have been a very powerful politician if she had lived in modern times.

Question for Readers
Let’s just get down to the nitty-gritty: What is it about men that really irritates the heck out of you?

Next up, Baldesar Castiglione’sHow to Achieve True Greatness


  1. says

    First, Christine de Pizan blew me away when I read her the first time. However, I was taking a course with 21st century feminists who were frustrated by her “watered down attempts” at feminism, not realizing that the simple fact she was doing what she was doing at the time was so much more ballsy (haha) than more recent feminists “revolutionary” approaches. De Pizan was a rare educated woman who, widowed, not only made a living for herself and extended family (after the financial ruin of her husband and father I believe!), but did so by writing. That’s just… so astonishing to me.

    As to the actual question? What irritates me most about men is the fact that they can’t deal with pain. Seriously. I’ve yet to meet a man who has pain tolerance remotely close to my own. But I suppose, women are used to suffering, as it’s simply part of our biology! After natural childbirth I have a hard time sympathizing with stubbed toes.

  2. says

    I am a tattoo artist. I see people in pain daily. Men are no worse than women at using mind over matter.

    There’s nothing men do that irritates me, that would not be equally irritating if done by a woman, except perhaps to frame questions that inspire people to find problems with the opposite sex. Women tend to do this as a release of feelings of inadequacy, which is not admirable but which I can understand, but men pose these questions as if they had some logic within them.

    I’m really enjoying this series of posts, and you’ve already convinced me to order two books I hadn’t read.
    (not Nietzsche, I’ve already had a bad experience with him.)

  3. mastadge says

    “What irritates me most about men is the fact that they can’t deal with pain. Seriously. I’ve yet to meet a man who has pain tolerance remotely close to my own. But I suppose, women are used to suffering, as it’s simply part of our biology! After natural childbirth I have a hard time sympathizing with stubbed toes.”

    How many men do you know? I’ve certainly known a number of men who were wimps, but I’ve also known women who’d shriek bloody murder over a papercut or stubbed toe or minor cramp, and men who’ve simply ignored the pain while their appendix or kidney burst inside, until someone else made them go to a hospital; and I’ve kept going through pain from which women have withdrawn. Pain is very subjective, very individual, and while you may have an extreme tolerance for pain, the curves for pain tolerance for men and women have, I’d imagine, a huge amount of overlap.

  4. Heather says

    The thing that irritates me about men is that they are so blind to the position of relative privilege they occupy in society (I’m speaking in particular of white men here). They don’t see any racism or sexism around them; therefore it must not exist, and certainly it doesn’t exist within themselves. My husband once said that he’d never, ever witnessed any sexism in the workplace. I said, “That’s funny, because we were out with two of your former female co-workers who left your company when they found out the men were being paid more than the women for doing the same jobs.” His response: “Oh yeah, there was that, but I’ve never seen women being sexually harassed.”

    Similarly, he finds racism funny, and is always embarrassing me by making racist cracks that are supposed to be “ironic” — i.e. everyone is supposed to understand that he’s obviously a liberal guy who’s satirizing an intolerant redneck. I’ve seen this with many guys I know — they’ll make racially charged statements to their buddies of other races, and the buddies are supposed to understand that it’s all joking around, and it doesn’t occur to them that the buddy is being placed in the awkward position of either pretending he doesn’t mind, or revealing that he does mind, and thus opening himself to charges of being unable to take a joke. And don’t get me started on how “fag” is the insult of choice even among guys who would emphatically deny harboring anti-gay attitudes.

  5. says

    JM: Thanks, yep.

    I actually have to go along with the pain thing. I’ve noticed that myself and most men don’t deal with pain in the same way. If it’s pain with a purpose–like, in the gym, that’s one thing. But the pain life deals out physically that isn’t something we’ve actually mentally prepped for–forget about it. (Mastadge has a point about types of pain.)

    Heather: Honestly, none of that is cool. None of that is something I’d let my friends get away with. What I don’t like is the situation where you’re not with friends, but with colleagues or acquaintances and it’s actually much harder to call someone on something, because there’s this implied acceptance, if it’s just a bunch of guys.


  6. says

    Hmm. See, I have trouble generalizing an entire gender. I agree with Heather wholeheartedly– but then, I know men who act that way and men who don’t, and even worse are women who act that way. Most uncomfortable situation ever: calling out a man on sexist bullshit, and then being told by another woman that I’m being too uptight. Then you just have everybody against you, and that sucks horribly. “Oh, see Erica isn’t bothered by it! Maybe you’re just a bitch.”
    But then, you have men like my husband, who’s just as likely to call out sexism as I am.

    Umm…so how about those penises men have? Super annoying, those things. But then, not all men have penises…. so I dunno. Nevermind.

    Beautifully written article on a truly wonderful and influential book though, Jeff :)

  7. says


    Re the generalization–absolutely, anecdotal evidence is in no way scientific. I still think there are some differences in kinds of pain and how men respond as opposed to women, but I will admit it’s not based on anything other than personal observation.



  1. […] I’ve been following acclaimed American author Jeff VanderMeer’s “60 Books in 60 Days” series where he reads one book from Penguin Great Ideas series everyday and write about it in his blog. He’s now in book no. 35, Von Clausewitz’s On the Nature of War. VanderMeer’s discussion makes me want to go out and get a copy of Christine de Pizan’s The City of Ladies. […]