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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 38d - How to Be a Feminist in History

Saturday, September 28, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 125 (previously 38d) - How to Be a Feminist in History - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/09/28 - listen here)

The historic romance community has long been struggling with the conflict between wanting heroines that don’t blithely accept the gender prejudices and patriarchal structures of the past, while feeling uneasy about historic heroines who express modern attitudes toward equality of the sexes.

But are these positions truly in conflict? Is it the case that women in history accepted that they were inferior to men? That they failed to push back against patriarchal structures? That the only path to equality was to take on male attributes up to and including being read by society as male?

Absolutely not! We have plenty of evidence across the centuries of women rejecting negative stereotypes about women that were popular in their time and fighting back against social and legal restrictions. They weren’t always successful in their fight, and yet they persisted.

But does this mean those women thought, acted, and spoke like modern western feminists? That their goal was to have equal and identical rights and responsibilities with men?

Also not the case.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Even within just the last century, the idea of what feminism and gender equality means has changed over time. Why should the case be different in the past?

In every era, the understanding of the nature of the sexes, of the arguments for equality, and of what equality would look like have sprung from the overall beliefs and philosophies of their times. People may have accepted certain things as factual that we now challenge (or that are less relevant to gender equality today), while challenging other beliefs that their contemporaries accepted as true.

We don’t have a complete record of western feminist thought across the centuries. Women had less access to publication than men did, so fewer of their thoughts have been preserved for us. And relying on written materials for our evidence means that we’re mostly looking at the concerns of educated elite women. (There was one text I found a reference to that addressed alliances between women across social classes, but I haven’t been able to track it down at the moment.)

Today, we’re going to look at a small selection of feminist texts that were recorded from the 14th century to the 19th that express both women’s frustrations with the status quo and how they imagined its remedy.

There are some common factors between them. In general, these women did not challenge the assumption that men were physically stronger than women, as a whole. They did challenge the idea that physical strength corresponded to intellectual or moral strength. These proto-feminist women were also hesitant to challenge the divide-and-conquer technique of classifying women into “good” virtuous, chaste women and “bad” seductive, wanton women. Don’t blame good women, they argued, for the things those other women over there are doing.

That’s not to say that there weren’t women in history who challenged the virgin-whore dichotomy. Who argued for the validity of women to express love and desire openly, even outside of marriage. Those sentiments often appear in poetry. But when women were making a logical, intellectual case for equality of the genders, they may have felt that sexual issues were too much of a hot button to tackle at the same time.

It was also rare for these intellectual women to challenge Christian scripture as a framework for relations between the genders--though there were some who did. Rather, they would carefully pick and choose scripture to support their arguments--just as misogynysts would pick and choose to support theirs. A very common tactic in proto-feminist writing was to offer a catalog of prominent historic women who could be considered counter-examples to the charges made against women’s competence and ability. I’ve skipped these specific catalogs but they provide a good background to the role models that learned women had available.

And finally, while there have certainly been men in history who supported some version of gender equality, today we’re only looking at women’s voices. The texts I’ll be presenting excerpts from are all from western Europe--from Italy, France, and England--and represent only a very small sample of the voices I could have included.

* * *

Christine de Pisan was an Italian woman born in the mid 14th century, whose writing career took place primarily in France after she was widowed. She was a prolific writer of poetry and philosophy, but the work we’ll be considering today is The Book of the City of Ladies, written in 1405 and dedicated to Queen Isabeau of France. The work is Christine’s defense of womankind against the misogyny of her times and takes the form of a conversation between a character representing Christine herself and the allegorical female figures of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Christine has been reading an anti-woman text and begs these figures to help her counter the arguments it contains by building a textual “city” formed by logic and example. Reason begins by helping her clear ground for the foundations of the city by removing the “dirt and stones” that represent false accusations against women’s abilities.

I’ve put together representative excerpts from several different places in the dialog. The translation is by Earl Jeffrey Richards.

* * *

"Lady,” [Christine says,] “I remember well what you told me before, dealing with the subject of how so many men have attacked and continue to attack the behavior of women, that gold becomes more refined the longer it stays in the furnace, which means the more women have been wrongly attacked, the greater waxes the merit of their glory. But please tell me why and for what reason different authors have spoken against women in their books, since I already know from you that this is wrong; tell me if Nature makes man so inclined or whether they do it out of hatred and where does this behavior come from?"

Then she replied, "Daughter, to give you a way of entering into the question more deeply, I will carry away this first basketful of dirt. This behavior most certainly does not come from Nature, but rather is contrary to Nature, for no connection in the world is as great or as strong as the great love which, through the will of God, Nature places between a man and a woman. The causes which have moved and which still move men to attack women, even those authors in those books are diverse and varied, just as you have discovered. For some have attacked women with good intentions, that is in order to draw men who have gone astray away from the company of vicious and dissolute women, with whom they might be infatuated, or in order to keep these men from going mad on account of such women, and also so that every man might avoid an obscene and lustful life. They have attacked all women in general because they believe that women are made up of every abomination."


“But I can assure you that these attacks on all women--when in fact there are so many excellent women--have never originated with me, Reason, and that all who subscribe to them have failed totally and will continue to fail. So now throw aside these black, dirty, and uneven stones from your work, for they will never be fitted into the fair edifice of your City.

"Other men have attacked women for other reasons: such reproach has occurred to some men because of their own vices and others have been moved by the defects of their own bodies, others through pure jealousy, still others by the pleasure they derive in their own personalities from slander. Others, in order to show they have read many authors, base their own writings on what they have found in books and repeat what other writers have said and cite different authors.”

* * *

In this next excerpt, a distinction is made between women having the capability of studying and arguing the law, and whether women should take their place beside men in the justice system. Here Christine backs off on complete equality of function, on the argument that laws must be enforced by strength, which is the province of men.

* * *

Christine continues, “But tell me still, if you please, why women do not plead law cases in the courts of justice, are unfamiliar with legal disputes, and do not hand down judgments? For these men say that it is because of some woman (whom I don't know) who governed unwisely from the seat of justice."

"My daughter,” [Reason says,] “everything told about this woman is frivolous and contrived out of deception. But whoever would ask the causes and reasons of all things would have to answer for too much in this question... Now, as to this particular question, dear friend, one could just as well ask why God did not ordain that men fulfill the offices of women, and women the offices of men. So I must answer this question by saying that just as a wise and well ordered lord organizes his domain so that one servant accomplishes one task and another servant another task, and that what the one does the other does not do, God has similarly ordained man and woman to serve Him in different offices...and to each sex has given a fitting and appropriate nature and inclination to fulfill their offices. Inasmuch as the human species often errs in what it is supposed to do, God gives men strong and hardy bodies for coming and going as well as for speaking boldly. And for this reason, men with this nature learn the laws--and must do so--in order to keep the world under the rule of justice and, in case anyone does not wish to obey the statutes which have been ordained and established by reason of law, are required to make them obey with physical constraint and force of arms, a task which women could never accomplish. Nevertheless, though God has given women great understanding--and there are many such women--because of the integrity to which women are inclined, it would not be at all appropriate for them to go and appear so brazenly in the court like men, for there are enough men who do so. What would be accomplished by sending three men to lift a burden which two can carry easily?

“But if anyone maintained that women do not possess enough understanding to learn the laws, the opposite is obvious from the proof afforded by experience, which is manifest and has been manifested in many women just as I will soon tell who have been very great philosophers and have mastered fields far more complicated, subtle, and lofty than written laws and man-made institutions. Moreover, in case anyone says that women do not have a natural sense for politics and government, I will give you examples of several great women rulers who have lived in past times. And so that you will better know my truth, I will remind you of some women of your own time who remained widows and whose skill governing--both past and present--in all their affairs following the deaths of their husbands provides obvious demonstration that a woman with a mind is fit for all tasks."

* * *

On the question of academic pursuits, Christine returns to emphasizing that the intellectual capacity of individual women argues against forbidding learning to all women. In fact, she goes further and argues that women are better suited than men for learning. But that they are less educated only because they are not given the opportunity.

* * *

“But please enlighten me again, whether it has ever pleased this God, who has bestowed so many favors on women, to honor the feminine sex with the privilege of the virtue of high understanding and great learning, and whether women ever have a clever enough mind for this. I wish very much to know this because men maintain that the mind of women can learn only a little.”

She answered, "My daughter, since I told you before, you know quite well that the opposite of their opinion is true, and to show you this even more clearly, I will give you proof through examples. I tell you again--and don't fear a contradiction--if it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons. And by chance there happen to be such women, for, as I touched on before, just as women have more delicate bodies than men, weaker and less able to perform many tasks, so do they have minds that are freer and sharper whenever they apply themselves."

[Sponsor Break]

* * *

Moderata Fonte is the pen name of 16th century Venetian writer Modesta di Pozzo who wrote in a wide variety of genres, including the conversational dialogue On the Merit of Women. The work takes the form of a group of female friends--women from all ages and life circumstances--who gather in a garden for conversation and philosophical disputation. The subject they choose comes down to “men: threat or menace?” and might easily be compared with a 1970s feminist encounter group, in which the women air their grievances against the patriarchy. On occasion, one woman or another tries to defend the male sex, but is argued into silence. If you want to write a “burn down the patriarchy” character in 16th century Italy, you could do worse than memorize this tract.

In the following passage, the newly-wed Helena has been doing the “not all men” thing and is shut down by Corinna, who holds the floor.

* * *

"In any case," said Corinna, "Helena has not managed to prove anything except that men do have some merits when they are married--which is to say, when they are united with a wife. Now that I don’t deny, but without help from their wives, men are just like unlit lamps: in themselves, they are no good for anything, but, when lit, they can be handy to have around the house. In other words, if a man has some virtues, it is because he has picked them up from the woman he lives with, whether mother, nurse, sister, or wife--for over time, inevitably, some of her good qualities will rub off on him. Indeed, quite apart from the good examples women provide for them, all men’s finest and most virtuous achievements derive from their love for women, because, feeling themselves unworthy of their lady's grace, they try by any means they can to make themselves pleasing to her in some way. That men study at all, that they cultivate the virtues, that they groom themselves and become well-bred men of the world--in short, that they finish up equipped with countless pleasing qualities--is all due to women.

“If it is true what you say." said Virginia at this point, "and if men are as imperfect as you say they are, then why are they our superiors on every count?"

To which Corinna replied, "This pre-eminence is something they have unjustly arrogated to themselves. And when it's said that women must be subject to men, the phrase should be understood in the same sense as when we say that we are subject to natural disasters, diseases, and all the other accidents of this life: it's not a case of being subject in the sense of obeying, but rather of suffering an imposition; not a case of serving them fearfully, but rather of tolerating them in a spirit of Christian charity, since they have been given to us by God as a spiritual trial. But they take the phrase in the contrary sense and set themselves up as tyrants over us, arrogantly usurping that dominion over women that they claim is their right, but which is more properly ours. For don't we see that men's rightful task is to go out to work and wear themselves out trying to accumulate wealth, as though they were our factors or stewards, so that we can remain at home like the lady of the house directing their work and enjoying the profit of their labors? That, if you like, is the reason why men are naturally stronger and more robust than us--they need to be, so they can put up with the hard labor they must endure in our service.”

“So you're saying that all men's hard labor,” said Lucretia, “and all the endless exertions they undergo for us deserve so little gratitude from us that all they merit is the contempt you're expressing! And yet you know full well that men were created before us and that we stand in need of their help: you yourself confess it.”

“Men were created before women.” Corinna replied. "But that doesn’t prove their superiority--rather it proves ours, for they were born out of the lifeless earth in order that we could then be born out of living flesh. And what’s so important about this priority in creation, anyway? When we are building, we lay foundations on the ground first, things of no intrinsic merit or beauty, before subsequently raising up sumptuous buildings and ornate palaces. Lowly seeds are nourished in the earth, and then later the ravishing blooms appear; lovely roses blossom forth and scented narcissi. And besides, as everyone knows, the first man, Adam, was created in the Damascene fields, while God chose to create woman within the Earthly Paradise, as a tribute to her greater nobility. In short, we were created as men's helpmates, their companions, their joy, and their crowning glory, but men, though they know full well how much women are worth and how great the benefits we bring them, nonetheless seek to destroy us out of envy for our merits."

* * *

When they move on to specific grievances, one of the first to be detailed is patriarchal control over family finances that leaves women of all ages and life stages at the mercy of the whims of their male relatives.

* * *

"As fathers, as brothers, as sons or husbands or lovers or whatever other relationship they have to us, they all abuse us, humiliate us, and do all they can to harm and annihilate us. For how many fathers are there who never provide for their daughters while they are alive and, when they die, leave everything or the majority to their sons, depriving their daughters of their rightful inheritance, just as though they were the daughters of some neighbor? And then the poor creatures have no choice but to fall into perdition, while their brothers remain rich in material goods and equally rich in shame."


"Then there are others who are lucky enough to be left a dowry by their father, or to receive a share in his estate along with their brothers if he dies intestate, but who then find themselves imprisoned in the home like slaves by their brothers, who deprive them of their rights and seize their portion for themselves, in defiance of all justice, without ever attempting to find them a match. And so the poor things have no choice but to grow old at home under their brothers' rule, waiting on their nephews and nieces; and they spend the rest of their lives buried alive."

* * *

The early 17th century French writer Marie de Gournay was a protegée of Queen Margot of France and, like so many of the women discussed here, wrote in a wide variety of genres, including some controversial religious works. She later dedicated works to the next queen of France, Anne of Austria, including Égalité des Hommes et des Femmes, “The equality of men and women,” and Griefs des Dames “The Complaint of Women” as well as other feminist treatises. Like Christine de Pisan, she embellishes her arguments with a catalog of notable women, and like many other early feminists, she places the blame for women’s lack of accomplishments on their being prohibited from receiving the same education and opportunities that men had access to. She identified women’s lack of access to the ownership of property and participation in public offices as a source of oppression, as in this introduction to the Complaint of Women.

* * *

Blessed are you, Reader, if you are not of the sex to which one forbids all goods, depriving it of freedom.  One denies this sex just about everything: all the virtues and all the public offices, titles, and responsibilities.  In short, this sex has its own power taken away; with this freedom gone, the possibility of developing virtues through the use of freedom disappears.  This sex is left with the sovereign and unique virtues of ignorance, servitude, and the capacity to play the fool, if this game pleases it.

* * *

I would have included more from de Gournay if I had an English translation handy or had more time to tap the resources of my French-reading friends.

* * *

The French Revolution, in the later 18th century, was an occasion for all manner of people to claim the “liberty, fraternity, and equality” that the revolution promised. Not only were class distinctions to be erased, but there was a brief flirtation with the promise of racial equality, and some even dared to demand that equality be extended to women. One of the most persistent and eloquent of these was Olympe de Gouges, whose treatise Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen was a deliberate paraphrase and ever-so-delicate satire of the proclamation Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen drafted by the French National Assembly to set out the principles of the revolution. All she did was explicitly include women in the document’s principles, with certain expansions in areas specific to women’s condition. Rather than recognizing de Gouges’s valid points, the revolutionary government arrested her, convicted her of treason, and executed her.

The substance of her arguments draws on the principles of the Enlightenment, arguing for Nature rather than religious principles as her foundation. She begins with an address to her male and female readerships separately, then presents her re-writing of the articles of the Declaration of Rights.

* * *

Man, are you capable of being fair? A woman is asking: at least you will allow her that right. Tell me? What gave you the sovereign right to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your talents? Observe the creator in his wisdom, examine nature in all its grandeur for you seem to wish to get closer to it, and give me, if you dare, a pattern for this tyrannical power.

Reconsider animals, consult the elements, study plants, finally, cast an eye over all the variations of all living organisms; yield to the evidence that I have given you: search, excavate and discover, if you can, sexual characteristics in the workings of nature: everywhere you will find them intermingled, everywhere cooperating harmoniously within this immortal masterpiece.

Only man has cobbled together a rule to exclude himself from this system. Bizarre, blind, puffed up with science and degenerate, in this century of enlightenment and wisdom, with the crassest ignorance, he wants to command, like a despot, a sex that is blessed with every intellectual faculty; he feigns to rejoice in the revolution and demands its equal rights, to say nothing more.

Mothers, daughters, sisters, representatives of the Nation, all demand to be constituted into a national assembly. Given that ignorance, disregard or the disdain of the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortune and the corruption of governments [they] have decided to make known in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of woman; this declaration, constantly in the thoughts of all members of society, will ceaselessly remind them of their rights and responsibilities, allowing the political acts of women, and those of men, to be compared in all respects to the aims of political institutions, which will become increasingly respected, so that the demands of female citizens, henceforth based on simple and incontestable principles, will always seek to maintain the constitution, good morals and the happiness of all.

As a result, the sex that is superior in beauty as it is in courage during the pains of childbirth recognises and declares, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.

Woman is born free and remains the equal of man in rights. Social distinctions can only be founded on a common utility.

The purpose of all political organisations must be the protection of the natural and imprescriptible rights of Woman and Man: these rights are liberty, property, security and above all the right to resist oppression.

The principle of sovereignty is vested primarily in the Nation, which is but the union of Woman and Man: no body, no individual, can exercise authority that does not explicitly emanate from it.

Liberty and justice exist to render unto others what is theirs; therefore the only limit to the exercise of the natural rights of woman is the perpetual tyranny that man opposes to it: these limits must be reformed by the laws of nature and reason.

The laws of nature and reason forbid all acts that are harmful to society: anything not forbidden by these wise and divine laws must be allowed and no one can be constrained to do what the laws do not demand.

The law must embody the will of the majority; all Female and Male citizens must contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its development; it must be the same for one and all: all Female and all Male citizens, being equal in law, must be equally entitled to all public honours, positions and employment according to their capacities and with no other distinctions than those based solely on talent and virtue.

* * *

De Gouges’ articles continue on and are followed by a clarion call to women to claim their due rights, and prescriptions for relationship contracts that preserve women’s financial rights, whether or not a formal marriage is involved. The elevated tone of the document declines somewhat toward the end, alas, when she moves into an extended rant about the unsavory practices of cab drivers.

* * *

Published just one year after de Gouges’ work, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is often considered the earliest “modern” feminist tract, but many of Wollstonecraft’s arguments--or at least her rationale for them--feel less sharp-edged than some of her predecessors. She argued that women should receive equal education to men, not for their own sakes, but so they could better educate their children and be more equal companions to their husbands. The work feels almost apologetic in some ways as she responds to a political tract by Talleyrand which appeared to support women’s equality but then fell short of enacting it.

* * *

Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate, unless she know why she ought to be virtuous?  Unless freedom strengthen her reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good?  If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such investigations.

In this work I have produced many arguments, which to me were conclusive, to prove, that the prevailing notion respecting a sexual character was subversive of morality, and I have contended, that to render the human body and mind more perfect, chastity must more universally prevail, and that chastity will never be respected in the male world till the person of a woman is not, as it were, idolized when little virtue or sense embellish it with the grand traces of mental beauty, or the interesting simplicity of affection.

Consider, Sir, dispassionately, these observations, for a glimpse of this truth seemed to open before you when you observed, "that to see one half of the human race excluded by the other from all participation of government, was a political phenomenon that, according to abstract principles, it was impossible to explain." If so, on what does your constitution rest?  If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and explanation, those of woman, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test: though a different opinion prevails in this country, built on the very arguments which you use to justify the oppression of woman, prescription.

Consider, I address you as a legislator, whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves, respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?

* * *

This is, perhaps, a good place to leave our survey of proto-feminist thought in history. Ideas about the equality of the genders have not developed on a straightforward path of continuous improvement. Both the arguments that are used, and the goals they argue for are shaped by their times. Should women have equal opportunity because that was clearly God’s plan? Or because they earned the right through their virtuous lives? Or because they will provide greater benefit to society by that means? Does equality apply to all women or only those of specific classes or temperaments? Does woman’s equality make her indistinguishable from man or simply equivalent to him in a different role? How do men benefit from women’s inequality and what is the best approach for changing their minds and hearts? Or is that a vain hope and all one can do is rail against the status quo?

You will notice that the material here assumes a heterosexual society. Proto-feminist tracts might go so far as arguing that women are better off unmarried, but the idea of any other personal arrangements exists only by implication in the silences. Still, the question of gender equality is highly relevant to developing historic characters in same-sex relationships because these ideas and arguments inform how those characters envision their options and what societal structures they might be seeking an escape from.

So go ahead and celebrate your historical feminists, but make them ring true to their times. Their stories are so much more fascinating that way.

Show Notes

So you want your historic character to be a feminist. What does that mean? How early can we find women expressing opinions about gender equality and what did they think it looked like? What would your historic feminist’s blind spots be? What arguments and evidence would she bring to the table?

In this episode we talk about:

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