One of this work’s central concerns is countering the destructive and false testimony that male authors have supplied in their written works for centuries. Christine attempts to strip away the layers of distortion and misrepresentation to present an accurate portrait of the true and essential nature of women. Christine’s approach, through her line of questioning, gives voice to the various opinions and untruths men perpetuate in society, in an effort to debunk them with the Virtues’ orations and stories. Christine directly addresses the issue when Reason argues that, contrary to popular belief, man was not made in God’s image, as in an exact physical likeness. Instead, Reason contends that all people, men and women, share in this replication of God’s essential nature and that there is a spiritual likeness and similarity. This desire to penetrate the essential, internal nature of the good found in people by transcending the physical is yet another of Christine’s central themes.
Women were the subject of repression in many forms, most notably in the strict regulation of their behavior and the roles they were expected to fulfill in society. In addition, as Christine’s narrative attests, women were often turned into sexual subordinates, objectified and transformed into sources of desire that alternately tempted and pleased men. These attitudes led to the widespread acceptance of rape. In the concluding section, Part Three—after Rectitude’s discussion of the horrors of rape in Part Two, Justice cites many cases of the martyrdom of holy women. These individuals were the subject of severe physical trials as well as sexual abuse. Women were burned, tortured, and beaten, and the foolhardy men who sought to unleash their anger and hatred of these women could find no other means of harming them than through their bodies. What remained constant and allowed the martyrs to endure these severe punishments was their highly developed spiritual life and intense bond with God. This distinction crowns Christine’s arguments, in which she attests to intangible inner qualities—intelligence, generosity, virtue, constancy—that are the mark of an individual, and not the attributes, limitations, and vulnerabilities of the body.
Critics have often viewed de Pizan as a repossessor, setting out to wrest away the tight control men had over the lives and representations of woman. In writing her book, de Pizan attempts to reclaim and restore the image of her sex, turning common misperceptions on their heads. One popular misconception was of the helplessness and dependency of women. Both before and after her life and times, men were the predominant force shaping discourse and dictating public law, social convention, and commonly held attitudes and beliefs. De Pizan’s book marks a radical departure, a lone female voice challenging this status quo. In the Virtues’ long list of stories, a new picture of women emerges. Women such as Fredegund and Ops seize and assert their power. They don’t need rescuing, and they themselves are a source of liberation, ensuring and extending freedom to those around them. By seizing the image of women and safely storing it in the City of Ladies, de Pizan attempts to right centuries of injustice and set the record straight once and for all.
Christine argues that there are no special qualities reserved for one sex and absent from the other, just as no one social role or function belongs solely to the realm of men. For those male writers who would relegate women to a traditional, domestic sphere, the Virtues offer countless examples of women as warriors, brilliant military strategists who turn the tide of battle, and shrewd political leaders. Christine is not trying to elevate women at the expense of men but is gesturing instead to the equality of the sexes. She attempts to eradicate the perceived differences between men and women to highlight the virtues all paragons of conduct share and to present a universal portrait of human experience.
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