Feminism in Literature

Literature has presented writers of many different backgrounds and ideas. Until the last few centuries, many of the most prominent writers were male, or assumed a male alias. This limited the opportunities for a complete and accurate picture of society as reflected through literature. Pioneer writers such as Christine de Pisan, Aphra Behn, and Mary Wollstonecraft used literature to challenge feminine misconceptions, expose inequalities, and promote equal education opportunities; themes that remain prominent today. 

Christine de Pisan was well educated. She began writing occupationally in the early 1500’s after her husband died in oder to provide for her children. Works about women were mostly derogatory, and female author was almost nonexistent.  Among her most popular works is La Querelle de la Rose a response to Roman de la Rose, a masterwork of the Middle Ages. Pisan’s debate focused on the vicious and inaccurate portrayal of women. Her tactic in this debate was to argue each point with reason. She provided logical explanations that any reasonable person could understand. Her goal was to urge change with leading by example. Pisan pulls a great deal of her argument from biblical references. Religion was such an important part of society, Pisan starts her debate with the biblical knowledge that God created everything equal and pure. “To this I say and confess that truly God created all things pure and clean coming from himself and that in the State of Innocence it would not have been wrong to name them; but by the pollution of sin man became impure, and his original sin has remained with us, as Holy Scripture testifies”(Pisan 127). Based on the Bible, women and men are both equally good from birth, so to say that women are born evil is not true. This idea of evil and malice does not fit into the Christian ideology so prominent during the Middle Ages. Everyone is created for the good, but they have the choice of becoming evil or remaining good.  Pisan points out that Lucifer was created to be the most beautiful of the angels, but he deviated from the beauty, and now the name (which is still beautiful) brings fear and disgust to those who speak it. The sex of Lucifer is always referred to as “he” in the Bible, suggesting that the angel is male. The most hated being in the Bible is represented as male, showing the capacity for males, as well as female to become evil. 

Women are accused being of demons and serpents, the most dangerous and deadly creatures in the the Bible. Men have gross overreactions to women which is understandable, especially when you consider that the smartest of men in the book promotes very confusing and contradicting ideas for interacting with women. “And this Genius, more than any of the characters, makes great attacks on women, saying, in fact, “Flee, flee, flee from the deadly serpent.” Then he declares that men should pursue them unremittingly. Here is a glaring contradiction, evilly intended: to order men to flee what he wishes them to pursue, and to pursue what he wishes them to flee” (Pisan 129). It is impossible to know how to approach women, which leads to the mistreatment of them. It is a common assumption that the deadliness of women makes them incapable of keeping secrets. Men are led to go to extreme measures to keep things from their wives, but Pisan points out that women are not incapable of keeping secrets. And, if there are women who lack this skill, they are few in number and have caused very little damage to their husbands. “But I pray all those who truly hold this teaching authentic and put so much faith in it, that they kindly tell me how many men they have seen accused, killed, hanged, and publicly rebuked by the accusations of their women? I think you will find them few and far between” (Pisan 129). In most cases it is the friend of the husband in question that has him punished. The ideas and opinions of women are often ignored. They have no real power courts, making it very unlikely for a man to be punished by testimony of his wife. 

Pisan’s central idea is debating the usefulness of Roman de la Rose and it’s overall effects on society. Influential texts have the power to shape society, and with great power comes great responsibility. The way women are portrayed keeps the idea of inequality prominent, making change nearly impossible. She wants Roman de la Rose to be destroyed because it gives no value to society and degrades women. “I call it an exhortation to vice, a comfort to dissolute life, a doctrine full of deception, the way to damnation, a public defamer, the cause of suspicion and misbelieving, the shame of many people, and possibly the occasion of heresy” (Pisan 131). Pisan acknowledges that there are many affluent writers who promote virtue and the well being of women, but fleshy men have no interest in reading those forms of literature. Instead of making worldly books that promote ignorance and abuse of women, books that promote virtue and growth of society should be written. 

Aphra Behn is the first known female writer to make a career of her work. Very little is known about her life and background, but speculation suggests that she may have been born in Canterbury, and returned to England after living in South America for a number of years. She too was well educated, and became a spy for the English government. After leaving debtors prison, she actively pursued her writing career. Behn is most widely known for her comedic plays, but she also wrote novels and other texts. In An Epistle to the Reader from The Dutch Lover, Behn address the new age poets and their forms a criticism. She dislikes their jobs of finding fault in every piece of literature and agues that not all literature should teach the reader something. An Epistle to the Reader from The Dutch Lover starts off by addressing the audience as, “Good, Sweet, Honey, Sugar-Candied READER” (192). This greeting does not serve to make Behn more likable, but instead to get the attention of the readers and stoke their egos. She continues on to say that she will not apologize for taking their time to read this preface because they have nothing better to, but if you did you would have been doing so. “’tis not to beg your pardon for diverting you from your affairs, by such an idle Pamphlet as this is, for I presume you have not much to do and there- fore are to be obliged to me for keeping you from worse employment, and if you have a better you may get you gone about your business” (Behn 192). Her preface will not stop them from being productive or having intellectual conversations because they were never having them to begin with. 

Behn was both a writer and an activist, but she kept the spheres separate. This was mainly due to her education. She had a level of education not common to women during this time, and she was often forced to stifle it. “For waving the examination why women having equal education with men, were not as capable of knowledge, of whatsoever sort as well as they: I’ll only say as I have touch’ d before, that Plays have no great room for that which is men’s great advantage over women, that is Learning” (Behn 194). This denial of education prevented her from entering debates on literature in the public forum, giving her a reason to promote literature on her own terms. These terms include rejecting the emphasis put in the intellectual properties of poetry. “I would not undervalue Poetry, so neither am I altogether of their judgement who believe no wisdom in the world beyond it” (Behn 192). She wants to put less emphasis on intellectual value and more emphasis on enjoying the work for what it is. 

Mary Wollstonecraft was the most important British feminist writer of the 18th century. She grew up in poverty; her meals and education coming in bits and pieces. As a young adult she worked many odd jobs until she was hired by Joseph Johnston where her writing career began. In From A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft argues for more practical education of women. Women are taught beauty and art; things that make them attractive to men. Unfortunately, they lack the basic skills for survival. “In fact, the care necessary for self-preservation is the first natural exercise of the understanding, as little inventions to amuse the present moment unfold the imagination” (Wollstonecraft 278). Men have the luxury of being taught math and science; skills that promote self-sufficiency and logic. Wollstonecraft says that this wouldn’t be a problem if women were never in situations that require them to take care of themselves. She gives two scenarios of women who are widowed with children. In the first scenario, the women has had no practical education and is left to suffer. “She either falls an easy prey to some mean fortune-hunter, who defrauds her children of their paternal inheritance, and renders her miserable; or becomes the victim of discontent and blind indulgence. Unable to educate her sons, or impress them with respect” (Wollstonecraft 282). In the second scenario the women is modestly educated and lives to see the success of her children. “The pang of nature is felt; but after time has softened sorrow into melancholy resignation, her heart turns to her children with redoubled fondness, and anxious to provide for them, affection gives a sacred heroic cast to her maternal duties” (Wollstonecraft 283). Education gave this woman the knowledge and strength to care for her family. If the first women had been given a useful education, she would have been able provide for her family, and her failure would have been turned into a great success story. 

Education does more than provide logic and scientific skills. It promotes the ability to think for yourself. Educated women make better companions to men who want to explore and converse on matters of science. The lack of proper education for women has kept the fuel of male superiority burning. Men saw women as objects to be obtained not peers. A change in this perception is not easily attainable according to Wollstonecraft. “Man, accustomed to bow down to power in his savage state, can seldom divest himself of this barbarous prejudice, even when civilisation determines how much superior mental is to bodily strength” (280). Men find weakness in the beauty of women, and this weakness is only effected by physical beauty. Women who are intellectual are overlooked because men don’t seek this type of inner beauty. This seeking of beauty in women causes a double standard. Men are allowed to pursue their desires, but women are to remain pure. Being pure often translates to being mentally weak and having very little to do with the virtue of women. These tactics have successfully oppressed the growth of female empowerment. 

While all three women have different writing styles and approaches to literature; they have the unifying ideology of female empowerment through education. Christine de Pisan used her political power to debate inaccurate portrayals and misconceptions of women in popular texts. By giving straightforward, concrete evidence, she was able to discredit the accusations of Roman de la Rose. Aphra Behn used her education to advocate a new approach to criticizing literature. She argued the importance of learning in relation to poetry. Finally, Mary Wollstonecraft showed the disadvantages women faced because they lacked a practical education. Their lack of training left them helpless in times of crisis. The war on equality for women is still prominent today. Looking into these famous literary works, we can continue to progress as a society of equality.