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Rhetoric for/from the Ladies

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan is quite an amazing figure to me. I am disappointed, given her many writings and achievements, that more of her work is not included in The Rhetorical Tradition. I note in reading this, as with several other female rhetoricians who were to follow, how passages and sentiments from the Christian Bible are used to back arguments and build ethos. Sor Juana, likewise, uses biblical quotations to back her arguments, and like Pizan, looks to the exemplars of other women throughout history for their knowledge, wisdom, and rhetorical abilities. These women also “share ethos” with one another, rhetorically building upon the accomplishments of previous female figures to increase the justification for their own learning, speaking, and writing.

 

It seems somewhat ironic that the same biblical text that was often used to justify the oppression of women was also utilized as a defense against doing so. The inculcation of women with religious piety seems to have been a practice that both limited and expanded their social possibilities, a dynamic that can be seen through the nineteenth century, carried by arguments about slavery, temperance, and women’s suffrage. Further, the ideal of compassion and peacemaking projected onto women (though at times only in archetypes as opposed to embodied expectations) gave a moral foundation and ethos to the arguments put forth by women, who were, or came to be by the nineteenth century, viewed as the “keepers of morality” amidst the sinful world of men.

 

It is noteworthy, too, that Pizan advocates the use of rhetoric for the purpose of peacemaking similar to that put forth by I.A. Richards where “Rhetoric is the study of misunderstandings and their remedies” or from a Rogerian perspective of argumentation. Though Pizan notes that women may need both deliberative and forensic rhetorical skills in different situations (e.g. when she no longer has men in her life to enact these things in her behalf) she promotes a less agonistic approach to persuasion that is appropriate (and perhaps more tolerated) for women at the time and place in which she was writing. When approaching her hypothetical husband to persuade him toward peaceful dealings, a princess is advised to “very humbly petition him on behalf of the people” (546). Because of her compassion and caring, “the good lady will bear these things in mind and feel pity for the destruction of the people [thus] she will work to make peace” (547). In the service of the greater good, then, it is acceptable for women to use their particular positions within society to advocate for lessened violence and suffering and to do so in such a way that it will not step outside bounds of appropriate behavior for women.

 

Very similar goals and justifications can be seen in the practices, and promotions of such, in nineteenth century women’s rhetoric. Pizan’s work reminds me of an intersection between parlor rhetorics, which were designed to teach women to be socially graceful hostesses and entertainers, and more public persuasive performances, such as acts that promoted temperance. Both of these sites crossed between spheres of public and private, which is where women’s rhetorical practices have largely been situated for many centuries. As women were often typically confined to the private realm of house and home, their rhetorics seem to emerge in the places that intersect both this realm and that of the public. For Pizan, “the actions and speech of private life were never far removed from public discourse and intercourse,” and while most homes of the nineteenth century in America were nothing like the “castles and manor houses” that Pizan addresses, these intersections between public and private life are nevertheless present in these rhetorical practices across times and cultures (Redfern[1] 83). Even the issue of slavery can be viewed as one that women encountered in their daily “home lives” and about which they eventually spoke out. Temperance, definitely, fits this description where what happened at home (i.e. violence to women and children) eventually found its way into public discourse, largely as the result of women’s rhetorical practices.

 

Given how many translations and editions of Pizan’s work were in circulation at various

Sor Juana

times, I wonder how much effect it had upon later rhetorical practices of women. Where was this book read? By whom? Did Sor Juana read it? Did she know of it? Was it taught to women in schools? If so, what kind? While it does support (or at least not attempt to subvert) conventional gender roles of the time, Pizan’s work does disrupt and effectively argue against many of the claims made against and about women at the time of its writing. Sor Juana also seriously puts into question the arguments against women’s intellectual potential and her (albeit ultimately tragic) story is inspirational, given all of the social boundaries that she was able to cross in her lifetime.

 

It seems that, historically speaking, there have been many images of “women’s character” circulated throughout various cultures, and it seems that nearly none of them serve the interests of women. I am impressed and gratified to read about women who spoke from the places in which they found themselves and think it is valuable to study “how female rhetors have made meaning not by transgressing or resisting their gendered sphere to become rhetors but by speaking within and from this sphere” (Enoch[2] 13). In this time and place (2012 America), I think it is easy to discount or criticize the ways in which women from past times and cultures did not more fully resist cultural gender norms, or to find their acquiescence of them problematic. However, I commend and note the efforts made in these regards and think that women such as Pizan and Sor Juana forged the path toward greater consideration of and freedoms for women in Western society. All hail the Ladies and their (rhetorical) treasures.


[1] Redfern, Jenny R. “Christine de Pisan and The Treasure of the City of Ladies: A Medieval Rhetorician and Her Rhetoric.” Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. Ed. Andrea Lunsford. Pittsburg: PA: U of Pittsburg P, 1995. 73-92. Print.

[2] Enoch, Jessica. Refiguring Rhetorical Education: Women Teaching African American, Native American, and Chicano/a Students, 1865-1911. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.

 

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One comment on “Rhetoric for/from the Ladies

  1. I am struck, too, by de Pizan’s emphasis on “peacemaking” as the primary, or a primary, role of rhetoric: not something we’ve seen before in RT. I’m also impressed by her blurring of the personal and the political: how everyday actions intersect with political action … the parlor and the assembly merged.

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