The First Single Working Mother: Christine de Pizan, A Young Widow and Her Quill Make History

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This is the story of a young woman named Christine who seemed to have it all. Her father had educated her at a time when that was rare for women. She learned much more than traditional women’s work, receiving instruction in classical literature and even in the recent traditions of her native land, Italy. Soon her family moved to France.

Today feminists hail Christine de Pizan as perhaps the first single working mother in European history and the first woman author in the West to make a living off her writing. Though making her way as an immigrant, she nonetheless married well – to a wealthy man she loved who provided her with everything she could need. They had three children. For several years life was good. But when she was only 26, tragedy struck: her husband died suddenly leaving her stricken with grief and wondering how she would care for growing children and a mother-in-law in an age when women were not traditional providers.

It’s not an unfamiliar story. Many of us know a woman, just a generation or two ago, who faced a similar fate. What makes this particular version of the story uncanny is its day and age. We’re not in the twentieth century or even the Industrial Revolution, but circa 1400 – one hundred years before Columbus sailed off to find the West Indies. This WYSK of days gone by is a remarkable entrepreneur named Christine de Pizan, who picked herself up out of mourning to become a writer for profit. She sold her poems and commentaries to the high ranking nobility for money to feed her family.

Today feminists hail her as perhaps the first single working mother in European history and the first woman author in the West to make a living off her writing. But those are only the most groundbreaking accomplishments on her résumé. What’s even more WYSKy about Christine de Pizan takes us back to the daily grind: how much and how well she wrote at a time when most women could not read or hold public jobs of any kind, before the invention of the printing press, and without electricity or plumbing.

de Pizan's "The Book of the City of Ladies"

Image from Christine de Pizan’s “The Book of the City of Ladies”

Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-1430) is best known to the twenty-first century as the author of The Book of the City of Ladies (c. 1404). It sends up a plea for women to have a room of their own, free from the condemning eyes of men, five hundred years before Virginia Woolf called for it. Pizan’s “room” was not material, but mental. Against the negative portrait that history’s male writers had held up of women as weak and fallen, she advocated for their spiritual equality, catalogued the great female rulers and faithful wives of history, and encouraged ladies to have a life of the mind.

Among her poems on spiritual themes, one unique composition warrants mention. Pizan wrote in praise of an extraordinary WYSK who had recently led the French army in battle against invaders: Joan of Arc. Because of the rich knowledge of Italian literature to which Christine’s writings attest, especially Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, some scholars think Pizan may have introduced Dante to France. Her coffers never ran dry because, according to specialists, she was a writer in high demand – a bestselling author of her day – which was no mean feat in a world where ideas had to be disseminated through hand-written manuscript.

The volumes that have come down to us are beautifully decorated in illumination (pictured in the lead image of this post is Pizan presenting a book of her work to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria), which, along with their luxury bindings, demonstrate the high value placed on their contents by noble readers of the 15th century. On all accounts, this enterprising widow proved long ago that ladies had significant contributions to make to society.

Christine de Pizan’s story goes out to any woman who earns a living by her pen, brings home the bacon she puts on the table, and would take on all the odds to feed her children. Brava!

For further reading:

The image above appears in noted Pizan scholar Susan Groag Bell’s « Christine de Pizan in her study », Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes, Études christiniennes, posted 10 June 2008. Consulted 01 January 2012.

Kate Langdon Forhan. The Political Theory of Christine de Pizan. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. Burlington, Vert. and Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2002.

Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. New York: Persea Books, 1984.

The Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. E. J. Richards. New York: Persea Books, 1982, 1998.

Christine also shows up in the first chapter of feminist historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, New York: Random House, 2008.

Christine A. Jones, WYSK Western US Contributor About Christine A. Jones, WYSK Western US Contributor

Women You Should Know Contributor Christine A. Jones is a professor of French at the University of Utah. She is co-editor of Marvelous Transformations: An Anthology of Fairy Tales and Contemporary Critical Perspectives (Broadview, 2012), and the author of Shapely Bodies: The Image of Porcelain in Eighteenth-Century France (University of Delaware Press, 2013) and Mother Goose Revisited (under review with Wayne State University Press), a collection of translated fairy tales from the 17th century. You might also catch her writing online about wine and dance history.

  • Alice

    This is a woman to look up to, the kind of woman that makes me think twice about what we are really able to accomplish with our lives. It’s time to step it up!

  • Jean B

    When one thinks about women in ancient history, Joan of Arc certainly comes to mind. And then there is Elizabeth I, Queen of England (a little later – the 16th century). Now we can add Christine de Pizan to this list of very accomplished women in their time.