Many social inequalities persist whether it be manifested through culture, sexuality, finance, or race. In many of these instances, there is a group that has an advantage. Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies as an attempt to enlighten readers and free readers as well as herself from the bondage of sexual prejudices held against women. The main character of the story Christine, grew up to hate her female self because men were the dominant group at the time. Misogynistic literature changed women’s views on their roles in society and convinced women that they should be subordinate to men. Sixteenth-century politician, Michel de Montaigne was a controversial writer and intellectual. In his account titled On the Cannibals, he addresses a prejudicial struggle between European colonizers and the natives. Montaigne’s admiration of the natives and their culture was a manifestation of cultural relativism. W.E.B Dubois, famously known for his book The Souls of Black Folk attacked racial prejudices in society. In the first chapter of his book, Dubois uses the “veil” as a metaphor to explain the racial prejudice that African Africans had to endure from their white counterparts in the early twentieth- century. These three texts demonstrate the process of learning and coming to accept the self where there is sexual inequality (The Book of the City of ladies), cultural inequality (On the Cannibals), and racial inequality ( The Souls of Black Folks: Of our spiritual strivings).
In The book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan creates an allegorical city of ladies and teaches women to accept their womanhood despite misogynistic beliefs. Pizan was one of the first women to oppose literary misogyny. Her intended audience was women, and the three figures in the book: Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, Lady Justice all speak to empower women. They argue that women are indeed active participants in society despite men’s misogynistic beliefs. For example, Mary Magdalene, and Saint Catherine raised moral strength by encouraging religion and piety in society In order to further emphasize the contributions of women to society, the three ladies came to Pizan to tell her to build a city of ladies and populate it with the most accomplished women in the world.
Misogynists made many arguments to discourage self-esteem in women. One of the arguments made was the idea that women are “by nature fearful creatures, having weak, frail bodies, and lacking physical strength” (Pizan 33). Lady reason argues that these qualities are balanced out because women have brave and courageous hearts and are more likely to be moral than men. (Pizan 34)Pizan also advocates that women are equal participants in God’s plan. She alludes to the story of the creation of Adam and Eve and argues women are destined to be a companion for men . (Pizan 22)Women were also described as helpless and often dependent, but this was not true. The three ladies provide evidence to support women whose lives refute this claim.
To defend against the misconceptions and encourage self-esteem in women Pizan also tells about the innate qualities of women. Women are pious, gentle, loving and perform duties of charity. Women often act as teachers and are more likely than men to tend to the sick. (Pizan 24-25) Pizan did not wish to write and slander men; instead she took the high road and decided to empower women and their selfhood. Pizan exercises proto-feminism where she argues for respect for women with a focus on self-knowledge and esteem, whilst modern feminism tries to establish equality with men.
On the Cannibals by Michel de Montaigne was written to highlight cultural inequality and raise awareness for subordinate groups in order to combat prejudice. In this account by Montaigne, the colonizers are the “dominant” group while the natives are the subordinate group. The intended audience is believed to be Europeans colonizers. Europeans are the appropriate group because they are the ones that viewed foreigners as uncivilized and barbaric without examining themselves first. Montaigne humanizes the Tupi by providing details about the native’s culture and customs. When Montaigne vividly introduces the idea of human sacrifices, “… it serves to prepare the reader for the subsequent narrative depicting an even worse kind of cruelty on the part of the European invaders” (Riglot 19). The natives soon learned that Cortez’s and Columbus’s cruelty goes beyond theirs and Montaigne uses this as a forceful attack on colonialism. Humans live largely by customs and the Europeans misinterpreted cultural differences as lack of culture. (Handler 12) It was evident that Montaigne saw the barbarism of the natives and the Europeans differently. He uses these differences to help define barbarism as seen from the Europeans point of view and the natives’ point of view.
In order to help eliminate prejudice between the natives and colonizers, Montaigne showed an unprecedented admiration for the native people. In Riglot’s article titled “ What is civilization?” he states that while traveling Montaigne “constantly tries to avoid his fellow-countrymen and to adapt himself to foreign customs”(Riglot 12 ). He ate their food and even collected many of their artifacts. In embracing the culture of the “outsiders” he learns more about them. Humans live largely by customs and the Europeans misinterpreted cultural differences as lack of culture. When the Europeans observed the ritualistic cannibalism of the Brazilians, they judged them calling them “savage and barbarous”. Montaigne questions how Europeans define “savage and uncivilized” because the same “barbaric” acts are mirrored in some of their same practices. Handler defines Montaigne’s cultural relativism as when “ one uses one’s understanding of others’ customs the better to manipulate them in one’s own interest”(Handler 13). Colonizers must realize that the native’s way of life is not a cause for a superiority complex on their part. Montaigne helps readers develop self-knowledge by acknowledging commonalities with the “barbaric” group.
The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B DuBois was an introduction to the racial inequalities in society and the book encouraged self-esteem in African Americans. At a very young age, Dubois learns of his difference and decides to better himself instead of hating on his white colleagues. Dubois transforms from an ignorant young boy to an enlightened academic throughout the course of the story. In chapter one of his book titled, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” Dubois talks about how he transformed the self by attacking the veil placed on him. Dubois uses the term “veil” as a metaphor for the racial prejudices that African Africans had to endure in the early twentieth- century. Double consciousness was a result of this veil where the black man only seeing themselves through the eyes of white men, therefore American men would often subdue themselves.
In 1926, African American Poet, Langston Hughes, published a poem titled “I am too” to tell the history of the United States through the African American experience. The first word of the poem, “ too” can be seen as “ too” or “ two” to not only symbolize inclusion in the American experience but also dividedness. This dividedness is consistent with the “double- consciousness” mentioned in Dubois’s “Of our spiritual strivings”. This demonstrates how Dubois’s ideas were widely supported throughout the century. The latter part of the poem states “They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed” (Hughes 4) This line is evidence that African Americans eventually emerge from their subdued consciousnesses are no longer ashamed of who they truly are.
Dubois clearly outlines things that would help bolster African American spirts in white society. In the book, African Americans often ask “…what need of education, since we must always cook and serve?… What need of higher culture for half-men?” (Dubois 369). Dubois argues that an education “gave leisure for reflection and self-examination; it changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect” (Dubois 368). Essentially Dubois states that he wants to gain acceptance and he just wants to be an African American without the doors of opportunity being closed him. In order to achieve these things, he calls for an education and they need to be able to exercise the “power of the ballot” (Dubois 370). A combination of all of these things would be the solution for African Americans to be in unison with the self.
Author Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies to envisage change for women in a misogynistic world. This allegorical city of ladies was created to support women in embracing their womanhood. Montaigne’s book, On the Cannibals, was heralded as a breakthrough because it teaches cultural relativism, where Europeans to view customs from a cultural context rather than judging them. (Rendall 63) When reflecting on European practices, many of those practices were like those of the Tupi people; this forces Europeans to reexamine their definition of the word “civilization” and “barbaric”. As an attempt to unify the divided consciousness of African Americans, W.E.B. Dubois wrote The Soul of Black Folk suggesting education as a gateway to help reinforce self-respect and consciousness.
Sexual, cultural, and racial inequality are all woven into the fabric of our society, but all of these texts show individuals in the process of coming to know the self-better in the face of these inequalities.
- Dufresne, Laura Rinaldi. “Christine De Pizans ‘Treasure of the City of Ladies’: A Study of Dress and Social Hierarchy.” Womans Art Journal, vol. 16, no. 2, 1995, p. 29., doi:10.2307/1358572.
- Handler, Richard. “Of Cannibals and Custom: Montaignes Cultural Relativism.” Anthropology Today, vol. 2, no. 5, 1986, p. 12., doi:10.2307/3032977.
- Hughes, Langston. “I, Too by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47558/i-too.
- Rendall, Steven. “Dialectical Structure and Tactics in Montaignes ‘Of Cannibals.’” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 12, 1977, p. 56., doi:10.2307/1316483.
- Ward, David C. “What Langston Hughes’ Powerful Poem ‘I, Too’ Tells Us About America’s Past and Present.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 22 Sept. 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/what-langston-hughes-powerful-poem-i-too-americas-past-present-180960552/.