Recently, my daughter and co-author asked me to review a history paper before she submitted it to her history instructor. This is not surprising. My kids have learned that as a result of my line of work, this is one of the limited ways in which I can actually be useful to them. She warned me that I should perhaps read some of the book to get an idea of the substance so that I could understand and provide meaningful feedback. Reinforcing her recommendation, a copy soon arrived from Amazon. It was “The Book of the City of Ladies,” written by Christine de Pizan in 1405.
The assignment, on the syllabus from the beginning of the semester, turned out to be more timely than the instructor could have anticipated, given the torrent of news stories regarding harassment of women by politicians, news personalities, and Hollywood figures. You see, “The Book of the City of Ladies” is an allegorical feminist novel. It is written in the format of a prolonged dialogue between characters about the validity of written commentaries variously questioning or espousing the strength, virtue, and morality of women. Christine de Pizan’s purpose was to show that French society and its popular contemporary authors promoted an unfair and damaging attitude toward women. My co-author’s thesis, restated, was that de Pizan used certain techniques in presenting the written authorities discussed by her characters in order to most effectively present her argument. She identified three such techniques, but I have included only her first example. The following, other than my concluding paragraph, constitutes that portion of her paper, edited slightly for the sake of brevity:
The first technique Christine de Pizan implements is her choice of which characters cite the various authorities in order to influence the weight the reader gives that authority. The author herself is one of the characters. But, even though she is “building” the City of Ladies, she is not the person who attacks the sexist stereotypes of the age and puts forth the defense of women. Rather, de Pizan sets herself up as the “doubter” of her own gender. She is told at the beginning of the book that three ladies have been sent to console her in her sadness over the “defects” of her gender and correct her erroneous thoughts (De Pizan, I.3.2). Thereafter, in her discussions with the three ladies, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, she continues to respond to their points by raising yet another scholar’s or popular writer’s criticism of women, such as when she talks to Rectitude about the philosopher Theophrastus, who wrote that women hate their husbands when they are old, and that women hate men who are learned (De Pizan, II.19.1). By positioning herself as the doubter citing authorities that are critical of women, she automatically makes those authorities seem less persuasive.
The other effect of de Pizan raising the negative authorities herself is that it sets up the three ladies to offer her the “building blocks” for the City of Ladies in the form of persuasive arguments citing to favorable authorities. Reason, Rectitude, and Justice are established at the outset as messengers from heaven to make them as persuasive as possible. This way, their counter-arguments and the authorities they cite are viewed more favorably than the negative authorities to which de Pizan refers. An example is when Rectitude responds to de Pizans’ concern by pointing out the virtues of Xanthippe, the wife of Socrates, and her devotion to her elderly husband (de Pizan, II.21.1).
If we have managed to be sufficiently interesting to keep your attention to this point, you have no doubt recognized what I did: de Pizan would have been a formidable litigator. It takes no great leap to think of her characters as witnesses and imagine the application of her writing techniques as trial strategy (i.e., having your expert criticize the conduct of the opposing party, not your own client). The work thus serves as a reminder that in this and other unexpected places one can learn (or relearn) tactics to hone our craft. More broadly, it is reminder that today — as in fifteenth century France — there remains a need for effective advocates. It is a reminder that we may serve as such advocates if we choose, both in the courtroom and in the workplace.
• Louis W. Voelker is a partner in the Hammond office of Eichhorn & Eichhorn and serves on the DTCI Board of Directors. Madeline Voelker is a senior in the School of Nursing at the University of Indianapolis. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.