Reading Women’s Worlds from Christine de Pizan to Doris Lessing: A Guide to Six Centuries of Women Writers Imagining Rooms of Their Own

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Reading Women’s Worlds explores a recurring theme in writing by women: the dream of finding or creating a private and secluded retreat from the world of men. These imagined “women’s worlds” may be very small, a single room, for example, but many women writers are much more ambitious, fantasizing about cities, even entire countries, created for and inhabited exclusively by women.


Perhaps the most widely known articulation of this dream is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, based on a series of lectures given at Newnham and Girton colleges, Cambridge, in 1928. A cursory search on reveals at least five paperback editions in print, indicating something of the book’s current readership—not bad for a set of eighty-year-old essays.  

What accounts for the amazing popularity of a series of essays originally written in 1928? The appeal of Woolf’s book seems to lie in her claim that a woman must have a private space for herself. Even eighty years later, this seems an audacious demand, yet Woolf’s is neither the first—nor the last—expression of such a need. Reading Women’s Worlds places Woolf’s work in this larger context. The dream appears as early as 1405, when Christine de Pizan imagined herself constructing an entire city for women, and it is seen as recently as Doris Lessing’s 2007 The Cleft, which begins with a vision of an all-female society. 

Variations on this theme appear in a wide variety of forms over the course of more than six centuries—it is found in nonfiction prose, plays, utopian and dystopian fiction, short stories, graphic memoirs, literary dialogues, personal letters, and radical political polemic. ReadingWomen’s Worlds is a book about these books. But rather than a chronological survey of works that articulate visions of “women’s worlds,” Reading Women's Worlds introduces readers to the varied works by placing their writers in conversation with one another, pairing them in ways that reveal the writers’ distinctive voices even while they speak of the dream  they share. 

Juxtaposing Pizan’s City of Ladies and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, for example, reveals a number of rather startling contrasts. At the turn of the fifteenth century, Christine de Pizan depicts herself already in a room of her own. Surrounded by her books and with pen at hand, she rewrites history as it had been recorded by men, empowering women with her own counternarrative; Pizan writes a history of womankind by compiling stories of powerful goddesses, mythological heroines, great poets and inventors, influential queens and regents, Christian saints and martyrs, and of her own remarkable contemporaries. The walled city she “constructs” will not only defend and protect women from men, but, inside the city, women will find comfort and support in the community they share. By contrast, in the early twentieth century, Woolf searches in vain for a history of woman. She knows only a handful of women writers who have preceded her—she certainly doesn’t know anything about Christine de Pizan. And the contrast between Pizan’s and Woolf’s imagined worlds is stunning. Christine thinks big when she imagines what women need, constructing an entire city just for them. But Woolf does not imagine finding refuge in a company of women; she asks for a room, just a single room. Its occupant may gain for herself the space and the freedom to create, but in doing so she isolates herself and becomes a solitary figure, cut off from the rest of womankind. 


"Jansen reveals hidden works (and 'worlds') of de Pizan, Moderata Fonte, Mary Astell, Arcangela Tarabotti, Margaret Cavendish, and Valerie Solanas. . . . The revelations are excellent, but the real pleasure is the unexpected colloquy of women discussiing the condition of women, and delighted (or alarmed) to find themselves in the same metaphorical 'room.' Jansen has used these texts together as a course, and weaves her gender-mixed students' savviest insights into what sometimes reads like a reader-response memoir. Coaxing 'lost' works into conversation with extraordinary works by [Doris] Lessing, Marjane Satrapi, and Azar Nafisi and with familiar and unfamiliar work by canonical feminists like Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins, Jansen makes the works somehow necessary to each other--creating a rich, noisy multiethnic environment that the reader may not want to leave."

--Choice Reviews (American Library Association)


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Reading Nafisi at the YMCA


I Have a Dream: Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own


We Need to Talk: Conversation in Moderata Fonte’s The Worth of Women and Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries


Design for Living: Women’s Communities in Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies


Paradise Lost: Men in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and Doris Lessing’s The Cleft


Hell Hath No Fury: Rage in Arcangela Tarabotti’s Paternal Tyranny and Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto


Madwomen in the Attic: Madness and Suicide in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen”


Brave New Worlds: Sexual Slavery in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Slavenka Drakuliċ’s S. A Novel about the Balkans


Still Crazy after All These Years: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran


Bibliography: Suggestions for Further Reading

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