Print Culture & Women Writers

10 Sep

 This illustration to the left is a painting of fourteeth century writer Christine de Pizan, the first woman in Europe to successfully make a living through writing. This specific illustration of de Pizan sitting at a desk with a pen in hand has become quite a popular image along with many other similar (maybe even identical) portraits of women writing. The number of these types of illustrations highlight the interest in and the excitement around women’s role in literature/print culture/media.  The painting portrays de Pizan not only in the midst of her work, but also allows the viewer to visualize the whole and complete setting in which she is writing. At first glance, it seems as if the painting is only depicting a woman writing in what looks like the private and domestic realm of the home, but further details show that the writer is also working within a bigger sphere outside of her home–a sphere that belongs to the public. The artist’s inclusion of the outside, public place in this painting forces the viewer to acknowledge the intereaction and the relationship between the two spheres of public and private, especially in relation to writing/reading/print.

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Habermas describes the public sphere as a space that directly contrasts the private, domestic realm–he writes, “The reproduction of life, the labor of the slaves, and the service of the omen went on under the aegis of the master’s domination; birth and death took place in its shadow; and the realm of necessity and transitoriness remained immersed in the obscurity of the private sphere. In contrast to it stood, in Greek self-interpretation, the public sphere as a realm of freedom and permanence.” According to Habermas, the foundation of the public sphere rested upon this sole notion of democracy, or “freedom and permanence” as he puts it. To apply this concept to the painting of de Pizan at work, this painting of the writer represents the ways in which writing/reading/print offers that same notion of freedom to women and makes possible for them to simultaneously be figures of the private realm as well as the public sphere, a space that belonged primarily to men.

We can look back at literature and print culture as vehicles for social work. The relationship of women and literature was changing so radically by the mid-eighteenth century that it promised to threatened to undermine both men and women’s established social roles and altered the very basis of accepted gender positions. Though women were active as writers and readers in earlier periods, it was not until the eighteenth century that they began to contribute in significantly large numbers to an increasingly powerful print culture. Women’s roles were wide-ranging and diverse within print culture and many women were aware of their own oppression and represented this acknowledgement in the discourses available to them–much of Christine de Pizan’s work reflects these discourses as well. By integrating differing opinions into the public sphere, print culture strongly influenced and diversified traditional social structures of Britain and America in the eighteenth century. The cultural revolution of print allowed women to not only address the lack of concern for gender in the public sphere but also helped to emphasize their challenge to culturally dominant ideas about women’s natures and roles.

In the late fifteenth century, the reproduction of written materials began to move from the copyist’s desk to the printer’s workshop. The development of printing was a shift that had such an effect on society that it revolutionized all forms of thinking about the private and the public. The invention of print led to a cultural revolution that allowed and welcomed more individuals to express their opinions and to add to social debates that formerly excluded them. As Habermas describes, it is the publicness of print culture that allows it to do such things–he writes, “The predominance of the “town” was strengthened by new institutions that, for all their variety, in Great Britain and France took over the same social functions: the coffee houses in the golden age between 1680 and 1730 and the salons in the period between regency and revolution. In both countries they were centers of criticism—literary at first, then also political—in which began to emerge, between aristocratic society and bourgeois intellectuals, a certain parity of the educated.” Because texts could be consumed by the general public, it widely challenged important social, natural, and fundamental issues that plagued British and American society in the eighteenth century. Print identifies the important failings of society—such as its lack of concern for gender. Despite long standing beliefs that society held regarding women, many women writers continually challenged these existing conditions by continuing to write, making themselves heard and visible through the publicity allowed through print.

One of the new systems of thoughts that print culture created was the redefining of the notions of private and public.  The public/private divide has played a dual role as both an explanation of women’s subordinate position and as an ideology that constructed that position. Because the conditions for publicity suggested a distinction between public and private matters, factors of the intimate sphere also had to be re-defined.

Women’s place in the public sphere is a topic that is often discussed due to the long standing idea that women belong only to the private realm of the home. The categories of public and private have been interpreted as equivalent to those of male and female and in terms of an ideology of separate spheres. Through print culture, the eighteenth century can be viewed as a period of transition, moving away from a world with separate spheres, in which men occupied the public sphere of work while women became increasingly restricted to private sphere of the family. Because print was public, women used it reshape their society’s conceptions of domesticity and individual development in relation to social norms. Women writers begin to view nature without hierarchy and define themselves as subjects, rather than objects with obligations in a predetermined hierarchy—subjects whose ideas and dreams are worth recording, not just in private pages of diaries, but also in publications for an audience beyond themselves or their immediate circle.