gender and sexuality
love and marriage
imagined worlds
places and spaces
danger: love
writing and fame
la querelle femmes

Places and Spaces
Courtney Wilson

The "Tenth Muses" were accustomed to spaces of extremity. Then as now, being a woman writer did not come easily, and the Tenth Muses often met with altogether harsh and unfriendly criticism of their writing-both as a practice and as a commodity. Concomitant with their denigration, the Tenth Muses found themselves catapulted to a space of fame and notoriety not altogether unpleasant or unprofitable. Hence, these courageous early modern women writers simultaneously occupied spaces of reproach and respect. The theme of places and spaces repeatedly echoes this paradoxical dichotomy in the work of many of the Tenth Muses. Four women in particular-Christine de Pizan, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and Catalina de Erauso-featured issues of places and spaces prominently in their texts. In all four women's works, three common issues regarding space surface: 1) a space of privacy versus that of the public; 2) a space of sexuality, including love, marriage, gender identity, and sexual preference; and 3) a space of enclosure or restriction versus that of freedom-and sometimes freedom in enclosure. These themes of places and spaces and their myriad permutations point to some commonalties between all four women: the phenomenon of eccentricity, and a daring desire to change the world.

Christine de Pizan

In Christine de Pizan's case, changing the world meant building a new one. In her The Book of the City of Ladies (1403-04), Christine imagines creating a new private world, exclusively for virtuous women. In the privacy of her fantasy (made public by the publication of her text), Christine has the ultimate power and she is not afraid to voice her opinions. Christine is most opinionated regarding women's rights; thus one can speculate that the most appropriate and sympathetic audience for The City of Ladies is, of course, women. Assuming that Christine wrote with a female audience in mind, The City of Ladies itself forges an intimate space amongst women. Christine's book is a sort of private counsel between herself and her fellow women readers. She advises her readers: "In brief, all women-whether noble, bourgeois, or lower-class-be well-informed in all things and cautious in defending your honor and chastity against your enemies" (Pizan 256)-who are surely men. This bold advice is an appropriate conclusion for a book dedicated to defending women's superior intellect and virtue. However, it is also an open invitation for public (male) scrutiny. It seems that by situating as she did her arguments in the context of an imaginary, private interaction with fictitious muses, Christine can hope to dodge the public's bullets of criticism.

Or perhaps Christine was not concerned with the public's reaction to her text. When it comes to her advice regarding women's sexual and matrimonial relationships, Christine is completely blunt and seldom complimentary toward men. Christine is not afraid to expose their offensive conduct or to criticize their persistent woman-bashing. She asks of Lady Reason, "Lady . . . so many men have attacked and continue to attack the behavior of women, . . . tell me if Nature makes man so inclined or whether they do it out of hatred" (Pizan 16). Christine frames the question in such a way as to prevent men from denying responsibility for their actions. But this possibility is immediately refuted with Lady Reason's response: "This behavior most certainly does not come from Nature, but rather is contrary to Nature, for no connection in the world is as great or as strong as the great love which, through the will of God, Nature places between a man and a woman" (Pizan 16-17). As the preceding question and response sequence indicate, Christine clearly maintains that men make conscious decisions and should be held personally responsible for their unfair grievances with and offenses toward women. Despite this inexcusable indignity, it appears that Christine is not entirely against marriage and relationships with men. Marina Warner notes in the Forward to the text, "Christine who herself resolved to remain a widow . . . showed an admirable open mind when she counseled other women not to seek too much independence" (xvii).

Although Christine's attitudes regarding marriage may seem surprisingly hypocritical, they make perfect sense in light of early modern women's necessary social dependence on men. Because men denied women the basic right to an education, female occupational options were limited to being a housewife or a nun. A woman who did not wish to enter a convent and did not have an education had no choice but to marry and raise a family. Christine was not unaware of this grim fact of life. So, by virtue of her education, she did have the option of remaining independent, but Christine realized that it would behoove most women to find good men and to cultivate loving, healthy relationships. Christine advises her readers: "And you ladies who are married, do not scorn being subject to your husbands, for sometimes it is not the best thing for a creature to be independent" (255). She does not want to dishearten those members of her female audience who are not at liberty to pursue an education and support themselves. Furthermore, Christine would like to believe that there is such a thing as a happy marriage. She says: "Those women with peaceful, good and discrete husbands who are devoted to them, praise God for this boon, which is not inconsiderable, for a greater boon in the world could not be given them" (Pizan 255). Surely good husbands do exist, but Christine's commitment never to marry is a testament to her general apprehension regarding men's character. She believes that marriage can be a happy space, but it depends on the man-and there are very few admirable men. To those women so unfortunate as to be trapped in an abusive marriage, Christine offers words of encouragement:

And those women who have husbands who are cruel, mean and savage should strive to endure them while trying to overcome their vices and lead them back, if they can, to a reasonable and seemly life. And if they are so obstinate that their wives are unable to do anything, at least they will acquire great merit for their souls through the virtue of patience. And everyone will bless and support them. (Pizan 255)

Christine's supporting message is addressed to women directly, yet indirectly she manages to appeal to men, too. In the men's case, the message is not one of support, but of admonishment: be good to your wives, for they are virtuous, patient, and deserving of your love and goodwill.

Earlier in the text, Christine takes a more straightforward approach. She openly rebukes offensive men by saying, "Those men who have attacked women out of jealousy are those wicked ones who have seen and realized that many women have greater understanding and are more noble in conduct than they themselves" (Pizan 19). Throughout The City of Ladies, Christine continually attests to women's superior intellect and the injustice of their being denied an education. For the first time in The City of Ladies, Christine exposes the reality of her world: it is a prohibitive space of female subordination and ruthless male control. But she is not without hope, for Christine has envisioned a new space of freedom. Her muses, Lady Reason, Lady Justice, and Lady Rectitude, have come to save her. "We have come," they say, "to vanquish from the world the same error into which you had fallen, so that from now on, ladies and all valiant women may have a refuge and defense against the various assailants" (Pizan 10). The "refuge" to which Lady Reason refers is a new space of protection, privilege, and autonomy. The City of Ladies is an ideal world, where women of virtue have the right to live as they please, outside male domination. A space of enclosure guarantees the survival of these women and provides welcome relief from their real-life repression.

Margaret Lucas Cavendish

For Margaret Lucas Cavendish, the idea of a "City of Ladies" was something more than just a fantasy. Cavendish made the conceptual leap from daydream to reality in connecting the ideal "City of Ladies" to its real-life correlate-a convent. In The Convent of Pleasure (1668), Cavendish imagines a convent that grants women the same privileges, autonomy, and protection from men that Christine envisioned for her women in The City of Ladies. In both cases, a space of enclosure is elevated into one of freedom. Lady Happy says: "I mean to live incloister&'d with all the delights and pleasures that are allowable and lawful: My Cloister shall not be a Cloister of restraint, but a place for freedom, not to vex the Senses but to please them" (Cavendish 101). And, judging from Cavendish's description of the Convent of Pleasure, its inhabitants had abundant opportunities to please their senses. As Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson note in the introduction to Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader, "Cavendish advocates modes of self-transformation that cultivate the earthly pleasures of the body while freeing it from social and psychological constraints, even the constraint of contemporary gender roles" (16). The Convent of Pleasure is certainly a prime example of a space of freedom from "social and psychological constraints." Joined in pleasure, the women of the convent can forget about men and the social ideology of heterosexuality. They find the freedom to experiment with, and even reinvent, their genders (Bowerbank and Mendelson 19). A place without inhibitions or cultural constraints, the convent, like the City of Ladies, allows women the opportunity to find themselves and each other.

And find each other they do. Although the one romantic relationship featured in the play is, in fact, between a woman and a man, at the time of their first tryst Lady Happy believed that the "Princess" was a woman. This fact does not deter Lady Happy. She defends her emotions for the Princess, asking, "why may not I love a Woman with the same affection I could a Man?" (Cavendish 118). Lady Happy is perhaps somewhat startled by her emotions for another woman, but she does not find them unpleasant or immoral. Lady Happy's new love is actually in keeping with her general attitude toward men: "Men are the only troublers of Women; for they only cross and oppose their sweet delights and peaceable life; they cause their pains but not their pleasures" (Cavendish 101). Lady Happy enters the convent to escape the troubles wrought by men, and unexpectedly finds the pleasure of women. The Convent of Pleasure is a space of unencumbered sexuality, where women have the freedom to explore new emotions.

Indeed, before meeting the Prince, Lady Happy adamantly opposes marriage. She says, "yet would a Marry&'d life have more crosses and sorrows then pleasures, freedom or hapiness: nay Marriage to those that are virtuous is a greater restraint then a Monastery" (Cavendish 98). Clearly Lady Happy would be "mad to live with Men, who make the female sex their slaves" (Cavendish 101). Nonetheless, The Convent of Pleasure ends with Lady Happy's willful marriage to the Prince. This surprising ending seems altogether contrary to Lady Happy's convictions. "Is the ending happy for Lady Happy, who is now to be a wife after all their railings against the oppression of marriage?" (Bowerbank and Mendelson 21). Furthermore, would Lady Happy have preferred that the Prince were a woman? (Bowerbank and Mendelson 20). Perhaps the ending to The Convent of Pleasure bespeaks Cavendish's own convictions regarding marriage and female independence. She herself was a well-educated, intelligent woman who believed in women's autonomy. But Cavendish was also happily married to a man who adored her, supported her career, and even financed her work. In this light, Lady Happy can be seen as Margaret Cavendish's literary complement. Lady Happy enabled Cavendish to express and explain her own fractured ambivalence regarding men and love. In effect, Lady Happy constitutes a vehicle for Cavendish's self-defense. Both women claim sexual independence and self-sufficiency, and yet, in the end, both Cavendish and Lady Happy choose love and marriage. Consequently, The Convent of Pleasure is a space of sexual reconciliation between women and men, and of celebration of women's sexuality.

It is not surprising that Cavendish used an analogy in her writing to reveal her own attitudes and opinions. Cavendish did not trust her mind's nor her body's ability to accurately express her thoughts in public. As Bowerbank and Mendelson explain, "Cavendish is not good at talking: she is shy in company, because the body cannot be trusted" (12). Cavendish lives two separate lives, one public and one private. In her private sphere, she believes herself to be "melancholic-heavy, lethargic, immobilized by distemper, sleeplessness, and agoraphobia" (Bowerbank and Mendelson 12). Cavendish, we can surmise, does not have a healthy self-image, and consequently she perpetually reinvents herself for the public. Obsessed with clothing and her appearance, she uses her beauty in public to cover up her private anguish and melancholy nature. Cavendish subjects herself to her own private treatments, with "regimens of fasting, purging and blood-letting" (Bowerbank and Mendelson 13). These treatments are only supplementary to her greatest therapy-writing. "Through writing Cavendish gains a measure of control over her body, her tongue, her gestures, her language; she produces surrogate 'paper bodies&' that speak elegantly and wisely in public" (Bowerbank and Mendelson 14). Although Cavendish was unsure of her self and constantly changed her public persona, she was absolutely resolute regarding her self-mediation. Her doctor's complaints that she "worsened her condition by thinking and writing too much" (Bowerbank and Mendelson 14) did not affect her. Cavendish must have been accustomed to public criticism concerning her writing. But she could not be dissuaded. For Cavendish, writing was therapeutic in a way that a doctor's medicine could never be. Publicly, Cavendish was beautiful, stylish, and ostentatiously eccentric; privately, she was sophisticated, intelligent, and ahead of her time in terms of women's rights.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is another early modern woman well acquainted with both the private, therapeutic effects of writing, and the public controversy that it could incite. A brilliant autodidact, Sor Juana had an unparalleled commitment to her education. She openly defended her academic abilities, offering her talent as proof that women's intellect is equal to men's. Sor Juana's extraordinary nature and achievements wedded her to the public sphere. Her fame grew, and with it came increasing attention from her critics. Publicly, Sor Juana was a strong woman, sure of herself, and intent on defending her rights as a female intellectual. But who is the real, private Sor Juana? Her verses and speeches offer various voices and personas that in the aggregate represent a collective public Sor Juana. The multiple personalities woven throughout her texts suggest that Sor Juana's self-image is a complicated tangle of spirituality and solitude. Alan S. Trueblood identifies her personal struggle, saying, "she apostrophizes extrapersonal forces or symbols and makes painfully clear the price she has had to pay for her intellectual and artistic distinction" (17). In other words, Sor Juana suffers from social isolation as a result of her singularity. She is unreachable to the public who cannot identify with the sacrifices that she has made nor with the trials that she has endured; thus Sor Juana has no choice but to exist in a space of private solitude. Perhaps the closest we come to perceiving Sor Juana's "most prized intimacy, the workshop of her mind" (Trueblood 21) is in her "First Dream" (1692). Here Sor Juana shows us that her intellectual struggle is really an ascent of the soul and a discovery of self. The publication of the "First Dream" is a final melding of public and private for Sor Juana. Its verses provide a glimpse of this wonderful woman's true self.

Although "First Dream" seems to be a genuine reflection of Sor Juana's most intimate thoughts and emotions, are we to assume that her love poetry is equally personal? In Trueblood's estimation, "The expertise with which she expounds the processes of the emotions is by no means purely perfunctory" (5). He claims that the precision of her descriptions of "love, jealousy, separation ('absence'), reciprocation and nonreciprocation, rejection, [and] deprivation" (Trueblood 4) cannot possibly be based purely on speculation. Sor Juana was a beautiful woman, and it is reasonable to assume that she had her fair share of attention from men before she entered the convent (Trueblood 4-5). Perhaps Sor Juana was once involved in an intimate relationship-her poetry certainly suggests as much. Beyond suggesting real life experience in matters of love, her poetry also hints at possible lesbian or bisexual tendencies, as many of her love poems are addressed to women. Sor Juana has often argued, most notably in "First Dream," that the soul is neuter. It is, therefore, reasonable to infer that Sor Juana would be open to exploring an intimate relationship with another woman, since our sexed bodies are merely vehicles for our sexless souls. Then again, as Trueblood suggests, perhaps her love poetry is merely expressing "a need for closeness to another person which neither the convent nor her library could satisfy" (13).

Sor Juana may have been acquainted with love, but in the end she forfeited intimacy and marriage with a man for the right to study and cultivate her mind. Sor Juana knew that entering a convent was the only way for her to ensure her continued pursuit of knowledge; "her choice of conventual life over marriage was one of mind over heart and body-over motherhood and domesticity" (Trueblood 12). But perhaps forsaking marriage was not so great a sacrifice for Sor Juana as one might imagine. In her "Reply to Sor Philothea"(1691), Sor Juana expresses her "total disinclination to marriage" (212). This attitude is not surprising considering Sor Juana's remarkable education and independence. Perhaps, like Christine de Pizan, Sor Juana viewed marriage as an institution involving restriction and repression. Perhaps, like Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Sor Juana viewed the convent as a space of freedom to pursue her dreams and enhance her intellect. For Sor Juana, the enclosure and protection offered by the convent were a reassuring and supportive alternative to the stifling obligations of marriage.

Catalina de Erauso

Conventional marriage or the conventual life-these were the possibilities" for early modern women (Stepto xxvii). But Catalina de Erauso was no ordinary woman. As a young girl in a convent, Erauso viewed both marriage and the monastery as spaces of restriction and enclosure; she wanted no part of them. She wanted freedom! Erauso wanted the freedom to "travel and see a bit of the world" (Erauso 17). She wanted "the freedom available to Spanish men of her class" (Stepto xxvii), nothing more, nothing less. Erauso knew she could not walk out of the convent and seize the world while dressed as a woman. In order to pursue the life she wanted, Erauso needed to become a man. Changing her identity was a small price to pay for the joy she found in living freely, "carried off like a feather in the wind" (Erauso 17). Unlike Sor Juana, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, and Christine de Pizan, Erauso could not countenance the thought of spending her life in a space of restrictive enclosure. For Erauso, the convent represented a place of repression and isolation. Having grown up in the convent without ever experiencing the outside world, Erauso was ignorant of men's abuses and the reality of women's subjugation outside the convent walls. She knew no better, and thus was not intimidated by a world dominated by men. Erauso saw no obstacle to attaining her goal of freedom. So, she decided she would leave a space of enclosure in favor of freedom in the New World.

Life in the New World was ever changing, full of excitement and adventure. It was a space of conquest, discovery, and anonymity-perfect for a woman seeking to change her identity. Erauso's new identity was crucial to her survival and freedom. Yet, in choosing freedom, Erauso had to forfeit intimacy. The respect that she gained from her public reputation as a tough, masculine soldier was, one might conclude, scant compensation for her lack of private relationships and intimate contact. As Michele Stepto notes, "Erauso makes plain that the cost of [her] escape was a deep loss-of family, community, of a sense of belonging" (xxxvi). Her disguise, in effect, isolates her from any public life beyond that of her superficial image and physical appearance. She has no choice but to conceal her identity and resign herself to a life of privacy and alienation.

Despite the fact that Erauso allegedly composed Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World (c. 1625) detailing her life adventures, her inner self remains largely mysterious. As Stepto observes: "The endless drama of inner life, so much a fixture of our present literature, is absent from her memoir, and we are left to infer, by a word here, a detail there, above all by the actions which shape her character" (xxxvi), her deepest desires and the workings of her mind. The most telling aspect of Erauso's behavior is also her most distinguishing feature: Erauso was a seventeenth-century cross-dresser. But Erauso's cross-gendered behavior does not stop at her clothing or her occupation as a soldier. When Erauso decided to leave the convent and enter the world of men, she also left behind her identity as a woman. By wearing men's clothing, living as a soldier, and flirting with women, Erauso changed not only her public appearance, but also her private identity. Her public display of masculinity affected a private shift in gender identity. Erauso certainly looked and acted the part of a man, perhaps she felt herself to be one as well. The strongest evidence in support of the conjecture that Erauso was transgendered is the fact that she continued to dress and act as a man "long after the world had come to know who she was" (Stepto xxxviii). Erauso truly embraced her new identity as a man, both publicly and privately. The coherence of looking and acting like a man with feeling and believing herself to be a man provided her with some semblance of harmony between her public and private selves. Erauso's actions suggest that she was truly transgendered. She privately embraced what her public appearance confirmed.

Although her public gender identity remained fixed once she left the convent and decided to live as a man, it is unclear whether her private sexual preference was as immutable. Throughout her memoir, there are occasional hints and innuendoes regarding her sexual orientation; but on the whole, "Erauso is fairly mum when it comes to her sexual preferences" (Stepto xxxvii). Though we know that she is physically a woman and might expect her to be attracted to men, Erauso never expresses any sexual interest in any of the men in her memoir (Stepto xxxviii). On the contrary, Erauso describes numerous encounters with women that are undeniably sexual. For example, Erauso explains her master's reason for firing her from her position as shopkeeper as follows:

There were two young ladies in the house, his wife's sisters, and I had become accustomed to frolicking with them and teasing them-one in particular, who had taken a fancy to me. And, one day, when she and I were in the front parlor, and I had my head in the folds of her skirt and she was combing my hair while I ran my hand up an down between her legs, Diego de Solarte happened to pass by the window, and spied us through the grate.


As are her other descriptions of possibly sexual encounters with women, the above encounter is presented as socially acceptable flirting between a man and woman, not what would have been considered scandalous lesbian conduct. Erauso even describes herself accompanying her brother "to the house of the mistress he kept in town" (19), implying that her sexual behavior was totally normal because it was in keeping with that of other men. For Erauso, the space of gender identity and sexual preference was no more ambiguous than the image she presented to the world. As far as she was concerned, she was a man through and through, including her sexual preference for women.


From Christine to Erauso, all four women repeatedly express female intimacy. Perhaps this common, precarious space of feminine sexuality and relationships is an indicator of their shared conviction of female autonomy. All four women were extraordinary in their self-sufficiency and their constant determination to enter the public sphere by writing and publishing texts, that is, to enter a space traditionally dominated exclusively by men. These women persisted in spite of public scrutiny and despite private reservations and internal conflicts. Their tenacity speaks to their superior strength of character and unfaltering will to find the freedom to express themselves and pursue their dreams. One by one, these "Tenth Muses" furthered women's rights and did their part to change the world.


- Erauso, Catalina de. Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. Trans. Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
- Newcastle, Margaret Lucas Cavendish. Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader. Ed. Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2000.
- Pizan, Christine de. The Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea Books, 1982.
- Trueblood, Alan S. A Sor Juana Anthology. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

[ back to top]