The Equality Of Women In Chaucer?S Wife Of Bath Essay, Research Paper
The Equality of Women in Chaucer?s Wife of Bath
There have been many different interpretations of what Geoffrey Chaucer stood for, but
one of the most argued is that of the equality of women. As seen in several of Chaucer?s works,
this is especially exhibited in the Canterbury Tales. Although some scholars debate that he was
only writing down what he saw in his present society, others insist that he was very much an
advocate for the equality of women. With his character the Wife of Bath, Chaucer is able to show
how Renaissance women lived under the submission of men before and during marriage, where
they stood after marriage, and how that they dreamed for the equality of women.
The women that lived during the Renaissance Period were principally submissive under
men. According to Margaret Hallissy, Whatever her estate, woman needs rules. She needs them
because she is fallen, fallen through Eve, whose punishment was to be subordinate to her husband,
as are all her daughters to their husbands in their turn, to the end of time (9).This statement
shows the attitude toward women during the Renaissance time period. Women were to do what
they were told and if they did not then the man could punish them just as God punishes man. The
Wife of Bath talks about this happening in her fifth marriage when she tears out pages from her
husband’s book. She said that he struck her so hard on the side of the head that she lost the
hearing in that ear (Chaucer, 213). Chaucer also displayed the subjugation of women even before
this when the Wife of Bath was talking about her first marriage which took place at the age of
twelve years old. She did not have a choice in the matter of marriage. She was married at the age
of twelve because that was what she was told to do by her father. She left home and became a
wife. The only equality that women had in this time was in sexuality within the marriage. At this
time, the Church controlled sex because too much sex was seen as sinful and when they were
disinterested in sex it was good because this was close to the purity in virginity (Hallissy, 12).
This is how the Wife of Bath claims to control her five husbands, but she does not wholly have
freedom or dominion over her husbands. The men still continue to have control over the women
of the time, no matter what their status is.
Chaucer is able to use the status of the Wife of Bath as a widow because they had a little
more independence. There are many statements made that show her feelings of entrapment within
the society even though she was still aloud to attend to her dead husbands’ lands and to her
business of weaving. The widows during this time were thought to show the grief and anguish for
their husbands because that was to be their life’s devotion. As noted, the Wife of Bath was
married five times which would automatically go against the clergy’s bidding of her. This is when
Chaucer really begins to bring in the want of equality. The Wife begins to quote scripture to
support her remarriages. She also refers to other texts like Valerius and Theophrastus and
Jovinian, which are antifeminist texts, in a way that was backward in order to suit her own uses of
the works. “A master of parody, Alisoun turns Jerome’s words back on themselves,” says Mary
Carruthers (26). The wife is seen as nagging or gossiping and most of the statements will be
dismissed, but it seems Chaucer wanted to use her as the voice of the movement for equality.
“We don’t love a man who carefully watches where we go; we want to be at large,” and “Forbid
us a thing and we desire it” are both texts that show what the women of the time were longing for
(197,205). Elaine Hansen feels that at this time the women are questioning why they are in this
submissive role and whether or not it is really consti-tuted by the Bible (31). The women of
Chaucer’s time are crying out for an equalization between the sexes and through the Wife of Bath,
Chaucer shows his sympathy.
The Wife of Bath?s tale in the book is what the women of the Renaissance, and women of
all times, have wanted which is equality with men. The Wife of Bath?s tale has a great deal of
symbolism in it. Beginning with the rape of the beautiful young maiden, the rape is the most
extreme form of abasement that a woman could be subjected to. Chaucer is using this to show
that the women feel that they are being raped of their freedom by the submission under men. The
punishment of the Knight represents how the women feel that men should be punished for the
submission that they have forced on women. ?Chaucer makes the rape a personal injury directed
against a woman, not a property crime directed against her husband or father? which takes out the
male interest factor that is present during the Renaissance period (Hallissy, 180). Then when the
Knight asks the old woman what women most desire and he gives Guinevere his answer, he says,
?generally women desire to have dominion over their husbands as well as their lovers, and to be
above them in mastery,? (Chaucer, 229). With this, the old woman requires him to marry her to
fulfill his promise to her. This symbolizes the sbordination which the women of that time are
subjected to and how again that they want men to experience this. In the end the old woman
changes into a beautiful young wife because the Knight gives himself into her control. With this,
Chaucer is trying to create a happy medium for both sexes in which they have an equally balanced
marriage. Chaucer realizes, along with the Renaissance women, that either extreme is not feasible
and accomplishes the idea of equality by displaying this through the Wife of Bath and her tale.
Through the Wife of Bath and her Tale, Chaucer is able to show what women go through
and what they want. Chaucer is definitely trying to show how that the women of Renaissance
society and in submission to their fathers, husbands, and men in general. He sees that women are
beginning to see the subservient position they are in and how that they want equality with other
men. Even though women usually had a good life, it is like the Wife of Bath said in her Prologue,
?whatever we cannot easily get we will cry after and crave all day. Forbid us a thing and we
desire it? (Chaucer, 205). The women wanted their freedom of choice and after more than 500
years of crying, they got it.
Carruthers, Mary. ?The Wife of Bath and the painting of the lions.? Feminist Readings in Middle
English Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 22-53.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Bantam Books, 1964.
Hallissy, Margaret. Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows : Chaucer?s Women and
Medieval Codes of Conduct. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 1993
Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1992.