The feminist narrative of history portrays women’s rights as a recent phenomenon. Feminists believe that pre-modern women were oppressed by men and had few rights. Nowhere were women more miserable than in medieval times when the Church and a patriarchal society reduced them to near slavery.
Feminists contend that since then, the fight for women’s rights has made steady and inevitable progress as history evolves to ever greater freedom. We can’t go back, they cry.
Maybe the feminists need to go back—and at least look at the facts. Recent studies reveal that this historical perspective is false. Medieval times offered unprecedented opportunities for women. The portrayal of oppressed women is more the invention of modern historians, Victorian distortions and Hollywood scripts than medieval chronicles.
The modern idea of history as an inevitable march evolving toward greater freedom is likewise flawed. If anything, the plight of women has worsened since the Middle Ages. Indeed, the Church elevated the role of women in society. Later secular movements often oppressed them. History does not follow fate but depends upon free will. Thus, periods vary according to the circumstances.
The most surprising finding of the two scholars is that the Renaissance “vastly rolled back the rights of women.” The Renaissance was supposedly a “rebirth” of ancient culture and enlightenment. However, its reborn ideas bought back the neo-pagan Roman and Greek cultures where women had no political rights and limited opportunities.
The Church played a major role in recognizing the inherent dignity of men and women and worked toward the salvation of their souls. At the same time, the Church encouraged the improvement of the material conditions of all, opening up new opportunities for progress. Above all, the Church endowed society with supernatural graces so that men and women became capable of things that took them beyond their human nature.