Women throughout history did not have the same rights and privileges of their male counterparts, and this effect can still be seen today. These sentiments against women partially go back to Eve eating the forbidden fruit, and a shadow has been cast over women in the Judeo-Christian culture ever since. History also created a system of gender binaries, which were not completely static, but they created fairly common archetypes. A number of male characters held positions of nobility or knighthood and adhered to chivalry while the women would either be seen as detrimental to men or a damsel in distress. These ideas reflected the society at the time, which during the time when the Canterbury Tales was written, meant sexism was rampant. The Wife of Bath puts an interesting spin on some of these tried and true stories by working within the confines of society and being a woman to try and beat the system in her own way. While her efforts could certainly be celebrated for the rebellion and triumph, her complex life and actions make it difficult to determine if she is a modern feminist or just a woman playing whatever hand she is dealt.
In her introduction, we learn that the Wife of Bath is an old hag who thinks her old age hurts her in the eyes of men and society, but she tries to ignore that fact and just focus on finding a way to rebrand herself in a sense. This aspect of her life parallels what women still go through today in terms of generally unfair age restrictions. Sections of society still have a “trophy wife” mentality that involves ever-aging men marrying young women. The media best exemplify age disparities between men and women. Women oftentimes are replaced on news shows after a certain age, sometimes ages that are not even that old. Men can benefit from the appearance of a wise and trustworthy grandfather and tend to stay around longer, driving home the point that women’s physical appearances are focused on much more heavily than it is with men. Female actresses can also similarly fall out of style, and these are realities with which women have to live and adapt. The Wife of Bath has more than enough experience with men because she had five husbands, marrying her first husband at age 12. When she receives pushback on her multiple marriages, she places that criticism within the context of Jesus and Judeo-Christian history. “Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal. For sothe I wol nat kepe me chaast in al. Whan myn housbonde is fro the world ygon, Som Cristen man shal wedde me anon” (Chaucer, 2000, pp. Lines 51-4). The Wife of Bath merrily talks about how she will gladly move onto a sixth husband if it becomes necessary, but while it is in a religious context, she seems to talk about how important it is to have a male companion. “For thanne th'apostle seith that I am free, To wedde, a Goddes half, where it liketh me. He seith, that to be wedded is no synne, Bet is to be wedded than to brynne. What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye of shrewed Lameth and of bigamy?” (Chaucer, 2000, pp. Lines 55-60)
Modern Christian and Catholic feminists may disagree and believe that a woman may seek whatever happiness she desires, whether that involves a partner or not. The Wife of Bath points out that marriage is important in Christianity, justifying her multiple marriages, or at least under the assumptions that her husbands died or mutually parted ways. “I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man, And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan, And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two, And many another holy man also. Whanne saugh ye evere in any manere age, That hye God defended marriage By expres word? I pray you, telleth me, Or where comanded he virginitee?” (Chaucer, 2000, pp. Lines 61-8)
The Wife of Bath provides examples of historical religious figures having multiple wives to make the point that her choices are either acceptable or that the patriarchs are hypocritical. She also points out that the lord never said virginity was completely necessary, especially because future generations have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is obviously from conception. This virginity issue still plagues women today in a variety of cultures and has its roots throughout much of history, with the idea that a woman has been deflowered and ruined if she is not a virgin for her suitor. That issue never seems to come up for men, and the Wife of Bath makes the argument that virginity, in general, is not important, driving home the point that there is clear sexism working against women in these regards.
The Wife of Bath describes her current husband as abusive, and while the Wife fights back in her own ways, this idea of staying with an abuser because of the belief that she just needs to keep working to change him for good would not be very popular in modern feminism. “Now of my fifthe housbonde wol I telle. God lete his soule nevere come in helle! And yet was he to me the mooste shrewe; That feele I on my ribbes al by rewe, And evere shal, unto myn endyng day” (Chaucer, 2000, pp. Lines 509-13). The Wife goes onto describe her complex feelings towards him in which she certainly sounds like she is describing a cycle of abuse. Her confusion that arises from this conflict and how it is exacerbated by the fact that making something forbidden makes it more desired. This passage could, of course, be an allusion to the Garden of Eden, and as such, it exemplifies the struggles of women.
The church represses many aspects of a woman’s life and freedoms while shunning them for sexual intercourse, and that, in turn, makes women crave it more. This situation could lead to bad outcomes like entering a cycle of abuse. It does not help that a woman in this predicament would appear to be crazy, which of course is a product of a repressive society that harps on women. This sort of relationship can oftentimes be confused for affectionate love when it is, in reality, a cycle of abuse that could end in disaster. In this sense, this idea parallels the Twilight books and movies in that there was a big pushback against the idea that the themes were romantic. The argument against that notion was that adhering to gender stereotypes and continuing to stay in an abusive relationship was anti-feminist. The Wife of Bath’s answer to this problem is to be abusive herself and act in just about any way she sees fit. In that context, it could be argued that she is acting in a more modern feminist way by having the power to make her own choices, fight back, and be very sinful and wicked in the eyes of the church. Modern feminism currently has a rift when it comes to women in pornography and prostitution because some see it as pure objectification while others see it as a woman being free to express herself and make her own choices. Adding to the complexities of this issue is whether a woman can use her sexual prowess as empowerment because she uses it to exploit men for money, a flipping of the script. In the end, it all comes down to whether or not a woman has choice.
The Wife of Bath is a complex character who makes the best of the sexist times in which she lived by using her cunning and manipulation to use her husbands to obtain power and money. Some feminists could see this action as a woman using the only tools and options at her disposal to lead a fulfilling life. It would be like a modern woman convincing a man to buy her a slice of pizza and justifying it to herself through the belief that such an action helps make up for the fact that women in America earn about 90 percent of what men do at work. Modern feminism focuses on equality though, and while some actions may be necessary just to survive a still-sexist culture, it does not ultimately help in achieving the goal of changing societal norms to the point where men and women are equal. The pinnacle of the Wife of Bath’s story summarizes modern feminist’s desires for women to not be controlled by their husbands. The Wife of Bath’s story stresses the importance of seeing the inner beauty in people and not simply judging them by their superficial aspects. The old and ugly hag may be one of the most interesting, intelligent, and friendliest people a person could meet, and the young, suave, and handsome chivalrous knight might be a rapist who only values looks.
Chaucer, G. (2000). The Canterbury Tales. New York: Oxford University Press.