Struggle For Female Equality in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
When Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, the social structure of his world was changing rapidly. Chaucer himself was a prime example of new social mobility being granted to members of the emerging middle class. He had opportunities to come into contact not only with earthy characters from varied ports of call, but with the wealthy nobility. He was also married to a knight's daughter, someone of higher birth than himself, a clear demonstration of a more lenient class structure (pp. 76 - 77*). As a member of this changing society, Chaucer had a keen perception of the attitudes and philosophies which were emerging and shaping the roles specific to people's lives. Among these were ideas and customs which had dictated extremely subservient lives for women. One of his characters, the Wife of Bath, contradicts many of these oppressive customs and asserts her own overbearing assessment of the roles of women in society and in relationships. However, while apparently attempting to assert female dominance over men, the effect the Wife desires is to bring men and women to a more balanced level of power.
No attempt to change the minds of others with regard to social order could possibly be effective without a statement of the shortcomings of the current order. This is where the Wife may often be written off as a shrew-like bombast simply spouting her dissatisfaction. She does, however, state several clever examples of how her society currently treats women unfairly. She states that double standards for women and men are too common and are deeply rooted in culture. She says that the teachings of Christ tell her, "That by the same ensample taughte he me / That I ne sholde wedded be but ones" (p. 117, ll. 12-13). She knows though that many holy men have had more than one wife and states:
I woot wel Abraham was an holy man,
And Jacob eek, as fer as evere I can,
And eech of hem hadde wives mo than two,
And many another holy man also. (p. 118, ll. 61-64)
In this manner, the wife addresses and dispels the justification for looking down on women who have been married more than once. She shows that they are comparable in morals to men who have also had more than one spouse.
Women are also subject to what would now be termed Catch 22s in their relationships with men. These inescapable paradoxes from which men are exempt are also part of what the wife believes is keeping women subservient. As part of her invective against one of her husbands, the wife explains how women are often put in no-win situations. She says, "And if that she be fair, thou verray knave, / Thou saist that every holour wol hire have" (p. 122, ll. 259-60). She then shows how women are stigmatized even if they are ugly, because then they become the ones with voracious sexual appetites:
And if that she be foul,...