Women in Europe endured thousands of years of gender inequality, culminating in the Middle Ages. Women in the Middle Ages had few rights and were treated like minors and properties, yet they did very little to improve their condition until the 20th Century. Why did women tolerate inequality for such a long time? Was there anything they could have done to improve their condition? Was it possible to organize a women's uprising against men in the Middle Ages and establish a matriarchal society? By women's uprising, I mean an army consisting of mostly female warriors, led by female generals, launching a military campaign like Servile Wars in ancient Rome or Peasants' Uprising in Medieval England. If such uprising was not possible, was it possible to launch a feminist movement within a patriarchal society to gain more rights and freedom?

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    There is a word for civilians who take arms against professional warriors - they're called "corpses". Yes, there were some women who were under arms, and more than a few female generals, but not enough to make a difference. The pre-modern world was structured around everyone's shared belief that the world could not change; that the status quo was more or less divinely ordained. How could someone imagine the notion of equal rights or feminism? Finally, it wasn't just women - the world was structured to benefit the elite. Everyone else got a raw deal.
    – MCW
    Jan 27, 2019 at 21:00
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    – MCW
    Jan 27, 2019 at 21:03
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    Lysistrata or Otranto might be the limit on the pre-modern imagination of equal rights. Are there other examples?
    – MCW
    Jan 27, 2019 at 21:05
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    Women organised plenty of sieges. Women became chief religious figures through formal nunneries and informal beguine movements. Women as heads of bourgeois households inherited the guild trade right of that house and passed it on to younger traded husbands. The status of women varied remarkably in the Middle Ages. Maybe start with Christine de Pisan? Jan 27, 2019 at 22:53
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    @Yasskier Doctors as a profession hardly existed at that time, there were no formal requironment to do it, neighbor official education, and most healing related job was done by both men and women (eg nuns, midwives).
    – Greg
    Jan 28, 2019 at 4:29

3 Answers 3


Concepts of prosecuting a people’s gender war for matriarchy are modern (post-Enlightenment) fantasies or farces of the reversal of modern gender roles. Correspondingly feminism and rights are both also modern social relationships.

Medieval women did seek to change their position in the social system. Amongst the second estate nunneries were not simply holding cells for unmarriagable females, but were vast women controlled economic institutions that owned lands.

In common beguines conducted urban trades and ran autonomous women’s houses.

Women were most economically effective for the patriarchal household when they were independently capable of running it. Women kept manor and castle oppressing peasants while their husbands were at war. They themselves received war in siege.

Urban women often married a husband in trade who was twenty years older, then as he died married a husband in trade twenty years younger. The real theological question about “which wife in heaven” shows how deeply this marriage practice worked.

Peasant women were effective brutalisers of the patriarchal household. They exerted power and control.

Women didn’t form a class conscious revolt because they were not a unified class: they were divided by differential production relations.

Women did not form a matriarchal ideology because they were beneficiaries of the patriarchal economic household. They could both modify existing patriarchal relations (got him by the balls) or act as the patriarch (old Lady Macbeth).

The extensive literature portraying nunneries as brothels, and that Everyman was a cuckold indicate that women didn’t experience a substantive limit on sexual expression. The formal limits were identical to the formal economic limits, as above.


Gender inequality is a completely unproven concept. It's more a modern fantasy, not much different from how the Victorians looked at the middle ages ('Ivanhoe'). Very much like walking along the buffet and picking things you like, and ignoring the things that don't confirm the concept.

Until about a century ago most of both men and women led a tough life. Both partners had to struggle together to make ends meet. Very few women simply had the time to wonder about equality while churning the butter, doing house work and taking care of the kids. Their husbands would toil equally hard in whatever profession they had. They had no time for quibbling over perceived injustices; not starving to death takes precedence.

Apart from that, feeling unequal isn't something you worry about if you don't have the right to vote, which most people until 1900 didn't have to begin with. It's not a coincidence suffragettes were upper and higher-middle class women. They had the time and the means to worry about voting.

Feminism is a fairly modern concept, not much older than a century. You're looking at history with your modern viewpoints. That rarely works. The current feminist ideology in practice (extreme equality, male patriarchy oppression, etc.) is not even a decade old.

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    Imagine keeping all of your references just vague enough to preach your agenda scented message of anti feminism. Life being hard for both sexes does not mean there was equality of any kind and being treated like livestock with less rights than those of the meanest male is misogyny incarnated, the people that spoke, felt or acted against it were feminists, regardless of not being titled as such. Your post is bad and you should feel bad.
    – Minativ7
    Jan 28, 2019 at 13:52
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    If peasant women were too busy to worry about gender equality, what about women of nobility? They certainly did not have the concept of feminism in their mind, but they could easily sense that they lacked many of the rights and privileges of their male counterparts. Jan 28, 2019 at 13:53
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    For example, sons of a noble family inherit before their sisters; a noblewoman had to let her father or brother decide whom she was to marry; a noblewoman who married beneath her rank was expected to obey her husband of lessor nobility; a married noblewoman had to give her husband control over her own properties; a nobleman had much more sexual freedom than a noblewoman; even a highly educated woman was not allowed to hold office in government or military...The list goes on and on and on. Jan 28, 2019 at 13:53
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    @TillyCaine All your assertions (noblewomen had to do that...) are unsourced, and probably just made up for this occasion. Deleting my comments and inserting a Some of the information contained in this post.. notice will not change facts.
    – Bregalad
    Jan 28, 2019 at 14:17
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    @TillyCaine - The problem with your question is conceptual, not factual. In order for a question to be answered its terms need to have a meaning, and something like a women's uprising against men in the Middle Ages to establish a matriarchal society has none. Patriarchal society or male-dominated societies do not mean societies established by something like a military action against women. The feminist discourse is an interpretation of societies and of the way they can be changed, not a story of war between sexes, and not all "feminist" ideas or imagery have the same value.
    – user8690
    Jan 28, 2019 at 14:21

No, it was not possible

  • Equality in this world was a concept completely alien to Middle Ages. In those times people were sharply divided between social strata (monarchs, nobility, clergy, peasants, city dwellers etc ...) There was very little chance for social mobility (for example for peasant to became noble) . Society was held together by religion which claimed that everybody should accept his or her role on this earth (for reward in Heaven) , and not seek to be something that he or she is not. Equality in this world was replaced by transcendental equality before God. Therefore, idea that men and women should be somehow equal in medieval society would be completely alien, just like idea that king and peasant should be equal.

  • Women make poor soldiers. Chance of female army defeating male army are minuscule even in this day of technology. Being a solider simply requires lot of physical strength and endurance, and average female is much weaker then average male, plus has less testosterone to influence aggression. Going back to Middle Ages and time of spears, swords, bows and heavy shields and armor, chance of having successful female-only army were nil.

  • People do not associate by gender. Women have some male person in their life that they hold dear, and vice versa. Sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, relatives, or simply friends and neighbors, people you do not want to wage war against. Most mothers would not go against their sons to establish some fictional matriarchy for women they do not know or care about, and most sons would not go against their mothers to defend some fictional patriarchy .

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MCW
    Jan 29, 2019 at 9:04
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    – MCW
    Jan 29, 2019 at 9:06
  • @rs.29 Both Christianity and Islam was primarily the religion of the poor and particularly popular among women at birth, and religious Christian and Islam movements are often behind political movements as ideological core fighting for equality (see e.g the Iranian revolution or the Arab Spring). The problem that most people do not understand is that equality is a very subjective and limited concept.
    – Greg
    Jan 29, 2019 at 9:06
  • @MarkC.Wallace - I have not noticed uncivil comments. (Maybe me qualifying the question as "ludicrous"...?) I think my comments were not exceeding a tolerable number: 5 in total, 3 addressing this answer, 2 addressing another user commenting this answer. Moving all to the same chat is not acceptable to me. I will post again a comment that I find useful.
    – user8690
    Jan 29, 2019 at 9:08
  • I favor this answer against mine. - I am not sure that worldly equality was not comprehensible, given that inequality was. But inequality was not negatively connotated in the middle ages, it was not even a lesser evil, it was a good, normal, natural thing, like that between king and subjects, parents and children, teacher and pupil, priest and parishioner. - Instead of "Women make poor soldiers" and arguing about women in general, better say "Women were not soldiers in medieval Europe".
    – user8690
    Jan 29, 2019 at 9:58

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