Is the Wife of Bath an early feminist? Explain why.

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lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would say absolutely!  In the prologue to her tale she tells anecdotes about each of her six husbands, and a common theme of the stories and the marriages is that she had all the power in the relationships, and she liked it that way.  She goes into the most detail in talking about her last husband who was actually the one who tried to take the reigns and "put her in her place."  After a horrible fight over this very issue, the Wife is seriously hurt, and in a moment of fear the husband agrees to let her have the control in the marriage -- specifically of the lands and accounts.  She even claims to have "taken back the bridle" implying that she tamed him. 

The tale that she tells is a fairy tale about a knight who must answer the question:  what do women want?  He is desparate to find the answer and an old, unattractive woman claims to know the answer and will give it to him if he promises to marry her.  He isn't too enthused at the thought, but she makes an interesting offer.  She can turn into a beautiful cheating wife, or an ugly faithful wife -- the choice is his.  He wisely turns it around and lets her decide.  By his giving over the power to the lady, she rewards him by deciding to be beautiful and faithful.  The moral of the story -- let the woman be in charge and you will be rewarded.  Seems like a pretty feminist attitude!

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The Canterbury Tales

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