Contemporary feminist theory has allowed social and literary critics to observe and reconstruct the past through the lens of the woman, and more specifically, through that of the woman writer. Looking to the premodern eras of antiquity and the Middle Ages, feminist scholars have studied women's roles as artists, leaders, and agents of history. Likewise, they have examined the status of ordinary individuals as the subjects of social and historical change across the millennia. Importantly, most classicists and medievalists who employ the tools of feminist theory in their work have been careful to note that feminism is a decidedly contemporary development, cautioning those who would describe women of the distant past as feminists to be aware of the consequent anachronism. Nevertheless, in their explorations of early literature and past civilizations, these scholars have recognized an emerging consciousness regarding women's issues. While women writers of ancient Greece, Alexandrian Egypt, or feudal Japan can scarcely be labeled feminists by contemporary standards, their unique awareness of themselves and their status in their societies has inspired the endeavor to read and write the history of women in art and literature.
Scholars have unearthed, in the early records of antique civilizations from Bronze Age Greece and Old Kingdom Egypt to ancient China and imperial Rome, suggestions of similar elements within the diversity of women's literature and social roles. Bringing together numerous common themes, such as the conflict between women of influence and the strong patriarchal tendency to marginalize the feminine and codify it symbolically, feminist criticism has offered a new way of looking at the ancient past that seeks to question some of the underlying assumptions of traditional humanist criticism. By examining textual and archeological evidence, critics have endeavored to reassess the society, daily lives, and literary production of women in various cultures of the ancient world. Because women writers of antiquity tended to be individuals with unique talent, their status is generally viewed as highly exceptional. Writers such as the Greek poet Sappho, the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, and the Chinese scholar Pan Chao (Ban Zhao), in some fashion and for some limited period enjoyed favorable social or familial circumstances that assisted them in their vocations. For feminist critics, their rarity and the treatment they received in society—Hypatia, for instance, was murdered in the streets of Alexandria—suggest a prevalent lack of opportunity and respect for creative and intellectual women in antiquity. Such conclusions have led scholars to probe the origins of misogyny in the patriarchal societies these writers represent and to analyze the system of masculine and feminine semiotics upon which the notion of misogyny rests. Beginning with ancient Greece, commentators have evaluated the gendered distinction between private and public spheres, usually described as a symbolic tension between the feminine oikos (household) and masculine polis (city-state or society). Thus, women of the Athenian classical period in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. were expected to attend to their domestic duties without mingling in political affairs. Women's ritual lives were also generally kept separate from those of men, giving rise to the feminine mysteries of ancient Greek religion. Ancient Sparta, in contrast, promoted a more egalitarian view of the sexes, but a woman's primary role remained the bearing of strong future warriors to defend the militaristic city-state. In later times, Roman law placed rather severe restrictions on women, making their legal and social status completely subject to the authority of their fathers and husbands. In a few cases, however, the position of aristocratic women in the ancient world may have been somewhat more favorable. In Ptolemaic Egypt, for example, Queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra appear to have been treated with much the same regard as their male counterparts. Notwithstanding these rare instances, the lives of most antique women were generally circumscribed by limits on education, mobility, and vocation precluding virtually all possibilities that might conflict with either domestic or reproductive responsibilities.
Women's relatively limited social roles are also reflected in the arts and literature of the antique period, from Athenian vase painting to Homeric verse, which suggest that the most common position of ancient woman was in the home, occupied with household duties—cooking, weaving, child rearing,—leaving men to handle political issues, which often meant war. Feminist critics have noted that such representations of women in the ancient period derive from the patriarchal assumptions of premodern societies, which were reflected in the symbolic order of the mythic past. Greco-Roman mythology—embodied for the purposes of literary scholarship here in the Homeric epics the Iliad and Odyssey, and in Ovid's Latin Metamorphoses—encapsulates classical perceptions of the feminine, depicting women as powerful goddesses, vengeful queens, cunning witches, and as the objects or victims of male aggression. Such mythic stereotypes inform an array of world literature and are precisely the sorts of ingrained depictions of women that contemporary feminists wish to discover and understand. Likewise, classical drama, perhaps best typified in the works of Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Sophocles, presents a somewhat divergent view of women, but one that nevertheless betrays antique assumptions about the nature of woman and man that modern feminists seek to question. Literary depictions of women in the Bible, additionally, contributed to a reductive dichotomy that informed the fundamental gender bias of medieval European society and literature. While self-possessed and heroic female figures such as Esther and Judith are present in the Bible, their stories are usually categorized with the Old Testament Apocrypha. For the most part, perceptions of women in biblical contexts became symbolically aligned with one of two poles—the sinning temptress Eve or the flawless Virgin Mary.
Studying continuity from classical and biblical perceptions of women, feminist scholars interested in the Middle Ages have generally focused on the social roles of women depicted in a wide array of texts, in the visual arts of the period, and in the works of a growing pool of female writers. The medieval epoch in Europe and Asia witnessed major developments in women's writings in large part due to the spread of religious education. Consequently, feminist critics have been drawn to the works of female mystic writers, among them Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Birgitta of Sweden. Their writings generally include revelatory visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary, religious poetry, and similar works of a spiritual nature. Other medieval European writers, such as Marie de France and Heloise (in her well-known correspondence with Pierre Abelard), offered unique contributions to the romantic and epistolary genres, respectively. In the Far East, the ninth-century Chinese poet Yu Xuanji produced some of the finest lyric poetry in her language, while writers such as Murasaki Shikibu, in her innovative novel The Tale of Genji, and Sei Shonagon, in her Pillow Book, recorded the flowering and decadence of the imperial court in Heian Japan around the turn of the eleventh century. Despite such literary accomplishments, the essential social and political status of women in the medieval period changed relatively little from that of the antique, and in some respects may even have declined. For the most part, women continued to be valued only for their domestic skills and reproductive role. Those who protested, and thereby failed to acquiesce to the patriarchal social order, were often harshly treated at all levels of society. Among the aristocracy, the example of the twelfth-century Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine demonstrates this point. Scornfully denounced in popular legend as the embodiment of feminine guile and malevolence for requesting a divorce from her husband, Eleanor was unfairly burdened with maintaining the integrity of her family at all costs and regardless of circumstances. Far worse, from the point of view of most men, was that a woman should be guilty of unchaste behavior—an accusation also leveled against the Queen. Critics have observed that this common theme in medieval society and literature was probably best articulated by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. Ironically in the view of modern critics, Chaucer, with his compelling description of the Wife of Bath as a self-possessed, outspoken, and boastfully licentious woman, rendered an epitome of the medieval antifeminist tradition, while at the same time sketching a figure in whom many have seen the first inklings of an incipient feminist consciousness.