Catholic History & Women's Equality: A Timeline

170 A.D. - Women in education - In this year the apologist Tatian writes “Vindication of Christian Women,” a chapter in his book Address to the Greeks defending the intellectual capabilities and scholarly pursuits of Christian women and criticizing pagans for “behav[ing] yourselves unbecomingly in what relates to woman” and for “treat[ing] the women with scorn who among us pursue philosophy.” (Address to the Greeks 33)

203 A.D. - Women’s equality as a doctrine - In Stromateis, Book 4, Chapter 8, Clement of Alexandria taught that women were equal to men spiritually, but unequal physically, and thus explained their different social status. The chapter is called “On [the] Equality and Inequality of the Sexes.”


222 A.D. - Women in leadership - Julia Mamaea appears to have been educated in the Christian religion and was the mother of Emperor Alexander Severus. (See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book VI, Chapter 21) While he was a minor she ruled the Roman empire, and her face appears on coins from the era.

254 A.D. - Women in education - Origen dies in this year. As head of the School of Alexandria, Origen had offered classes to both men and women not only in Scriptural study, but in philosophy, science, and other secular subjects. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, Chapter 8, Paragraph 1 mentions that he taught both men and women. St. Gregory the Wonder Worker, in his Panegyric Addressed to Origen, Arguments 7-9, shows that he taught philosophy and natural science besides biblical theology.)

330 A.D. - Women in leadership - St. Helen dies in this year. As empress of Rome and mother of Constantine the Great, she set the standard of how a Christian queen should act. She is most famous for assisting in the conversion of her son, Emperor Constantine, who granted Christians full religious liberty, and for her pilgrimages to the holy land, where, in an early example of female archeological leadership, she headed up a successful expedition to find and uncover the cross on which Jesus died. (Rufinus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 10, Chapters 7-8.)

340 A.D. - Women in leadership - St. Nino dies in this year. A woman and a missionary, she is best known as the Apostle to Georgia whose preaching converted that nation to Christianity in the early fourth century.

370 A.D. - Women in education - Faltonia Proba dies in this year. A scholar and an author, she composed an epic poem on the life of Christ which was widely circulated in the Middle Ages. The Catholic universities would later use it as a model for teaching poetry and grammar.

377 A.D. - Women in leadership - St. Ambrose of Milan promoted imitation of female leadership by citing the example of women leaders in the Old Testament: “[Deborah] showed that [women] have no need of the help of a man. … A widow, she governs the people. A widow, she chooses generals. A widow, she determines wars and orders triumphs. … It is not sex, but valor which makes strong.” (Ambrose, Concerning Widows, Chapter 8)


~380 A.D. - Women's equality as a doctrine - St. Gregory Nazianzen says, "I see that the majority of men are ill-disposed, and that their laws are unequal and irregular. For what was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man[?]" "[A] woman who practises evil against her husband's bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give... I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. They who made the Law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women... [T]hey have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God does not so; but says Honour your father and your mother...and, He that curses father or mother, let him die the death. ... See the equality of the legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both their parents. ... Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the Man is honoured; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the Woman's side. They two, He says, shall be one Flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honour." (Oration 37 Paragraphs 6-7)

397 A.D. - Women in education - St. Jerome writes a letter to some nuns explaining the interpretation of a
psalm, and defends the education and dignity of women: “I know that I am often much criticized because I sometimes write to women and seem to prefer the more fragile sex to the stronger.” “[But] Aquila and Priscilla educate[d] Apollo, an apostolic man learned in the law, in the way of the lord. If to be taught by a woman was not shameful to an apostle, why should it be [shameful] to me afterwards to teach men and women?” “This and its like I have touched on briefly, to ensure that you [women] should not be penalized because of your sex.” (Jerome, Letter to Principia, 397 A.D., quoted in Abelard, Letter 9, 1137 A.D.)

399 A.D. - Women’s equality as a doctrine - St. Jerome says, “[A] commandment which is given to men logically applies to women also. … The laws of Caesar are different, it is true, from the laws of Christ…[but] with us Christians what is unlawful for women is equally unlawful for men, and as both serve the same God both are bound by the same obligations.” (Letter 77:3)


407 A.D. - Women’s equality as a doctrine - St. John Chrysostom taught that the woman is fully equal to the man: “[She is] of his kind, with the same properties as himself, of equal esteem, in no way inferior to him.” (Homily 15.1-3 on Genesis 2:20ff, as quoted in Hill, Robert C. The Fathers of the Church, Volume 74. 1992. Washington, D.C.: CUA Press.) However, he says that this condition was somewhat changed by the fall, because, he says, woman became more frail as a result of Eve’s sin and was put under the dominion of her husband for protection. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t be interpreted as a destruction of her original moral equality with man.

412 A.D. - Women’s equality as a doctrine - St. Jerome said, “The unbelieving reader may perhaps laugh at me for dwelling so long on the praises of mere women; yet if he will but remember how holy women followed our Lord and Saviour and ministered to Him of their substance, and how the three Marys stood before the cross and especially how Mary Magdalen---called the tower from the earnestness and glow of her faith---was privileged to see the rising Christ first of all before the very apostles, he will convict himself of pride sooner than me of folly. For we judge of people's virtue not by their sex but by their character.” (Letter 127:5)

414 A.D. - Women in leadership - Saint Pulcheria is made empress over the Byzantine empire while her little brother Emperor Theodosius is a minor. (Socrates Scholasticus. Ecclesiastical History, Book IX.) As sole reigning monarch, she organizes philanthropic outreaches and promotes devotion to the Blessed Mother, and works to persuade her empire that her war with the Persian empire is a holy war for Christian principles.

~426 A.D. - Women’s equality in law - St. Augustine condemned the Lex Voconia for prohibiting females from inheriting property. “For at that time—I mean between the second and third Punic war—that notorious Lex Voconia was passed, which prohibited a man from making a woman, even an only daughter, his heir; than which law I am at a loss to conceive what could be more unjust.” (City of God Book III Chapter 21)

460 A.D. - Women in education - Empress Eudocia dies in this year. A highly educated woman, she wrote poems, lives of saints, and a life of Christ in an epic poem form similar to Faltonia Proba’s work from the previous century.

After the fall of Rome in 476, the only Christian state we have good records of was the Byzantine empire. But more came soon, because over in France, King Clovis I was converted to Catholicism in 496 A.D., and his wife St. Clotilda was an important part of that. This early French queen is an important figure in the history of women’s equality because of her influence over both French history and Christian history. According to the record of her in St. Gregory of Tours’ “History of the Franks,” Books 2-3, she not only converted her husband and helped found the first Christian state in the West after the fall of Rome, but she was an active promoter of peace during a civil war that followed her husband’s death, and she sent for saints and scholars to build up the intellect and the piety of her subjects. Her political influence and promotion of religion was a model for future medieval queens to follow and it demonstrates that early medieval Christianity honored good female leaders.

512 A.D. - Women in leadership - St. Genevieve of Paris dies in this year. A contemporary of St. Clotilda, St. Genevieve should be noted because she helped influence King Clovis’ policies, and, long before his conversion, her prayers and intercessions helped prevent Attila the Hun from sacking Paris. (Vita Genovefa, Section III, Paragraphs 10-12. As translated in McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, 1992. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. p. 17-37.) She is a patron saint of Paris, and also of female soldiers, even though her battle with Attila was spiritual and not physical.

565 A.D. - Women’s equality in law - Emperor Justinian dies in this year. His reforms of the laws of the Byzantine empire revolutionized the status of women in Christendom, explicitly acknowledging their equality and giving them equal property rights with men. (Justian, Novel 21) “It shall no longer be true [among the Armenians], as is the custom of barbarians, that men only can inherit the property of their parents, brothers and sisters and other relatives, but women also shall be able to do so. … [O]ther nations, too, have contempt for nature, and a low regard for women, as if the latter were not made by God, and had no part in the procreation of children, but were creatures to be despised and not worthy of any honor. … We accordingly ordain by this imperial law that...no difference shall be made between male and female. … For as [the Armenians] belong to our empire and owe obedience to us, and along with other nations enjoy all that we have, women shall not be deprived by them of the equality which they enjoy among us, but our laws shall apply equally to all.”


542 A.D. - Women in education, women in leadership - St. Scholastica dies in this year. She was the sister of St. Benedict of Nursia and founder of the order of Benedictine nuns, which paralleled the men’s order founded by her brother. (cf. St. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book II, Chapters 33-34.) St. Scholastica’s religious communities offered medieval women high positions of leadership and tremendous educational opportunities through the scholastic facilities of her convents. These became known as convent schools in later ages.

Some words about the Church’s convent schools are appropriate here. The medieval convent schools were some of the oldest co-educational boarding schools in Europe. Possibly the oldest was founded by St. Ita of Ireland, who died in 570 A.D. One of her famous non-female pupils was St. Brendan the Navigator. (Schulenburg, Jane. Forgetful of their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. p. 96.) St. Waldebert’s rule for female convents (written before 668 A.D.) includes a section on the raising of young boarding students that requires provision of room and board, education, and, of course, food. (Waldebert, Rule of a Certain Father to the Virgins, Paragraph 24. Written before 668 A.D.) Part of what it says is, “[students] should practice reading so that they may become proficient even in childish years,” which shows that literacy was a major focus of these educational institutions.

Besides St. Ita’s convent school, two other famous co-educational facilities were the abbey of Chelle, where King Clothar III (d. 658 A.D.) and King Theuderic IV (d. 737 A.D.) were educated, and the abbey of Soissons, which educated Paschasius Radbertus (d. 865 A.D.), one of the greatest scholars of Charlemagne’s empire. (Wemple, Suzanne. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900. 1981. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press. Chapter 8, footnotes 20, 21.)

~522 A.D. - Women’s equality as a doctrine - St. Caesarius of Arles preaches: “How is it that some men are so insolent that they say cruel vice is lawful for men but not lawful for women?” “As though God gave two commandments, one for men and another for women!” “They do not reflect that men and women have been redeemed equally by Christ’s Blood, have been cleansed by the very same baptism, approach the Lord’s altar to receive His Body and Blood together, and that with God there is no distinction of male or female. ‘God is not a respecter of persons.’ Therefore what is unlawful for women similarly never was and never can be lawful for men.” (Sermon 42, as it appears in Mueller, M. The Fathers of the Church. Volume 31. 2010. Washington, D.C.: CUA Press.)

544 A.D. - Women’s equality as a doctrine - St. Senan (a nun) dies in this year. She is known for instructing a man she met one day about female equality, and the man later became a saint too. The man had been trying to live as a monk, and when she came to his property to establish a hermitage, he told her that he didn’t want any woman on his island. In reply, she said, “How can you say that? ... Christ came to redeem women no less than to redeem men. No less did He suffer for the sake of women than for the sake of men. Women have served and cared for Christ and His Apostles. No less than men do women enter the heavenly kingdom. Why, then should you not allow women on your island?” And he granted her demand. (Schulenburg, Jane. Forgetful of their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. p. 320.)

602 A.D. - Women’s equality as a doctrine - Baudonivia (a nun) composes a biography of St. Radegund, the Christian queen of Spain who helped convert the kingdom to Catholicism. As part of the biography she compares the female saint with a male one as a way of illustrating their equality: “Some were liberated [from demonic possession] at the holy man’s basilica while others were brought to Lady Radegund’s basilica, [because], as they were equal in grace, so were they both shown equal in [power].” (As quoted in McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, 1992. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. p. 105)

643 A.D. - Women’s equality in law - In Spain, the Catholic king Chindasuinth passes the Visigothic Code into law and includes equal-rights provisions such as: “A woman shall inherit, equally with her brothers, the property of their father or mother, of their grandparents, on the paternal and the maternal side, as well as of their brothers and sisters.” (Book IV, Title II, Law IX) “Husband and wife shall inherit from each other, respectively, when they leave no relatives nearer than the seventh degree.” (ibid., Law XI) “A [woman] shall have full power to dispose of her entire dowry, in any way she pleases, when she leaves no legitimate children or grandchildren. [And when she does leave legitimate children or grandchildren:] Three fourths of it shall be left, without question, to [them].” (ibid., Title V, Law II)


650 A.D. - Women’s equality in law - King St. Sigebert III was the ruler of the French province of Austrasia at this time, a province which included much of modern Germany. The province was governed according to a set of ancient pagan laws called the Ripuarian Laws, and he noticed that these laws were unjust toward women. With a strong moral conviction that men and women should be treated equally, he amended the laws and said, “An ancient but unjust custom is observed among us [which] directs that sisters [should] have no part of the paternal estates with their brothers. But I, considering this an injustice and knowing well, my dear children, that the Lord gave you to me [so] that I should love you with equal love, I institute you, my dearest daughter, my legitimate heir with your brothers [in order] that you should have a part no less than theirs in my land and goods.” (Ripuarian Law, Book 2:12, as it appears in McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, 1992. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. p. 185)

~650 A.D. - Women’s equality in law - King Rothair was king of the Italian Lombards from 636 to 652. Although he was an Arian rather than a Catholic, the influence of Christian beliefs on his laws can be seen in this decree: “158. If anyone leaves one legitimate daughter and one or more natural sons and the other near relatives or heirs, the substance of the dead man shall be divided equally [between them].” (Lombards Laws, trans. Drew, 78-9.) Rothair’s law brought the Byzantines, the Italians, the Spanish, and some of the French all into a position where women could inherit property equally with men under the law. One of his Catholic successors, King Luitprand, in 713 A.D. also improved the law concerning women’s inheritance, saying, “#2.11 If a Lombard while living has handed over some of his daughters in marriage and other daughters remain at home unmarried (in capillo), then all of the daughters shall equally succeed as heirs to his substance as if they were sons.” (Lombards Laws, trans. Drew, 145, 172)

[[BTW although the Salian Franks had a law that prohibited land from becoming the property of a woman, this was later partially changed. Capitulary IV says: “108. In a similar manner, it is agreed and resolved that whoever has neighbors and has either sons or daughters alive after his death, so long as the sons survive, they should possess the [ancestral] land as the Salic law specifies. And if the sons have died, let the daughter in a similar manner receive this land, just as the sons would have possessed it if they were living. And if she died, let another brother [to the deceased father], who is living receive the land of his brother, [and] not the neighbors. And [if] the brother died, [and] no other brothers are living, then let the sister [to the deceased father] take possession of this land.” (Laws of the Salian and Ripuarian Franks, trans. Rivers, 114, 135.) But according to this article, GERMANIC WOMEN: MUNDIUM AND PROPERTY, 400-1000 by Kimberlee Harper Dunn, B.S., from which I’ve gotten a lot of the property stuff in this document, it was in the Lex Salica Karolini (from Charlemagne) that the infamous law was passed which says, “34.6. Indeed concerning Salic land (terra salica), no part of the inheritance may pass to a woman but all the inheritance of land goes to the male sex.” And then her next sentence says: “Lawmakers excluded this specific denial of women’s property rights in Capitulary IV, thus it seems that for approximately 225 years, women legally had the right to inherit the terra salica lands.” Footnote: Laws of the Salians, trans. Drew, 198.]]

657 A.D. - Women in leadership, women in education - Whitby Abbey in England is founded in this year by St. Hilda of Whitby. A religious community of men and women lived here in separate houses, and were presided over by a woman. The abbey housed great educational facilities including a vast library and teachers commissioned for the instruction of both men and women in Christian doctrine. Its female managers were famed for their wisdom and were advisors to many kings and nobles. Other important abbeys managed by women include Faremoutiers-en-Brie, founded by St. Burgundofara in 617 A.D., Nivelle, founded by St. Itta in 640 A.D, and Chelle, founded by Queen St. Balthild of France before 658 A.D.

680 A.D. - Women in leadership - Queen St. Balthild of France dies in this year. A former slave girl who married King Clovis II, she gradually became queen over larger and larger parts of France while he united the kingdom. She founded the famous abbey of Chelle and fought to abolish slavery throughout her lands. “In addition, she ordered that many [slaves] should be ransomed, paying for many of them herself.” (Vita Sanctae Bathildis)

704 A.D. - Women's equality in law - St. Adamnan dies in this year. An early champion of women's equality, he prayed and fasted for eight years for an end to the subjugation of women in Ireland and Britain, and eventually saw passage of the Law of the Innocents, which raised women's status considerably in those lands. The Cain Adamnain, an ancient Irish treatise in praise of St. Adamnan's view of women, says of him, "Adamnan suffered much hardship for your sake, O women, so that ever since Adamnan's time one half of your house is yours; and there is a place for your chair in the other half, so that your contract and your safeguard are free." (The Cain Adamnain 5, as quoted in "An Irish Champion of Women," by Padraic Colum. In Catholic World, Volume 100, Paulist Fathers, 1915. p. 500.)


731 A.D. - Women in education - The Venerable Bede reports that noble-women were often sent to convent schools to receive an education even if they did not intend to pursue the religious life. (Bede. Ecclesiastical History of England. Book III, Chapter VIII.) St. Aldhelm praised the curriculum of these convent schools for including grammar, poetry, and Scriptural study. (Schulenburg, Jane. Forgetful of their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. p. 98-99.) The biography of Sts. Herlinda and Renilda also demonstrates that women in these convent schools could be trained in art and music. (ibid. p. 100-101.)

782 A.D. - Women in leadership - St. Leoba dies in this year. A missionary woman and associate of St. Boniface, she assisted in the effort to bring Christianity to the Germans and is credited with numerous miracles. (The Life of Leoba, as translated in Talbot, C.H. The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany. London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954.) She was also very highly educated and her German convent was influential in the middle ages.

782 A.D. - Women in education - St. Alcuin of York reforms the court school of Charlemagne and establishes it as a co-educational college of liberal arts that is known to history as the Palace Academy of Aachen. Charlemagne and other nobles are praised by their contemporaries for sending their daughters as well as their sons to be educated under St. Alcuin. (Einhard. Life of Charlemagne. Written before 840 A.D. Chapter 19.)

The 800s offered incredible opportunities for the advancement of women’s equality with men, and these were realized in significant ways. Jane Bishop, in “Bishops as Marital Advisors in the Ninth Century,” includes quotations from bishops of the time that illustrate how they viewed the equality of men and women in marriage and in the royal house: “[A] king ought to treat a queen who is joined to him [well]; namely [as a] companion [] with equal honor at the divine office, and [at table].” (Letter of Bishop Adventius of Metz to Pope Nicholas I, in Kirshner & Wemple p. 72.)

To Empress Eudoxia, Pope St. Nicholas I said, “Christ our God did not vainly make Your Nobility partner in your husband’s empire... [L]ike a strong heroine and outstanding helper, you should aid your husband in the innumerable things he must do and decide, holding out the hand of assistance lest he should fall, amidst so many vicissitudes, from the peak of justice. … Thus the Lord, at the beginning of the creation of human beings, gave the first-made man a woman to help him, lest the man, being solitary, devoid of counsel, should fall into the depths and arise therefrom only with difficulty.” (Pope St. Nichloas I, Letter to Eudoxia, in Kirshner & Wemple p. 81)

“[O Eudoxia,] aid [God’s] church, watch over its state, help its servants, console the grieving, raise up the oppressed and broken, bring back the expelled and exiled, and with pristine strength remake all that is confused, corrupt, disordered and destroyed.” (Pope St. Nichloas I, Letter to Eudoxia, in Kirshner & Wemple p. 81)

“[There should be] a greater and richer and fuller [charity] between husband and wife, between man and spouse, between head and body[.] For, as the Apostle teaches, the husband is the head of the wife. … Let a Christian man [therefore] consider with how much care and consideration [he attends to his body,] and he should do the same for the part -- also of his body -- that is his wife.” (Hincmar of Reims, On Divorce, in Kirshner & Wemple, p. 77-78)

“[When Scripture] sanctions [something] for a woman [it] is also to be understood for a man… [Just as, when] Scripture...speaks of [something for] a man...it is no less to be understood [for] a woman.” (Pope St. Nicholas I, Response to the Consultations of the Bulgars, in Kirshner & Wemple, p. 78)

(Bishop, Jane. Bishops as Marital Advisors in the Ninth Century. In Kirshner & Wemple, Women in the Medieval World. Chapter 3. 1985. New York, NY: Basil Blackwell, Inc. p. 53-84)

As Jane Bishop shows, the bishops of the ninth century were remarkable for their careful and almost modern treatment of a number of Catholic distinctives concerning marriage. The indissolubility of marriage and the possibility of annulments, the headship of husbands and their duty to treat their wives well, and the right of a wife to seek protection or flee their husbands in cases of abuse, are matters that interact in ways that can be hard to square, but the bishops of this century squared them remarkably well, and under great pressure.

882 A.D. - Women in education - Hincmar of Reims dies in this year. In his De Ecclesiis Et Capellis, he mentions schools for girls (puellulae) in his discussion of the co-educational facilities that were housed in some convents and monasteries. He considered co-ed facilities dangerous to the morals of young men and wished the schools for girls to be separated from the schools for boys. (Contreni, John J. The Pursuit of Knowledge in Carolingian Europe. Ohio State Press, p. 114.)

Another example of women's education in this year was the founding of Essen Abbey and Gandersheim Abbey, which were educational centers for women founded as part of the Carolingian Renaissance. The nun Hrotsvitha, who lived in the Gandersheim Abbey during the 900s, would show how much advancement this concern for women could produce when she composed the best theatrical plays of the Ottonian Renaissance in the style of Ovid --an early example of a female playwright.


900 A.D. - Women in education - The University of Salerno has its roots in this century as an medical college in Italy. It would later become famous for its policy of admitting women to its halls and for its important female contributors to medical texts, including Trotula of Salerno in the 1100s. According to Wikipedia, apart from writing several original works about diseases and treatments for women, “[s]he was one of seven Salerno physicians who contributed to an encyclopedia of medical knowledge [called] On the Treatment of Illnesses.”

936 A.D. - Women in education - Quendlinburg Abbey is founded in this year. Founded as part of the Ottonian Renaissance with the goal of advancing the educational opportunities of German noblewomen, Quendlinburg Abbey fostered several advancements for women of this period. For example, the noblewoman in charge of the Abbey was granted membership and a voice on the Imperial Diet, where votes were cast to decide the policies of the Holy Roman Empire. In addition, the Abbey is famous for producing the Quendlinburg Annals, an early example of female-led historical scholarship.

Example of women voters: "Reichsabtei Burtscheid (Imperial Abbey) (In Nordhrein-Westphalen/North Rhine-Westphalia) The Chapter was founded in 997 by Otto III. In 1138 it became an Imperial Immediacy (given Reichsunmittelbarkeit) and was placed directely under the emperor. The Lords of Merode acted as Steweards of the Chapter. She was member of the College of the Prelates of the Rhine, whose 17 members (Princess-Abbesses and Prince-Abbots) had a joint vote in the Council of the Princes of the Imperial Diet, where the representative of the Prelates sat on the Ecclesiastical Bench." -- Germany Ecclesiastical Territories (Geistliche Gebiete) ruled by women, at http://www.guide2womenleaders.com/ge...esiastical.htm

962 A.D. - Women in leadership - St. Adelaide is crowned empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Also, in 945 A.D., St. Olga of Kiev becomes official ruler of Kievan Rus. She converted to Christianity either then or in 957. Another good woman leader was Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

970 A.D. - Women’s equality, women in leadership - The council of Winchester occurs at this time and permits women to participate in the reform of the English monasteries. Queen Aelfthryth of England participates, along with several nuns and abbesses, and one decree of the council declared the queen “the protectress and fearless guardian of the communities of nuns; so that [the king] helping the men and his consort helping the women there should be no cause for any breath of scandal.” (Saint Aethelwold, Regularis Concordia: The Monastic Agreement of the Monks and Nuns of the English Nation, ed. Thomas Symons, London, 1953, pp. 1-2, as quoted in Schulenburg, Jane. Forgetful of their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. p. 110)

1002 A.D. - Women in education - Hrotsvitha dies in this year. As one of the earliest contributors to the medieval genre of the morality play, her works mark a renewal of Christian interest in theatrical production. An important point for this timeline is that her female characters display a strength of mind and will that lets them overcome their masculine oppressors and shows a solid profeminine ethic rooted in Catholic principles. (A. Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture, Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. 1997. pp. 154-159)

1070 A.D. - Women in leadership - St. Margaret becomes Queen of Scotland. Also, in 1056 A.D., Empress Agnes becomes regent of the Holy Roman Empire.

1088 A.D. - Women in education - The Italian University of Bologna is established and women attend lectures there from its inception. (Source: JS Edwards (2002). "A Woman Is Wise: The Influence of Civic and Christian Humanism on the Education of Women in Northern Italy and England during the Renaissance". Ex Post Facto: Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University XI.)


The 1100s saw many positive contributions to the social status of women.

First, a literary genre was developed specifically for the defense and praise of women. (A. Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture, Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. 1997. pp. 19-21) Marbodius of Rennes’ essay “On Good Women” is possibly the first surviving work in this genre and was published in about 1102 A.D. The next is Peter Abelard’s “On the Authority and Dignity of the Order of Nuns,” which is unparalleled in its praise of women. Next comes the Livre des Maneires by Etienne de Fougeres, compiled in the 1170s. This genre would continue to be added to in the 1200s and 1300s.

Second, in Biblical commentaries, there is a notable increase in the number of authors who defend the equality of male and female on the basis of their being created in the image of God. Authors such as Herve of Bourg-Dieu, Peter of Celle, Gilbert Poretta, and Rupert of Deutz can be cited in this regard. (B. Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine, Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1989. p. 91.) This also continued into the 1200s and 1300s.

Third, in conjunction with the increase of literacy and educational status of the rest of Europe due to the rise of the universities, there is also a large increase in original women writers during these years. Apart from Trotula of Salerno, Anna Komnene, and St. Hildegard of Bingen, all of whom were well-educated authors and teachers, there is a large number of female poets in this period, such as Marie de France. The Troubairitz are an example of this at a wider scale -- this women’s artistic movement developed as a collection of female lyricists who were often court poets for the kingdoms that were then growing in strength throughout Europe.

Fourth, in property rights, Kimberly LoPrete points to charters which “unambiguously attest to women – even when their husbands were alive – inheriting or controlling lands and rights, acting as lords of fiefs and ‘vassals’, and intervening authoritatively in judicial affairs.” Footnote: see below. In Spain, as James Powers points out, “women held an unusually strong position in the Iberian Reconquest” because they “could own property, inherit it, and maintain control over their possessions during marriage and in the event of their husband’s death, when property was divided among heirs.” There is also evidence of women “owning and running shops and trading enterprises.” Powers, J. The Code of Cuenca: Municipal Law on the Twelfth-century Castilian Frontier. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. p. 11.

For the footnote mentioned above, it’s this: “[Cf. the] comprehensive discussion of women's property rights in T. Evergates, The Aristocracy in the County of Champagne, 1100–1300 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming September 2007). … Important charter-based studies of wider social phenomena with significant information concerning women include S. D. White, Custom, Kinship, and Gifts to Saints: The ‘Laudatio Parentum’ in Western France, 1050–1150 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); E. Z. Tabuteau, Transfers of Property in Eleventh-Century Norman Law (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); C. B. Bouchard, Holy Entrepreneurs: Cistercians, Knights, and Economic Exchange in Twelfth-Century Burgundy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991). For difficulties in meaningfully quantifying the findings of such studies in absolute terms, see P. S. Gold, The Lady and the Virgin: Image, Attitude, and Experience in Twelfth-Century France (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 123–8; LoPrete, Adela, 84–8.”

Fifth, in the political field, women’s ruling powers were advanced in several ways. Although Roman law forbade women to rule a land, the King of France wrote to one countess that “[t]he custom of our country is much kinder” because, when a male heir was unavailable, it was “allowed to women to succeed and to administer an inheritance. … Therefore sit in judgment and examine matters with the diligent zeal of Him who made you a woman when He could have created you a man and [who] of his great goodness gave the rule of the province of Narbonne into a woman’s hands. On no account may anyone refuse to be subject to your jurisdiction because you are a woman.” (Letter of the King of France to Ermenegard, in Cheyette, F. Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Cornell University Press, 2004. p. 213-219.)

Matilda of Tuscany illustrates one of the more unique cases in the middle ages: she was a woman who engaged in successful military pursuits and was entrusted as the principal defender of the papacy during the investiture controversy.


1142 A.D. - Women's equality as a doctrine - Peter Abelard dies this year. He is regarded by some as something of a protofeminist for his defense and admiration for women. This appears most strongly in a famous treatise he wrote titled, “On the Authority and Dignity of the Order of Nuns,” which is unparalleled in its praise of women’s dignity. In one of his sermons, emphasizing equality, he wrote, “In [Christ], the Apostle says, there is neither male nor female. In the body of Christ, which is the Church, difference of sex, therefore, confers no dignity. For Christ looks not to the condition of sex, but to the quality of merits.” (Peter Abelard, Sermon XIII. M. McLaughlin, Peter Abelard and the Dignity of Women: Twelfth Century “Feminism” in Theory and Practice, in Pierre Abelard, p. 291. Slightly modified.)

Note that Peter Abelard was a heretic for a while, though he was reconciled to the Church before he died.

~1150 A.D. - Peter Lombard - “[A]lthough woman was made from man…she was formed not from just any part of his body, but from his side, so that it should be shown that she was created for the partnership of love, lest, if perhaps she had been made from his head, she should be perceived as set over man in domination; or if from his feet, as if subject to him in servitude. Therefore, since she was made neither to dominate, nor to serve the man, but as his partner, she had to be produced neither from his head, nor from his feet, but from his side, so that he would know that she was to be placed beside himself whom he had learned had been taken from his side.” (Sentences Book 2 Distinction 18)

1153 A.D. - Women in leadership - Anna Komnene dies in this year. As the princess of the Byzantine empire, she was educated in a wide variety of educational field, including philosophy, science, and medicine, and took charge of a large hospital and orphanage in Constantinople, where she taught medicine to the staff. When the emperor fell ill she took steps to ensure that she would inherit the empire with her husband, but unfortunately for her, it was secured by her brother. She composed the history of her father’s reign and included in it the story of how, in her eyes, the empire was stolen from her.

Other great examples of women leaders from this time were Queen Urraca of León and Castile, Queen Margaret of Scotland, and Queen Adelaide of Maurienne.

1179 A.D. - Women in education - St. Hildegard of Bingen dies in this year. She was a prominent public speaker and author on Catholic doctrine, and once received permission to move her Benedictine abbey to a new location where she could have greater personal independence for herself and the nuns under her charge. In addition to her writings as a visionary, she was widely respected as a medical doctor, poet, and musical composer. Pope Benedict XVI declared her a doctor of the Church.


1204 A.D. - Women in leadership - Eleanor of Aquitaine dies in this year. Also Blanche of Castille (1188-1252).

1231 A.D. - Women’s equality in law - The Kingdom of Sicily in southern Italy comes under the dominion of the Holy Roman Empire in this year, and Emperor Frederick II has a constitution drawn up which explicitly recognizes the equality of women as a basis for giving them independent rights to draw up contracts and defend them in court. (Constitutions of Melfi, Titles XLI & XLIV, as translated in Amt, E. Women's Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook. Part II: Women and the Law, section 15, Laws of Sicily. 2013. London, England: Routledge Publishing. p. 45-48) “Title XLI. About the full restitution of legal status to women.” “We settle the equity of the laws for women who have been injured because of the weakness of their sex by ordering that they should be aided both by us and by our officials to the best of their ability as is decent and necessary. … [W]ith contracts, [women] can not only be present but also have the presence of judges and guardians and procurators… We also maintain the validity of those cases where the ancient laws aided the rights of women who lacked knowledge.”

Another law from the 1200s says this: “137. On holding dower property in good condition, and suing on it.” “A woman commoner gets as dower half of her husband’s land, <and half of his personal property, and she pays half his debts; but she does not contribute to his bequests [aumosne]>.” (The Customs of Touraine and Anjou, p. 91 in The Etablissements de Saint Louis: Thirteenth-century Law Texts from Tours, Orléans, and Paris, by F. R. P. Akehurst, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.)

1258 A.D. - Women in education - Gertrude of Hackeborn founds the monastery at Helfta. “[She] compiled a vast library there and taught the liberal arts and classical authors so that the nuns could understand Scripture and spirituality.” - Catholic Answers

1273 A.D. - St. Thomas Aquinas - “[T]he woman [was] made from a rib of man...to signify the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither ‘use authority over man,’ and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man's contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet.” (Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 92, Article 3)

1274 A.D. - St. Bonaventure: “In the first [chapter] of Genesis [it is written]: God created man to His own image and likeness, male and female did He create them. If, therefore, the woman was created to the image of God and to equality with the man—just as her formation from [his] side hints at— …[then it follows that] in man and woman there is equally found the reckoning of [God’s] image.” (Commentary on the Four Books of Sentences, Book II, Commentary on Distinction XVI, Question 2, “Whether the image [of God] is more principally in the male than in the female.”)


The 1300s witness several important Catholic women in leadership positions, such as Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Christine de Pizan, Julian of Norwich, Isabella of France, and Joanna I of Naples. “When King Robert died in 1343, in his last will and testament, he formally bequeathed his kingdom to Joanna, and made no mention of Andrew, even as a consort, and tried to exclude him from rule. In the event of Joanna's death without children, the crown would fall to her younger sister Maria and not to him. With the approval of Pope Clement VI, Joanna was crowned as sole monarch of Naples in August 1344.” (Wikipedia)

“Jeanne of Valois (c. 1297-1353), sister of the first Valois king of France, and Countess, through marriage, of Holland, Zeeland, and Hainaut...co-ruled with her husband, collected taxes, and as official hostess for her household and that of her husband (when they were together), carried out important diplomatic functions. In her widowhood, her role as mediator in disputes extended not only to strife-torn towns in her various counties, but also even to the highest level of international politics: bringing together representatives of France, England, and Brabant, she negotiated an important truce in the Hundred Years’ War.” Kathleen Nolan, ed. Capetian Women. (The New Middle Ages.) Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. pp. ix + 302

1316 A.D. - Women’s equality in law - The statutes of Sessari are passed in this year, and in 1392 the Carta de Logu. These laws of Sardinia, Italy, granted married women independent possession of property separate from their husbands, and ruled that any property acquired after marriage could only be disposed of by mutual consent. The law also required that men and women both share equally in the inheritance of their parents. (John Day, “On the Status of Women in Medieval Sardinia.” In Kirshner & Wemple, Women in the Medieval World. Chapter 12. 1985. New York, NY: Basil Blackwell, Inc. p. 304-306)

1333 A.D. - Women in education - Novella d'Andrea dies in this year. An Italian legal scholar who lectured on law at the University of Bologna, she and her sister Bettina d'Andrea were both professors at different universities -- Bologna for Novella and Padua for Bettina. (Christine de Pizan supposedly relates this, but I found it on Wikipedia.)

“[T]he misogynist claim that women were intellectually or emotionally inferior to men was strongly contested by contemporary writers, including not just Pizan but also Laurent de Premierfait in his translation of Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris (1400).” Footnote: “Patricia May Gathercole, ed., Laurent de Premierfait’s ‘‘Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes,’’ Book 1, Translated from Boccaccio: A Critical Edition Based on Six Manuscripts (Chapel Hill, NC, 1968); Carla Bozzolo, ed., Un traducteur et un humaniste de l’époque de Charles VI, Laurent de Premierfait (Paris, 2004).”

“[T}here were queens in other kingdoms, such as Portugal, Castile, Sicily, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and even Naples, as Bouvet recognized.” Footnote: “Armin Wolf, ‘‘Reigning Queens in Medieval Europe: When, Where, and Why,’’ in Medieval Queenship, ed. John Carmi Parsons (Stroud, 1994), 169–88.”

“[Christine de] Pizan’s famous literary creation, the city of ladies, included a number of historical figures, including Queen Blanche of Castile, mother of Saint Louis, and contemporary figures such as Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and Valentina Visconti, wife of the duke of Orléans. [[Footnote: Pizan, Book of the City of Ladies, 191–92, 195–97]] Moreover, any list of influential women in late medieval France would surely include such figures as Yolande of Aragon, mother-in-law of Charles VII; Isabella, duchess of Portugal; Agnès Sorel; and, of course, Jeanne d’Arc. … [And] Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of Charles VI.”


Important Catholic women from the 1400s include Margery Kempe, St. Joan of Arc, and Queen Isabella of Spain.

This is also the Renaissance period, in which you get a host of Catholic authors discussing women’s equality in the realms of education, leadership, and spiritual equality. To name a few, St. Thomas More, Juan Luis Vives, Richard Hyrde, and Sir Thomas Elyot have had their works regarding women made available and discussed in the book “Vives and the Renaissance Education of Women.” Included in it are these books by the mentioned authors:

I. Juan Luis Vives: Instruction of a Christian Woman - p. 29
II. Juan Luis Vives: Plan of Girls' Studies - p. 137
III. Juan Luis Vives: Satellitium or Symbola - p. 151
IV. Richard Hyrde on the Education of Women - p. 159
[Preface to Margaret Roper's translation of Erasmus's Treatise on the Lord's Prayer.]
V. The School of Sir Thomas More - p. 175
VI. Juan Luis Vives: The Learning of Women - p. 195 [From the Office and Duties of a Husband.]
VII. Sir Thomas Elyot: The Defence of Good Women - p. 211

All these works demonstrate Catholic promotion of women's equality with men in the Renaissance period. It really connects the medieval tradition of women's equality to the modern viewpoint.

1523 A.D. - Juan Luis Vives publishes “De institutione feminae christian,” which I think is translated into English as “Instruction of a Christian Woman.” In it, he argues that woman has particular gifts through which she positively influences both Church and State.

1534 A.D. - Women in education - Beatriz Galindo dies in this year. She was one of the most educated women of her time and was the instructor for Queen Isabella of Spain and her children. She got a degree from the University of Salerno and became a professor of rhetoric, philosophy, and medicine at the University of Salamanca.

1566 A.D. - Women’s equality as a doctrine - The Roman Catechism includes a passage on the equal dignity of all human beings and explicitly includes women and men: “There is but one God, the Father and Lord of all; and consequently we have all the same nobility of spiritual birth, all the same dignity, all the same glory of race... This is a truth which the same Apostle thus expresses in his Epistle to the Galatians: … There is neither Greek nor Jew, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Roman Catechism, Part IV, Chapter 39, Section II)

1669 A.D. - Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz joined the Order of St. Jerome in this year. A faithful Catholic nun, she is considered the first feminist in the Americas. She was also one of the most educated women of her time, and she strongly defended the education of women on the basis of Scripture, the Church Fathers, and Church doctrine, in a work titled “Reply to Sister Philotea.”

1684 A.D. - Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia dies in this year. She had received her doctorate from the University of Padua and was one of the most educated women of her time.

1687 A.D. - Bishop Fenelon writes the pioneer work “Education des filles” promoting women’s education and responding to arguments that they don’t need education. His book promotes female scholarship in the spirit of the Renaissance movement and in recollection of the high scholarship of many medieval women.

1799 A.D. - Maria Gaetana Agnesi dies in this year. She was an Italian mathematician appointed by Pope Benedict XIV to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at the University of Bologna.


1832-1856 - Anna Jameson publishes Characteristics of Women, Sisters of Charity, and The Communion of Labor, in which she defends and promotes the equality of women in the workforce and in social reform and contributes a Catholic perspective to the early feminist movement.

Late 1800s to Early 1900s - According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The "Ligues des femmes chretiennes" were formed in Belgium in 1893; in France "Le feminisme chretien" and "L'action sociale des femmes" were founded in 1895, after the international review, "La femme contemporaine", had been established in 1893. In Germany the "Katholisches Frauenbund" was founded in 1904, and the "Katholische Reichs-Frauenorganisation" was established in Austria in 1907, while a woman's society was established in Italy in 1909. In 1910 the "Katholisches Frauen-Weltbund" (International Association of Catholic Women) was established at Brussels on the insistent urging of the "Ligue patriotique des Francaises". Thus an international Catholic women's association exists today, in opposition to the international liberal women's association and the international Social-Democratic union.
1912 - The Catholic Encyclopedia is published in this year. Its entry on Woman reflects Catholic teaching and is influential in spreading that teaching internationally. Some of its awesome comments include: 
"The limitation of [women's] freedom...necessarily calls forth the effort to do away with the obstructing barriers."
"[Woman has] complete equality in moral value and position as compared with man before the Creator. It is, therefore, not permissible to take one sex as the one absolutely perfect and as the standard of value for the other."
"On account of the moral equality of the sexes the moral law for man and woman must also be the same. To assume a lax morality for the man and a rigid one for the woman is an oppressive injustice even from the point of view of common sense. Woman's work is also in itself of equal value with that of a man, as the work performed by both is ennobled by the same human dignity."
"[Women's] peculiar influence is to extend from the home over State and Church. This was maintained at the beginning of the modern era by the Spanish Humanist, Louis Vives, in his work "De institutione feminae christian" (1523); and was brought out still more emphatically, in terms corresponding to the needs of his day, by Bishop Fenelon in his pioneer work "Education des filles" (1687)."
"it is only by the restoration of Christianity in society that the rightful and natural relations of man and woman can be once more restored. This Christian reform of society, however, cannot be expected from the radical woman movement, notwithstanding its valuable services for social reform. ... It certainly attained great results in its efforts for the economic elevation of woman, for the reform of the education of women, and for the protection of morality in the first half of the nineteenth century, and has attained still more since 1848 in England, North America, and Germany. The names of Jessie Boucherett, Elizabeth Fry, Mary Carpenter, Florence Nightingale, Lady Aberdeen, Mrs. Paterson, Octavia Hill, Elizabeth Blackwell, Josephine Butler, and others in England, and the names of Luise Otto, Luise Buchner, Maria Calm, Jeannette Schwerin, Auguste Schmidt, Helene Lange, Katharina Scheven, etc., in Germany, are always mentioned with grateful respect."
"modern times demand more than ever the direct participation of woman in public life at those points where she should represent the special interests of women on account of her motherly influence or of her industrial independence. Thus female officials are necessary in the women's departments of factories, official labor bureaux, hospitals, and prisons. Experience proves that female officials are also required for the protection of female honor."
1928-1932 - St. Edith Stein publishes books and essays on women which envision the profundity of Catholic thinking on equality. They were collected and published in 1996 as her Essays on Woman.

1945 - Venerable Pope Pius XII addresses an assembly of Catholic Women’s Associations to speak about the progress of femininity and the new demands of our times. His speech reflects Catholic belief in women’s equality and dignity.

1970s-1980s - Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II write and speak at length in support of the equality and dignity of women. These teachings are best summarized in Pope John Paul II’s “Mulieris Dignitatem” of 1988.

And that basically brings you up to the modern period regarding the Church's stance on women's equality.