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Middle Ages
Women in History
Women's Suffrage

What were some of the ways women rebelled against their situation in the middle ages?

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May 14, 2013 3:28AM

This is a complicated question. Women's lives could vary significantly depending on their social class, the time period, and the region where they lived. The short answer is that most women did not rebel, in the way a 21st century woman might, because there was no social support for it, because individualism was not deemed a desirably personality characteristic, and because the punishment could be severe--even death.

Instead of "rebelling," a woman might work to gain personal autonomy--usually though, she had to be a widow with a lot of money, be lucky enough to marry a cooperative and loving husband, become an abbess, or have a personality that motivated others to go along with her will. These factors all depended on an individual woman's specific circumstances.

In some regions, such as Scotland, women traditionally had more autonomy and this persisted by custom even where the law did not necessarily recognize it.

Some women, such as Margery Kemp and Julian of Norwich, were mystics who devoted themselves to religion, but did not become nuns. Margery Kemp was already a wife and mother when she began having mystical visions; she decided to live a celibate life, but remained a laywoman.

Abbesses of wealthy abbeys could become extremely influential, but placement in important abbeys was limited to daughters of rich and powerful families. For many years such a woman would be one of many nuns, living a life of obedience. It would take many years, and great ambition and skill, to rise to the rank of abbess.

A person's character and accomplishments might earn her a lot of status and even control over her life, but this could only be gained over time. There are many examples of fascinating and powerful medieval women, but each one is unique.