Would you say that the Wife of Bath is "pro-feminist," or "anti-feminist," or neither?
Chaucer has chosen to project his views towards feminism through the wife and her views and attitudes. Many literary critics throughout the years have labeled the Wife of Bath a feminist. She is a strong-willed and dominant woman who gets what she wants when she wants it. However, this is not the definition of a feminist. A feminist is someone who believes that women and men are equal, while also is able to recognize and appreciate the unique characteristics of both sexes. A feminist celebrates what it means to be a woman. Chaucer did not mean for his character to be interpreted as a feminist. If anything, the Wife of Bath could safely be called a sexist. She constantly emphasizes the negative connotations associated with women throughout the ages, and believes that all women are inherently that way. The Wife of Bath describes women as greedy, controlling, dishonest creatures. Although it seems contradictory, she has no respect for her body or the rights of women, and is an insult to true feminists everywhere.
The commonly used example of the Wife of Bath's so-called "feminism", is the incident in which she rips pages out of her husband's extremely sexist book. He proceeds to hit her in the head, causing her to fall to the floor in pain. This seems like an act of female liberation, but it is far from that. She did not think the horribly sexist stories her husband read to her were untrue. In fact, the stories sounded like something the Wife of Bath, herself, would say. She lashes out because she can not face her flaws. The Wife of Bath actually says that women can have no one "reprove us for our vice, but say we are wise and not at all foolish...there is not one of us who will not kick for being told the truth". The fact that she flies into a rage when being presented with the very things she practices daily, unable to look at herself truthfully, is not feminism. The Wife of Bath's actions also stem from her strong greed and need for control. That particular husband, her fifth one, was the only one she could not control. The desperate guilt he feels after hitting her puts her in an excellent bargaining position. While lying on the floor she puts on a dramatic act of self-pity to make him feel even worse, and later describes "He gave the bridle completely into my hand".
The Wife of Bath's greedy need for complete control over men reflects in most of her actions. She seems proud of this, and constantly describes women as cruel creatures that bring great sorrow to men. When talking about her first three husbands, she says that she "governed them", and "chided them cruelly". She makes life for her husbands a living hell, having no respect for their feelings. Just as the women questioned in her story, she cares only for "riches...amusement...rich apparel..." to be "flattered and pampered," and for "pleasure in bed". When talking of her first three marriages, she says, "Since they had given me all their land, why should I take pains to please them, unless it be for my own profit and pleasure". In her story, the moral is that all women want to hold the whip in a relationship, and it is in the man's best interest to let them do so. The Wife of Bath is not a woman to be admired and, worst of all, she insists all women are just like her.
Another important point the Wife of Bath emphasizes throughout her long speech is the dishonesty and untrustworthiness of women. As she first begins talking, she states that "no man can perjure himself and lie half so badly as a woman can". She then goes on to describe the terrible dishonesty she practiced with her first three husbands, and the most effective ways to lie to men. She reflects on "...the pain and woe I gave them, though they were guiltless". The Wife of Bath gives women an extremely bad name, and says things a feminist would never dream of thinking when she states, "God has given women by nature deceit, weeping, and spinning, as long as they live," and "...a man is more reasonable than a woman is". It is hard to believe, while listening to her slander women, that so many people consider her a feminist.
It seems contradictory to her dominant viewpoints, but the Wife of Bath also has little respect for her body or the bodies of her fellow women. She sees her body as something that belongs to everyone, "...be he short or tall, dark or fair; I didn't care". She seeks power over men's bodies, but she has no power over her own. At the beginning of her speech, she states" The prize is set up for virginity; grab it whom may, let's see who wins the race". She never talks about any other aspect of her personality; her entire being revolves around her body and sex. A woman like her in this day and age would be thought of as having low self-esteem, and trying to raise it through succumbing to every man she meets. The Wife of Bath actually says, "I will bestow my whole life on the acts and fruits of marriage". This implies that she is not as strong as she says, if her whole life depends on men. Her lack of ownership and respect for her own body reflects in her viewpoints on the rights of other women. In her story a woman is raped. The man that brutally rapes her receives no punishment and is instead rewarded. Also, the Wife of Bath's fifth husband beats her, and instead of getting out of the relationship, she loves him more for it. When talking about him she says, "...even if he had beaten me on every bone, he could soon win my love again". Feminists, who are against battery and rape, would be disgusted at the Wife of Bath's comments.
The Wife of Bath is in no way a feminist. Even when saying or doing something that seems feminist, it has other greedy intentions behind it. Feminists celebrate the intuitiveness of women, and the Wife of Bath can not even face herself. She emphasizes the negative stereotypes associated with women, such as dishonesty, nagging, cruelty, greed, and control, which puts her in the same category as a sexist. Also, she seems to see nothing wrong with the most horrible things that can be done to a woman, such as battery and rape. To call the Wife of Bath a feminist is an insult to women everywhere.