Egyptian culture seemed to have a healthy respect for the feminine principle. Isis was one of the most revered deities, and also had an influence on later cultures. Several pharaohs were woman, and queens such as Nefertiti have been sufficiently revered that their names and images are with us today. Women appear as more than just slave girls in Egyptian art. Some woman even portrayed themselves with (and wore false) facial hair, which was not to deny their femininity, but rather to symbolize wisdom.
Socially, Minoan women had the same status as men, and ate with men. Many sculptures from Minoan sites portray fierce and beautiful goddesses that were fertile and strong.
Greek culture seemed to have contradictory ideas about women. Socially, women were treated as second class, with few exceptions like Asphasia and Sappho. (It should be noted however that Sappho was from Lesbos, a Greek Island that had slightly more progressive views.) Yet when one reads Greek literature, strong women abound. Lysistrata, Clytemnestra, Antigone, Medea-whatever one may think of their actions, these characters are certainly powerful. And what of the goddesses? A veritable pantheon of women. Yet one notes an interesting pattern. Excluding Persephone, the women fall into three categories: Mother (Demeter and Hestia), Sexual (Hera and Aphrodite), and Virginal (Athena and Artemis). This almost anticipates the “Madonna-Whore” Complex. We have goddesses of the hearth and earth who are necessary, kind, but have few of their own stories. Demeter’s story shows her as the ultimate good mother, who is so distraught at the loss of a child, the whole world is plunged into winter. Hera and Aphrodite use sex to get what they want, and Artemis and Athena are sometimes androgynous.
Judaism, which also has many noble female characters and even had relative protection of women’s rights when it came to divorce, failed to bring these stories to their full feminine power. There are elusive references to prophetesses in the Bible; the story of Esther is one of heroism. The flaw in Judaism is not that they completely ignored the feminine, but just that in most communities it was played down as secondary to the masculine.
Gnostic Christianity had an incredibly progressive view of gender equality. Jesus’ disciples preached that God is “no respecter of persons”, but rather sees all humanity regardless of sex, ethnicity, etc. as equal. In the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, which Gnostics adhered to, Jesus advocated a balance of masculine and feminine power and even showed a special admiration for Mary Magdalene.
These gospels have been (and still are) rejected by mainstream Christianity. The codifying of “official” Christian scripture instead favored other writings, such as Paul’s ambiguous writings about marriage. The relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene has been played down, denied, or scandalized by many people depending on their motives and respect for Christianity in general. One Christian writer, namely this one, thinks that the denial of this relationship is unnecessary, and that whatever the extent of this friendship (or more) it is largely irrelevant to the basic theology of Christianity.
As early medieval priests in the mainstream decided to remain celibate, the role of woman again became relegated to one of sex: women are a vehicle of childbirth or of sexual pleasure, and this pleasure was deemed carnal and evil. This was supported by the two basic female archetypes that existed in early medieval Europe: Ma Donna Mary, or Eve, portrayed as a sinner and a whore. It became accepted that the “Forbidden Fruit” Eve and Adam tasted was actually sex, and that because Eve “tasted” it first, she seduced Adam beyond his ability to resist. The account in Genesis merely states that the fruit was knowledge, which may be sexual or not. This view further simplifies women as only having to do with sex, makes villainy of sex, and over simplifies characters in a book that is incredibly complex.
In the High Middle Ages, this began to shift in other realms, though the church still tried to keep a short leash on things. Eleanor of Aquitaine provided a strong female role model and supported old Celtic stories that celebrated “natural” impulses like sex and curiosity and fused them with Christian ideals of service, mercy, and sanctity. The cult of the virgin arose, honoring Mary not just in the simplified role as mother of God, but also as a strong woman who agreed to an enormous task that included supporting her son’s controversial doctrine and watching him be martyred under the brutal Roman system of capital punishment. This holistic synthesis paved the way for women’s rights up to the present, not only in the sense of community respect, but self-respect.