High infant mortality certainly wasn’t a new phenomenon in the Renaissance. However, as historian Elise Boulding writes, “women have yet to recover their status lost in the Renaissance” It might be argued that they are gaining on it.
During the Middle Ages women of all classes were more equal to their men than they were during and after the Renaissance.
Women of the crafts-producing class managed the shop while their husbands made product. Women participated in every craft from barrel making, thatching, weaving to brewing beer. For a man to become a master in his craft he had to marry. (A trace of this remains in that the first professional degree is called a bachelor’s – the university being a medieval institution)
A craftsman often married a woman who was a daughter of a member of his guild. Until he married he couldn’t set up his own shop because he wasn’t trained in purchasing, marketing, keeping track of product and cash flow, or supervising production, training and supervising apprentices, serving girls and journeymen. (things we now associate with management)
We know that marriage was important because if a craftsman died his widow could vote in the guild, and run the shop by hiring journeymen and apprentices. But if the craftsman’s wife died and and he didn’t have a daughter, aunt, mother or other female ready to take over her duties he reverted to journeyman status.
Upper class women ran the manors and estates when their husbands were off fighting for the king or on a crusade. Women supervised every aspect of the manor economy, waged war, and defended the estate.
Before the invention of the printing press, literacy was largely a matter of class. Upper class women and the daughters of scholars, doctors, lawyers and other educated professionals were taught to read. There were women professors in the University of Milan. There was a medical school ran by and for Jewish women doctors.
After the invention of the printing press, education was more a matter of gender. Craftspeople who could only afford to educate one child would preferentially educate their son(s) since the shop descended through the male line. Women were expected to ‘marry out’ so it was too expensive to educate them.
In addition, once sons learned to read, and more importantly, do arithmetic, it was easier for them to take over the management of a shop. They could give a person a certain amount of raw material and see that they got the proper amount of finished product – the putting out system – harbinger of capitalism.
Manufacturing and business moved out of the common room, to a room of its own, to a floor of its own, to a building of its own. It was the beginning of capitalism.
This left women identified with the home, the interior, the family. They were no longer seen as equal partners. They were illiterate as were children and spent their time with children and so were seen as childlike. From this came the worship of women as mothers and virgins – they were isolated in their homes and on their pedestals.
So, women’s low status is from an interesting blend of primogeniture (eldest son inheriting) and literacy for common folk. Now, the question is – is it better to be the equal partner of a craftsman in a small craft shop or be unequal, married to a man who is in the process of inventing capitalism, and have money to spend and children to spoil? (Of course this doesn’t take into account all the folk that became permanently poor)
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