Re: earlier comments by Skadi et al about pre-Christian Norse women’s rights –
There was one circumstance in which a Norse woman could legally become an avenger, fight duels, etc. She had to declare herself legally a man, dress like a man, live like a man, and give up all rights as a woman (including the right to marry a man, hold land, etc. if I remember correctly). This was different from being a shieldmaiden, btw. I don’t remember whether this custom went away when Christianity came in.
There’s a similar custom in the backcountry of Albania today, in which women can trade the restrictions of being a woman and support their families as the heir, by means of becoming legally a man, working men’s jobs, and dressing like a man. There are some older ladies still alive who still practice this.
Irish tradition does remember women slaves in pagan times being drafted into their lords’ war service as well as men, but of course this usually didn’t end well for a woman with less upper body strength and reach than the man on the opposite side; and peasant slave girls didn’t have any more war training than the slave men (ie, none) to compensate for this by speed and cleverness. So the story goes that one of the Irish saints’ mothers, coming upon a particularly gory battlefield full of dead women, demanded that women be legally forbidden to fight in wars, and to be given legal protection from being slaughtered in war along with other noncombatants.
Moving along… the sad truth is that, if you examine most cultures that worshipped goddesses, they usually worshipped goddesses aplenty but continued treating normal women like crud.
Romans were kind of an interesting case. Roman matrons could have a fair amount of power (and they wielded it), but it was usually unofficial power backed by strength of character and generations of hot Italian temper and cool Roman stares. A lot of their power depended on their fathers’ and husbands’ goodwill, their slaves and children’s fear of them, and a lot of experience of being powerless. If you were widowed or divorced, your kids belonged to your husbands’ families, not to you or yours. You saw or raised your kids solely by the other clan’s sufferance.
Roman girls didn’t have diddly. If their dad let them survive to get a name, and if their mom and dad loved them, and if they were freewomen, their lives might be pleasant enough. They weren’t kept kenneled up like classical Greek women, though they weren’t as free as Hellenic women in places like Alexandria. They were usually pretty uneducated by Roman standards, although many learned to read at home, and some women picked up a fair amount from reading or from talking to their brothers and relations. But although it didn’t usually come up if you were a freewoman or a citizen, you were essentially your dad’s property the whole time. Yay.
People like St. Paula, St. Fabiola, and their friends saw Christianity (at least partly) as a road to dignity. They were mostly pretty educated (except maybe Fabiola) and reasonably wealthy, but they had nowhere to go. Most of them were widows, and their lack of control of their lives, as well as their lack of certainty about what would happen to their kids, was apparently a big issue for them. Christianity told them that there was neither man nor woman, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, and they did their best to bend their minds to the other strange concepts, for the sake of the God who promised a world safe for women to have families in.
Roman women, even after all the “new women” and their sexual exploits in Imperial times, still had a deep cultural belief that no Roman woman should ever allow herself to live if she had been raped, and that therefore any threat of rape should be answered by suicide. We can see that Roman men and women in St. Ambrose’s family still believed this, from his “On Virginity” treatise for his sister which praises Christian ladies who drowned themselves to escape capture and rape. It was the next generation of people more Christian in culture who rejected this – people like St. Augustine, who declared that rape was a crime by the rapist, not a shame for the victim; and that a raped woman should be regarded as no less chaste than she’d been before.
Well, yeppers, you have to watch what part of his career his writings come from. Was it from when he was still married, and telling people that the greatest joy in life was to sing psalms with your wife in the bosom of your home? Was it after she died, when he got all weird and bitter in a lawyer way, and started talking about the joy of heaven was to see all persecutors of Christians in Hell? (Nobody seems to know what happened to Tertullian’s wife, but it seems that she died, and it might have been in the persecution of his time.) Was it after he joined the holier-than-thou Donatists who said that nobody who took the easy way out of persecution could ever be forgiven by God and the Church? Was it after he joined the weird Montanist group that was simultaneously Donatist and worshipped a couple of rural prophet ladies as the Holy Spirit incarnate? Or was it one of the treatises written by those who admired him and wrote as him to make their allegiance clear?
Back when Tertullian was sane-ish and just a bit stern, he wrote a fair number of treatises telling men how to dress and behave, including that no decent Christian man would go out on the street without a good Roman pallium around his shoulders. So it’s no surprise that he wrote at least one treatise about women’s dress and behavior.