Every era has gender expectations. Every era finds ways to shatter them when it suits. Let me give you a real life example, with names omitted to protect those involved.
Two people married in the 1930s, both deciding to have the then popular Victorian form of marriage. This also meant the usual division of labor by gender at home. Trouble was, the husband had ten thumbs when it came to fixing anything. He once tried to repair a leak under the sink, went into major meltdown, and flew out of the house in a rage. The wife, who could do anything mechanical, fixed the thing in a few minutes, and cleaned up the mess he had left. When he got home, she told him she needed the money back for household expenses that she had “paid the plumber” to do the work. He forked it over. Did he ever know? I suspect he did, but neither openly acknowledged the smashing of gender expectations. The myth of Leave It to Beaver remained safe.
When we write historical fiction, we worry about anachronisms. But there is an equal problem with buying into established stereotypes of the past. Every era has its crib sheet of acceptable behavior which ought to be followed and believed by that society. If we unquestionably accept this propaganda as reality, we are also in danger of recreating a fallacious world in our historical fiction.
Medieval Conventional Wisdom: women are inferior, illogical and weak creatures who must be ruled by men, God’s more perfect creation.
Medieval Reality: women ruled countries in the absence of the monarch (Eleanor of Aquitaine), wrote clever stories (Marie de France), advised popes and nobles (Hildegard von Bingen), practiced medicine (Dorotea Bucca), and ran businesses in the absence of the husband (Pastons). Although women were prohibited from preaching, anchoresses got around this by claiming they were only channeling God’s voice. And in the Order of Fontevraud, a woman was the leader over both men and women.
If we are to recreate another era for readers, it is crucial that we know both the propaganda and the reality. Where we may err is in assuming that rules were broken in modern ways. They were not, which is why I told the story I did. At no point did either acknowledge that a woman might be better at fixing the pipes. It was simply done, a curtain drawn over reality, and an acceptable reason found for what happened.
Hildegard von Bingen loudly proclaimed her unworthiness before answering questions. Marie de France used symbols to hint at forbidden meanings. Queens made use of their accepted role in begging for compassion so the husband could do what he knew was best without losing face. Language honored the myth. Action fit the need. Gender expectations are real, but so is the smashing of them.