In brief, even though Bernard may have shared the anti-feminist tendencies of his contemporaries, he also saw that the role women played at every stage of sacred history was part of the total mystery of Christ. Womankind may bear the mark of her mother Eve, but she also foretells and anticipates the glory of the Bride without stain or wrinkle. Likewise, if Bernard happens to point out that women have faults – something he rarely does – he more often suggests that men are no better. His prejudices are the same for both sexes. And though he may at times seem pessimistic, he always ends on a note of optimism.
Furthermore, the profound understanding he had of the lowly aspect of the mystery of Redemption determined his attitude to the ‘weaker sex’. One of the major themes of classical liturgy is that woman, though frail by nature in comparison, is just as capable of heroism as man. God takes pleasure in everything that is poor in this world. If women are poor by nature, then by that very fact they are all the more apt for salvation, more than men with their natural strength, self-assertiveness, and spirit of domination.
Finally, the mystical and theological tradition in which Bernard moved certainly developed within him the most profound respect for women. He often refers to the Church as the Body of Christ, but he considered the Bride the most appropriate symbol for the Church. His entire ecclesiology is centered on this paradigm. And his favorite image for speaking of the relationship between the individual and the Word, Christ, is that of Bride and Bridegroom.
This all helps us see why Bernard always treated women with as much respect as he did men, and why he did not hesitate to speak of God in both the feminine and the masculine. He was secure enough within himself and even-handed enough theologically to be able to speak and to write to women, and about womankind and women, with honest openness, and without being in any way inhibited by some deformity that led him to antifeminism.
Jean Leclercq, Women and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1989)