In establishing an order of nuns in the first place, the Buddha was a revolutionary. Up until then, most women in India were entirely dependent on the male members of their families and could not make any decisions without their authorisation. By allowing women to ‘go forth’ either as novice nun or a fully-professed bhikkhuni when they reached the age of twenty, the Buddha was establishing something unprecedented: women living in communities dedicated to the spiritual teaching (Dhamma) and discipline (Vinaya) that he had laid down.
The ancient chronicle tells us that one day Mahāpājapati (later the first bhikkhuni), the Buddha’s aunt and foster mother, visited him, together with five hundred princesses with the request that they be allowed to join the sangha (which was then only for bhikkhus – monks). The Buddha’s cousin Ananda, asked the him if women could go forth as nuns and live under the Vinaya in the same way as the monks. The Buddha was initially reluctant. Ananda then asked if women, with a suitable opportunity, could attain full enlightenment. The Buddha replied positively: women are equally capable of reaching the highest levels of spiritual enlightenment as men. From this, the bhikkhuni order began.
But... women have long been second-class beings in Buddhism, occupying a status well below that of males. They were said to invite disasters and to be polluted, temptresses, dull, flirtatious, vain and too flighty to cultivate themselves sufficiently to become arhats or enter Nirvana. Moreover, women bore a “karmic burden,” being inherently inferior to men.
In fact there is, female monastics are observing the full nun’s Patimokkha (around 348 rules), are subject to eight precepts that favor their brother monks, precepts that imply nuns are less worthy than individuals of the opposite sex. These are called “the eight heavy rules” and were reputedly crafted by the Buddha some 2,500 years ago.
Nowadays prominent Buddhist leaders reject the old notions of female inferiority and strongly support efforts toward greater gender equality.