Dr. Ed Peters' canon law blog In the Light of the Law has a lengthy and informative post about the question of whether women can have their feet washed in the Holy Thursday foot washing. In his post, titled Our Lenten foot fight: it's time to resolve the mandatum rubric debate, Ed addresses the canon law issues and some history of the issue. After explaining the present debate, and explaining that "this matter is purely one of ecclesiastical law (which means it is changeable, albeit only by Rome per 1983 CIC 838)", Ed expresses a hope that the matter will be studied and resolved outside of Lent. He concludes: "There are many more important things to ponder during the Church's holiest season." It is an interesting and informative article about an issue that sometimes has been divisive during Lent.
Although my area of practice has never included canon law, and I thus accept Ed's explanation of the legal issue without question, I will offer an eighth century letter showing that the question of washing women's feet has been asked at least as far back as the bishopric of St. Boniface. Personally, over the last decade, I have spent Holy Thursday in parishes where the foot washing was limited to men and in one Episcopal Church parish where it included women, and was content with either decision. It is the sort of issue in which I am inclined to follow the preference of my own priest and bishop while my own interest lies in the spiritual meaning of Holy Week. However, it would be an interesting historical topic for someone to put together a study of the history of this rite, when it first began to be observed as a rite on Holy Thursday, and how its Biblical meaning has been understood over the centuries.
A little of the history given in Ed's posting, supplemented by an article he links to, is:
13th century - Foot washing became a customary part of the Holy Thursday liturgies (this according to a linked article from boston.com and not according to Dr. Peters)
1955 - Pope Pius XII re-introduces the foot washing rite after it fell into disuse in some churches
1987 - USCCB declared that it has become customary in some places to allow both men's and women's feet to be washed.
While boston.com may be correct that the Holy Thursday liturgy including this rite has a thirteenth century origin, the rite itself has a much older history associated with Holy Thursday. In the middle of the eighth century, Bishop/St. Boniface of Mainz/Devon asked Pope Zacharias whether it was permissible for nuns to wash each other's feet on Holy Thursday, presumably in abbeys where there were no men's feet to wash. The Pope's answer, written November 4, 751, is preserved in the collection of The Letters of St. Boniface.
Given that the reference was to the women washing each other's feet, the practice does not assume the involvement of a priest. It was, by then, connected with Holy Thursday, and not with the rite of baptism. The form of the ceremony is not mentioned in the letter. However, the eighth century pope's answer saw no reason why nuns could not wash each other's feet. The fact that St. Boniface raised the question is indicative that the issue of washing women's feet was already discussed more than 1200 years ago, and that even then, there was no rule limiting the rite to men in all circumstances. Boniface strictly enforced canon law. His question was limited to nuns observing the rite in women's religious houses and thus implies that the rite was limited to men in churches and cathedrals where there were enough men's feet to wash. Pope Zachariah's perspective is interesting for its simplicity:
"You inquire whether nuns are to wash each other's feet, as men do, on Holy Thursday as well as on other days. It is the Lord's teaching that he who does good works by faith shall receive praise. Men and women have one God, who is in heaven." (Letter LXXI, translated by Ephraim Emerton)
That was all that Pope Zacaharias had to say about the matter in the course of a lengthy letter. He said nothing about the rite symbolizing the twelve Apostles, a frequent basis now for arguing that only men should be included.
A careful study of the rite would have to go back even before St. Boniface and the eighth century, at least as far back as the fourth century to follow how the rite moved from a regional part of the baptismal rite to a part of the Holy Thursday observance, to its present place in the liturgy.
In the fourth century, it was mentioned by St. Ambrose as part of the baptism ritual and not particularly associated with Holy Thursday or Easter at all. According to historian F. Homes Dudden (The Life and Times of St. Ambrose in 2 volumes, 1935), the ceremony of foot washing at that time was practiced in Spain, Northern Italy, Gaul, and Africa, but not in Rome. The bishop washed the feet of the newly baptized, and the presbyters did the same for others, while the Gospel lesson, John 13:4ff, was read. As part of the baptismal rite, following the chrism, it would naturally have included both men and women. Dudden gives the fourth century view of the rite (pp. 340-341, see also pp. 623-624 and 706):
"As regards the significance of the action, Ambrose appears to teach that, while personal or actual sin is removed by baptism, transmitted or original sin is removed by the 'foot-washing'; thus, of Peter he says that 'his foot is washed that hereditary sins may be removed, for our own sins are loosed through baptism'. The author of De Sacramentis silently corrects this doctrine by affirming with emphasis that all sins are washed away in baptism; he explains the ceremony, partly as a lesson in humility, and partly as a means of special sanctification at that point where Adam was poisoned and tripped up by the serpent. Augustine also regards the action as a lesson in humility, but not as an essential part of the sacrament of baptism."
By the eighth century, when St. Boniface wrote to Pope Zachariah, the rite was no longer part of the baptismal rite, and the question of washing women's feet, at least in women's religious houses, existed then. There is a much older issue about including women than is often understood. I do agree with Ed Peters that a careful study and resolution of the issue, outside of Lent, would be beneficial.
More on St. Boniface:
Greenaway, George William, Saint Boniface: Three Biographical Studies for the Twelfth Centenary Festival
Reuter, Timothy, ed., The Greatest Englishman: Essays on St. Boniface and the Church at Crediton
Sladden, John Cyril Boniface of Devon