If you've paid any attention to Fandom over the last couple of years, you may have come across the idea that SPN is a misogynistic show where the only purpose of the women characters is fanboy eyecandy.
I don't share this pov. I wouldn't watch the show if I thought all it did with female characters was degrade them.
If you're sold on the negative pov of the show (or sitting firmly in the "I like/love the show despite its ugly treatment of women" camp) then I don't think I'm going to convince you - and that's fine. (People still haven't brought me around to seeing Buffy the Vampire Slayer as all that inspiring, either. Different strokes, you know?)
But if you're still on the edge...let me share with you Seven Ways SPN gets it right.
1. Women are essential in this universe. The central premise of SPN is this: John Winchester's wife was killed, in the heart of his home, in a manner than he was helpless to prevent, and that loss destroyed the life he had known, forever. I do not recall a show that so clearly, through the use of negative space, made it obvious that without women in their lives, the male characters were badly fucked up. The regret and frustration and in-fighting between the Winchesters originates from the lives they lived without Mary. It is baldly stated, over and over again in canon, that all three of the Winchester men would have been better off, if Mary had lived. Her death served to entrap them, not liberate them. Jess's death only underlines the need for female presence.
2. Women can be a threat in this universe. This is apparent in so many ways: physically (through supernatural agency and without it), legally, acting as part of a group (Scarecrow) and alone, as well as emotionally. The boys treat the women they meet with respect - but it's not chivalry, I think - it's an acknowledgment of the potential damage that the women can inflict. Let me say this again - women are not helpless, harmless, nor defenseless in this universe. Both of the boys do operate from a pov where "Winchester" = "baddest mofo in the house" - but this applies to the men they interact with, as well as the women.
IMO, it is a mistake to compare the relative roles of the Winchesters with that of the 'civilian' women they encounter - or with the female demons they fight. The true peers of the Winchesters (in so much as there are any real peers in a show with such a tight focus on two characters) are their fellow hunters. In this aspect as well, there is not as great a difference in relative competence and deadliness as one would expect.
Much is made of the positions of peril that supporting characters find themselves in. Less notice is made of the very effectual danger that female characters can represent. If Sam & Dean ever ran into Buffy in a dark alley, you can bet they wouldn't dismiss her with "But you're just a girl."
3. Women are leaders and protectors in this universe. Very nearly from the start, SPN developed a habit of positioning women in "reverse gender roles" - it is Halley, in Windego, who initiates the search for her lost brother. In Dead in the Water, the first victim is a teenage varsity athlete - a swimmer who, fearlessly, goes out into the lake alone. Her bother, on the other hand, is in the house, in the midst of preparing supper when he is attacked. In Asylum, it is Kat, not her boyfriend, who takes the firearm, uses it competently, and prepares to assist the Winchesters in their defense. This continues throughout the majority of S1 & S2, and in those eps of S3 that I have seen.
Thematically, SPN positions family as extremely important - and the episodes re-emphasize, over and over again, the central role of women as leaders and protectors of that essential social structure.
4. We're talking women here, too, not just girls. SPN is a CW show, and it has the expected number of bare arms and heaving bosoms. (And yes, the boys are frequently in layers, but its not like that's stopped the drooling of fangirls.) But. As often as not, the key women in each ep are adults, not teenagers. This expectation of maturity and adult motivations is a refreshing change from the hormone-laden atmosphere of teenie-bopper shows such as Buffy. Even in larger ensemble shows (like Firefly) the guest stars were more likely to be younger rather than older.
Furthermore - these older women are as much a threat as the sweet young things - if not more so. (See Faith, among several others.) Which brings me to:
5. SPN has women who use their brains and their hearts more than their tits. In SPN, casual use of sexuality is shown in a negative fashion - it is an indulgence of Dean, and a sign of his (on-going) immaturity, it is one of the preferred tools of demons, and repeatedly, the show shows lust as a means of distraction and/or abuse, rather than as a meaningless whim. While I know that this is frequently used as a sign of the show's negative portrayal of women, I see it differently. When women succeed in rescuing themselves and defeating the supernatural threat, it is through their intelligence, courage, and stubbornness, more than their ability to bat their eyes and shake their tits at the boys. This is particularly true of the older women, but also of the younger ones - important female characters are attractive as a side issue, while it is trivial (or evil) characters who use their sexuality.
As a woman who wants attention for her intelligence and moral character, rather than her looks, this is important to me.
6. SPN's male characters respect women. I touched on this before, but it bears repeating. Dean (and to a lesser extent Sam) try to con nearly everyone they meet. Dean tries to sleep with nearly any woman who would have him (unless he thought that would entail an emotional commitment.) But when Dean, under a spell, imagines a perfect life for himself, he pictures not a stay-at-home girl to fix him supper, but a professional (a nurse) who (politely but firmly) rejects his sexual advances in order to go to work. In the same way, the one woman whom Dean attempted to settle down with was the one to break off the relationship. When faced with either Missouri Mosley or Ellen Harvelle, both boys "play second fiddle" and obey the older women's direction. Dean is far from a gentleman, but he does not internalize a world where women are at his beck and call.
7. The heroic women of SPN aren't supernatural. This is one where not everyone is going to agree with me: I prefer Batman to Superman - the self-re-made mortal over the invincible uber-man. In the same way, I tend to prefer ordinary people who do extra-ordinary things, over "elite" types who have an innate advantage.
The tough women and girls of SPN aren't "chosen ones", they don't have superpowers, they aren't armed with mystic swords. They're nearly all drop-dead beautiful (at least the twenty-somethings are, according to my brother) but look at the male leads! The world is not full of men as handsome as Jensen Ackles. (Trust me, I would have noticed this.)
But despite the looks, the women of SPN are ordinary. They do amazing things on their own.
Finally - before I close: don't take me as saying that SPN is perfect, or that the issues other fans have brought up are completely without merit. The show's writing is clunky, they never drop an anvil when they can throw five, and this *is* a CW show, where cleavage and legs are expected. And while every fandom in the history of squeeing fangirls has had its share of sketchy fixations and blatant misogynistic attitudes amongst the fans, SPN fandom (to my eyes) has more than its share. And I am enough of an advocate of writer's responsibility that I can't dismiss the idea that there is something in the show canon that encourages that attitude amongst fans.
But I think that meta on the show frequently overstates the degree of "female oppression", and I am saddened every time I see a response to such meta along the lines of "I've never seen the show but I know I would hate it from what you said."
SPN has hot boys who love women, and tough, complex gals who take up a lot of space in this universe. Don't let the bad press stop you from giving it a try.