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Looking for women in historically-based fantasy worlds

This post is slightly adapted from a conversation I held with Ken Scholes on (now defunct) Babel Clash in September 2009. I was inspired to dig up the old post from a reference to it made in another September 2009 post by Aliette de Bodard on Female protagonists in historical fantasy, which she had reason to refer to today on Twitter. de Bodard’s post is just as fresh and important today as it was then, as alas this subject comes up with discouraging regularity.

I wanted to talk about how writers can try to find a way out of the assumptions they may be bringing to the table when deciding whether and how much to introduce female characters into fantasy novels whose settings are based on a version of the past. That is, they may be historical fantasy or secondary world fantasy derived from research into our own historical past.

Even in patriarchal societies of the past (and present!), women who might otherwise have been banned by custom or law from partaking in the public life of politics, power, learning, work and so on still had personalities. I can’t emphasize this enough. People–even women!–have personalities regardless of how much or how little political power they have. People can live a quiet life of daily work out of the public eye, and still have personalities. Really! They can still matter to those around them, they can matter to themselves, and they can influence events in orthogonal ways that any self respecting writer can easily dream up.

Furthermore, with a little careful study of history, one discovers that women found ways to accomplish plenty of “things” big and small, personal and political. Maybe they did it behind a screen, or around the corner, or in the back room or in a parlor, or ran the brewery they inherited from a deceased husband, but they did all kinds of stuff that was either never noticed or was elided from historical accounts.  So much of our view of what women “did” in the past is mediated through accounts written by men who either didn’t see women or were so convinced (yes, I’m looking at you, Aristotle, but you are but one among many) that women were an inferior creature that what they wrote was not only biased but selectively blind. Even now, in “modern” day, so much is mediated by our assumptions about what “doing” means and by our prejudices and misconceptions about the past.

In reality, while women in many cultures worldwide had (and have) fewer legal rights as well as often living in constrained or deplorably oppressive circumstances, they still had (and have) minds and hands and hearts. Weird about that. Women have found ways to use their minds and hands and hearts, because people do. They may even have been happy and productive and respected.

In the last few decades, historical scholarship has been expanding the scope of who and what merits examination. Historians have excavated the lives of women so long overlooked and ignored.

Writers writing stories that deal with power politics in the age of palaces would do well, for instance, to check out a book like Servants of the Dynasty:  Palace Women in World History, edited by Anne Walthall.  This cross cultural study of palace women in a number of pre-modern societies worldwide does not sugarcoat or distort the realities of women’s lives, but it also illuminates the many misconceptions people may have about women in such societies and in such specific circumstances, awake within the halls of power.

The scholarship on women in medieval Europe is extensive. I own too many titles to list them here, but one might start with a book like Singlewomen in the European Past: 1250-1800, edited by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide.

I have fewer non-European studies that specifically deal with women’s history, although I’m expanding my library as I find new (to me) material, books like Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel, edited by Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw, and Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas by Barbara A. Mann.

This kind of reading will open up possibilities for writers who may be having trouble figuring out where women “fit” into epic/high fantasy, but they’re so very valuable for anyone, really. There are other places to look as well, sources well outside the hierarchical boundaries of academic scholarship.

The key, I suspect, is wanting to open the door.

Mirrored from I Make Up Worlds.

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Thank you for this.
Even as a historian of early mediaeval Wales -- a period very lacking in any detailed reference in its contemporary sources -- I would come across the traces from time to time of women who were clearly real people, and not just the cardboard victims/temptresses of lazy assumption. Another error people make is to back-project their own desires onto the past -- hence the pervasive (and, to me, pernicious) myth of the Liberated Celtic Woman -- either because they want to justify their own modern behaviour or through optimistic, un-contexted readings of the contemporary sources.
We don't need to do this. We need to respect each other -- women in the past as well as the women we know now.

One of the little tiny things I do in Cold Steel when Cat and Bee find themselves back in Europa is to contrast the freer gender politics they had started becoming accustomed to in Expedition and Taino country with the less "enlightened" Europan society.

And I thought of you as I was doing it!!!

That happens a lot with Celtic history, in my experience--some antiquarians got it into their head what the preliterate Celts were like and it's not built on much! I do love the bit of Tacitus, though, that says not a whole legion of Romans could stand up to a single Celt if he called his wife into help. ;)

He had a soft spot for the German women who cheered their men on wigglling their boobs. too.

It's likely a myth and says more about Tacitus and the Roman image of the Germans, but it's still a fun story. Which was later taken up by Charlemagne's biographer Einhard, who told the same about the Saxons. Maybe I should get rid of that bra. :P

People get quite -- optimistic when dealing with people of whom little is known.

Never mind the Middle Ages/quasi-medieval societies, one of my major grumps is how narrowly women's lives in even more recently historial periods like the Napoleonic Wars or Victorian/quasi-Victorian Britain too often get imagined.

Oh, indeed! And one would think, given how much more access we have to source material from that time, that people could do better.

So here's my question: WHY?

Why do lives we can actually fairly easily research, at least to some degree, end up getting so narrowly imagined?

Partly, I think, because people read the fiction, which often presents quite a restricted picture of society (and of course in Vict period and even later was seriously constrained by the demands of the circulating libraries) rather than the biographies and social histories.

This is my 'Where do you find a woman anything like Mary Ann Evans/Josephine Butler/Mary Kingsley/[vast numbers of other Victorian women] in the Victorian novel' rant (though I think there is a character based on George Eliot in one of 'Mark Rutherford' (William Hale White)'s novels, I don't think she has Eliot's life).

Well, it's partly because we're told anybody who went beyond the mold we're sold (can I use any more -old words there? o.O) was Strange And Pushing Boundaries, Which No One Approved Of. That helps reinforce the idea that only extraordinary people did anything interesting, nevermind had personalities.

Another thought, and this is also observation, is that history in general is written by men, and men truly do not see the women. Even educated, decent men who think they are feminists, sons and brothers and fathers who love the women in their lives, have no understanding of the world in which those women live--or even realize that there's anything they don't know or understand.

And if that is pointed out to them, the denial is loud and long, and the fear is deep. It's as if we're a horde of little mammals running around the dinosaurs' feet. It's...fascinating.

*actually says, "Yes, yes," right out loud, and points at the screen in emphasis while reading your comment* :)

Likewise other social sciences. I remember when I was in university, one prof of mine talking about why it was difficult to find solid information on women's lives in a lot of the anthropological literature. A particularly memorable example she cited was an in-depth ethnography of a particular West African people which went into exhaustive detail about the various secret societies the men of that culture formed, the rituals these groups practiced, their social functions, etc. Eventually, there was one single line regarding the other half of the population: "The men do not know if the women have secret societies." Apparently, none of the researchers considered the possibility of, you know, asking a woman.

Oh yeah there are so many ethnographic studies in which the women do not seem to exist.

A friend who is an anthropologist told me about her field work in Malawi once. She was walking through a village with a bunch of male anthros and a male guide. The guide went on at great length about all the very important things the males did, and how important their lives were, and how very, very hard they all worked. "And the women are so lazy. They do nothing all day but sit around and gossip."

The men nodded and wrote it all down and agreed that it was the truth. My friend however was actually looking around and seeing what was happening. Here is what she saw:

Men sitting in the shade, smoking and gossiping. All day long. Occasionally they would rouse themselves go out and hunt something (for the women to process an cook, which the men would then eat, leaving the scraps for the women). The vast majority of their time was spent sitting, talking, smoking, eating, and sleeping. Women meanwhile worked all day in the fields in the hot sun, planting and tilling the crops; foraged for and cooked all the meals; tended the children; made and mended everyone's clothes; washed and dried the clothes...

So when the monographs came out, of course this village was all about the hard-working, important men and the lazy, trivial, gossipy women.

Your anthropologist friend didn't write a monograph? Or did she write one emphasising how hard working black women were, and how lazy black men were.

That, by the way, is a racist stereotype found in Victorian travel writing. I am so happy to see it in the twenty-first century.

Edited at 2012-04-27 08:28 pm (UTC)

No. She did not.

Your assumptions are fascinating.

She became an archaeologist. Has done some interesting work on Native American sites, and made a couple of significant discoveries.

If a secret society is actually secret, would asking about it actually get you information? Admittedly, a woman asking a woman would improve the odds.

wishful thinking about progress. Also an unwillingness to admit that not everything that changes does so for the better, even if the net effect of change or changes is for the better -- that life is full of trade-offs.

I still remember the book that opened with observations about comparing modern day New Year's resolutions by teenagers with those a century ago. The modern ones were preoccupied with losing weight, getting their hairdoes better, or otherwise improving appearances. The century old ones were on things like needing to study better, be more serious, develop more interest in other people.

(I am here from a friend's reference, hi.)

I think that for many modern people who don't spend a lot of time on history, this starts with the myth of what women were doing for work aside from the world wars and/or which women "count." If your overriding narrative is that Women Didn't Work* until WWII/Rosie The Riveter and then they stopped again once the war was over and didn't start up until the '60s, the reality that most classes of women have always worked for all of human history is entirely inconvenient to the narrative arc.

*Outside the home. Naturally this is only a problem not to specify when you can score political points from someone not specifying. Otherwise everyone clearly knows what you mean and sheesh stop being so nitpicky.

Thank you. One of the things that infuriates me is when an author makes their epic fantasy all male, except for a few females who are relegated to love interest, sexual prop, or supportive background character. And when called on it, they say, "Oh, I wanted to make my book *realistic.*"

"realistic" in the sense that all the women are invisible, natch.

Yes, exactly, because they're not being realistic.

Years ago I didn't notice. These days I tend to find this annoying.

Thanks for the titles--I've memoried this post.

When I complained about the feebleness of the women characters in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell I got jumped on for my stupidity in not realising women back then had no agency.

Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700, by Eve Levin turned out to be a wonderful resource. Quite an eye-opener.


It will change the way you look at that whole world and culture.

I know about the Mongol queens but I had not seen this book. *runs out to buy*

Written Out Of History: Our Jewish Foremothers by Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz introduced me to such amazing women as Dona Gracia Nasi, who managed the largest spice trading enterprise in Europe in the very early 1500s and set up an early Jewish state at Tiberias.

Maggie Anton has a series Rashi's Daughters (the first of which is sitting on my TBR shelf) and is now at work on Rav Hisda's Daughters.

Edited at 2012-04-27 04:37 pm (UTC)

Thank you! I used to have that book!!

I haven't read Rashi's Daughters, though, although . . . YEAH.

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