Female Warriors in Fantasy

zenobiaFantasy writer and history buff Django Wexler kicks off our series of articles on writing epic fantasy warfare with his discussion of the societal conditions which likely would (and wouldn’t) produce a female warrior class:

This piece got its start in a Twitter exchange about the ridiculousness of the armor female warriors are forced to wear in fantasy movies, games, and artwork.  Eileen Wiedbrauk asked if I would write something about it for the World Weaver Press blog, but after a little bit of research I discovered the ground had already been well-covered by parodies and people with a lot more experience than I have. [see: Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits]

In any event, I’m a novelist, not an artist, and my background is in history.  So I thought I would try something a little broader.  Since we were discussing the realism of women’s armor in a fantasy context, let’s consider how realistic those female warriors are from a historical point of view, and what fantastic elements an author might want to introduce to create a society that plausibly fits the story he or she wants to tell.

In short: If we want to create a society that encourages female warriors, what might that society look like, and why?

What This Essay Is Not

Before getting started, though, let me say a few words about what this piece is not.  Whenever I give writing advice, I’m plagued by the fear that people will read it and take it to mean any story that breaks my “rules” is somehow wrong.  This is not my goal at all.  This method of constructing a fantasy society (reverse-engineering it, as it were, from real-world examples) is not the only way to go about the task.  I am not claiming that it is the “right” or “best” way.  As someone who has always been fascinated by history, it is simply my way.  It is totally possible to create something that breaks every piece of “advice” I am about to impart, and make it as real and convincing as anything I could put together.  So please don’t look on this as saying, “Anything that breaks these ‘rules’ is unrealistic and wrong!”  Rather, if you are a writer and you’re building a world, this is one way among many you might go about it.

Also, this is not in any sense intended to be a piece about policy for modern-day societies.  The historical examples I use are mostly pre-industrial, and existed in vastly different conditions than we do today.  (Indeed, that’s part of the point.)  More importantly, saying that a particular trait or behavior ‘evolved’ does not imply that this behavior is “natural”, desirable, or excusable, but only that it was optimal from a particular point of view under a specific set of conditions at some point in the past.

Why Bother With History?

In order to craft a fantasy world that rings true, it pays to take a look at historical societies and situations.  This may seem a bit counter-intuitive — after all, we’re creating a fantasy world, with magic and dragons and who knows what else — but in most fantasy, the people we meet are still supposed to be human beings, or at least other sentients roughly similar to human beings.  If a fantasy society is depicted as, for example, a utopia where everyone is always good to everyone else, it won’t feel plausible even if the society in question is hanging from the underside of a giant space eel.

History is valuable, in this context, because it provides examples of how human beings actually behaved at various times and places, and under what conditions those behaviors arose.  It’s far from a perfect set of data, clouded as it is by spotty records and our own inevitable biases, but it has the outstanding virtue of being the only one available.  So, with this in mind, we can reverse the question we’re trying to answer: rather than “Why are female warriors common in this fantasy world?”, we can say, “Why, until very recently, weren’t they common on Earth?”

We must, of course, immediately caveat that question.  There have been quite a few female warriors throughout the course of history, both in disguise and openly.  Female rulers from Boadicea to Queen Louise of Prussia have proven to be quite as militaristic as their male counterparts, and women have fought and died on a wide variety of battlefields.

But the numbers involved have never been close to equal.  Warfare has been the quintessential male activity since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before.  While women have earned their places in the halls of martial glory, it was often unusual, sometimes even transgressive, for them to do so.  What’s remarkably uniform across history is that very few societies before the 20th century considered female warriors to be a normal part of the business of warfare.

This is very odd, when you think about it.  Why exclude half the population from bearing the risks and dangers of combat? 

In some cases, the answer is straightforward defense of privilege — being a warrior often conferred elite status, jealously guarded from women and commoners alike — but it’s not always so straightforward.  Even in some of the most otherwise egalitarian societies, with women in power politically or economically, it was usually the young men who marched off to war.

The taboo against women fighting was also unbelievably durable.  History is replete with examples of last stands, sometimes of a whole people; the Romans, cheerful genocides that they were, created this situation all the time.  But even then, literally facing extermination or enslavement, the idea of sending women into combat was beyond the pale for a beleaguered tribe.  Taboo isn’t even the right word — it’s not an option that would have crossed the minds of the men of those cultures.


Brute Strength Is Not Enough

The standard response is that it’s all a matter of physical strength.  Women are, on average, weaker than men, particularly in the upper-body strength so important to muscle-powered combat.  Therefore, this view argues, they were excluded from warfare until the advent of gunpowder weapons, which removed strength from the equation. This led to the gradual weakening of the taboo, until it finally cracked in WWII and beyond.  (The Soviet Union was probably the first major power to use women in combat on a large scale.)

This hypothesis, while superficially attractive, collapses pretty quickly with a little thought.  For one thing, average strength is exactly that: an average.  Men are distributed along one Bell curve, and women on another; while the female curve is offset from the male, they certainly overlap.  If pure physical strength was the most important thing in warfare, the strongest women would make better recruits than most men.  We should also see adult women pulled in to fight before adolescent boys, especially in times of emergency, but the historical record shows us exactly the opposite: fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys marched off to war when the situation gets desperate, while their mothers and sisters remain at home.

How important was physical strength in pre-gunpowder warfare, anyway?  It varies widely, depending on the type of weapons and the nature of the conflict, but often the answer was “Not very.”  The quintessential “fantasy” combatant, the knightly lancer, certainly didn’t require strength unattainable by most women, and most of the actual killing power was provided by the speed and weight of the mount.

In general, once spears and edged weapons became the norm, raw strength was not all was cracked up to be.  Women certainly could have managed to fight in the style of Roman legionnaires, or as part of a Swiss pike formation.  In organized armies discipline usually counted for more than power.  Individual combats were uncommon, and the loser was the side to break first.

So this explanation, while traditional, doesn’t hold water.  To find the origin of the taboo, we need to go a little deeper, and further back into human history.

Apes On The Plains

Picture a Stone-Age tribe, wandering the savannah.  Track their progress over many years.  They lose members constantly, to disease, accident, old age, and violence.  What determines the how quickly they can replace themselves?

Given sufficient resources, the birth-rate will correspond directly to the number of women of childbearing age.  The number of men is largely irrelevant to this calculation — even a relatively small number of men are enough to keep the tribe’s women pregnant, which determines the overall rate of growth.  (Real life is more complicated, of course, and the men contribute more than just fertilization.  But bear with me.)

Imagine now that, as leader of the tribe, you need to send a war-party to fight over some resource.  In order to secure the future of the tribe, do you send out a group of young men, or a group of young women?  In this context, the question answers itself.  If, say, half the men of the tribe were killed in a hostile encounter, it would be a serious loss, but a single generation would go a long way toward replenishing the tribe’s numbers.  If half the women were killed, it would mean disaster — a new generation half the size of the previous, and a permanent reduction in the size of the tribe and its chances for survival.

This is the fundamental asymmetry behind the great taboo, and the reason why in almost all human cultures, and even in our cousins among the primates, it is the males who go to make war.  This is a cultural norm programmed by evolutionary necessity.  The men don’t go off to fight because they’re stronger, more violent, or more aggressive, though evolution has in fact equipped them with all these traits in order to fulfill this function.  They go off to fight because they are expendable, from the tribe’s point of view, while the women are not.

The Changing of the Guard

If it wasn’t the advent of gunpowder weapons removing the necessity for physical strength in combat, what explains the change from the ancient world to the modern one?  Some of it is clearly cultural — the lot of women in most societies has vastly improved since the bad old days, and equality is now at least the stated goal in much of the world, though of course there remains a long way to go.  But something else has changed, too.  For the first time since the dawn of history, population size is not critical to military power.

In ancient times, the fighting strength of a tribe consisted of all the men who were capable of combat.  Most societies eventually created specialized military castes, but the overall size of the society still determined how many of these individuals could be supported.  And numbers were important, all the way from the ancients through relatively modern times.  Napoleon, for example, eventually went down to defeat because conscription (and those who fled to evade it) had stripped France bare of men of fighting age, making it harder and harder to build new armies to replace those he had lost.  And, more than anything else, it was superiority of numbers that assured the victory of the Union over the Confederacy in the US Civil War.

By WWI, however, a turning point had been reached.  At the onset of war, Germany possessed the larger army and population compared to France, but after the first few battles exhausted the offensive impetus of both sides it became clear that it just didn’t matter.  Technology had advanced to the point where sheer numbers could no longer carry the day, and barbed wire and the machine-gun had made massed attacks almost suicidal.

When the next round started in 1939, it was clear that industrial capacity, not population, would be the factor that determined victory.  Raw bodies were useless without guns, artillery, tanks, ships, planes, food, and an enormous world-wide support structure.  Going forward, it was clear that larger populations were no longer the most important factor in winning wars.

(Aside: This turning point was reached even earlier in naval warfare, where technology had always been more important.  Hence the ability of the British Empire to dominate the world from a relatively small population base, and Japan’s humiliating defeat of Russia in 1905.)

The same change was even more important on the economic side.  For thousands of years, all economies had ultimately revolved around agriculture, and the vast majority of human beings were employed in farming in one form or another.  This was an extremely labor-intensive process, and it was the availability of hands to do the work that determined how much land could be profitably farmed.  Population growth therefore translated directly into economic power, since more people meant more land worked, more farms, and more taxes for the king.

The Industrial Revolution turned all that on its head.  Labor productivity increased enormously, and suddenly the limiting factor for agriculture wasn’t the availability of labor, but the availability of land.  Rural populations, suddenly surplus to requirements, flooded into the cities to work in the new factories.  Intellectuals began to speculate about the dangers of overpopulation.

It’s no accident that the conditions for women began to improve soon after.  It was no longer true, as in the ancient tribes, that their most valuable contribution was always child-bearing.  The old social structures began to adapt (frustratingly slowly, of course) to the new reality, and the first hints of the modern age appeared.

Can We Please Get To the Fantasy, Already?

Okay.  If you’re still with me after that long digression, let’s talk about what all this means to the fantasy author as he or she goes about constructing a secondary world, and specifically what it means for female warriors.

The first thing we can observe is that, in virtually any setting, there is no excuse for calling a particular female warrior unrealistic.  Quite the opposite!  Even the most ossified, patriarchal society produces people who rebel against its conventions, for a wide variety of reasons.  These women will often face difficulties with prejudice, social rejection, and oppression by the authorities.  But, like their historical and mythological counterparts, they can rise above it to prove their oppressors wrong and become heroes.

Fantasy gives us plenty of examples of this type of warrior, going back to Tolkien’s Eowyn.  More recently, George R.R. Martin’s Brienne of Tarth fits the type perfectly, and Arya Stark seems to be working up to it.  Joe Abercrombie gives us Ferro Maljinn.  The defining trait of these characters, for our purposes, is that the society they come from does not approve of their choices, and so to one extent or another they are in conflict with their social role.

(A brief bit of self-promotion prompts me to mention that my novel The Thousand Names takes this role as a focus.  Winter Ihernglass, the protagonist, is definitely a warrior, but she lives in a culture where this is not an acceptable choice for women.)

Let’s say that, as a writer, you want to go beyond this, and produce a society where the gender ratio of warriors is closer to equal.  The trick, if your goal is a “realistic” society, is to tweak the conditions so that this role fits neatly into the world as a whole.  Simply grabbing 14th-century Europe, but adding armies of female knights, would strike me as at least a little bit jarring.  So what can you change to make this work?

(I’m assuming a pre-Industrial setting here.  In a steampunk-style fantasy, the real-world forces described above would apply!)

Magic.  This is the big one, in fantasy, and the most obvious choice.  In realistic combat, it’s rare that one person, however skilled, can make a huge difference single-handedly.  But if some individuals are born as mages (or whatever the local equivalent is called) with powers far outstripping an ordinary mortal’s, only a very stupid society would refuse to make use of half of these incredibly valuable military resources.

How much these extraordinary people would change social norms depends on how many of them there are.  In a society where mages are relatively common, you’d be likely to see something closer to modern-day equality between genders, or at least some impetus towards such a state.  If one in ten people was born a mage, for example, almost everyone would know one or more of them.  Historically speaking, the warrior classes of a society have enjoyed high status, and the presence of a corps of women with power in their own right (as opposed to as a result of noble birth or marriage) would certainly exert some pressure towards evening the scales, compared to actual pre-Industrial cultures.

If mages are rare, on the other hand, the result is more likely to be something close to the “lone warrior” scenario above.  When one in a hundred thousand, or one in a million, is born with magic, the average person will never meet one of these special few in their lifetime.  A woman born with the gift could still be recruited as a warrior, but her special status would be seen as an exception, and quite possibly a source of resentment among men whose power has a more traditional base.

(This all assumes the ‘magic is something you’re born with’ model, of course, and many others are possible.  If magic is something one is trained to, however, the result in a traditional pre-Industrial society is still likely to be a corps of male magicians, for the reasons discussed above.  Merely removing the “strength disadvantage” is not enough to even the playing field.)

Economics.  This requires a more subtle bit of world-building.  In essence, a society that has reached the industrial stage of economic development, even without actually going through an industrial revolution, is more likely to support a class of female warriors and have better conditions for women in general.

The causes for this could be mundane — a city that survives entirely on trade might develop along these lines — or more fantastic.  A great empire whose mastery of magic means that its fields are worked by tree-spirits or animated constructs, for example, or a city perched on a crystal mountain in a netherworld whose food comes from magic portals.  The question the author should ask is, how valuable is population growth to this society?  The farther we get from that being the critical factor, the more likely we are to have gender equality.

Medicine and lifespan.  One approach is to ask how many children the average member of a society has.  (Importantly, the average member, not nobles or royalty.  Remember the vast, often invisible peasantry!)  Family sizes in a “realistic” agricultural state tend to be very large, partly because infant mortality was horrifyingly high.  If the number of children per woman is near historical levels (which could reach ten or twelve!) then most women probably don’t have time to be warriors.

On the other hand, a society with well-established healing magic might not need so many kids!  If an average person has a reasonable expectation that most of their children will survive to adulthood, family sizes will be smaller, and gender equality becomes more possible.  Alternately, a society where healing magic is a relatively new invention might end up with a population surplus due to hugely increased survival rates, and finding places for this horde of young people would be a problem.  Traditionally male occupations, including fighting, might open up to women as they moved off their farms.

If the people who make up a society are significantly different from humans in their biology or lifespan, we could also end up closer to gender equality.  To take a stereotypical example, a race of elves with very long lives would spend proportionally less of their lifespan raising children (unless their population is growing exponentially!) and would probably have something closer to modern-style gender equality.

Going a little farther afield, one could flip the roles of the genders entirely with the right biological setup.  Women are the limiting factor in population growth because the woman’s contribution to bearing a child takes a long time and a lot of energy.  If having children required, say, the man to magically extract cells from the woman and grow them to maturity, requiring most of his time and energy, the resulting society would see the roles of the genders reversed, with women as the fighting, expendable sex.  And any society in which genders are fluid or changeable would obviously be very different from its historical counterparts!

Build to Suit

I have heard many arguments to the effect that the notion of “realism” shouldn’t even apply to fantasy, since by definition fantasy includes elements that are, well, fantastic.  “Leave the realism to historical fiction novelists and hard-sf obsessives!  Fantasy is for imagination!”  And once again, let me make it clear that I don’t object to this idea.  Just as science fiction can include everything from Peter Hamilton’s rip-roaring space opera to Greg Egan’s diamond-hard mediations on the nature of humanity to David Brin’s peeks into the near future, I think there is plenty of room in the fantasy genre for both the wildest flights of fancy and pieces with more of a realistic edge.  Writers like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, and many others have taken this route and produced a wide range of wonderful stuff.

But history should not be a straightjacket!  “Historical accuracy” should never be used as a cudgel to bash down ideas — to blithely declare something “unrealistic” is insulting to the variety of the historical human experience.  What I hope to get across with the above is the idea that societies and cultures respond to the environments in which they evolve, and that even if you are stickler for the rock-hardest of realistic fantasy, that “realism” needs to be considered in the context of the world in which the story is told, not just in comparison to our own world.

What all this boils down to is that if you tell me, “You can’t have an army of female knights in a realistic fantasy!” my answer is going to be, “Let me show you how it works…”

Django WexlerDjango Wexler’s The Thousand Names will be available July 2, 2013. Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research.  Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books.  When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.

Other articles in the WWP fantasy warfare series:

About World Weaver Press Guest Blogger

World Weaver Press invites many guest bloggers to join us in our discussion of fantasy and science fiction. Opinions expressed by guest bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of World Weaver Press, its staff, or authors.

Posted on May 28, 2013, in fantasy, Fantasy Warfare, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. What a great post! I love it. Especially your careful caveats at the beginning, even though I’m biased towards your point of view – I’ve studied evolutionary anthropology and have read a lot about the basic economics of the human way of life. Those studies really helped me with some world building issues I had when working on a novel of my own. If it’s all right I’d like to add some extra nuances that might be useful to writers looking to use this kind of approach in building their worlds. :)

    The biological fact that women are the primary child bearers has several effects on the kinds of work they can do. Especially back in the day, human societies were what we call “natural fertility populations”. They have as many children as they can have and make little conscious effort to control their family sizes, other than the general rule that more people is better, as you said. But this means that, for most of their adult lives, women are either pregnant or carrying around a nursing infant. And they cannot be long away from their nursing infants – as you said, infant mortality was very high in those days, and there was no replacement for mother’s milk, no formula you could buy at the corner store. A growing baby needed to be close to its food source. So, for an adult woman to go into a potentially physically dangerous situation, she would likely also be risking injury to her fetus or young child. And she can’t leave the child with anyone else. Not to go out on a hunting party, not to go out on a raiding party.

    This general rule covers not just war but the daily work of getting food. This is why in hunter-gatherer cultures women are generally the gatherers, because that kind of work is less physically dangerous and more conducive to the safety of young children. An exception that rather proves the rule are the Agta hunter gatherers in the Philippines. Agta women do hunt – but with dogs and thrown spears. The dogs are a buffer between the women and physical danger.

    So, these are more things you could alter to help free up women for more dangerous work. Something as simple as having a wetnurse around to feed and watch the nursing infant could free up a more affluent woman to join her husband on the field of battle.

    Also, there is the issue of gender ratio. This follows naturally from what you wrote though you didn’t mention it explicitly. If, for some reason, there are more women in the population than men, it has happened repeatedly throughout history that women begin to move into roles occupied by men, and make greater strides toward equality. This happened in the United States during and after World War II, with so many of the country’s men lost to the war. I used this trick myself in my novel, where men of a certain age are required to join a very dangerous border militia. This results in a fairly constant gender ratio that’s tipped towards women, making it not uncommon and generally acceptable for a small percentage of women to join the militia themselves.

    Again, great post! And I think I’ll definitely be checking out your book when it comes out :)

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  2. thank you for the wonderful post. you make many great points! made for a facinating read

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  3. Really helpful and interesting. I was a little surprised when you didn’t go straight to the child bearing and infant mortality issue. That was the explanation my dad gave me when I was a little kid and wanted to know why there weren’t more girl soldiers. :)

    It brings hunting to mind, and how “doe tags” are limited. Which then makes me think about the Hunger Games and how Gale tells Katniss that hunting people is no different from hunting animals . . .

    I think it’s important in fantasy to remember that sentient beings are also (probably) animals.

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  4. And after all this is said it seems that we don’t have to stray too far from the reality of our own modern world where the vast majority of infants survive, people are kept alive through medical means quite beyond our ancestors and women are “fighting” a daily battle just to be treated like a human being. It would be hard indeed to not draw from some kind of reality when imagining a fantasy world and more and more our own crazy world is supplying us with some great material. I’m a fantasy artist and poet and I constantly draw from the twisted world we call reality. Sometimes you don’t have to tweak it much to get something that is “out there”. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction (especially if you give it just a little wrenching)!

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  5. As an evolutionary biologist, I used to have discussions about these sorts of questions in my population genetics classes. We were always told to consider the benefits or costs of anything from the point of view of the individual. In my mind, I consider the costs and benefits of war.

    Who pays the cost of war? Mostly the lowly foot soldiers, often the poor and conscripted. They do most of the fighting, bleeding, and dying, while the more advantaged members of society serve as officers or in-expendable bureaucrats.

    Who benefits from war? The lowly foot soldier can, but only if heroism and a lot of luck result in him distinguishing himself on the battlefield resulting in an elevation of social status. The true beneficiaries of war are the men in power. While most of the young males are off fighting and dying, reproductive opportunities for the privileged men at home increase substantially. With women outnumbering men by a large ratio, the king, his sons, his brothers, etc. experience huge popularity. Even in an ostensibly monogamous society, the evolutionary benefits of extra-marital affairs in this environment are obvious and opportunities are abundant.

    Long story short, one of the reasons humans have historically gone to war is that it provides massive reproductive benefits to the men in power who can decide whether or not to go to war, but only if it’s other men (their competition) they send off to do the fighting.

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    • That’s a very good point. In pre-modern times, even the soldiers involved in the war probably benefited, as long as they avoided outright massacre — those who came home usually received greater social status, choice of mates, etc. (Think of the tribes where successfully raiding an enemy was a prerequisite for manhood or a coming-of-age ritual, for example.) The bigger societies get, though, the more benefits accrue to the leaders.

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  6. Count me as another who found this article fascinating. That’s the kind of world-building I’m always looking for. Really good stuff, and I’ll be on the lookout for your book.

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  7. Reblogged this on Tracey Ambrose and commented:
    This is a fantastic essay on female warrior characters and world building around them.

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  8. What an excellent post! Thanks for sharing!

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  9. Reblogged this on Green Embers and commented:
    This was a great post for the fantasy author to think about.

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  10. One reason I rarely enjoy fantasy is the incoherent and ahistorical context. Too many otherwise good stories are ruined by not having a consistent backstory and a believable world for the cast to inhabit.

    Found this on https://www.facebook.com/groups/canconsf/?ref=ts&fref=ts the Facebook site of The Society for Canadian Content in Speculative Fiction and the Arts, whose Con will be held in Ottawa Canada October 4-6, 2013
    CAN-CON encourages new and aspiring writers to meet editors, agents and publishers as well as introducing Fandom to new books.

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  11. Reblogged this on Words Engineer and commented:
    thanks that’s nice post..

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  12. A nice article and I’ve thought about a lot of these same issues in my own world building.

    Contraception is a biggy too, in my mind. If women can’t have sex without a reliable way to avoid becoming pregnant, then chances are, very few will avoid becoming pregnant for very long. Religious taboos against contraceptive use, of course, can exist in any society, including our own very modern one, but they seem to harken back to a time when lots of babies were “needed” to assure the survival of a people and their religious traditions.

    Another element I’ve seen introduced in some fantasy is strong female deities who intervene on behalf of women in the society in question. We can argue about what gods “really” want in the real world, and whether the general absence of female religious prophets and leaders from much of our history is a reflection of the economic realities you describe or the actual will of our “real world” gods (aka, God really is a man). But if you live in a world where the gods are a real and present force that actively intervene in the affairs of mortals at times, and and least some “want” women to be equal, then they may “gift” mortals with the means of making them so.

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    • Contraception is a tricky one. I agree that it’s an important component, but it’s not in itself enough — the ancient Romans, for example, had access to a highly effective contraceptive, but their society wasn’t particularly egalitarian. But it is true that, in order for a society to enjoy anything like relatively modern-style gender relations, some form of contraception is probably important. (Though the use of condoms dates back to the 1600s!)

      Divine authority is definitely another good way to go about it. In the real world, the will of the divine as interpreted by the priesthood usually “happens” to reinforce existing authority structures and social mores, but in a world where literal gods are willing and able to express themselves unambiguously, they could definitely push a society towards equality if that was their goal. Sounds like an interesting idea, actually!

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      • I agree that contraception by itself wouldn’t have been sufficient, but that it would probably be necessary for that kind of equality to some extent. The fantasy culture I am currently writing is sort of in between modern and historic in some regards. Women are not the norm in the military, but they are not unknown/taboo either. And there are still plenty of problems and abuses. One issue that no one really likes to talk about is that while women are now about 20% of the soldiers in the modern US military, and combat positions are now open to them (if they meet physical requirements), there is still a serious issue with sexual harassment, rape, favoritism and other issues that stem from a male dominated and hierarchical culture being unwilling to change in order to cope with these issues.

        I’d think it would be unrealistic to think that these things wouldn’t be a problem in a fantasy world either, even if it was reasonably egalitarian. Unless, of course, the gods intervene and make men who rape impotent or something. But alas, my gods are mostly absentee landlords, so it’s up to people to muddle through.

        I found your article interesting, and gratifying, because you have thought about some of the same issues I have here, and suggest some of the things I’ve tried to work into the background re passive world building. Though I’ll admit, I can’t bring myself to write a world with a city on a crystal mountain and magical beings working in the fields ;)

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  13. Interesting analysis, but it seems to me that you have left one big thing out of the equation, and that is women’s overall second class role in our societies past and present. Almost all societies are based on a patriarchal system which has very little to do with expediency. It isn’t because women as child bearers need to be protected, but because men have taken the position of top gender by physical force and have built it into the social contructs, of which religion is one. Men are the warriors because being a warrior is top job in an aggressive and warlike society, and because of their nature (aggressive, warlike, elitist, priest-ridden etc) they have very little to do with equality, nurturing, pacifying and educating.
    In a society in which women are forced into an inferior role, they can never be warriors. Boudicca was not from such a society hence her not having any problem getting men to follow her. A woman in most modern western societies still has a hard job persuading men to vote her onto the local council, never mind leading troops into battle. Women do serve in the armed forces now, but isn’t that also an indication of the lessening prestige of the soldier in our societies and the increasing value given to the pacifier?

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    • There’s a number of interconnected problems here. The one I wanted to address specifically is why women haven’t historically served in armies. While many (probably most) past societies definitely have been patriarchal (as you say, the warrior class tends to grab for itself the power and status), not all have. But even in societies that are NOT patriarchal, women generally do not become soldiers. It’s actually more common to find women in leadership positions in ancient history than it is to find them in combat positions! The army that Boudicca commanded was still made up almost exclusively of men, and the same is true of a variety of female leaders up through the middle ages.

      Also, many societies have no problem with using people who are considered inferior, for whatever reason, in a military role. The military aristocracy of Middle Ages Europe considered itself vastly superior to the peasantry, but had no problem calling up the peasant levies to die by the thousands when it was necessary. Many of the ancient empires used whole armies of slave-soldiers, and the Romans at times were forced to promise freedom to slaves as a bribe for military service.

      So: while I certainly agree that enforced patriarchy was the rule throughout much of the pre-Industrial world, I don’t think that in and of itself is enough to explain why women weren’t allowed to fight. (Or FORCED to fight!) The taboo runs deeper than that. I like to use the example of the South in the US Civil War; by the end of the war, when things were going badly, they were considering arming the slaves and promising them freedom to fight the Yankees. But the thought of arming the *women* would have struck them as insane, at the very least. (In spite of the fact that dozens of women actually DID fight, without permission!)

      Regarding the increasing service of women in our present military, I have to disagree that it has to do with the lessening prestige of the soldier. Rather, it’s a result of a constant struggle by those who *want* to serve, and have had to fight the establishment every step of the way. The military isn’t letting women in because they’re that hard-up for volunteers, they’re grudgingly accepting the reality of new social norms of equality.

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      • Ooo, this convo is getting very interesting indeed! I have to agree with Django on this. It seems that many societies feel that women are good leaders even if they don’t generally have women soldiers. In some Native American tribes the elder women had the last word when it came to who fought or even if the tribe would go to war. Even the chief who was always a man, would look to these women for their final decisions on many concerns. And it was the women who actually chose the chief. I think what we can see is that societies that value their women as equal to men have figured out who does what best. If a woman has leadership qualities they put her in that position. In these societies it is all about who does a job best not whether they are a man or a woman. The fantasy I love to read manages to do just that, take the strengths of each character and use them to the best ends and it doesn’t matter what their gender is.

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  14. The second (much shorter) essay in our ongoing discussion of Fantasy Warfare is now up: “Who Needs Horses When You Can Ride a Dragon” by Rebecca Roland, discussing some of the technical challenges of flying a dragon while trying to club your enemy to death. (http://worldweaverpress.com/2013/06/17/who-needs-horses-when-you-can-ride-a-dragon/)

    If you have an article you’d like to submit to the series or a writer/topic you’d like to suggest we approach, please contact us at submissions at worldweaverpress dot com or on Twitter @WorldWeaver_wwp

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