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.