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.

19 thoughts on “Looking for women in historically-based fantasy worlds

  1. Me, I do! *waves hand* That’s exactly what I write. And now I know what I will have to write about for the guest post I promised you!

    The worldbuilding behind my Creature Court trilogy is based substantially on the religious/festival traditions of Ancient Rome, ramped up several degrees, with added elements of Victoriana and the 1920’s thrown in for good measure. I have tried to mash up French and Italian traditions in the hopes of ridding myself of a dependency on English mythology, and my social structures are my own, though they have historical precedent.

    In particular I wanted to tell the story of working women, craftswomen, who have a day job to do which conflicts with saving the world. But women of different social strata certainly have different restrictions and freedoms. The city is ruled by a woman who can barely set foot outside her home because of the importance of keeping her womb handy for her impending marriage, while women of the underworld can take lovers & wear trousers without society collapsing. And of course there are the women in between…

    I studied Classics at university, and even in the ten years or so I was an active student, the perception of women’s history and social history was changing substantially. From the 1970’s onwards, the perceptions of women in Ancient Rome (my key area) and their roles has changed hugely, as the field of social history has evolved.

    My Honours thesis was on the role of women in the Roman state religion, a cutting edge topic because it used to be assumed that the rituals that women took part in were necessarily less relevant to the state than the rituals that men took part in. But while no amount of scholarship will change the fact that Roman men ruled the public sphere, what we have done is changed the way we look at the private sphere, and the importance of what the women were doing behind the scenes. In Roman religion, certainly, the private rituals of women were seen at the time as just as key to the survival of their city and their people as were the public rituals – both arenas were respected, but we have had a skewed perception of this because of nearly two thousand years of only the documents pertaining to politics and the military being valued by historians.

    So much history has been lost! But there are still fragments to piece together, even if we have to use different methods to the historians who still focus on male-led areas of history. How jealous I feel of the Regency historians, though, who have such a wealth of written documents by the women of their era!

  2. Yes! This!

    The difference in what is available in history texts today versus when I was in college is vast and mighty, and I was in college as the change was really beginning to explode into academia (against great resistance).

    Could you please give the link here to the ebook versions of the Creature Court Trilogy?

    (and, yes, that’s a magnificent subject for a guest post)

  3. Well, since you ask…


    Sadly I believe they are currently only available outside Australia in the Kindle store, but I have been promised other e-formats soon.

    I was so lucky at uni to have a great mentor who was crazy about social history. When he left, it was a struggle to get the remaining staff members to accept my thesis topic and interests, because they didn’t value what I was looking at. I ended up submitting my doctoral thesis (on the public image of imperial Roman women) without the support of my head of school, because he believed the subject matter was trivial, and it was only worth a Masters. (HE WAS WRONG)

    If anyone wants to dip a toe into Roman social history for research purposes, a great place to start is any book by Mary Beard! She has written on all manner of topics from religion to Pompeii, laughter and humour in the Roman world to gladiators. Great stuff.

  4. Thanks for those reading suggestions, Kate! I’ve been struggling in my own historical fantasy to find roles for female characters that mesh with my desired plots (politics and intrigue in Elizabethan England). It can be done – I’ve managed to expand the number of female characters as the series has gone along and as I feel more comfortable with the possibilities of the setting – but it’s very tricky to write about that kind of culture in a way that neither jars with a modern audience nor imposes modern values on historical people.

  5. It has always been possible for writers who wanted to include female characters in fantasy worlds related to what we fondly call “known history” to do so in a variety of roles. Even forty-odd years ago, when I studied ancient and medieval history, there were sources (not as many as today, admittedly) available to suggest more reality about the lives of women than was then popularly known. It was not necessarily easier to find publishers as knowledgeable about these realities as the writers, however…then, as now, there was a very firm pressure on writers (especially women writers) to write what someone else considered appropriate. Appropriate both to the writer (the writer’s gender included), and to the period of history being used as a background.

    Writers are free to use historical periods as alternate history–to introduce cultural changes for the exercise of seeing how else society might have developed had X been added or Y subtracted from an otherwise “medieval” setting. They are free to imagine roles for both men and women that may go beyond what the known history allows–because it is fantasy, and can encompass this kind of thought experiment. (Some might argue that conceiving fantasy this way–at least on the world-building end–brings it too close to science fiction, but I don’t agree. Science fiction is tethered to this reality in ways that fantasy is not, even when a fantasy writer uses the same depth of research.) They are also free to write it more as historical fiction than fantasy fiction, and adhere to current (or even past) historical knowledge. (An interesting case here is Judith Tarr’s _Hound and the Falcon_ trilogy and her related works, which she has said she conceived as science fiction, but which sold–and is commonly read–as historical fantasy. Her women characters are powerful within their historic roles, with a few very fantasy-like exceptions.)

    But given that even in the mid-1960s, when I was in college, there was ample material suggesting multiple and complicated roles for women in various historical periods (and that’s just counting the ones I studied), there’s really no excuse for writers not recognizing–whether or not they choose to use–the possibilities of women as characters. Whether as cook in a wealthy household, or daughter of a poor family, or widow living with relatives or alone, women had the same range of personalities, of innate responses to life’s challenges, as we see today. Some active, some lethargic, some highly intelligent, some barely coping with the simplest tasks, some good mothers, some neglectful and rejecting, and so on. Not all will be protagonists–and indeed, a single female protagonist does not make up for the lack of women populating secondary, tertiary, as well as “back row of the chorus” roles. (Unless she’s the only woman on the planet, something I wrote once.)

    Yet I’m reluctant to push other writers into writing what may seem false to them, just to suit a laundry list of requirements. I am comfortable writing about women in a range of occupations and social positions in both SF and fantasy–someone else might not be. Faking it for the sake of more women (or more women in specific roles) in a story is just as bad as faking it to include any other group someone thinks should be there. All we have to give, as writers, is our determination to write the truth we see and feel. We may be half-blind, wearing spectacles that skew our vision 87.4 degrees off true–and all of us are that, at some time–but we still need to write the truth as we see it even if we’re wrong.

  6. I had no idea that Creature Court borrowed from Roman Religion. Not surprised, given Love and Romanpunk, of course.

    What I like about Kate’s post here is that while female nobility and the wealthy have had more visible agency (Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Gallia Placida, to name two), this phenomenon is not limited to the upper classes.

  7. My sister is a medievalist, and her work has taught me a a great deal about the range of things women actually did (her special focus is High and Late Medieval German Literature) as well as how to read through the misogyny of the sources. Also, of course, how there is no one monolithic “era”.

    But I completely agree that the hardest thing in writing historical fantasy comes in not imposing modern values on historical people.

  8. Thank you!

    I think writers will write what is in them to write. That’s what I do, after all, and I must assume that others will do the same.

    And I agree that the material has been there, just easy to overlook if one did not want to see it. I’ve been so pleased to see how much scholarship has been changing and how more lives are being excavated, as it were.

  9. This is absolutely true – most historians do tend to skew towards discussing the upper classes because there is more information about them, but women of the lower classes often had greater freedoms socially – throughout history, women have worked AND had children for instance, this isn’t a new phenomenon of the late 20th century.

    The craft cottage industry, for instance, blown out of the water by the industrial revolution and the creation of factories, revolved around the idea that sewing, weaving and other necessary hand-crafts could all be done in the individual’s home, while she was looking after her kids.

    I particularly like Kate’s point about personality – there are always women who have more power than is legally bestowed upon them, due to the personal influence they have on other people.

  10. Yes, this entire business of the cottage craft industry is so important. Reminds me of the time years ago my sister (the medievalist) and I watched the first episode of a “groundbreaking” PBS series on “early man” narrated by one of those famous paleontologist dudes. Complete with a scene talking about Man the Hunter illustrated visually by a fearful woman with small child cowering in a fire lit cave while he went off hunting, leaving her desperate because unprotected and unable to fend for herself in any possibly way — probably the fire was lit by him and she was hoping he got back before it went out, too!

    To which I say: GAH

    Needless to say, we did not watch ep 2. I’m not sure we got through ep 1

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