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The Female Adventure(r), Part 1

B. Blackmoor

This is part one of a two-part article. This installment addresses the basic objections some GMs have to allowing female Player Characters in their campaigns. The second half offers suggestions to GMs who would like to create a society that casts women in roles of power and influence. See also: Part 2

There seems to be no end of discussion over the topic of women's roles in fantasy-medieval societies. For example, there is a heated discussion on Usenet on the subject at this very moment -- but then, at any given moment there's a heated discussion on Usenet about something. There was even a post by a GM who forbids female PCs in his game, if you can believe something so ridiculous. While few folks have problems with female priests or female magicians, there are great many who can't seem to reconcile the existence of female warriors in a believable pseudo-medieval fantasy world (if there is such a thing). There seem to be three main excuses that folks use to rationalize their objections to adventuring woman warriors: historical accuracy, physical considerations, and cultural imperatives.

"Women in history didn't swing swords."

What is truly baffling about this point of view is that the same folks who object to a woman swinging a sword in a semi-historical setting seem to have no problem with elves, dwarves, and whatnot swinging that same sword. However, this is the easiest point to deal with, so let's get it out of the way right off.

Most soldiers throughout history were male, but there are enough exceptions to the rule to make it clear that women in the real world are capable of killing and pillaging along with the most bloodthirsty and vicious of men. The most famous example of woman warriors is, of course, the Amazons. Although the Amazons themselves are probably more myth than history (like elves and magic, perhaps?), there are enough paintings of female warriors adorning vases and temple walls to support the premise that the Amazon story was based on a kernel of fact. On the walls of Hittite fortresses dating to 1300 BC, for example, we see paintings of woman warriors carrying axes and swords. The Amazons were reputed to be great equestrians and archers (although the bit about cutting off one breast to facilitate use of the bow was undoubtedly tossed in just to make them sound fierce), and most accounts of historical woman warriors show them fighting primarily from horseback and being skilled with bows and spears, as well.

Fast forward a few centuries and we have several Celtic woman warlords like Medb, Cartimandua, and Boadicea. Boadicea's story, in particular, is full of great game material. She was the widow of Prasutagus of the Iceni, who bequeathed half his lands & wealth to her and left the other half to the Romans as a bribe. The Romans didn't think half was enough, so they gathered up their army and set about getting their fair share of Boadicea's inheritance. Boadicea protested, so she was publicly whipped and her daughters were raped. The rest is history: Boadicea led her people in revolt against the Romans, they caused a lot of property damage (they leveled a few cities), but their rebellion was eventually crushed by the Romans. Whether Boadicea died in battle or took poison depends on who's telling the story; either way, it would make a great climax to a campaign.

Fast forward another thousand years (more or less) and we have Aethelflaed, eldest daughter of Alfred the Great. Aethelflaed is player character material if there ever was one. When she was around forty she became the ruler of Mercia (an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in what's now central England). Refusing the title of "queen," she instead dubbed herself "Lady of the Mercians": essentially, the female version of "King of the Mercians." When Aethelflaed wasn't building fortresses (over a half-dozen of them), she was terrorizing the Vikings. Yes, those Vikings. A great lady, and not someone to trifle with.

One more time, zip forward another thousand years or so, this time to the Caribbean in the 1700's. A British ship under the command of stern Captain Barnet was bearing down on a pirate ship under the command of the infamous "Calico Jack" Rackham. Rackham had stolen the ship from the Governor of Jamaica some time before, who (understandably annoyed) commissioned Captain Barnet to track down Rackham and bring him to trial for piracy. Who did the British marines face on the pirate ship, defending it from the British authorities while their shipmates cowered drunk in the hold? None other than Mary Read and Anne Bonney, two of the toughest buccaneers ever to sail the seas. They were dressed as men, and neither the British nor their cowardly pirate shipmates knew that the two were female. The pirate pair fought with savage fury, but two cutlasses could not defend against a ship full of British sailors and marines, and the women were captured. Their captors were surprised to find out at the trial that these two pirates who fought so fiercely were women.

There were a great many more women who served in armies, women whose names are lost to history along with the countless men who served alongside them. For example, when the Belgians, Germans and English were counting up the bodies of Napoleon's troops after Waterloo, what do you think they found? Quite a few of them were women. You see, in the old days when people didn't have it as easy as they do now, a large part of what we'd call gender cues depended on the way folks dressed. Forget about tight-fitting bodices and lift-and-separate underwear: these things didn't exist a hundred years ago. Clothing designers didn't start cutting fabrics for women on the bias (to fit their curves) until the 1930's, and modern bustlines with easily-identifiable breasts didn't make the scene until the 1950's.

No one made a big deal of it when male actors at the Globe Theater portrayed female characters, because they really couldn't tell the difference. In the old days a woman dressed up like a guy could very well pass for a man (and vice versa), because frankly, back then everybody looked pretty rough. They all smelled bad, had bad teeth, and darn few of them had a clue about basic personal hygiene. So it was that women got away with dressing like men to escape the ridiculous limits placed upon them by a patriarchal society. If they dressed like men, they looked like men. The long and the short of it is that, despite the best efforts of some societies to stop them, women did serve in military roles, often doing it so well that they became the stuff of legends.

"Women are weaker than men."

The complaint that women openly serving as soldiers in a medieval setting is "unrealistic" is entirely spurious. Ah, but aren't women smaller and weaker than men? No, actually, they're not. Women are, in general, smaller than men and tend to have less muscle mass, but this does not mean that they are weaker. In fact, females generally have higher endurance, more resistance to pain, and better reflexes than men do. However, there are exceptions among both men and women; there are burly, musclebound women and lithe, agile men. The argument that women are weaker or less emotionally suitable for military service than men is noisome piffle. The only time a woman is rendered less combat-worthy by her womanhood is when she's pregnant, so let's deal with that next.

"Women are too busy raising children to go on adventures."

The hardest objection to overcome in the "women shouldn't be adventurers" argument is the cultural one based on the fact that women are the ones who have the babies, and must thus be chained to them for the rest of their natural lives (which wasn't very long in medieval times). True, having a big tummy, indigestion, constipation, and morning sickness doesn't make for a good time crawling through dungeons, but who really likes dungeon-crawling anyway?

The fact of the matter is that what we tend to think of as a "normal" family here in the States is a result of industrialization and the postwar boom, during the first half of the 20th century. In times as recent as a half-century ago, the normal family unit consisted of several generations living under one roof. The adults (and the children old enough to be put to work) worked in the fields or tended the animals, while those too old for manual labor cared for those too young for manual labor. Remember The Waltons? This was the typical family unit for the common folk for thousands of years in Europe. Read something by Pearl Buck, and you'll see it was the same way in China, too (I recommend The Good Earth). Incidentally, that's what the Luddites were fighting to preserve: their way of life. They weren't against technology, as such; they were opposed to the effects technological advance and industrialization were having on the traditional family.

The concept of woman-stays-at-home, man-goes-to-work is a direct result of industrialization; it was unknown before this century. Assuming that the family unit could survive without the female character's presence, having her children cared for would not be a significant problem; that's what the family was there for, after all. This does not address the possibility that the family would not be able to survive without one of the laboring adults, but in that case the sex of the would-be adventurer is irrelevant.

Then again, a female character who wants to go adventuring would be less likely to want children in the first place. Assuming the culture is advanced enough to have made the connection between sex and babies, avoiding one is as simple as avoiding the other. In a culture where magic exists (even "low magic" worlds where chants to make rain are considered potent magic) it would be a simple matter for a female character who wanted to avoid motherhood to do so, even without giving up the carnal pleasures that precede it.

The Bottom Line

The gist of all this is that there is no good reason to forbid female player characters from your game. There have been plenty of female adventurers in the real world; I've mentioned a very few, and a visit to your local library should turn up dozens more. Women are physically no less suitable for combat than men; they each have slightly different strengths, generally speaking, but overall the difference between the sexes is minimal. As far as child-rearing goes, those that want children generally aren't adventurers, anyway. If an adventurer does want children, it shouldn't be a problem for her (or him, for that matter) to go on periodic quests, since the extended family is there to care for the child in her absence. The bottom line is that female humans are no more or less suitable to the adventuring life than male humans. The heart of an adventurer is what sets her apart, not what she's carrying around under her kilt.

Many thanks to Caroline Julian, Louise Pieper, and Tonia Walden, who inspired this article.

See also: Part 2

Copyright © 1998 Brandon Blackmoor

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