The Female Adventure(r), Part 2B. Blackmoor
This is part two of a two-part article. The first half addressed the basic objections some GMs have to allowing female Player Characters in their campaigns. This article offers suggestions to GMs who would like to create a society that casts women in roles of power and influence. See also: Part 1
We've established that female characters are inherently no less combat-worthy than male characters (The Female Adventure(r), Part 1). However, the fact remains that until very recently in nearly all real-world societies, women were relegated to second-class citizen status (at best). Through a combination of primitive superstitions and sexual ignorance, women were kept controlled, uneducated, and powerless. There are a variety of devices one can use to empower female characters in a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting. The simplest of these are "shotgun remedies," using brute force to impose a device that allows female characters to attain positions of power in otherwise patriarchal societies. A more time-consuming but ultimately more rewarding method is to examine the root causes for the historical suppression of women, and ensure that these elements are altered in the fantasy society you are constructing.
Of Myth and Magic
In most primitive societies, the procreative power of women was a source of great awe. Some cultures deduced the association between menstruation and pregnancy, but even in those that did not, a menstruating woman would be both revered and reviled. It was a mystery, and almost all cultures placed great magical importance on a woman's cycle. Yet this same magical importance was a source of fear and taboos. Women were often associated with the moon, both for their cyclic nature and for the secret powers they were thought to possess. Women were seen to hold a great magic, perhaps the greatest magic: the power of creating life.
Yet, in typical human fashion, what was not understood was feared (even today, there are those who greatly fear and would seek to control the power of women to conceive). Women were seen as having some connection to the mysteries of the cosmos that men did not possess and could not understand, and so women were suppressed and controlled. Myths from around the world demonstrate our ancestors' obsession with the mysteries women presented, and the fear of those mysteries. The well known myth of the Garden of Eden is a typical example: the woman Eve is seduced by the serpent to defy her god and eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Her perfidy is the cause of humanity's expulsion from paradise, and her power to create life is twisted into a painful curse. The lesson of the myth is clear: according to our ancestors, ignorance is bliss, and women are "impure," and not to be trusted. This same theme runs through many cultures, from the myths of the aboriginal people of Australia to the Christian mythos of the United States.
The conundrum is this: women were perceived as having power and magic, while not actually having any. Had women actually had some great magical power at their disposal, they may have been able to resist being repressed and controlled by a superstitious society. Of course, once the women themselves were convinced of their weakness and impurity, it was a simple matter to keep them chained in the superstitions of their culture. The obvious way to counteract this in a game is to give women the power that their society so fears. Women could be given exclusive access to magic, either for religious reasons (several historical precedents exist for all- female clergy of certain gods and goddesses) or for pseudo-realistic reasons (e.g., since only women have a complete set of chromosomes, only women can do magic). This is a "big hammer" tactic, and it's not the most elegant or creative method to deal with sexual inequality, but experimenting with it can lead to some interesting social structures.
If, in a fantasy setting, women have access to magic while men do not, the power structure is radically altered. If the study of magic requires extensive training, then the balance of power would probably be shifted only slightly in favor of women. Only the wealthy or those with phenomenal talent would have access to the years of education required for mastery of magic, while the vast majority of the female population would remain at the plow (along with the vast majority of the male population). However, the example of a small but highly visible number of powerful women could be enough to shift the public perception of women's roles to a point where the "weaker sex" cliche is seen for the fallacy it is. In such a world, it would also be possible that non- magic-using women would be accepted in positions of authority. The "trickle-down" effect of powerful magic exclusive to females can be significant, but there must be enough prominent female role-models (both current and legendary) to affect the common perception of women's roles in society. Otherwise, the legendary female figures will end up like the female deities of the Greek pantheon, who were nearly all raped by the male gods of the pantheon or simply demoted when they were assimilated from other cultures.
A fairly well-known example of this sort of fantasy world is in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels, where women with psychic talent can enter a Tower and become sorceresses. Yet in this society, a woman is still somewhat repressed. Her father can prevent her from entering the Tower and force her to marry instead. This illustrates one of the reasons I don't greatly care for this type of setting: because it's such a heavy-handed method of correcting the society's imbalance, it is likely to alter the culture's perception of sex roles only superficially. It may even make things worse. If all women have access to powerful magic, a lopsided patriarchal society is simply replaced with a lopsided matriarchal one. On the other hand, if the percentage of women with magic is too low, or if that magic is not powerful enough, the difference in the society will be negligible, and the backlash from male-dominated power structures may even make women's position worse!
The best solution is to have schools of magic that are usable only by women and schools of magic that are usable only by men, and to make these schools of magic sufficiently different that both are considered valuable. Avoid dividing them using the hackneyed stereotypes of male magic being limited to attacks and analysis and female magic being limited to nurturing and healing. A better division would be one that doesn't limit the general usefulness of the effects, but instead divides the schools of magic by "feel" or special effect. A simplistic example would be a world where men can use magic associated with fire and earth, while women can use magic associated with air and water. The "feel" of difference is maintained, but both male and female schools of magic have equal utility for attack, defense, and impressing the natives. And of course, there could be more general, non-gender-specific schools of magic, as well.
Rather than imposing an artificial and arbitrary restriction on who can and cannot wield magic, the GM could instead institute a social structure that allows women to step outside conventional sex roles and pursue their own course. This is a "quick-fix" method of allowing powerful and influential female characters without radically changing the society as a whole. While restricting access to magic to women has the potential to cause sweeping changes to society, allowing rare exceptional women to violate accepted sex roles leaves the society's social structure largely intact. This is easier for the GM, because she doesn't have to re-design the entire culture, but at the same time it leaves the problem of the sexist society unsolved. It simply circumvents it. As such, it does nothing to address the deeper issues of women in positions of authority, the ownership of land, and the problems associated with inheritance.
Another alternative is to have an established social mechanism for a woman to shrug off her traditional caregiver role. This allows a quick-fix to the setting, but it doesn't address the fundamental inequality in a sexist society. Professor Barker's Aridani is a good example of this device, wherein a woman is allowed to declare herself "Aridani" or "free". She is thus free of clan obligations, and her clan is free of her. She loses no status from her decision, but she no can longer depend upon her clan for help and assistance. She is no longer forced to conform to her clan's expectations because she no longer belongs.
A less restrictive form of this device is to have an order of female warriors. Ideally, the female martial order would have a long and respected history. This would give the society role-models for women that are more than simply nurturers and baby-machines. It would also give a sense of structure to the female character who would shrug off those roles. She may choose not to take her place in society as a wife and mother, but she is still seen as having a place in society. This is imperative if we want to prevent the character from being an outcast. Being an outcast can be an interesting role-playing experience, to be sure, but what we are trying to address are ways to make female adventurers acceptable -- even desirable -- to the pseudo-medieval fantasy society in which they live.
There were superstitious reasons for the repression of women, but there were practical reasons as well. In pre- industrial society, a large part of the culture was usually defined by who had power over whom. To a large extent, fantasy settings downplay or ignore the inherent unfairness of such a system. Peasants can grow up to be warriors and rulers in fantasy settings, however unlikely it might have been in reality. In the real world, those with power and wealth had a vested interest in keeping it, and when it came time to pass it along they invariably wanted their own offspring to inherit the fruit of their labors.
The continuation of a bloodline is a form of continuity and reassurance in a world full of change and impermanence. Once a society becomes male-dominated (due either to warfare or superstitious beliefs), a male in power wants to be certain that his progeny are really his progeny. The only way for a man to ensure the provenance of his children was to restrict his wife's sexual activities. In fact, a man's possessive desire to control access to "his" woman may be the foundation to our modern patriarchal society.
One of the reasons lineage in primitive societies is usually traced through the male descendants could be due to the high mortality rate of women in childbirth. In societies with little grasp of medicine, many women died during childbirth, making it impractical to trace bloodlines through female descendants. In most fantasy worlds, however, knowledge of herbal medicine and magic would all but eliminate the risk of death during childbirth. With a major source of female mortality removed, it becomes practical to have a family's lineage traced through the female descendants. A matrilineal tradition makes a great deal more sense than a patrilineal one, since the identity of a child's mother is rarely in doubt. In this way, the role of women in society is greatly enhanced, even if the society is still ruled predominantly by men.
Once patrilineal inheritance has been replaced by matrilineal inheritance, it no longer makes sense to exclude female offspring from inheriting money, land, or titles. In fact, a matrilineal society would logically demand that female offspring inherit by default, much as patrilineal ones demand males as heirs. The loathsome tendency for primitive cultures to treat women as property would not develop in a society where women themselves are the owners of most of the wealth. However, this replaces one sort of unfairness with another. True primogeniture -- that is, inheritance by the eldest child, regardless of sex -- would be more fair than gender-specific primogeniture. In an ideal society, the inheritance would not go to either the eldest daughter or son, but the most competent. All of these inheritance concepts give women a stronger role in society than the traditional male-specific primogeniture common to both the real world and fantasy worlds.
The Bottom Line
Then again, it is possible that you might not want to create an egalitarian society where the sexual equality is taken for granted. After all, utopias are rarely interesting. It can be an interesting challenge to role-play a character who is discriminated against because of her sex or ethnic group, and such conflicts can drive a wide variety of plotlines and adventures. By examining what makes a society imperfect and devising possible solutions, the GM can give her creation the flaws she chooses to give it, creating discriminatory societies by design, rather than simply allowing them to exist by default.
I should point out, although it may be obvious, that in this article my basic assumptions are that 1) a society draws its values from the beliefs of its members, and 2) that sometimes those beliefs don't have what we 20th century Americans would call a rational basis. Sometimes people believe things just because that's what they've been told. You don't have to agree with these assumptions, and of course there are cases where a "logical" (i.e., a non-mythological) basis for a tradition does or did exist.
Many thanks to Caroline Julian, Louise Pieper, and Tonia Walden, who inspired this article.
See also: Part 1
Copyright © 1998 Brandon Blackmoor