Issue #1: 01/01/01
a time, female characters in fantasy were relegated to being either
damsels in distress or (if they had any brains) wicked queens. Of
course, times have changed, and female characters are more common and
varied than they used to be. Still, unless you write very high
fantasy where people live in castles of sapphire and gold, you may want to
put some thought into how exactly your women can get away with doing the
kinds of things you want them to do. If you look at human history,
the situation has, for a long time, more or less required women to spend
most of their time on childbearing duties, and those duties tend to interfere
with their ability to have adventures.
start at the beginning, or close to it. In hunter-gatherer
societies, women actually had very few children. This was partly due
to natural causes; most hunter-gatherers were mobile, and a lot of walking
(or other strenuous activity) can produce what's called athletic
amenorrhea, where the activity suppresses menstruation. Plus
hunter-gatherers tend to nurse their children for long periods of time,
which can also decrease fertility. But it's possible, or even
likely, that they also practiced infanticide or other methods of
population control. Hunter-gatherers cannot support large numbers of
children. A mother has to be able to carry her child until he can
keep up on his own; this means she probably has children no more often
than once every four years or so. She can only care for one toddler
at a time. So while infanticide may seem cruel, it may be kinder than
letting the child starve or be injured or lost during travel.
(ignoring, for the sake of simplicity, the archaeological debate about
this), agriculture came along and people settled down. Now it became
possible for women to have more children, because they didn't need to
worry about carrying them on long journeys. Moreover, additional
children were useful; agriculture involves a lot more work than hunting
and gathering, so extra hands were welcome. (Side note: some
hunter-gatherers spend less time getting food than you do at your day job.
Maybe as little as 20 hours a week. Anyone who tells you agriculture
gave humans leisure to sit around and develop art is lying.)
more children were not only possible and desirable, but also necessary.
With agriculture and sedentism came a lot of other changes.
Malnutrition was rampant; starvation was much more likely than it had been
before. Now a crop failure could wipe a village out. Disease
also skyrocketed, and close-packed populations led to more warfare and
violence. In short, life expectancy dropped like a rock.
Infant mortality rates were particularly horrendous. A woman often
had to have ten children so that five of them might survive to adulthood.
women spent most of their adult lives pregnant and caring for children.
They didn't have much choice; agricultural societies need big populations.
And childbearing, combined with household duties, didn't leave them much
time for other things. They certainly couldn't be warriors unless
they found some way to avoid having infants.
who actually survived past her childbearing years could probably enjoy
some kind of position as a Wise Elder, but her odds of doing that were
pretty abysmal. This situation continued through most of history.
For lower-class women, it didn't really change until the Industrial
when were we writing about reality? Modern society has medical
improvements that mean women don't have to spend their entire lives
pregnant; their children are much more likely to survive. SF can
follow this same model, of course, but what about fantasy?
up to you, the author, and how you handle worldbuilding. How common
and effective is magical healing? Does the local religion encourage
frequent bathing? Can magic help with sanitation? That will do a lot
to keep disease down, and will help you avoid having to write about
typical medieval squalor. At what age do women marry, and when do
they begin having children? Lots of medieval societies had their
women pregnant as soon as possible, so they could use all their
child-bearing years, but this is actually a bad idea. Just because a
woman's menstruating doesn't mean she's physically mature and ready to
have babies. If she waits until she's eighteen or twenty, she and
the child are more likely to survive.
mortality rates are probably the single biggest factor affecting a woman's
role in society. If many children die, she needs to have more to make up
for it. She can try to avoid this cultural position, but that might
mean being stigmatized by her peers. If most children survive, on
the other hand, she can turn her time to other things. And you don't
even have to go the infanticide route to keep the population down; can
magic in your world be used for contraception or abortion? Give the
women in your story these options, and they'll have more free time for
getting into trouble.
This is one of the ways in which magic can take the place of technology. If you decide to make magic common, at least at low levels (small healing charms, not city-leveling fireballs), your characters will likely want to use it to improve their lives, much as we use technology. Of course, these "improvements" may well have side effects, but that's a tale for another article.
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