Women and Childbearing 
in Fantasy

By Bryn Neuenschwander

2001, Bryn Neuenschwander  

Issue #1: 01/01/01

Feature Articles
Making Histories
By J.S. Burke
Women and Childbearing 
in Fantasy

By Bryn Neuenschwander
Matching Your Money to Your World 
By Ron Brown
Capturing Time for the Muse
By Vicki McElfresh
In Praise of Praise:
A Second Look at Critiquing

By Lazette Gifford
Fantasy: 
Building a Better Beast
By Sarah Jane Elliott
Horror: 
State of the Horror Genre
By Ron Brown
Poetry: 
Poetry and Everyday  Life
By Jennifer St. Clair Bush
Romance: 
Your Characters Are 
Not Puppets

By Anne M. Marble
Science Fiction: 
Are We Going Somewhere 
Nice?

By Bob Billing
Stage & Screen: 
The Promise of Premise
By Robin Catesby
Suspense & Mystery:
The Motives of Villains 
and Heroes in Suspense Fiction
By Shane P. Carr
Young Adult & Children:
The Gulf
By Justin Stanchfield
Young Writer's Scene:
Five Practical Tips for Young Writers
By Beth Adele Long
Book Reviews
Web Site Reviews
How Critique Circles Work
By Jim Mills
Doggerel Contest Winner
News from Forward Motion

Once upon 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. 

Let's 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. 

Then (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.) 

In fact, 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. 

So these 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.  

A woman 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 Revolution. 

But since 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? 

Well, it's 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. 

Infant 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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