Random (but not really)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Women in History & Fantasy

Being a woman, I have always been aware of sexism and misogyny, and how they shape the roles women take in the world. I’ve thought less, however, of the roles women played historical, assuming (from everything I’ve read and what little I remember of history from school) that female leaders and warriors are rare exceptions.

Although I haven’t recently written as much about it here (with the exceptions here and http://klishis.com/notreally/archives/10970), I’ve been reading a lot about it on Twitter and various blogs. (A good roundup of the science bits can be found here.)

What I can’t decide if whether things are still bad, or whether things are actually getting better, but as things improve more women are willing to step up and relate their stories and name the names of their harassers. My hope is that the incident rate of sexism and harassment is decreasing, but the rate of doing something about it is going up.

With that background, this post was was sparked by a couple things. I read two fantastic online articles: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy and We Have Always Fought': Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative.

Additionally, I recently read two books about women in history. The first, She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth was very good, and the second, The Doctor Wore Petticoats: Women Physicians of the Old West, while interesting, was less well-written.

Both books raise interesting points about the various roles women played in society and how those roles were portrayed by historians, but I think She-Wolves does a much better job pointing this out.

She-Wolves emphasizes time and again how scarce the materials we have about these women—these female leaders and rulers of England—are, and how the views of these women are colored by the agendas of the (male) historians and chronicles who wrote about them.

For instance,

Matilda inherited her father’s commanding temperament, his ability to inspire loyalty, and his political intelligence—but the role she played and the qualities she possessed have been much obscured, then and now, by the preconceptions of the lords she sought to lead and the clerics who wrote her story. “Haughty” and “intolerably proud” are the adjectives indelibly associated with her name, phrases coined in those few months of her life when she tried to exercise power as a monarch in her own right, and repeated by historians ever since. Strikingly, they were never used to describe any male member of her fearsomely domineering family; and they do not fit well with what we know of Matilda in the decades before and after.

(T)he writer is troubled by the very idea of a woman holding power in her own right. Matilda was facing the challenge of becoming Queen of England … not in the conventional sense of a king’s partner, but in the unprecedented form of a female king. And kings did not deport themselves with a “modest gait and bearing.” Instead, they were—and were required to be—supremely commanding and authoritative.

So our opinions of these women are often formed from historical revisionism—histories written by men (of course) with a point to make (or an axe to grind). After all, most of these women lost their bids for power, so they weren’t the ones writing the history.

But the two articles, especially We Have Always Fought, point out that a lot of what women did simply wasn’t written down, and what was written was deemed unimportant solely because it was done by women.

In the US, primary school education is dominated by women. It’s also seriously devalued by almost everyone except teachers and their families—people who know how much hard work goes into being a teacher.

The other field that comes to mind when I think of a job that is seen as primarily female is nursing. Nurses are overwhelmingly female, and from what I can tell (I help in our school of nursing orientations, and so actually see each incoming class) the students getting degrees in nursing remain predominantly female. Spent any time in a hospital recently? If so, you know that the vast majority of your care will be performed by nurses.

Yet nurses are valued far less than doctors.

In the very early 90s, I was reading a lot of epic fantasy, and most of it had female protagonists. And time and again, when we were introduced to these women fighters or mages or wizards, we were always given a justification why they had taken that path. Not just a backstory, but the reason why they would follow a masculine path.

So, we were expected to be okay with gods and magic and mythical creatures, but a female fighter had to be justified or we might find her beyond belief.

I don’t read science fiction, but I do know what it wasn’t until 1995 that we had a female captain in Star Trek, and that was two years after we had our first black captain. (Says the rabid Deep Space Nine fan who could never stand Voyager.)

How is it that we were able to accept aliens and elves but couldn’t accept female fighters or women in command?

And then I come across things like this article, Invasion of the Viking women unearthed.

(T)he study looked at 14 Viking burials from the era, definable by the Norse grave goods found with them and isotopes found in their bones that reveal their birthplace. The bones were sorted for telltale osteological signs of which gender they belonged to, rather than assuming that burial with a sword or knife denoted a male burial.

Think about that for a second.

Because the women were buried with swords and knives and shield, it was automatically assumed they were male. Even though half the bones were later determined to be that of women.

[Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 ad
Shane McLeod “Early Medieval Europe” 2011 19(3) 332–353]

It’s amazing just where casual sexism appears, and just how much it reinforces itself.

ADDENDUM the First:

There is a segment of the geek community that is actively hostile towards women. Lonely men who – because of their own socialization issues – have an emotionally regressed idea of who women are as people. While they believe in dragons and superheroes, a woman who is also into comics or games with her own point of view and interests is unimaginable to them — so they believe such women must be frauds.

Proud Dad Of Two Geek Girls Talks Superheroes, Disney Princesses, And Barbie

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