Friday, June 21, 2013

Why Fantasy Armies Can and Should Include Women

A few weeks ago, the always on the ball Stefan Raets linked to an article in Amazing Stories magazine called Girl, You're In The Army Now, written by Felicity Savage. The general gist of the post is that while the author firmly believes in a woman's right to serve in the armed forces in the real world, she finds the idea women serving in fantasy armies stretches her disbelief to the breaking point because 1) it's a medical fact that the average man is stronger with a higher lung capacity than the average woman, and 2) (which she lists as her primary complaint) the economic reality of a pre-industrial economy just couldn't handle losing both genders. Won't someone think of the wheat?! *PEARL CLUTCHING*

I'm paraphrasing of course, but you get the idea. You might also have picked up on the subtle vibe that I do not agree. Well, you guessed right! I don't agree. I, in fact, call BS on the whole idea for a cornucopia of reasons that I have provided in list form below for your convenience.

1. Men are stronger than women! It's SCIENCE! You can't argue with SCIENCE!

Well, actually, most of science seems to be arguing from what I can tell, but for most part I accept this as true. The average man is indeed be capable of greater physical strength and stamina than the average woman. But here's the thing about averages like this, they're only correct an average amount of the time, and they do not reflect mitigating factors like outliers or training. Take me, for example

I've always been a strong woman. I don't mean that in the mental fortitude way, I mean I can lift heavy shit. I'm not a she-hulk or anything, but I've always been noticeably stronger than the people around me. Other than the occasional moving day, though, I never thought much of it. And then, about six months ago, I decided to give weight lifting a try.

Turns out I've been drastically underestimating my body all these years. My very first attempt at a deadlift, I maxed 250 pounds. I'm now up to a 275 deadlift, 260 squat, and 155 bench, and that's only going to the gym two or three times a week. For those of you not into weightlifting, that's a LOT of weight for a woman, and this isn't even my ceiling.

Now, please don't think I'm telling you this to be all "here's one exception, therefore your average is bupkiss!" The reason I bring up my own maxes (besides getting to brag about them on the internet, BOOYAH!) is to point out that numbers for what an "average" person can do mean almost nothing in the real world, because almost no individual you meet will be precisely on that average. Some will be weaker, some will be stronger, and this applies to both men and women. Could I lift more if I was a man? Absolutely. But that doesn't change the truth that I can lift the average man or woman and toss them across the room as I am right now, and I'm not even in army training.

"But, Rachel," you might say. "We're not talking about individual freaks of nature like yourself. We're talking about an army of thousands. Surely strength averages matter on that scale!"

And I'd have to say you're right, but the REAL faulty part of this argument isn't the numbers, it's the assumption that the most important aspect of a successful soldier is physical strength.

Any physically fit human being, male or female, who under goes the proper training can swing a sword hard enough to kill another human being. Any solider who can make it through whatever boot camp style training program an army has in place can probably handle the physical requirements of combat. That's kind of the whole point of having a boot camp: to prepare and train soldiers for the reality of army life. Therefore, it follows that anyone who makes it through, male or female or whatever, should be able to march, fight, and die just as well as any other solider in the ranks. But here's the real kicker, once you've reached this base level of physical aptitude, the importance of physical strength in a solider is overshadowed by other soldierly qualities like cleverness, the ability to keep a cool head in dangerous situations, and willingness to follow orders, and these are things women can do (or mess up) in equal measure to men.

War is not a weight lifting competition. You don't win a battle because your soldiers can swing the hardest. You win because your generals are clever, your troops are brave and disciplined, and sometimes because of the individual heroics of that one ambitious lieutenant who didn't follow orders and ended up saving the day.

Sure men may have a greater capacity for the physical aspects of combat, but capacity does not equal follow through. The average woman with drive and training will beat the average man without any day of the week, and I do not believe it is at all unrealistic to depict this in a fantasy novel. Hell, I see this all the time from the ROTC ladies who complement my deadlift. If I took those women, put them in chain mail, and gave them swords, I could defend a pass against the orcish hordes for, like, EVER.

If you want an absolutely fabulous fantasy novel about a woman soldier going through a very realistic experience as a female recruit in a fantasy army, I highly (HIGHLY) recommend Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion. I grew up reading this book, and Paks is one of my favorite fantasy heroines of all time, but what really impressed me were the incredibly interesting details of what life in a mercenary company in a pre-industrial fantasy world would be like. Moon herself was a US Marine, and you can see her experience all through the book. It's not always pretty for Paks, but army life isn't known for its softness or ease.

Over all, an incredibly awesome and realistic military fantasy about what it would actually be like to be a woman soldier in a mercenary platoon that sacks cities and hires wizards and takes on dark magic. Can not praise it enough!

So that's why I think the whole "men make better soldiers than women because they're physically stronger" argument is a load of bull. But what about Ms. Savage's (who has an amazing name, by the way. Felicity Savage, that's a UF heroine name if I ever heard one!) main point? To quote: "The real reason I don’t buy women soldiers in fantasy is the economics."

Well, let's see.

2) Mixed gender fantasy armies are unrealistic because someone has to bring in the harvest

I'll let Ms. Savage explain this one herself:
"Fantasy worlds do not tend to have washing machines, combine harvesters, supermarkets, or refrigerators. Keeping people fed and clothed under pre-industrial conditions is labor-intensive. Our own not-so-distant history suggests it requires the labor of all the women and most of the men, except for a tiny elite of both sexes, all the time. And then there’s the little matter of the next generation. In a society without modern medicine, the birth rate needs to be sky-high just to keep the population steady. It’s hard to imagine how any significant number of women could be spared from these vital tasks, except for ideological reasons in a society that is violently breaking itself to remake itself, such as Maoist China (pre-industrial in the remoter regions then)."
Now, she has a decent point. It does take a LOT of manual labor to support a pre-industrial farm based  economy and a lot of babies to make up for a high infant mortality rate, but I think she's confusing a full draft military force and a standing army. Because they're not the same thing.

Draft armies are for times of extreme peril. You know, "The orcs are coming! Every able bodied man is required to take arms and fight for his kingdom!" that sort of thing. This sort of "oh shit oh shit scramble everything we've got!" military is an emergency measure, a reaction to enormous threat. It's not the sort of thing you do all day every day for years. And let me tell you, when the orcs are massing at the pass, no one's thinking about the harvest or the economy or future birth rates. They're thinking about not letting their lands be scorched and pillaged by orcs.

In the real world, these sort of panicked draft armies actually featured a lot more woman than you'd normally find in a fighting force because of the whole "desperate times, desperate measures" thing. Scotland, for instance, had several famous female warriors and leaders who joined the battle because they were there, they were needed, and they rose to the occasion to fight for their homeland.

The point I'm trying to make here is that full kingdom draft armies are a frantic, scrambled sort of thing that goes on for a few years at most. The idea of sustaining such a system for longer is, indeed, outside the stretch of disbelief, but not because of women. It's just impossible to maintain that sort of "all in" military force and keep your country ticking over no matter how capable the people left back home are.

Standing armies are another animal entirely. Generally speaking, these are the armies we're really thinking about when we think "fantasy military" - well trained, well supplied, professional soldiers led by career generals. Unlike a draft army, this sort of force is designed to be sustainable, supported by taxes, and employing a portion of the nation's working force who joins voluntarily... and for that reason there's no cause at all not to have women join as well other than blatant sexism.

This sort of army is a career choice. Being a solider is a job, and if you are qualified to do that job, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to take it regardless of sex. Now, it's perfectly reasonable that a woman joining the army might encounter more hardships than a male solider because of sexism, perceived weakness, etc., but that's the sort of beautiful conflict stories are made of! A bad author can make anything unbelievable of course, but there's no reason the situation itself has to stretch the bounds of disbelief.

A professional army is just that, a professional, sustainable entity. The rest of the country keeps ticking on perfectly fine outside it (having babies, growing wheat, etc.) whether women are allowed in or not. Therefore, this argument that women can't be a part of a pre-industrial fighting force because all the babies would dry up is absurd and incorrect, and if you use it as an excuse to exclude women from your fantasy army, I will laugh at you right before I close your book, because that shit is REALLY unbelievable.

So those are her two main arguments and why I think they're both wrong. I think my reply may actually be longer than the original article now, but before I finish up, I'd like to address what I consider the most problematic sentence in this entire post.

3) "Ideology has no place in fiction."

I am in the business of finding words, and yet I have a hard time expressing just how much this sentence insults me as an author. But before I go into why, let me allow Ms. Savage to explain her thinking in context:
"Ideology, I conclude, is what drives authors to retrofit equal opportunities into their fantasy worlds. They’re welding their own ideas about how things ought to be onto otherwise well-thought out worlds. And that’s a damn shame.
"Ideology has no place in fiction. The created world is its own thing: it must make organic sense, obeying the laws of narrative plausibility, just as a house must conform to the laws of stress and strain or else fall down."
Once again, I believe Ms. Savage has confused two different concepts. What she is talking about here is moralizing, the sort of Saturday morning kid's show message mongering that we didn't even buy as kids. You know, when they stick a kid in a wheelchair into the cast just to get diversity points while never actually presenting a real, rounded handicapped character because, hey, that would take WORK. Ugh.

And if that's what we're talking about, I agree. Stapling a moral message into your novel for no other reason than because you think it should be there is a damn shame, not to mention bad writing. Having an ideology in your fiction, however, is the heart and soul of story telling.

If authors had no ideology, if we simply parroted the racist, sexist status quo of our modern lives without examination or comment, then what is the point of fiction? A good tale well told is a wonderful thing, but a good tale well told that makes you think, that makes you look at something in a new way, that asks uncomfortable questions, these are the novels that matter. And the sneaky ways we authors slip these ideologies into what you thought was just a fun bit of escapism reading about dragons or spaceships is where the art of this whole process comes in.

Fantasy and science fiction books in particular present an enormous playground for this sort of thing. I can literally create an entire universe replete with dozens of brand new civilizations all for the purpose of asking "what happens when there is no gender?" or "what is the real cost of being racially intolerant?" Now, of course I don't ask these questions directly, that would be the most way to tell a story ever. Instead, I weave these questions into the fabric of the world itself, and as my characters encounter them, they (and by extension, the reader) are forced to think about these things in a new environment that separates them from their real world prejudices, allowing them to encounter old ideas with an open mind, maybe for the first time in their lives.

When I read the aforementioned Deed of Paksenarrion as a twelve year old girl, I loved it because it was a fun story about an awesome and brave and surprisingly gentle female warrior who never gave up no matter what. But what I took from that story was a love and appreciation for brave, strong women who stand up for what is right that has stuck with me all my life. Elizabeth Moon didn't sit me down and beat this into me, she didn't staple it on to her world because "I must teach young women to be feminists!" She told me a story, and like all good story tellers, she hid a message in there for me to discover on my own.

If Elizabeth Moon had removed her ideology from her novel, if she'd kicked her women out of her army, it would have been a much, much sorrier tale. But she didn't, and I am a different person for it. I am a better person because of the science fiction and fantasy books I have read, because of the women I have read, the heroines and the villainesses whose creators, male and female, held strong to their ideologies. An absolutely enormous percentage of my moral code comes from books, good ones and bad ones, authors I agreed with and authors I don't. But if these people left their ideologies out, if they removed the moral core of their fiction, then all we'd have left are empty, hollow, meaningless stories that change nothing.

Like any part of a novel, ideology can be handled badly. This is just bad writing, and it happens. In the hands of a capable artist, however, ideology in fiction is what gives us the stories that change our lives. It is the lyrical expression of the things that truly matter, the things that are too big or too painful or too tangled to handle in the real world. But in stories, in books, we can change the world to be however we want, and that is a power that should never be dismissed.

Ideology has every place in fiction. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

And with that, I'm off to plan a realistic fantasy war novel featuring an all female mercenary force. Peace out, internet!

- Rachel


Michael Mock said...

You've seen this, right?

"When I sat down with one of my senior professors in Durban, South Africa to talk about my Master’s thesis, he asked me why I wanted to write about women resistance fighters.

“Because women made up twenty percent of the ANC’s militant wing!” I gushed. “Twenty percent! When I found that out I couldn’t believe it. And you know – women have never been part of fighting forces –”

He interrupted me. “Women have always fought,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Women have always fought,” he said. “Shaka Zulu had an all-female force of fighters. Women have been part of every resistance movement. Women dressed as men and went to war, went to sea, and participated actively in combat for as long as there have been people.”

Unknown said...

I am in agreement with you on all the points.

A classic example of the standing army Eowyn was a sword sister (or something of the like). Trained in use of arms to protect the lands from invasion just as any other man in the Rohan. Much of Tolkien was taken from fable and such. Not to mention the reality of countries like Russia that brought men and women up as part of their military. This was a truth of the Cold War.

When I read the third reasoning I jumped to exactly the same place you did. One of our biggest reasons for stories is to study our very human condition. We use them to teach lessons to the young; to ignite our imaginations as we search for new answers to life's questions.

Franklin said...

First, let me preface this comment with the following: I am a husband to a very strong woman, and a father to a very strong daughter. My wife is a 5'9" Nordic goddess that is equal parts Viking and Cowgirl. She can wrestle cattle, toss 120 pound bales of alfalfa, and ride horseback better than anyone I know. My daughter has played coed sports for two years and is always the best athlete on the field, boy or girl. However, she's 8 years old.

There is a reason why there are no women in the NFL, MLB, NBA, or NHL, and why professional soldiering, especially at the most elite levels, remains almost exclusively all-male.

I think you already make this distinction, to some degree, with regards to emergency conscript armies vs. full-time professional armies, but I think you have to take a realistic point of view with regards to professional, full-time soldiers.

This is where the MLB/NFL/NHL/NBA analogy comes into play - because governments, due to their public accountability, allow for females in the military, but their PT requirements are lower than their male counterparts to make this possible. But professional sports leagues afford no such consideration. Simply put, they take the best athletes available. If a woman could play, she would, because these leagues are competitive, capitalistic, free-market animals that will do anything to win.

And no woman has even come close to breaking that barrier. Not in any professional sport, not even close to the higher levels of the sport. It's not prejudice that keeps them out - it's a simple, unbiased, athletic reality. The worst Division III college football team would destroy a team made up of the world's best female athletes. Any NBA developmental league squad would annihilate the WNBA champion.

So, while I agree that in an emergency, conscript scenario, it might be plausible that women would be given swords and asked to stand alongside men to hold the orcs at bay, we should reasonably expect that in any sort of merit-based application of professional soldiering, they would not regularly outperform their male counterparts. They do not today - special operations soldiers (my brother happens to be one) do not have any women in their ranks, because they are exempt from grading on the curve that allows women to serve in the regular army, and women cannot pass the physical.

Medieval professional swordsmen would be no different. A king or lord would very rarely hire anything but the strongest soldier, and, given the choice, it would be highly unusual to find a women that would truly be better than every male alternative.

It can happen, but it should not be written as a commonplace occurrence; it would be completely unbelievable.

You are stronger than the average male couch potato, but in the larger picture of overall physical prowess, you would never be as strong as even an average professional soldier. This isn't prejudice - I would take you at my side in a bar fight any day of the week - it's just a fact of life.

Anonymous said...

On the baby front -- Somehow medieval Europe manage to keep itself populated even though a good slice of the female population was sent off to be nuns. Now, a story that posited that a sizable number of women did not have babies WOULD be unrealistic. But the number of women you usually see as professional soldiers in fantasy stories is MUCH smaller than the actual number of nuns in medieval Europe.

The physical barriers are formidable, for today's army as much as for a fantasy story army. But it is not unreasonable to think there will be exceptional women that could meet that challenge. In the fantasy stories I've read, the number of women working as professional soldiers is small -- and, I think, perfectly reasonable.

The most unbelievable point of most fantasy armies is they never seem to eat anything except beef stew.

Gregory Lynn said...


The sports analogy is a terrible one. The players in the major sports leagues are in the top fraction of a percent of all the people who play such games.

There are about a thousand players that play major league baseball over the course of a season.

Wikipedia tells me that there are about 1.4 million active personnel in the US military, with another 850 thousand reservists.

You're comparing a tiny fraction of the most elite athletes in the world to a much, much larger portion of the general populace. It doesn't wash.

Also, the physical training requirements you mention that are curved for women aren't the ones that are combat related, they're the ones that are fitness related.

Why? Because with those tests they are looking for people who can adapt to military life, not those who can perform specific functions in the military.

The physical tests for various roles in the military aren't curved, nor should they be. It has only been recently that the US military has allowed women in combat and even more recently that they have been allowed to test for special forces. Now that they are, it is only a matter of time before some women pass.

A woman does not have to be in the top third of a percent of all athletes in the world to be in the military.

Rachel Aaron said...

First up, Michael Mock, that is some AWESOME quotage right there that I am currently stealing forever into my quote bin. Thank you!

Thank you all for the great comments. I really appreciate the discussion.

And I think Rasputin is dead on the nose for debunking the sports analogy. We're not talking about the top 1% of athleticism, we're talking about a fantasy army (presumably from a pre-industrial world) and whether or not women could serve in it realistically. I say they could.

I wouldn't want to compete against male weight lifters because that is a straight up competition I will always be at a 20% disadvantage for. But as soldiers who undergo the same training, I think men and women could serve together perfectly (and realistically) well.

Thank you all for commenting again!

Tealah said...

In our own history, especially prior to the birth of Christianity, woman warriors were not unheard of. Off the top of my head, I seem to remember specifically a daughter of Ghenghis Khan who fought in the Mongol army with the men. And who could forget Boudica, the british warrior-queen who led a revolt against the romans? So if our own history has women fighting alongside men, why can't a fantasy country?

Anonymous said...

Hey, loved your blog post! <3

I liked your reasonings and thoughts VERY much. It's nice to see a well-thought-through post about this topic, which definitely gave me something to think about.

Oddly, I'm opposite to you: I liked the Paks book, I'm fine with it in fantasy/SF, but I'm opposed to women serving in combat in the real world. I just can't support my nation getting women to enter the military while there's so much sexual abuse hidden and tolerated by the system. Basically, I'd as soon let my son become best buddies with a Catholic priest as my daughter enter the military where her officers are allowed to cover up any rape or sexual abuse.

If that was ever different, I'd look at the matter again.

Sorry for being anonymous--I'm not as brave as you about having opinions that may be divisive under my own name!

Unknown said...

Strength definitely has little to do with abilitu in martial arts. I wrestled in high school, although I was nowhere neat good enough to be a state champion, I won more matches than I lost. After a match, I regularly talked with my opponent (it was considered good sportsmanship). In my senior year, every opponent I talked to go bench at least 50 pounds more than me. The matches I lost were not do to my opponent being stronger than me. I even wrestled in one tournament in the 167 lb weight class. I weighed about 145. Both matches I had were close affairs that were in doubt until the final seconds (I lost both times). The weight difference did effect the outcome, but not as much as one would think.

Michael Mock said...

And, expanding on Jeff Baker's point, technology radically reduces the need for brute physical strength. Even something as simple as knives radically evens the odds - the amount of damage you can do with a blade makes any difference in strength and weight much less important. Bring that blade out to the length of a sword or spear, and the advantages of greater reach become similarly negligible. Move to bows or guns - anything that offers some standoff capability - and accuracy becomes the deciding factor (along with things like cover and concealment, but you see what I mean, I hope).

There are situations where physical strength can make a difference, but - at least as far as I can tell - effective military combat depends far more on tools and training.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Rachel, for this post. I did not realize I had been looking for an opportunity to speak on this subject until I read your blog this morning. Since my response is so very long, I will have to break it up into two comments. I apologize up front.

As mentioned in Rasputin’s comment, sports is a poor analogy in relation to combat but I believe I can present a female viewpoint that incorporates the ever popular athletic argument using NFL rules:

Because the objective of sanctioned professional sports is victory – not death – there are many rules in place. For instance: no holding, no grabbing the facemask, no spearing someone’s gut with your helmet, no tackling the quarterback after he’s thrown the ball unless he’s blocking… and no women.

In order to survive a tackle from an offensive linebacker, a player must be either physically comparable to the opponent or remarkably fast. Since high body mass may hinder speed and accuracy, wide receivers and quarterbacks are usually smaller and need to be protected by their teammates. If a receiver or a quarterback is taken down, it’s because his men didn’t do their job (unless there’s some sort of long-play strategy in motion). Because of his potential weakness – due to the fact he was selected for traits more conducive to throwing, catching, and running over blocking and tackling – it is imperative that stronger men surround and protect him.

If you take a look at Table 1 and Table 2 of this pdf ( you will see the average body mass disparity between the different positions.

Without the quarterback or the receiver, there is no game even though they are physically smaller and weaker than most of their teammates and opponents. This makes them the women in the one-sex fantasy world of the NFL.

Note: This argument does not include the position of kicker/punter: an actual woman could play that position without fear of death. I would like to see that happen. Games have been won or lost in hangtime.

The reason I don’t have a problem with the No Women rule in the NFL is three-fold: 1) I appreciate the sausage-fest, 2) there are not many women who could take a tackle from an offensive lineman without serious injury, and 3) there are not many linemen who would tackle a woman with every ounce of his strength unless his goal was to cause grievous injury. The presence of a woman on the field would change the game completely and I don’t have an issue with the way it is now. If someone disagrees with my opinion on this matter, I can accept that without further argument because it is not my battle.

Unknown said...

Speaking of battles: If the goal of NFL football were to kill the opposing team, all bets would be off – or on, depending on your thirst for blood – in regards to gender. Arm and armor the players according to their strengths and a female warrior with a crossbow could dominate a male gladiator with a mace if her nerves were steady and her aim true (genderless skills acquirable through disciplined training).

War is not hand-to-hand combat and brute strength is the stuff of entertainment, not battle. Denise the sniper can devastate a squad of men as well as David. Jennifer can navigate enemy airspace to rescue trapped teams while Miranda, the door-gunner, clears a path with her M-60. Sexual assault on colleagues in the military is a sign of weak men, not women, and needs to be addressed as such.

An argument that sites physical weakness based on gender can be neutralized with basic combat training. For instance: videos that depict women being knocked onto their backsides by the improper handling of assault weapons (usually captured by ‘friends’ who knew the situation would result in YouTube gold) completely ignore the reality of basic training.

This is a video of inexperienced female shooters taken for sexist, political, and entertainment reasons (skip the first 30 seconds to avoid the political bit):

This is the video of a thirteen-year old female who has been trained in the handling of multiple weapons:

I did not post a video of myself handling these weapons because I have not considered filming my time at the range until this very moment (and she is far more impressive than I am).

The common reason women are not drafted or conscripted in times of war (not taking into account Israel is sexist is nature and based on the questionably valid fear of losing good breeding stock. Because men can father children in their later years – and would appreciate a young wife – the thought of losing a great swathe of women in the prime of their fertility is frightening. However, if the battle is for life as we know it – and the avoidance of it would mean certain loss – then all able-bodied beings should join the fight unless they have no issue with the surviving women and children becoming the spoils of war.

The argument of a woman’s more nurturing nature making her ill-suited for combat is one that I do not consider valid in any way, shape, or form as a nurturing nature makes for a vehement defense of home and hearth.

And there are women would love to fight in battle. If it were strictly men who appreciated the guts and the glory then every single able-bodied, age-appropriate male in America would be at the recruiting office right now.

Some folks just don't feel the urge, regardless of gender. Whew. Done now. Thank you again for the opportunity.

Unknown said...

Oh, good heavens. I can't stop myself. I will after this one, I promise.

I was responding more to the comment regarding combat in relation to sports. These articles and comments set me off, in a very good way. I need to turn this blathering into my own blog post. Sorry about the thread-jacking.

I realize that the original article was talking about women in medieval fantasy combat where M-60’s, helicopters, and tanks were not available. However, there were – and still are – many specialized weapons well suited to female mercenaries.

A quick-footed woman with a naginata could slice the tender bits of a strong man lickety-split before he got his sword swinging. This female samurai led 3000 men into battle and was felled by an arrow, not a strong-armed sword. Yeah, I just googled this today. I’m not a Japanese weapons/history buff.

Long bows, crossbows, throwing knives, spears, cannons, catapults, and warships are just a few examples of weapons that medieval female mercenaries could utilize in a manner that would level the playing field in devastating fashion.

To postulate that women were unable and/or unwilling to become medieval mercenaries for fun and/or profit is an uneducated mindset. Not all women chose to (or were able to) have children. Not all women were saddled with fields to harvest. Not all women had brothers or husbands to do the wet work. Some women simply appreciated the relative freedom a mercenary life entailed. Some felt it was better to die fighting (and spending their spoils) than to die under the yoke of an oppressive patriarchy. With choices being limited to submission to men or submission to the church, some women chose to kick ass.

This is fact and, in a perfect world of my making, the author of the original article would have a new think coming.

CL Frey said...

Don't you think it comes down to simply the amount of sexism present in a given society? Sometimes pre-industrial societies can correlate to a high degree of sexism and strictly defined gender roles. Sometimes they don't.

Besides that, I don't think you can just sweep away the fact that men are stronger and swords are going to get heavy. Even crossbows take strength to pull back. Sports analogies aren't invalid if you compare elite women's teams to elite men's teams, or rec level women's to rec level men's. I've played rec hockey with guys. I wouldn't if we were playing with contact. I'm the same height as my husband. He's got more muscle mass than I do. Do I have better endurance? Yep. Is he stronger? Yep. If your army's based on physical logistics, then whether it can use women or not is going to depend on a lot of factors. Besides the whole standardized sexism thing.

Will Wildman said...

This post makes me happy for so many reasons. I saw someone making the same original argument ('women are too weak and necessary for baby-fabricating!') over on the NaNoWriMo forums and I was instantly sent into incoherent rage--after a few minutes, I tried to formulate a response much like this, but not nearly as detailed or elegantly presented.

In any military encounter, numbers and tactics and preparation are going to have so, so much greater impact than whether one side can carry slightly heavier weapons than the other. The truth of the matter is that someone writing a war scenario in which all women must be and are kept out of fighting due to their weaknesses is the one guilty of letting their moralization ruin their story.

Also, since this is my first comment on your site, I should add that I love this blog and it's provided great advice on my writing technique. I haven't got around to the Eli books yet, but I'm really looking forward to them when I can.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

As someone who has spent some time with traditional weapons, I can say that nearly everyone vastly underestimates just how much strength and endurance these took, especially to use them in actual battle. Even a bokken (wooden katana) requires noticeable effort to swing, and 5 pounds is a lot of sword to be swinging around. So is a spear, a staff, or more or less any other melee weapon. And bows require a lot of upper body and arm strength and endurance. Moreover, this is just when using them in a practice situation. Blocking strikes, cutting through enemies, and taking blows adds incredible fatigue, amounts that most people, male or female, cannot imagine.
Living without many of our modern conveniences meant that historical people, male and female, tended to have higher endurance and tolerance for pain than most people with access to a computer. So it is quite reasonable to assume that women could learn to fight, although making half the combat force female would be far too much of a stretch for me.

The second two points made, to me, are quite strongly related. In our own history, ancient through medieval, there were many reasons for the men to do the fighting- one of the biggest being that if we make the very generous assumption that one in five pregnancies will eventually result in an adult, it takes an average of ten conceptions to come out with a couple capable of having more children. That being the case, it would be safer to risk the men's lives in battle, since if necessary the surviving men could still impregnate the women. In addition, considering the fact that men tend to be physically (and in certain ways physiologically) better suited for combat, we can understand why traditional gender roles became, well, tradition. Ignoring all of this because you simply feel like having women serving as soldiers is what I think Ms Savage (and you're right, that name is awesome) means in that quoted section. And I believe she has a point. Whatever world you're using needs to make sense, and shoving equal opportunites into a medieval world feels like bad writing to me.

The catch is, we don't write fantasy about medieval life, or ancient life. In reality, medieval life sucked. People worked there asses off all day, slept on bug-ridden piles of whatever, used chamber pots...the list goes on and on. The values were different, life was not worth much, and ultimately it was not something we want to live. Most fantasy is written in a medieval-ish world because it's just more fun than the real thing. If I recall my feudal European history correctly, there weren't many large standing armies, and most soldiers were a sort of conscript militia, which was a large part of why crossbows and guns became so widely used for their ease of training. The presence of magic often explains the differences between real medieval and fantastic medieval. In one of R.A. Salvatore's books, one of his characters contemplates what would happen to the world if magic ceased to function, and the changes make the world he envisions more like the real medieval world. Same goes for mythological-based stories, because actual Greek mythology doesn't make the same great stories that adapted mythology does.

And because this is a fantasy story happening in a medieval-ish world, if having female soldiers makes sense according to the rules of this world, than go right ahead and put them there. I feel that David Weber did a good job in both having believable female warriors and explaining why they do or do not exist in different parts of his fantasy world. Ditto for Brent Weeks's Lightbringer series, and for your own Eli Monpress series. So long as the worldbuilding has logical reasons for women soldiers, there is no reason not to include them.

Anonymous said...

Neat post, I love thinking about these things. But I always thought - at least since I was old enough to know about such things - that the main reason for excluding women from regular combat ranks was because of the prevalence of rape. Rape has always been a tool of war, and a horribly effective one, for terrorizing and subjugating civillians. A female soldier - especially in a pre-industrial situation - is going to be a target not only by the enemy but (as we see even in our supposedly civilized society) by her own peers and commanding officers. Sure, a badass woman can defend herself, but if you go maiming your own platoon mates - or commanding officers - on a regular basis, your career is going to be pretty short. They call it the "morale" problem - of course it's a much bigger problem than that. I have heard & read some pretty devastating stories from survivors of sexual abuse in the military. They are strong women, absolutely - but their willingness/committment to support the military, to keep silent for the sake of their career, becomes unsustainable on a personal level.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think, it is far more simple.

In medieval Europe, women married at the age of 14 years (normally) to 18 years (late).

Most women had several children and were pregnant quite often. Many women also died in childbirth.

Therefore, the number of women, who could have qualified as regular soldiers or mercenaries was quite small.

This does not imply that women did not fight if their village or city was threatened. Women were quite able to use boiling water, throw stones from a city wall or use a pike or a bow if necessary.

But to fight as a knight or mercenary, you have to train with armor and weapons for years. Therefore, it would have been a waste of time to train a women, who will most likely get married by the age of 14 and will have several children.

Therefore, if you want to depict a "medieval" world, human women will not be fighters that roam the land. They may still qualify as local militia. Woman associated to mercenaries also accompanied mercenary companies. They did not fight, because they had children. Putting dad and mom at risk at the same time would not have been a good idea.

What is more, society in the middle ages did not think, that women should occupy themselves with manslaughter. It was not seen as befitting a woman. Your fantasy world could be different however.

Women from a fantasy race like elves, which live far longer (and most likely do not spend as much time on having children) will not be faced by these limitations as much as humans are.

Women from "barbarian" tribes (mongols, germanic tribes, slavic tribes) will figth to some extent, because everyone was constantly on the move and therefore had to be able to defend the animals and the stuff (defending the tribe on the move is the equivallent of defending home in these cases).

Nomadic raiders will not take womans along to a raid. Someone has to stay home and look for the children. Why not chose the physically weaker women for this task?

E.L. Wagner said...

This is a couple years old, but I just ran against it.

Well put, especially the last part debunking the ideology doesn't belong in fiction argument. Seems like a lot of people are making it lately, and it's a real head scratcher, because I don't think I've ever read a novel that doesn't have some sort of underlying ideology, even if it's simply that "the status quo is the only possible reality," which is what the author of that article you took on seems to have posited. Interesting that she was a woman too. I've gotten used to running across guys telling us, "Sorry ladies, you can't have any military or adventure fantasy with characters you can identify with because it's not realistic, but it's depressing to see a woman who's drunk that kool aid.

I don't know why it ticks some people off so darned much to see books that give women a little escapist fun too.