Are you aware that human history is full of examples of sexist, patriarchal societies where women were discriminated against? I’m sure you are, as a reader of The Mary Sue. I’m pretty sure you are as a person alive in the 21st Century, too. Yet so many of the historically inspired fantasy worlds we love are remarkably intent on reminding us of this. When I raise this issue with someone, I often get some variation of this in reply. Sexism in (to pick the most obvious example) medieval fantasy is okay or even desirable, the thinking goes, because in the real European Middle Ages sexism was the status quo. There’s no denying that, but fantasy is called fantasy because it’s a fantasy. There were no dragons in the real Middle Ages either, but we don’t have a problem including them.
A good point about dragons.
I would like to add a link to this great post by Australian writer Tansy Raynor Roberts: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy: Let’s Unpack That over at Tor.com. A lot of times when people say “historically authentic sexism” they are defining it in a very limited and modern way that actively erases the actual lives people have in the past in favor of a narrow stereotype about lives in the past.
History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.
History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.
But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.
This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.
In history, from primary sources through most of the 20th century (I will absolve our current century-in-progress out of kindness but let’s not kid ourselves here), the assumption has always been that men’s actions are more politically and historically significant to society, BECAUSE THEY ARE PERFORMED BY MEN.