This piece got its start in a Twitter exchange about the ridiculousness of the armor female warriors are forced to wear in fantasy movies, games, and artwork. Eileen Wiedbrauk asked if I would write something about it for the World Weaver Press blog, but after a little bit of research I discovered the ground had already been well-covered by parodies and people with a lot more experience than I have. [see: Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits]
In any event, I'm a novelist, not an artist, and my background is in history. So I thought I would try something a little broader. Since we were discussing the realism of women's armor in a fantasy context, let's consider how realistic those female warriors are from a historical point of view, and what fantastic elements an author might want to introduce to create a society that plausibly fits the story he or she wants to tell.
In short: If we want to create a society that encourages female warriors, what might that society look like, and why?
Before getting started, though, let me say a few words about what this piece is not. Whenever I give writing advice, I'm plagued by the fear that people will read it and take it to mean any story that breaks my "rules" is somehow wrong. This is not my goal at all. This method of constructing a fantasy society (reverse-engineering it, as it were, from real-world examples) is not the only way to go about the task. I am not claiming that it is the "right" or "best" way. As someone who has always been fascinated by history, it is simply my way. It is totally possible to create something that breaks every piece of "advice" I am about to impart, and make it as real and convincing as anything I could put together. So please don't look on this as saying, "Anything that breaks these 'rules' is unrealistic and wrong!" Rather, if you are a writer and you're building a world, this is one way among many you might go about it.
Also, this is not in any sense intended to be a piece about policy for modern-day societies. The historical examples I use are mostly pre-industrial, and existed in vastly different conditions than we do today. (Indeed, that's part of the point.) More importantly, saying that a particular trait or behavior ‘evolved’ does not imply that this behavior is "natural", desirable, or excusable, but only that it was optimal from a particular point of view under a specific set of conditions at some point in the past.
Why Bother With History?
In order to craft a fantasy world that rings true, it pays to take a look at historical societies and situations. This may seem a bit counter-intuitive -- after all, we're creating a fantasy world, with magic and dragons and who knows what else -- but in most fantasy, the people we meet are still supposed to be human beings, or at least other sentients roughly similar to human beings. If a fantasy society is depicted as, for example, a utopia where everyone is always good to everyone else, it won't feel plausible even if the society in question is hanging from the underside of a giant space eel.
History is valuable, in this context, because it provides examples of how human beings actually behaved at various times and places, and under what conditions those behaviors arose. It's far from a perfect set of data, clouded as it is by spotty records and our own inevitable biases, but it has the outstanding virtue of being the only one available. So, with this in mind, we can reverse the question we're trying to answer: rather than "Why are female warriors common in this fantasy world?", we can say, "Why, until very recently, weren’t they common on Earth?"
We must, of course, immediately caveat that question. There have been quite a few female warriors throughout the course of history, both in disguise and openly. Female rulers from Boadicea to Queen Louise of Prussia have proven to be quite as militaristic as their male counterparts, and women have fought and died on a wide variety of battlefields.
But the numbers involved have never been close to equal. Warfare has been the quintessential male activity since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before. While women have earned their places in the halls of martial glory, it was often unusual, sometimes even transgressive, for them to do so. What's remarkably uniform across history is that very few societies before the 20th century considered female warriors to be a normal part of the business of warfare.
This is very odd, when you think about it. Why exclude half the population from bearing the risks and dangers of combat?
In some cases, the answer is straightforward defense of privilege -- being a warrior often conferred elite status, jealously guarded from women and commoners alike -- but it’s not always so straightforward. Even in some of the most otherwise egalitarian societies, with women in power politically or economically, it was usually the young men who marched off to war.
The taboo against women fighting was also unbelievably durable. History is replete with examples of last stands, sometimes of a whole people; the Romans, cheerful genocides that they were, created this situation all the time. But even then, literally facing extermination or enslavement, the idea of sending women into combat was beyond the pale for a beleaguered tribe. Taboo isn't even the right word -- it's not an option that would have crossed the minds of the men of those cultures.
Brute Strength Is Not Enough
The standard response is that it's all a matter of physical strength. Women are, on average, weaker than men, particularly in the upper-body strength so important to muscle-powered combat. Therefore, this view argues, they were excluded from warfare until the advent of gunpowder weapons, which removed strength from the equation. This led to the gradual weakening of the taboo, until it finally cracked in WWII and beyond. (The Soviet Union was probably the first major power to use women in combat on a large scale.)
This hypothesis, while superficially attractive, collapses pretty quickly with a little thought. For one thing, average strength is exactly that: an average. Men are distributed along one Bell curve, and women on another; while the female curve is offset from the male, they certainly overlap. If pure physical strength was the most important thing in warfare, the strongest women would make better recruits than most men. We should also see adult women pulled in to fight before adolescent boys, especially in times of emergency, but the historical record shows us exactly the opposite: fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys marched off to war when the situation gets desperate, while their mothers and sisters remain at home.
How important was physical strength in pre-gunpowder warfare, anyway? It varies widely, depending on the type of weapons and the nature of the conflict, but often the answer was "Not very." The quintessential "fantasy" combatant, the knightly lancer, certainly didn't require strength unattainable by most women, and most of the actual killing power was provided by the speed and weight of the mount.
In general, once spears and edged weapons became the norm, raw strength was not all was cracked up to be. Women certainly could have managed to fight in the style of Roman legionnaires, or as part of a Swiss pike formation. In organized armies discipline usually counted for more than power. Individual combats were uncommon, and the loser was the side to break first.
So this explanation, while traditional, doesn't hold water. To find the origin of the taboo, we need to go a little deeper, and further back into human history.
Apes On The Plains
Picture a Stone-Age tribe, wandering the savannah. Track their progress over many years. They lose members constantly, to disease, accident, old age, and violence. What determines the how quickly they can replace themselves?
Given sufficient resources, the birth-rate will correspond directly to the number of women of childbearing age. The number of men is largely irrelevant to this calculation -- even a relatively small number of men are enough to keep the tribe's women pregnant, which determines the overall rate of growth. (Real life is more complicated, of course, and the men contribute more than just fertilization. But bear with me.)
Imagine now that, as leader of the tribe, you need to send a war-party to fight over some resource. In order to secure the future of the tribe, do you send out a group of young men, or a group of young women? In this context, the question answers itself. If, say, half the men of the tribe were killed in a hostile encounter, it would be a serious loss, but a single generation would go a long way toward replenishing the tribe's numbers. If half the women were killed, it would mean disaster -- a new generation half the size of the previous, and a permanent reduction in the size of the tribe and its chances for survival.
This is the fundamental asymmetry behind the great taboo, and the reason why in almost all human cultures, and even in our cousins among the primates, it is the males who go to make war. This is a cultural norm programmed by evolutionary necessity. The men don't go off to fight because they're stronger, more violent, or more aggressive, though evolution has in fact equipped them with all these traits in order to fulfill this function. They go off to fight because they are expendable, from the tribe's point of view, while the women are not.
The Changing of the Guard
If it wasn't the advent of gunpowder weapons removing the necessity for physical strength in combat, what explains the change from the ancient world to the modern one? Some of it is clearly cultural -- the lot of women in most societies has vastly improved since the bad old days, and equality is now at least the stated goal in much of the world, though of course there remains a long way to go. But something else has changed, too. For the first time since the dawn of history, population size is not critical to military power.
In ancient times, the fighting strength of a tribe consisted of all the men who were capable of combat. Most societies eventually created specialized military castes, but the overall size of the society still determined how many of these individuals could be supported. And numbers were important, all the way from the ancients through relatively modern times. Napoleon, for example, eventually went down to defeat because conscription (and those who fled to evade it) had stripped France bare of men of fighting age, making it harder and harder to build new armies to replace those he had lost. And, more than anything else, it was superiority of numbers that assured the victory of the Union over the Confederacy in the US Civil War.
By WWI, however, a turning point had been reached. At the onset of war, Germany possessed the larger army and population compared to France, but after the first few battles exhausted the offensive impetus of both sides it became clear that it just didn't matter. Technology had advanced to the point where sheer numbers could no longer carry the day, and barbed wire and the machine-gun had made massed attacks almost suicidal.
When the next round started in 1939, it was clear that industrial capacity, not population, would be the factor that determined victory. Raw bodies were useless without guns, artillery, tanks, ships, planes, food, and an enormous world-wide support structure. Going forward, it was clear that larger populations were no longer the most important factor in winning wars.
(Aside: This turning point was reached even earlier in naval warfare, where technology had always been more important. Hence the ability of the British Empire to dominate the world from a relatively small population base, and Japan's humiliating defeat of Russia in 1905.)
The same change was even more important on the economic side. For thousands of years, all economies had ultimately revolved around agriculture, and the vast majority of human beings were employed in farming in one form or another. This was an extremely labor-intensive process, and it was the availability of hands to do the work that determined how much land could be profitably farmed. Population growth therefore translated directly into economic power, since more people meant more land worked, more farms, and more taxes for the king.
The Industrial Revolution turned all that on its head. Labor productivity increased enormously, and suddenly the limiting factor for agriculture wasn't the availability of labor, but the availability of land. Rural populations, suddenly surplus to requirements, flooded into the cities to work in the new factories. Intellectuals began to speculate about the dangers of overpopulation.
It's no accident that the conditions for women began to improve soon after. It was no longer true, as in the ancient tribes, that their most valuable contribution was always child-bearing. The old social structures began to adapt (frustratingly slowly, of course) to the new reality, and the first hints of the modern age appeared.
Can We Please Get To the Fantasy, Already?
Okay. If you're still with me after that long digression, let's talk about what all this means to the fantasy author as he or she goes about constructing a secondary world, and specifically what it means for female warriors.
The first thing we can observe is that, in virtually any setting, there is no excuse for calling a particular female warrior unrealistic. Quite the opposite! Even the most ossified, patriarchal society produces people who rebel against its conventions, for a wide variety of reasons. These women will often face difficulties with prejudice, social rejection, and oppression by the authorities. But, like their historical and mythological counterparts, they can rise above it to prove their oppressors wrong and become heroes.
Fantasy gives us plenty of examples of this type of warrior, going back to Tolkien's Eowyn. More recently, George R.R. Martin's Brienne of Tarth fits the type perfectly, and Arya Stark seems to be working up to it. Joe Abercrombie gives us Ferro Maljinn. The defining trait of these characters, for our purposes, is that the society they come from does not approve of their choices, and so to one extent or another they are in conflict with their social role.
(A brief bit of self-promotion prompts me to mention that my novel The Thousand Names takes this role as a focus. Winter Ihernglass, the protagonist, is definitely a warrior, but she lives in a culture where this is not an acceptable choice for women.)
Let's say that, as a writer, you want to go beyond this, and produce a society where the gender ratio of warriors is closer to equal. The trick, if your goal is a "realistic" society, is to tweak the conditions so that this role fits neatly into the world as a whole. Simply grabbing 14th-century Europe, but adding armies of female knights, would strike me as at least a little bit jarring. So what can you change to make this work?
(I'm assuming a pre-Industrial setting here. In a steampunk-style fantasy, the real-world forces described above would apply!)
Magic. This is the big one, in fantasy, and the most obvious choice. In realistic combat, it's rare that one person, however skilled, can make a huge difference single-handedly. But if some individuals are born as mages (or whatever the local equivalent is called) with powers far outstripping an ordinary mortal's, only a very stupid society would refuse to make use of half of these incredibly valuable military resources.
How much these extraordinary people would change social norms depends on how many of them there are. In a society where mages are relatively common, you'd be likely to see something closer to modern-day equality between genders, or at least some impetus towards such a state. If one in ten people was born a mage, for example, almost everyone would know one or more of them. Historically speaking, the warrior classes of a society have enjoyed high status, and the presence of a corps of women with power in their own right (as opposed to as a result of noble birth or marriage) would certainly exert some pressure towards evening the scales, compared to actual pre-Industrial cultures.
If mages are rare, on the other hand, the result is more likely to be something close to the "lone warrior" scenario above. When one in a hundred thousand, or one in a million, is born with magic, the average person will never meet one of these special few in their lifetime. A woman born with the gift could still be recruited as a warrior, but her special status would be seen as an exception, and quite possibly a source of resentment among men whose power has a more traditional base.
(This all assumes the 'magic is something you're born with' model, of course, and many others are possible. If magic is something one is trained to, however, the result in a traditional pre-Industrial society is still likely to be a corps of male magicians, for the reasons discussed above. Merely removing the "strength disadvantage" is not enough to even the playing field.)
Economics. This requires a more subtle bit of world-building. In essence, a society that has reached the industrial stage of economic development, even without actually going through an industrial revolution, is more likely to support a class of female warriors and have better conditions for women in general.
The causes for this could be mundane -- a city that survives entirely on trade might develop along these lines -- or more fantastic. A great empire whose mastery of magic means that its fields are worked by tree-spirits or animated constructs, for example, or a city perched on a crystal mountain in a netherworld whose food comes from magic portals. The question the author should ask is, how valuable is population growth to this society? The farther we get from that being the critical factor, the more likely we are to have gender equality.
Medicine and lifespan. One approach is to ask how many children the average member of a society has. (Importantly, the average member, not nobles or royalty. Remember the vast, often invisible peasantry!) Family sizes in a "realistic" agricultural state tend to be very large, partly because infant mortality was horrifyingly high. If the number of children per woman is near historical levels (which could reach ten or twelve!) then most women probably don't have time to be warriors.
On the other hand, a society with well-established healing magic might not need so many kids! If an average person has a reasonable expectation that most of their children will survive to adulthood, family sizes will be smaller, and gender equality becomes more possible. Alternately, a society where healing magic is a relatively new invention might end up with a population surplus due to hugely increased survival rates, and finding places for this horde of young people would be a problem. Traditionally male occupations, including fighting, might open up to women as they moved off their farms.
If the people who make up a society are significantly different from humans in their biology or lifespan, we could also end up closer to gender equality. To take a stereotypical example, a race of elves with very long lives would spend proportionally less of their lifespan raising children (unless their population is growing exponentially!) and would probably have something closer to modern-style gender equality.
Going a little farther afield, one could flip the roles of the genders entirely with the right biological setup. Women are the limiting factor in population growth because the woman's contribution to bearing a child takes a long time and a lot of energy. If having children required, say, the man to magically extract cells from the woman and grow them to maturity, requiring most of his time and energy, the resulting society would see the roles of the genders reversed, with women as the fighting, expendable sex. And any society in which genders are fluid or changeable would obviously be very different from its historical counterparts!
Build to Suit
I have heard many arguments to the effect that the notion of “realism” shouldn’t even apply to fantasy, since by definition fantasy includes elements that are, well, fantastic. “Leave the realism to historical fiction novelists and hard-sf obsessives! Fantasy is for imagination!” And once again, let me make it clear that I don’t object to this idea. Just as science fiction can include everything from Peter Hamilton’s rip-roaring space opera to Greg Egan’s diamond-hard mediations on the nature of humanity to David Brin’s peeks into the near future, I think there is plenty of room in the fantasy genre for both the wildest flights of fancy and pieces with more of a realistic edge. Writers like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, and many others have taken this route and produced a wide range of wonderful stuff.
But history should not be a straightjacket! “Historical accuracy” should never be used as a cudgel to bash down ideas -- to blithely declare something “unrealistic” is insulting to the variety of the historical human experience. What I hope to get across with the above is the idea that societies and cultures respond to the environments in which they evolve, and that even if you are stickler for the rock-hardest of realistic fantasy, that “realism” needs to be considered in the context of the world in which the story is told, not just in comparison to our own world.
What all this boils down to is that if you tell me, “You can’t have an army of female knights in a realistic fantasy!” my answer is going to be, “Let me show you how it works…”