Writing equal genders – some pitfalls
I cannot remember how long ago I invented Ragaris, the medieval continent with equal rights for women – it was before I met my husband, so maybe about thirty years ago. And I certainly can’t remember why.
You would think that by now I’d have sorted out the issues of trying to write gender-neutral fiction.
On Ragaris, women can fight and judge and paint and commit murder; men can weep and wash dishes and wipe away the blood and forgive their enemies. But women remain on the whole physically weaker and smaller, and they are the ones who get pregnant and have children, who (it’s still medieval) need to be suckled. Childbirth remains dangerous. There are women in the army, but fewer women than men, and there will be other jobs that also tend to be male-dominated, such as lumber-jack; or female-dominated, such as midwife. I have postulated the existence of “childpens”, ie primitive daycare, in towns and on rural estates – I don’t think this is impossible.
You can also see that I have cheated somewhat in allowing the use of herbs as a not-very-reliable method of contraception. This has some basis in history, even if not European history.
But problems remain, some for the society and some for the author.
Of the first kind are:
- Can we believe in a traditional army, or indeed a lord/lady of the manor, that allows paid maternity leave; and if not, how do families survive in a subsistence economy?
- What would such a society’s attitude be to abortion, or to responsibility for illegitimate children? Whatever laws we make, it will always be easier for the man to walk away from the bump.
- People with power tend sometimes to abuse it, and there are physiological reasons why it’s easier for a man to insist on sex than for a woman. I’m therefore assuming that rape and sexual abuse of subordinates exist, although these are in theory regarded as serious matters. A woman in “The Tenth Province of Jaryar” feels guilty for seducing her male servant. In “The Servant’s Voice” (work in progress) a female servant’s backstory includes rape by a visitor to the household. I don’t think these events invalidate my central premise. Not all victims get justice, because no society manages to punish all criminals.
(I’m hoping to look further at some of the practical issues above in a later book, maybe the Fourth Tale.)
Since I cannot completely divorce myself from my heritage and environment, there are also problems of the second kind, in my writing and inventing.
- It remains terrifyingly easy, even with strong intentions not to, to “default to male.” Over and over I have had to stop and think, “why should all these soldiers be men?” “Why have I made X’s employer a man?” “Why have I described the wife as cooking supper, not the husband?”
- It would be possible to invent a society in which both sexes are equally “liberated”. This has been done, I think, quite often. However, Ragaris is in theory Christian. I’ve tried, but found it very hard, to imagine a world where sex outside marriage is regarded as sinful, but equally sinful for both sexes – where, for example, virginity on marriage isn’t more valued and celebrated in the bride than in the groom. (Among the rich on Ragaris, engagements are six months in length, precisely to ensure the bride isn’t pregnant by someone else. I think this is reasonable, given the desire of aristocratic families and men in general to know who their heirs are.) But I’m not sure that I’ve accomplished this equality as well as I should – so far, I have an uncomfortable feeling that the majority of my unchaste characters are men, especially the likeable ones. Arvill in We Do Not Kill Children” is not likeable.
- Just as chastity should be equally valued in men as in women, the (usually but not invariably female) prostitute should be of no lower social or moral status than the (usually male) customer. I am trying to maintain this, but it’s possible that I’ve slipped; for example that characters may use “whore” as a generic insult for a woman, irrespective of her actual sexual ethics, which should not be the case. I haven’t yet found or invented a convenient casual single-syllable insult for the man who pays her.
- People have families, and wives are not relegated to the kitchen. So any given character’s wife or husband (or servant or adult child) in theory could have an opinion on the plot and plausibly want to get involved, as Hassdan’s wife does in “We Do Not Kill Children.” But I already have a lot of characters, and don’t always want to introduce two for the price of one, as it were. I fear that the Third Tale may contain a largish number of widows and widowers, for this reason. (The first two Tales were easier in this respect, because many or most of the characters were away from home most of the time.)
- An early draft of “We Do Not Kill Children” was criticised as confusing, because in addition to men and women not being distinguishable by role, they were also indistinguishable by name, all the names being invented. I tried to amend this before publication, by standardising the format of names, as mentioned in a previous post. All names ending in “ai” are male (because I didn’t want to change Kai), so his sibling who was originally Soumai had to become Soumaki. A woman called Makken became Makkam for similar reasons. You may not think this is much help.
And there are doubtless other issues that I haven’t even noticed.
Love from the PPI Blogger