I work in a blue collar environment where I have far more contact with tabloid newspapers than is probably good for my mental health. As a result I’m constantly confronted (and revolted) by how pervasive the gender double standard still is. Pull back the thin curtain of modern civilization and the outside world is back in Victorian times full of damned whores and God’s police - the most important women are mothers, divorcees are just out for what they can get from an unfortunate man and those who get mistreated by footballers asked for it.
It started me wondering what a world in which the double standard operated in women’s favour would look like. I thought I’d try and create such a world for my next fantasy novel. I didn’t want to create a feminist separatist world like for instance The Gate to Women’s Country or one where the men are enslaved as in a certain Star Trek episode. (Captain Kirk freed the men and left the women with lots of make-up so that they had something to fight back with.) I wanted one that closely reflects our own modern western world - where people are formally equal, but where the balance of power is skewed in favour of one sex - one, that has its historical roots in Matriarchy instead of in Patriarchy. After all I’m a fantasy writer. Why shouldn’t I write about a fantasy world where I can be on top of the heap?
A lot of fantasy societies are modelled on actual existing societies, but finding a working matriarchy is more difficult than you would think. While there are plenty of societies in which status is passed down the female line and the mother is the head of the household, in our world men always seem to have the ultimate societal authority. Where husbands are not important, authority usually rests in the mother’s brother.
I’ve always assumed that’s because most men are usually physically stronger than most women and power ultimately derives from physical strength.
So to make a true matriarchy the women needed to be physically as strong or stronger than men. This is easily done in a fantasy world through the use of magic. There is no reason why the level of magical ability should have any gender bias since it is a surely a mental skill not a physical one.
Since I wanted to have some kind of logical reason why among equally powerful individuals a matriarchy might have arisen, I thought I’d pass the magical abilities down by the mother thus making the female mage the most valuable member of a society that values mages. I also thought I’d give my women a bit of sexual freedom by making their families matri-local thus doing away with fatherhood as an important concept. In my society men reside in their sister’s household and look after the welfare of their sister’s children. After all men can be more certain of being related to their sister’s children than they can be to their lover’s or wives’ children. On a purely selfish gene level a matri-local system actually makes more sense.
Despite this I found that the whole idea of the nuclear family was so embedded in my psyche that I had trouble believing that a man would care as much about his sister’s children as about his own biological offspring and the prospect of making it real suddenly became very daunting. But plenty of societies do exist in which men are more involved with their nieces and nephews than their own offspring. Just look at the disadvantaged denizens of our own inner cities. Modern single mother families are actually a good model for a fantasy matriarchy.
At first I found writing about a matriarchy cut out a number of the areas of tension that drives a plot especially a romantic fantasy plot. There are so many more motivations for your characters and so many more grounds for sympathy if they are the bottom of the heap.
Having started out writing fantasy novels of intrigue, and deviated rather unhappily into adventure fantasy, I was determined to return to intrigue. In adventure fantasy we’re getting pretty used to women adopting the man’s role of being violent to other humans and monsters, but how comfortable are we with them being leaders at a societal level.
I found that on a subconscious level I’m just not as feminist as I would like to be. I was constantly giving away the power and the driving force of the narrative to the male characters. (oh the shame. Please forgive me, St Germaine Greer.)
I also didn’t want to turn my women into men with breasts. They needed to remain women like me and I am a romantic soul, a serial monogamist who likes to read books about finding true love rather than fab sex. My idea of a great sex life is symbolized in that song and dance routine with the divine Marilyn Monroe “Diamonds are a girls best friend” i.e. lots of handsome chaps looking adoringly at you, offering presents and dying to massage your feet, so that you are spoilt for choice over who to name as your prince.
A matri-local system in which unrelated males are relegated to the level of mere sperm donors might make a rip roaring porno novel and earn me lots of money (Must give that some thought) but its never been one of my fantasies and I contend that most women would say the same.
So I decided that my matriarchs could form monogamous pair bonds if they wanted, too. If pair bonds were not related to the production of children, but simply a source of love, would people form political pair bonds i.e. marital alliances? Here was another potential fantasy plot engine blithely wiped out by my matri local matriarchy.
And how about this? The female matriarch of my household allows her husband to dominate the household. Although in a matriarchy this might work as an interestingly dysfunctional situation, to a reader from our own society having the man dominate the household is just business as usual.
Here are some other plot engines wiped out by writing about a matriarchy. Admittedly most of these belong in the arena of Mills and Boon but they occur often enough in romantic fantasy.
A young woman hoping to make a rich marriage.
A girl forced into a marriage against her will.
A woman having to be careful of her reputation.
A feisty girl wanting to be a boy.
I felt slightly bereft. Since my main area of interest is gender relations, some of these plot devices would have been damned useful. I’m not very interested in books that are just good versus evil (perhaps this means I shouldn’t be writing fantasy.)
Perhaps this is why patriarchal systems enjoy such a healthy life in fantasy and SF. After all if you want to put you heroine in danger what’s more visceral than having her in danger of being raped so that she can be rescued by the hero. As a reflection of our own society it’s wearisome (I’d rather live in a world without rape. This is fantasy after all.) but it’s a damn popular plot device.
But there are lots of other plot engines for books. Like class struggle or social prejudice. Or threats to survival. The kind of themes that writers who are not interested in the battle between the sexes write about.
I was surprised how easily, if you strip the gender tensions out of a book, you can wind up with something that could be written by one of those hoary old male chauvinists where the love interest is kept to a minimum and only the dominant sex has anything to do. I found it really hard to make the men in my matriarchy interesting. What were they going to do all day? Lie around the pool, drink cocktails and painting their nails? Spend their time getting ready to win the heroines love? How were they going to find meaning above and beyond massaging the female characters backs (a worthy but perhaps not truly satisfying basis for a life) and changing her children’s nappies?
Of course in an almost equal matriarchy men are going to do what women do now and take part in politics, commerce and the arts etc. So far so good. But since they don’t have to take time out for pregnancy and child birth, won’t they come to dominate those spheres of activity? Déjà vu. Return to the status quo.
This made me realize that it’s not only pure strength that is the basis of a patriarchal social organization, but also the facts of reproduction (I don’t have children so I hadn’t already been made aware of that fact the hard way) and reminded me that I needed to organize my reproduction differently in order for my matriarchy to function.
I thought I’d make it more difficult for women to get pregnant so that the societal pressure would be on them not to be as aggressively chaste as it has been in our world. The fertility of many animals is controlled by the food they eat, (ie. kangaroos will not have joeys in a bad year, mosquitoes suck blood when wanting to breed,) so the women in my world will only be able to conceive when their diet is rich in meat. I’m surprised how difficult it was for me to throw off the shackles of nice girls don’t, but I struggled on.
Currently I’m exploring ways of making it easier for women to actually give birth, because the danger of childbirth also affects the lives of women in our society.
Of course all this is only the background to my book, but as a background it will also affect the plot so its worth getting the whole thing to hold together consistently. My main aim however is still to tell an entertaining story - to write a rollicking fantasy yarn involving a fugitive and a blackmail letter. All I really want to do is write a matriarchal version of Georgette Heyer set in a fantasy world. Only time will tell if this is too big an ask.
Jane Routley has written five novels for adults, including the Aurealis Award wining Mage Heart and Fire Angels. She has just completed a young adult science fiction book. Her short stories have been widely anthologised, have appeared in Meanjin and been read on the ABC. She enjoys mentoring emerging writers and has had many years experience in doing so.