Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.

A great, thoughtful article at the Mary Sue on one of my pet topics: the common justification of sexist fantasy fiction being that it’s historically authentic.

I am BUSY today, far too busy for a rant, but then I felt one coming on, and was worried I might end up with a migraine if I tried to stifle it. You know how it is. So let’s talk about sexism in history vs. sexism in fantasy.


I agree with pretty much everything said in the Mary Sue article: when you’re writing fantasy inspired by history, you don’t have to take all the ingrained sexism of historical societies along for the party, and even when you do, you don’t have to write women in a sexist or demeaning way. Your fantasy will not break by treating women as if they are people too.

But my rant is actually not quite about that stuff at all. It’s about history, and this notion that History Is Authentically Sexist. Yes, it is. Sure it is. We all know that. But what do you mean when you say “history?”

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.

Here’s an example from my honours days: most of the history books looking at Roman state religion were clear that women’s participation in the religious rituals of the state was probably less important or politically relevant, because women were excluded from making blood sacrifice. This was used as evidence, in fact, that women weren’t that important to politics in general. However, more modern and forward-thinking scholars pointed out that in fact the only reason why we assume blood sacrifice was an essential and a more politically important religious rite was because it was restricted to men. Plenty of rituals were restricted to women too, and those rituals were assumed to be less politically relevant on the whole. Guess why. Go on, guess. As it turns out, women did perform sacrifices (mostly of baked goods), and many of their rituals were private rather than public, but they were all performing religous rituals which were essential to the state. Different does not mean better.

Rome was a highly superstitious society which relied on all manner of rituals to feel safe and protected. Those rituals which were performed within the home were as important as those performed in public places – but they weren’t written about to the same extent because they were mostly done by women, often exclusively by women, and secrecy was a common element. There are many reasons why men didn’t write down the details (except when they interacted with court cases) and one of those reasons was, they didn’t know what those details were. Women’s history, sadly, was not much of a thing, and what words women did write down were not preserved over the next millennium.

Guess why. Go on, guess.

Women’s lives were not written down except on the rare occasions that they were useful tools in the politics of men, or where maligning/celebrating them was relevant to the politics of men, bu that doesn’t mean they weren’t really, really interesting by modern standards.

History is not society. It only covers one aspect. History is imperfect, and biased, and it always, always has omissions. The most common omissions are the bits that the writer of that history took for granted that his readers would know.

So how does this affect fantasy fiction?


We have a tendency in fantasy fiction to assume that the military/warfare and the politics (two key elements of epic fantasy, with magic being a strong third) are male domains because this was usually the case in history.

Well, I will agree for the MOST part on the warfare aspect, but I think Battlestar Galactica showed us that you can have female characters on the front lines of your story and still tell very close to the same kinds of stories as you would have done if the soldiers were all men. The Starship Troopers movie, adapting a much earlier work, showed this too. OK those are science fiction, but fantasy does not have to be hamstrung by the social conventions of the past. If you want those social conventions in place for other story reasons then you can get around that too by bringing women into the story. Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment has a lot to say about the different kinds of women you might find on a battlefield, and the many different reasons why they might be there despite restrictive social mores. Or, you know, you could read some actual history, because for all its patriarchal leanings, you will find that women’s roles in war were a lot more varied than many people expect.

When it comes to politics, I’m sorry, but there are no excuses. Sure, women have been excluded from the public political process for large swathes of history and culture (except, you know, when they weren’t – even the supreme patriarchy that was Rome didn’t have complete control over the provinces, where female politicians and civil servants sprung up like weeds) but public is only one piece of politics. The Mary Sue article refers substantially to Game of Thrones, and that’s a very good example, but again you can look to history – as soon as there is any form of dynastic element to your politics, then women are IMPORTANT. Even when the political careers are solely male, those men have wives and families who have a stake in the proceedings and the outcomes, they have risks to take and campaigns to wage every bit as much as the men. And if the women’s politics are happening in salons rather than assembly halls… maybe you should be peeking into those salons. I can guarantee political DYNAMITE is going on in there. With finger sandwiches and mint tea? Why not?

And you know, if your political system is inherently and essentially misogynist and that is essential to your worldbuilding, then throwing a few women into that system to see what cracks first is actually the most interesting thing you could do. Like with science fiction where SCIENCE GOES WRONG is the most interesting plot.

Then there’s magic. There are no excuses here. None at all. Either you have a magic system which is inclusive of women, or exclusive of women, and in both instances, FEMALE CHARACTERS ARE GOING TO HAVE OPINIONS ABOUT THAT. If you really want a patriarchal, masculine magical system, then as with politics, the most interesting thing you can do is throw women at that system, to see where the cracks are.

So what are the take home messages here?

1. History is more interesting than most people think. Despite everything I have said, it also has quite a lot of women in it. Read some history. Read some more. Check out the social historians, because they’re the ones who tend to pay more attention to what everyone in a society are doing, not just the aristocratic men who think they’re in charge.

2. Treating female characters as people will make your fantasy more interesting. Not just to female readers. To readers who are people. And, let’s face it, most readers are.

3. Make your books better.

Tansy Rayner Roberts is a fantasy author with a PhD in Classics. For more gender & pop culture essays by Tansy, check out these recommendations. Follow me on Twitter at @tansyrr.

20 replies on “Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Well said.

    There is a very interesting book about women writers, movers and shakers called ‘Women of ideas: and what men have done to them’, by Dale Spender – yes, a purposefully provocative title, but a fascinating read. It was when I first read this that I began to realise there are hidden histories out there – and that women are part of it.

    We have a heritage.

    Jen White.

  2. I am about half way through the secret feminist cabal and something that keeps hitting me is the history element, how the participation of women in fandom seems to be continually forgotten or plastered over by what men and some women think is thie history but when you actually look for sources its revealled that there has been involvement from nearly the start of the last century.

    It seems there is a failing to adequately inform each new wave of readers into the reality. Hence we still have the fake geek girl crap.

    Anyway slightly off topic 🙂

    Brilliant post Tansy

  3. tansyrr says:

    Not off topic at all, Sean!

    Reading a fan history like that is so important because personal anecdata is so often held up as being EVIDENCE (of things like, “well comics are mostly read by straight white male forty year olds, right?” Or “sure, women watch Doctor Who NOW because of David Tennant, but when I was young I was in a Doctor Who fan club of six people and all of them were men.”

    Women’s work gets forgotten. This is what so much of our work at Galactic Suburbia was about. It’s why tables of contents and awards actually are important. It all contributes to the overall, shameful societal trait that we have of forgetting women’s work, of assuming women’s work is less significant, and of ensuring that the work which is prioritised, celebrated and even casually thought of as more important, is that done by men.

    We’re still doing it. And we’re doing it as a society. I’ve seen it in universities, I see it in publishing & the book world, hell it happens in the restaurant business and any other industry where most of the grunt work is done by women and the glamorous 5% at the top earning the big bucks and accolades are mostly men. You never know when it’s going to pop up and bite you all over again.

    This is why reviewing women’s writing is important. And on a larger scale, it’s why social and women’s history is so important.

    I’m really glad you’re reading that book! More people should. Helen did an amazing job – and it’s a perfect example of how a greater understanding of social history can actually affect real lives.

  4. I think a crucial point, particularly with fandom issues, is the extent to which women might deliberately exclude themselves from participation, simply because after a while, it’s wearying to participate where you are ignored, insulted, and denigrated, or where the general perception is that women are not welcome. And, as we have seen, the personal safety of women is also at risk.

    Across the historical record and into the present one, the words and ideas of women get co-opted — or else no one pays attention until a man voices the idea. Women, too, have been conditioned to privilege the male voice; it’s a shared problem.

    I believe that most people don’t do this deliberately. Many people actively work to include and equalize the presence of women. The problem is that core of men, and it is almost exclusively men, who engage in loud and hateful reactions against the words, deeds, and experiences of women. It saddens me that so few of us are speaking against those voices in the public domain.

  5. Joris M says:

    Great piece Tansy.

    Your mentioning of Rome reminds me of the incident of Clodius sneaking into one of the women’s religious events. I would assume that that collection of powerful, connected women would be a formidable force.

    And it does remind me I really should re-read some of the books that made me, my current impression is that they contained some strong self-determining women in historical settings. But it has been decades, so my memory might be failing me. If I am right I was probably lucky that one of the most important (YA avant la lettre) writers of my youth was inclusive. Sadly, while popular in the Netherlands I don’t think Thea Beckman was translated widely into English.

  6. […] Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That. YES. THIS. […]

  7. Mari says:

    The only thing I’ll add is that even being relegated to staying home and having babies can be very interesting in the hands of the right author. Its not so much about the conflict , but how the conflict is handled, that maked stories memorable.

  8. […] – Tansy Rayner Roberts unpacks “authentic” sexism in fantasy […]

  9. Sinan Ozel says:

    The Ottoman Harem is a much disputed subject among historians. (Seriously) the harrm is usually considered to be one of two “devshirme” institutions, the other being for boys. Devshirme is when you go and collect little Christian boys and girls so you can raise them up as slaves.

    Slaves they might be, these people turned into officials who actively ran the empire, if they were boys. If they wer women, they were in the Harem. Far from being a “harem” for the Sultan’s desires, the rules of engagement with Sultan were strict and dictated by women, with a strong hierarchy. Usually, the women wound up being married off to other officials. So then we have a network of women in each administrator’s household, and these are women who grew up together in an enclosed girls’ school.

    A recent “conspiracy theory” is that the Ottoman Empire was actually ruled by this network of women, except that it is not a conspiracy theory, it must have happened, but we don’t know to which extent they ruled at which period. Horrifyingly enough, there are almost no written records documenting life inside the Harem. We know how the outsiders interacted with the Harem, the names of some of the ranks, (seems that they did have a strict hierarchy) but we know nothing about what they did inside the Harem. The male impression is that they learned to dance and sing and play instruments, so that they could make their husbands happy….

  10. tansyrr says:

    Some great, thoughtful comments here. Thanks, everyone.

  11. nagasvoice says:

    I’m hoping this gets bounced all over the blogosphere, I know some folks brought it to attention, and I am sharing it, gratefully. Some of us know this stuff because older women fought to bring it to our attention, and yet it’s still getting ignored enough that the trolls can pretended their default menz club is the only real thing going on. I would love to read a book on the politics of the harem (fiction or nonfiction) by writers who know intimately the land and culture directly affected by that Empire’s history.

  12. tansyrr says:

    I would read that book too, Nagasvoice! My own pet peeve is the way that in fiction & films in particular through the 20th century, Vestal Virgins are portrayed as if they were in fact harem wives – down to being ‘guarded’ by eunuchs. Whereas in fact they were independent, politically savvy women WITH JOBS, who had complete social freedom apart from the one caveat that they were to remain chaste. Which was a willing sacrifice of their potential fertility.

    Social history, funnily enough is one of my favourite things. I recall with gritted teeth that at school it was viewed as a ‘soft’ option.

  13. […] Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That. by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Excellent reading if you write fantasy (and even if you don’t). […]

  14. Holly says:

    I’m sure you did, but in case you didn’t, did you see this? http://jezebel.com/5966940/fantasy-author-scott-lynch-owns-critic-who-whines-about-the-female-pirate-captain-in-lynchs-new-book

    It made me happy. As did your post. (though I did discover when sharing it with others that their responses became a good guide to whether I could be bothered dealing with their opinions).

  15. […] Tansy Rayner Roberts wants to “unpack” historically authentic sexism. […]

  16. tansyrr says:

    Hi Holly

    I hadn’t read that article, thanks! I haven’t read much Scott Lynch because the first book in his series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was so lacking in women that I got frustrated and wandered away though it was otherwise excellent. Glad to hear that there are such interesting female characters later in that series.

    And the idea of anyone not believing female pirates as credible makes me want to bang my head against a wall!

  17. Katariina says:

    I recently saw a program about Icelandic sagas and some think, that they were written by women, which is very intresting. There is a woman called Aud the Deep-Minded, who built a ship and sailed with her men from Scotland to Iceland. She became one of the first settlers there and owned a great deal of land. She is very important figure in Iceland’s history. A very strongminded and brave woman.


  18. Dale Reardon says:


    Let’s not forget about Captain Janeway in Startrek Voyager and I also loved 7of9 the borg/human character.

    And for fantasy there is Zena Princess Warrior and the charmed sisters as well though I’m sure they are cast for their sex appeal.


  19. […] commentary here: http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/historically-authentic-sexism-in-fantasy-lets-unpack-that/ This entry was posted in Literary, Writing and tagged history, sexism by Tom Dullemond. Bookmark […]

  20. […] good intentions. The other day, though – at least partly inspired by Tansy’s post about ‘Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy’ (which also appeared over at Tor.com, although be warned that one of the first comments is […]

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