The Problem of Wymyn Power: Or Why Elizabeth von Sarmas will always be an Outlier – Alma Boykin
So, in light of the Nebula 2014 awards, and Sarah’s comment about my not doing any guest posts recently, I was trying to come up with something vaguely interesting to write about. Whether I’m going to accomplish that remains to be seen, since I’m still up to my waist in alligators (having beaten them down below my ears for the first time in a few weeks. Has anyone seen the swamp’s drain plug?) I apologize in advance for this rambling, wandering mini-essay.
I’m not an anthropologist, nor do I specialize in Women’s History. The latter is in part because I enjoy dabbling in other disciplines too much, and it is not easy to pull geology, climatology, range science, and other stuff into Women’s History. Another reason is because the theoretical background now required to write academic histories of women in society leaves me cold. Historical theory doesn’t excite or interest me, and it feels like pulling teeth to read many of the seminal [oops! Sorry, sorry, should say critical] theoretical works in order to bring the proper framework to my writing. I enjoy reading about the lives of women in society in various cultures and historical periods, but not doing academic research on them. I also enjoy reading about the lives of men. Oops again.
“But, Alma, you write about strong women! Rada Ni Drako and Elizabeth von Sarmas have Grrrrrll Power!” Yes, and no. They are outliers, much as David Weber’s Honor Harrington is an outlier, or Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion. They also do not have any of the duties that an average female in their universes has, which makes them even farther out on the tail of the bell curve of “normal female.” That’s why, under Azdhag law, Commander Ni Drako is a male, and “his” title is Lord Ni Drako. Rada is Rada, not because she has a uterus and the various attachments that come with having a uterus, but because of her background and training. And she’s sterile because of being a hybrid, which eliminates her from possessing the “special ways of knowing” that come with motherhood. Or potential motherhood, in the case of the arguments that dominate hard-core Feminism of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries on subsections of Earth’s Western and Northern Hemispheres.
(As an aside, those of you who have read Hubris and the other Cat Among Dragon stories know that the Azdhagi society before the Great Relocation is a lot different in terms of female rights than is the culture Rada Ni Drako works in. The sequel explains why in greater detail, although you probably saw hints of it already.)
When I think of the matriarchies in fiction, neither Rada nor Elizabeth would fit very well. In no set order, I come up with: the Witches of Witchworld, the priestesses of Avalon in The Mists of Avalon and the related novels, the Sisters of the Sword and Free Renunciates in Darkover, the society in the Exiles duology by Melanie Rawn, and a couple of alien species based on bees from several different books. Oh, and Wen Spencer’s A Brother’s Price, which I have not read yet. One thing I notice first off is that the Witches and the priestesses have McGuffins—magic and esoteric knowledge that helps level the physical playing field. If you stretch definitions, you could even say that during the time of Honor Harrington, the Manticorians have the McGuffin of technology so Honor and her allies are as strong as their male counterparts.
Because this is one of the critical problems of a fictional matriarchy: physical strength. Especially in fantasy, if the physically weaker sex doesn’t have a McGuffin of some kind, they will still be at a survival disadvantage. What’s Elizabeth von Sarmas’s big worry when she flees Frankonia? Assault and rape. OK, and starvation, hypothermia, drowning, and lice, but those are problems common to men in her world as well. She’s not as big, strong, or well armed as the men around her, so she has to scramble to survive.
The Free Renunciates, especially as described in some of the Darkover anthologies, point up another problem of human matriarchies in fiction, if done realistically. What do you do with baby boys? What if a woman wants a male lover, and decides to (gasp) establish a monogamous relationship with him, even if it is sine catenas (the Darkover version of a common-law marriage)? And what about the boys who find out that their mothers set them aside because they had a Y chromosome? Don’t tell me that’s not going to lead to problems for everyone. I’ve walled a few books that didn’t address that tension, because everyone was all happy and unicorns and butterflies and the guys so totally respected the independent women more than the conventional women and look, kittens! And if you extrapolate the hierarchies and fights of the Renunciates to a larger scale, you don’t get peace, harmony, and love. You get a society that’s potentially just as unpleasant as the Dry Towns of Darkover, except with the guys getting beat up instead of the women. In other words, you have Rawn’s Exiles world to an extent.
So where does this leave my current, strong, female protagonists? Rada Ni Drako and Zabet dar Nagali have crossed paths with the matriarchs on occasion, and the outcome wasn’t pretty for the matriarchs. (Hint: Just because you are female doesn’t guarantee you a discount.) Rada prefers to deal with a political and social system based on ability, especially if she can be near the top of the ability heap. Why doesn’t she agitate for female lib on Drakon IV? Because 1) she doesn’t feel like messing her nest, 2) she has other things to worry about and 3) she figures that changing Azdhagi society is the Azdhagi’s business, not hers. Ditto on Earth: human females are smaller and have different capabilities than do human males, and Rada just shrugs and carries on, although she’ll give Joschka the what-for when he forgets that she’s just as competent as he is.
And Elizabeth von Sarmas? She’s an exception and knows it. Without giving too much away, she states this flat out later on. Like Rada, she’s unusually physically strong for a woman of her time and place, she doesn’t have the responsibilities of a normal woman (ie. children and a spouse), she has servants to do the daily work, and she thinks and acts more like a man in a skirt than a “real woman.” Which keeps the gossip and innuendo flowing, as you would expect, and has some nasty social consequences that, if she were not a noble with a killer mule and strong male patrons, would put her in a very bad position.
Can an author create a large-scale matriarchy that “works?” I’m sure there are a few out there that I just have not yet found. But when dealing with humans, the Paksenarrions, Honor Harringtons, and Elizabeth Von Sarmas of the world, just like Elizabeth I of England, Maria Theresa of Austria, Empress Wu, and other women, will be notable exceptions, not symbols of the dominance of Grrrrl Power.