Matriarchal Societies: Women’s Rights Footnote

A point raised by Penelope Baker (Jin Lee) while I was looking for nitpicky points was that there were societies where women were not treated as breeding chattel, but were actually in higher social positions than the men.  Examples of this are the matriarchal priestesshood societies like some of the early Celts.  Females were considered to be closer to the Earth Mother, or what have you, and had appropriate status and authority.  Civilizations that encouraged a feminist military ethic, like some of the splinter Greek cultures, tended to die out fairly quickly due to a lack of offspring.

A female warrior tradition is more prevalent in pre-iron cultures, notably the early Celts.  In a hunter/gatherer or very early agricultural society, you have a far more limited population, and therefore everyone has to act in the defense of the community.  The religious importance of the goddesses Macha and Morrigan among the early Celts reflects this, especially in the case of Morrigan, a brutal warrior goddess.  Cuchulainn was trained by a female warrior from Britain, and there are surviving accounts of warrior queens, Melb, Cartamundu and Boudeccea.  Eventually, the Celts were attacked by civilizations that had stratified into a more complex, stable agronomy, allowing them to use iron more effectively, but placing their women into a more traditional noncombat role.  Celtic legends seem to reflect that the female warrior castes did not favor very well against the male-dominated aggressors (whether this was a result of iron vs. bronze, or this in combination with a lack of explosive upper body power, is not clear), and the roles of Macha and Morrigan were subtly changed in reaction to this.  Women still played a role in the defense of the community, but their role was now more supportive than front-line.  Morrigan ceased to be associated with traditional weapons, instead leaning more heavily towards magic, shapeshifting, deception, and treachery.  The female warriors of the Celts were more heavily involved with planning, training, fortification defense, espionage, and the like.

The dominance of male-ruled society in the British Isles relegated the Celtic goddesses to even lower status, sometimes even reflected in legends involving the rape of goddesses, followed by death during childbirth.  The Irish, who were less consumed by war, also reflected this trend, but their goddess figures took on a more egalitarian role as wife and mother.  This did not change the fact that as the iron age progresses, women were removed almost completely from the battlefield except in extremis.

The first Queen of England, Queen Maud (1102-1167), daughter of King Henry I, was somewhat famous for her 19 year war against her cousin Stephen, who had the backing of the nobles who disliked the idea of a female monarch.  Their cat and mouse game with the throne continued until Stephen’s son and heir died, at which point Maud reached a compromise with Stephen:  Stephen would be king, and upon his death the crown would go to Maud’s son by Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry II.  However, 12th century England was already somewhat civilized, and the division of labor between men and women was set, so the actual fighting was done by the men, so regardless of Maud’s technical leadership of her forces, she did not go out herself and hack at the enemy.  (Irrelevant note:  Interestingly, Henry II also had a sort of power struggle with his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, but Eleanor did not lead a rebellion herself, rather setting their sons against Henry II.  The son who wound up winning the throne was Richard the Lion-Heart.)  In any case, by the time cultures develop into settled iron age systems, the women are more rigidly segregated into home care roles.  Examples of females of the noble class are almost universally in behind-the-lines leadership roles, and the oddities of the nobility are never universally applicable to the population at large, as "surplus people" always fall under different rules.

Other matriarchal or relatively equitable societies also flourished, for example in early China, but there was still a strict division of sexual roles.  Women’s role in battle and labor-intensive occupations was still extremely limited, and much of their time was still spent having children.

In any case, a matriarchal society is undesirable in a modern RPG setting for a mass market.  If women are inherently holier and more authoritative than men, then they must be designated as NPC’s.  Inherent governing authority by virtue of a sex selection box doesn’t make for balance.  Even if you balance this out with limitations placed on female player characters, you wind up with (at best) an unbalanced situation where sex is chosen based on what sort of profession the player wants to follow, or (at worst) a situation where one sex is unable to participate in the majority activities of the game, and is therefore undesirable.

2 Responses to “Matriarchal Societies: Women’s Rights Footnote”
  1. So there were hot warrior chicks? Let me go get a towel and some vaseline….

  2. Some type of significant magical advantage favoring women is probably the only way you’re going to get anything less than an industrial age war-faring society with extensive use of female fighters. There’s some interesting things you could try out there, and I’m not just talking about fireballs and the like.

    It would probably help if you made your matriarchal society near-human rather than stock humans, since then you could make subtle (and not so subtle) changes to their biology, with interesting societal ramifications.

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