Your world is your own; traditional gender roles need not apply. This means that even if your fantasy is inspired by 1300s France, you can still have women being professors at universities or leading armies. A classic image that comes to mind of a woman in history is the passive homemaker waiting for her husband to come back from war. There were certainly quite a few of those, but that image doesn’t account for what these women actually did while waiting. The result is a picture where a lady stands at the threshold of her manor looking wistfully out the horizon to catch a shadow of her husband. In reality, she was probably too damn busy making sure her crop yield would cover both her taxes and the food needs of her household. Since stories tend to focus on the epic, and since fantasy in particular isn’t usually about actual, historical daily life, the public perception of gender roles in history is still a little stuck in this romanticized notion of passive and desperate reliance on men. The people that read these stories then go on to write their own, continuing the vicious, misinformed cycle that can even go so far as to influence society’s perception of present-day reality. Literature is an extremely powerful brainwashing tool.
Here’s the thing. Only you can break this oversaturation and constant recycling of “women had no power back then.” A good way to do that is by doing some research in unbiased gender history and exposing the public to the shocking notion that humans didn’t have the luxury to lock fifty percent of the population into an ivory tower.
Another way to do it is to write an awesome book where you totally reinvent gender roles within your world. And you can start as small as with your main character’s background story.
Alter the Intention
If you have a girl whose character arc depends on her being extremely sheltered at the start, don’t let the reason she’s sheltered rely on the fact that she’s female. Not only is it kind of lazy, it’s dependent on exactly the sort of cultural norm you’re trying to steer away from. Instead, it could be that a kidnapping attempt in her early childhood led to her parents overreacting. If she’s not allowed to learn swordplay, it could be because her family believes she’d never have use for it since they’d always be protecting her. If she’s being forced to marry against her will, it’s because they want to make sure she’s always provided for. The idea is that the driving forces behind her important life events will have little to do with the basic fact that she’s female. If you change the intention and complicate the reasoning from “because she’s a girl” to something less gender-related, it becomes actual logic that can be used in plot and character development: The story starts with her running away from the arranged marriage, arranged because her family’s misguided but genuine concern for her well-being is blinding them to her misery. Just as she’s trying to adjust to the novelty of freedom, the attempted kidnappers resurface, suddenly throwing her into crippling self-doubt. She can’t physically fight back against them because she’s weak; but she’s weak not because she’s a girl, but because she was never taught how to fight. The story that ends up being told is not one about a girl struggling against the patriarchy but one about a girl overcoming insecurity ingrained from childhood by an overprotective family she feels she cannot return to.
Weaknesses Are Allowed
Women are traditionally viewed as the weaker and more submissive sex. Breaking out of this view in your story might lead you to the conclusion that your main girl character has to be physically and emotionally strong. A common thing I come across (and sometimes catch myself writing) is a female character who overcompensates for all those damsels in distress by being ridiculously tough in every way possible. This “strong female protagonist”, often patronisingly described as feisty, turns into a caricature of a person instead of a representation of reality. For example, the girl above who was protected all her life and never learned to fight still probably won’t be able to fight very well just a few months after she’s left home. Maybe she’ll never be able to fight well. Some people are just uncoordinated. This means that she’ll inevitably have to rely on those around her for physical protection. And that’s totally fine. Because again, the reason she’s physically weak is because she just is. That doesn’t mean she’s not crafty and can’t help out in different ways. It just means that when one of those kidnappers shows up, she won’t be the one fighting them; that role will go to the person protecting her. She doesn’t have to have all the qualities of the “strong female protagonist”. She first and foremost has to be a believable person.
By the way, that girl’s protector can easily be a lady. The kidnappers can also be ladies. All of the characters can be ladies. Why not? A lot of times the opposite is true, with men occupying all active roles and women left to the job of “plot device”, up there in importance with Tree #2 in the elementary school play. In an attempt to remedy this, some people, while still having women as mostly weak and submissive, will nevertheless have a couple of ladies in incredibly powerful leadership roles. This is excellent; it shows that women in that writer’s world are able to achieve a position that relies on their intelligence and strength. However, these stories often miss the women in less powerful roles. These women have to climb that ladder somehow. They didn’t get to the top overnight, which means they have to have had a lower status in the past. Regardless, women will often be absent from starting or midrange roles. You don’t usually see a woman as a foot soldier, unless she’s a main character. And even if you do, she’s always something more; undiscovered prodigy bomb technician that diffuses the bomb at the last minute; master sniper that helps them hit their target; top-class martial artist that leads them through a push. She’s never just a bumbling soldier who didn’t clean her gun properly, like so many of the other male peons are.
It all goes back to the initial lack of women in these stories, and the attempt to rectify this lack. During this attempt, the women become special, having skills that are sometimes better than those of most men. At first glance this doesn’t seem bad, because it seems to show women who are powerful and successful in roles traditionally held by men. But there’s a sneaky kind of damage to it: it implies that women can only be in these roles if their skill sets are abnormally high. The best thing you can do for gender equality in your world is to take a bunch of women, put them on the front lines with the men, kill them all, and then have everybody react with equal grief. None of this “Even the women were killed!” None of this “Women and children first!” (…Well, children first, yes.)
Which leads me to my last point.
Don’t Make It a Big Deal
If, in your world, traditional gender roles don’t apply, then you don’t have to justify why one of the best warriors in the land is a woman. Similarly, you have to remember to make some of the most mediocre warriors women as well. The worst thing you can do is have people constantly commenting on how strong she is for a woman, or how she’s the only woman in her class, or how even though she’s a fighter she still knows how to cook. Nobody cares. The men also probably know how to cook. It’s an important part of being an independent person. Drawing attention to the woman’s gender will take power away from why she’s as successful as she is: because she’s strong, because she’s skilled, and because she learned how to fight. You never hear phrases like, “Yeah he’s a pretty good fighter for a man.” Though, you might hear, “Yeah he sews pretty well for a man.” And that is just as damaging for the other side.
Gender Still Exists
Gender is a thing, and it’s foolish to ignore it…which seems to contradict everything I’ve just said. Still, physically, men and women are different. This will always result in situations where one character might be better at completing a task than another simply because of their gender. The key is that one gender should never be excluded from the possibility of doing that task, excepting in obviously physically limiting situations (because I just know that somebody’s going to mention childbirth). And even in a world of equality, there will always be some outlying group of misogynists or misandrists itching to push people down. They can be part of your story too. And if your story is good at putting on display the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and if those strengths and weaknesses are well-developed and don’t rely on gender, then it can expose the individual and shared features that your characters possess, and most importantly, uncover how absolutely ridiculous those misogynists and misandrists are.
Because oh my god. If you could build a world like the one I’ve described, I would read that book. I would read that book so hard.
So please write it.