Any feminist who is against modern technology is an idiot.
Fair warning – spoilers for Past Tense.
Back when Past Tense was being edited, Christine Amsden (one of my editors) asked why Julianne – Lord Whitehall’s daughter – came across as weak and unconvincing. (We did a little fiddling to make it clear that she had a more important role in the commune than was apparent at first glance.) But Julianne’s weakness – and she is weak – owes a great deal to her position in life.
Let me put this into some context.
When you are a child, the level of freedom you enjoy – even something as simple as going to bed at 9pm or 10pm – depends on your parents. You have no inherent right to set your own bedtime – your parents set it for you and you have no ‘legal’ recourse. Your parents have the right to make decisions for you and supervise your life. The average parent, I suspect, does not see his or her children as being capable of making his own decisions.
This is how women were largely regarded in the past – and in present-day states like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
To use Saudi Arabia as an (extreme) example, women are allowed to work … provided they have permission from their male guardian (father, brother, husband). It does not matter, legally speaking, if the woman wants to work; if her guardian says no, she can’t work. She is regarded as a minor in the eyes of the law; she has no legal recourse, no way to escape. She can’t even leave the country without permission from her guardian. Her freedom is wholly contingent on what her male relatives are prepared to permit her to do.
This was unfortunately true throughout much of human history. Women who were allowed to manage their own affairs were quite rare. Even a Ruling Queen might be expected to concede power to her husband. A woman accused of adultery could not legally defend herself; a woman who separated from her husband would find it very hard to get a divorce (and she might lose her children, if there were children). Those who say that women were protected in those eras ignore the simple fact that women were powerless, that their protection depended upon women playing the role society handed them. A woman who stepped outside society’s norms – by becoming a prostitute, for example – also stepped outside its protections.
You might ask why women didn’t resort to extra-legal measures. Why not poison a wife-beater … or simply slit his throat while he slept? But a person born during that time would know the answer. Without the husband, who would look after the wife and children? Who would provide for them? The husband’s relatives might take the house, kicking the wife and children out; the wife might discover that she had no legal standing unless she married again as quickly as possible. And if she’s too old to bear children again, she might not even be able to remarry.
And there were other problems. Women were often smaller and weaker than men – and medical care was awful. Death in childbirth was quite likely; infant mortality was staggering. (Julia Caesar, the wife of Pompey the Great (perhaps the richest and most powerful man of his time) died in childbirth.) Women did not have an easy time of it even when they were wealthy and powerful (or married to the wealthy and powerful).
Julianne has a striking amount of freedom, by the standards of her era. (Emily notes that Whitehall is the most progressive father in his era, which isn’t saying very much by the standards of ours.) And yet there are limits to how much defiance she can show. She cannot stand up to her father without running the risk of being ordered to marry someone her father chooses – or worse. Sneaking around and learning magic from Emily – like a Saudi girl learning how to drive – is her only realistic course of action.
Because it was Christine who said this, I thought of Cassie Scot, the heroine of four of Christine’s books.
Cassie Scot is a squib, if I may borrow the Harry Potter term. She’s the daughter of powerful magicians – and sister to several more – but she has no power of her own. And this has inevitable consequences.
Throughout her four books, Cassie is constantly objectified. Not in the sense that she is treated as a sex object, but in the sense she is constantly treated like a minor child. She is powerless in her community. Her very safety depends on protection from her parents; later, when she loses that, her (eventual) love interest makes decisions for her, meddles freely in her life (sometimes without telling her) and generally continues the tradition of treating her as a cute but wilful child, rather than a grown adult in her own right …
And the hell of it is that he (and her parents) has a point. Cassie may act like a confident adult, but it’s based on other people, rather than on her inherent power (she has none) or human rights (she has none of those either). She is staggeringly vulnerable. And so is Julianne. And so were far too many women throughout history. The powerful women were often the ones who were born to power, like Queen Elizabeth.
There’s an article about Game of Thrones I read a while back (I haven’t read much of the books or seen the TV series.) This was often true of real life too. Queen Elizabeth I was a skilled ‘man-manager,’ even though she was the Queen. Her sister (Mary Tudor) and her cousin (Mary Queen of Scots) were far less skilful. Elizabeth was in consent fear of what would happen if one of her courtiers gained enough power to just take her, which hampered her ability to be an effective war leader. (Her generals would often ignore her orders, justifying it to themselves on the grounds it was what she would do, if she was a man.) This lead to an erratic balancing act that came all too close to disaster.
And while commoner women were often good at carving out niches for themselves, they were almost always very much second-class citizens.
These days, women have rights – and legal recourses. If a marriage goes badly wrong, a woman can go to court and get a separation. A woman can live on her own; a woman can work to earn money, to live a life apart from her former husband. And medical care has advanced to the point where death in childbirth is relatively rare and women are no longer enslaved by their reproductive systems. But this was not true in the past. Our understanding of the past is always limited unless we grasp the limitations faced by the men and women who lived during that era.
It was never suggested, in my entire life, that my parents would determine who I (or my sisters) would marry. But I have known people (boys as well as girls) who knew that their parents would eventually choose their marriage partners. They often felt they couldn’t defy their parents, because in doing so they would defy their entire community. This problem would not be strange to our ancestors, even those a mere century before us.
There is no shortage of romantic stories about women going back in time to marry a brave highlander, a handsome cowboy or a swaggering pirate. But most of those stories tend to overstate the romance and understate – badly understate – the hardships of the time. Or how few rights a woman would have, if her husband turned nasty.
And that is something we really need to remember.
It isn’t easy to bring this front and centre in Schooled in Magic, even though the powerlessness of powerless people has been a major theme in the book from the start.
Magicians are believers in power, nothing else. After female magicians became relatively common – after the ‘Curse’ was understood and defeated – sexism largely faded from the magical community. As happened in our history, the growth of self-made powerful women boosted the position of all women. Emily does not face blatant sexual discrimination in much of the series because she’s joined a community based on equality, with men and women competing on equal terms. Even during Past Tense, her position is somewhat ambiguous – Whitehall and Bernard consider her a honorary man (although they would never express it that way). Emily has relatively little to do with the other girls in the commune, save for Julianne.
Even in the ‘present,’ Emily doesn’t really spend any time with ‘normal’ girls. Alassa is royalty – and the heir to the throne. Imaiqah is from a merchant family, where daughters are educated and certainly expected to play a role in the family trade. Aloha and Cabiria (and Melissa) are from magical families, where power – magical power – is more important than gender. (The Gorgon, not being completely human, doesn’t count.) Only Frieda (and Nanette/Lin) come from profoundly (and not without reason) misogynist societies and neither of them really want to talk about it. Obviously, there are servants and suchlike – in Whitehall, in Zangaria and Cockatrice – but Emily doesn’t sit down to talk with them. They would be too awed by her to say a word.
Indeed, even back on Earth, Emily never had the opportunity to develop feminine social skills, let alone masculine ones.
Which means, unfortunately, that there are large swathes of her society that she won’t truly understand, or will only be dimly aware of … a problem that will only grow worse as she grows older.