The theme of our annual “Candlekeep” GenCon get-together this year is Women Of the Realms, the talented writers, editors, and designers who have contributed so much to the setting and happen to be female, but that’s not what I’m burbling about right here and now. Rather, I’m talking about females in the Realms—the roles and standing of female characters in society.
Yes, I’m old enough to remember the term “Women’s Lib” being coined. No, that’s not what this screed is about. Because in my world, the women always ruled. Yes, seriously. Of which more in a moment.
First, let’s peek at the Realms. There are in-the-rules matriarchies, like the Lolth-dominated drow society (and the Eilistraeean ones I created for the game), and the human realm of Rashemen. There are also in-the-Realms but not necessarily spelled out or emphasized in the game rules matriarchies, like hobgoblins (the males fight, but the females rule the home, tribal politics, and family businesses and interests) and many halfling and gnome clans. I made Faerûnian kenku and leucrotta and even dragons, though often independent loners, have female-dominated societies—they may not get together often, but when they do, female elders speak for the groupings, lead initiatives, and dispute and debate among themselves to derive policies and influence predominant viewpoints.
All of which is starting to sound very glib and modern, so let’s step back and just say: the default position in any place and among any gathering of intelligent beings in the Realms can be whatever you the individual reader, player, or DM may deem it to be, and most Realmslore doesn’t explicitly spell out “this guardcaptain’s a girl, and that one over there’s a boy.” It’s your game, and to many of you none of this may matter a whit.
Yet in the “home” Realms campaign, and in the Realms I carry around in my head, gender-specific stuff tends to be confined to specific priesthoods (and even then, to particular roles within such clergies). The default understanding among my players has always been: if a deity tends to appear in avatar form or want themselves to be depicted by devout worshippers as female, there will be a tendency for the majority of their high-ranking or senior clergy to be female, and vice versa.
Families within a particular race, at a specific place and time, determine usual roles within the family, and in general, all children are trained to help with whatever’s safest for them to help with, from the moment they can toddle, and over time settle into the roles that best suit their capabilities. So little boys cook and wash and sew and clean out chamberpots, and little girls may sharpen swords or repair bows and use them. Guys may garden and women go hunting, as well as vice versa.
And this isn’t political correctness, because the Realms was this way before that term had been coined and the thinking it’s applied to as a label was clarified and adopted by more than “fringe crazies.”
It was this way because as I was growing up, what I saw around me were men and women behaving in every way as equals. The rural side of my family was dominated by farm wives and widows, as their men wore themselves out working the land or died young, maimed in farming accidents or from old war injuries. Many of those farm wives had taken over running the farm when their men went off to war, and went right on doing so when their men came back broken or not at all. The urban side of my family had the women doing the backbone work of family firms, and I lived in a wealthy community where exceptional individuals from everywhere in the world dwelled and enjoyed power, wealth, and leisure time enough to pursue hobbies and side-careers and whatever they wanted to do. In Don Mills in the 1960s, the presidents (there were no “CEOs” or “CFOs” back then; those terms came along later) of large corporations rubbed shoulders with famous professional athletes and prominent artists and writers and entrepreneurs busily building large fortunes—and a lot of them were women.
For my part, I and my sisters were brought up by my grandmothers and my Aunt Clara, taking it in turns to raise we kids after my mother died when I was six (that’s how I remember how old I was when I created the Realms; it was the year my mother died). One grandmother was a farm wife, another ran a wealthy and successful insurance brokerage (with her husband, but while his bonhomie and meeting people made the firm work, it wouldn’t have lasted three months without her doing all of the financial and legal paperwork), and my Aunt Clara was a farm girl who worked for decades in Hudson’s department store in downtown Detroit. My Dad, lost in grief, threw himself into his work, and was often overseas or in remote parts of Canada doing hush-hush work—so to us, our daily commander, provider, and champion was always female.
To me, Aunt Clara was not just the salt of the earth, she was a rock. A hunchbacked, tottering woman who never left the house without hat, furs, and makeup, she stood up to everyone she met, amiable but inflexible, rooted in a sensible understanding of how the honest, honorable, ethical world should work, everyone’s responsibilities and duties as well as their rights, and the “proper way” for you to behave. Woe betide the butcher who didn’t know how to cut meat well—she’d be in his walk-in freezer among the hanging sides of meat showing him how. Woe betide the politician, or anyone else, who uttered a lie in her hearing. And almost as “wicked” as such people were anyone who wasted or vandalized anything. She and my grandparents had lived through two World Wars and a Depression in between, and they saved everything. Rubber bands, string, paper of all sorts—for if you didn’t, Mister Hitler might win the war. And he might be dead, but just you get lax, and let the “wicked people” get to work, and new Hitlers would arise. And that must never happen again.
I miss not only my departed oldsters, I miss that whole generation. They’d had to pull together under great duress, and they knew how precious a united society was, and at what cost it had been built and defended. They understood civic duty, and thinking of others before yourself, and passing on good things, not just problems, to the younger generations coming up.
The men of that generation may have believed such things and acted accordingly, but I heard those beliefs daily from women. And in my early teenage years began working in public libraries—a career I pursue to this day, happily not climbing any corporate ladder, but daily doing public service—where almost all of my bosses were women. Indeed, where almost all of my co-workers were women.
So what was this male-dominated society? Growing up, I honestly never saw it. In my world, the women ruled.
So it was only natural to me that strong female characters, in the ranks of every race from centaurs to elves to lizardfolk stride the streets and lanes and trackless upland wastes of the Realms. And not, by the way, wearing “show” armor—that is for brothels (ahem, “festhalls,” Jeff Grubb’s rescue term when the Realms was first being readied for publication) and racy traveling theatrical productions.
I’m a fantasy writer, and I can imagine all sorts of wild and crazy things. But one of them is not my Aunt Clara putting on a chainmail bikini and going out to war.
Image borrowed from “Elminsters Daughter” ©Wizards of the Coast