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Hélène Bowen Raddeker

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About the author

Hélène Bowen Raddeker has convened UNSW’s Women’s and Gender Studies program for much of the time since 2001. One result of this is that, while Japanese history remains her specialty, her teaching and research interests are now more eclectic. Her experience of running the WGS program has included coordinating courses on world gender history, the history of feminism, and writing feminist history. In the May issue of Outskirts in 2006 (vol. 14), she drew upon her experience of teaching WGS courses to reflect on the issue of whether young feminists today are as different from Second Wavers as is often assumed. Her last book was Sceptical History: Feminist and Postmodern Approaches in Practice, London and New York, Routledge, 2007; and she is currently embarking on a major research project on the topic of this article, women’s Fantasy, (eco)feminism and feminist history.

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Volume 21, November 2009

Eco/Feminism and History in Fantasy Writing by Women


A childhood pastime I’ve not yet outgrown is reading Fantasy and Science Fiction. These days, however, my interest especially in Fantasy is not unconnected with scholarship, both History and Feminist Studies. In this essay I reflect on ways in which women’s Fantasy has been inspired by feminist ideas, with particular emphasis on ‘spiritual ecofeminism’ and feminist history. I approach this as a world gender historian and historian of feminism, rather than a Science Fiction/Fantasy critic. As such, this essay is alert to dis/continuities and junctures in recent Fantasy that explicitly deals with history and appears to be influenced by ecofeminism. To illustrate such influences, I draw upon selective examples from some leading American Fantasy and Science Fiction authors—Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Sheri Tepper and the like—while also referring to some Australian fantasists popular since the 1990s. Of particular interest to me is Sara Douglass, who was formerly an academic historian, especially her Axis Trilogy (1995–96) and its sequel, The Wayfarer Redemption trilogy (1997 to 1999).

My discussion of women’s Fantasy, feminism and history is divided into two parts, the first concerned with the various ways in which women’s Fantasy has often featured feminist themes. In the second section of Part One, I expand upon one common critique, involving a radical feminist equation of Woman with ‘Nature’ and life-affirmation that we would now associate also with ‘spiritual ecofeminism’. The very wide-ranging ecological feminist critique is focused on the destructive effects of settled, intensive (‘plough’) agriculture, and then industry or capitalism, as well as colonialism. A familiar theme is the rampant (masculinist) exploitation and steady destruction (‘rape’) of the natural and animal world, a central argument being that ecological exploitation and destruction has been intimately tied to patriarchal modes of social organization. As Karen Warren has noted, ecofeminists agree that ‘there are important connections between the domination of women (and other human subordinates) and the domination of nature’, but beyond that there is extensive debate about ‘what the nature of these alleged connections is and which, if any, are accurate descriptions of the nature and root sources of the twin dominations’ (Warren 1996: x). Spiritual ecofeminism, which is closely associated with the U.S.-led Goddess Spirituality Movement, focuses particularly on ‘goddess spirituality’ as an historical alternative to patriarchal religions, that was more beneficent and (like ‘Woman’) more in tune with Nature. Merlin Stone, Starhawk, Carol P. Christ and Charlene Spretnak are some of the authors associated with this style of thinking.1

Part Two is concerned with Fantasy and feminist history. The suggestion that the boundaries between Fantasy and History (fiction and fact) are not as stable as empiricist historians would have it, is not particularly startling in these ‘postmodern’ days of epistemological doubt. But, here I begin by addressing the issue of Fantasy and realism, specifically the question of whether historical and other fantasists necessarily contest realism, as analysts of feminist SF/F have claimed; or, rather, partly rely on a sense of historical realism to ground their political critiques. Apart from the careful reconstruction of familiar historical worlds, when fantasists cast women in unexpectedly powerful roles it is not necessarily pure invention.

Spiritual ecofeminist themes in Fantasy and the issue of historical realism in the genre are intimately connected with a historical metanarrative I discuss in the second section of Part Two, which can readily be found in women’s Fantasy. There is still a clear connection between some women’s Fantasy today and feminist history influenced by radical feminism, which was built on a narrative of historical regression for women rather than the grand narrative of progress for 'humanity/Man’ typically found in conventional histories. At its most questionable, the regression narrative rests upon belief in an implicitly universal prehistorical golden age of ‘matriarchies’.

I. Fantasy as Feminist Medium and Critique

Common Feminist Themes

SF/F is amongst the many popular media today that continue to spread a feminist message. In Fantasy this may involve little more than depicting an unusually gifted girl/woman besting some system of male dominance (say, amongst wizards or in society more broadly), which would have been enough to define a work as ‘feminist’ in the 1970s. However, since then feminism has had a much wider impact on Fantasy, a frequent target of criticism being patriarchal religion. Usually, it is Christianity that comes under fire because more often than not it is ‘Western’ religious traditions that are being targeted. Such critiques are often allegorical and their depth varies, but they can at times be savage. An American SF/F writer known for her ecological themes is Sheri S. Tepper, in whose Beauty (a reinvention of traditional fairytales) we find this denunciation of the ‘gobble-god’:

We have been thwarted at every turn by god. Not the real God. A false one which has been set up by man to expedite his destruction of the earth. He is the gobble-god who bids fair to swallow everything in the name of a totally selfish humanity. His ten commandments are me first (let me live as I please), humans first (let all other living things die for my benefit), sperm first (no birth control), birth first (no abortions), males first (no women’s rights), my culture/tribe/language/religion first (separatism/terrorism), my race first (no human rights), my politics first … country first … and, above all, profit first.
We worship the gobble-god. We burn forests in his name. We kill whales and dolphins in his name …. we set bombs in his name. (Tepper 1991: 329)

As Australian fantasist, Sylvia Kelso, has observed, Tepper’s work is characterized by a central interest in ecological concerns, women’s issues and (alternatives to patriarchal) religion (Kelso 1997: 1).

Similarly, in the Axis and Wayfarer trilogies by Sara Douglass the critique of Christianity could hardly be more explicit. Douglass may be more hard-hitting and thorough than some, but her critique of a dominant religious tradition seen to be authoritarian, anti-Nature, anti-Woman, anti-sex and anti-life is not unusual. In the story Artor, the plough-god, is a jealous god intent on becoming the one true God through the ‘Way of the Axe and the Plough’, as laid down in The Book of Field and Furrow. Despite the extensive depredations of the earth through agriculture and deforestation, Artor and his followers remain suspicious of Nature, or anything wild and free. Little remains of the mysterious and magical forests, yet Artor is still threatened by them and any beings aligned with them, their leading saviour being ‘Faraday, Treefriend’. In the last book of the second trilogy, Crusader, Faraday and friends muse on why the ‘faith of the Plough was so comforting’:

[Faraday] We loathed and feared the landscape…and Artor gave us a face and a name for that fear. Untamed landscape, mountain, forest and marsh, was the haunt of evil creatures — the Forbidden….
[DareWing] Having defined our fear — the wild landscape and all that lived within it — we felt comforted, and so we took to the forests with our axes, and to the mountains with our armies, and to the marshes with our engineers, and we pushed back the wild landscape as far as we could. We tamed the earth and made it our slave….
[Faraday] Yes, [we enslaved it] with the plough, and the neat square fields, and the straight and tightly-controlled furrow (Douglass 1999: 58-59).

Here we have the common ecological critique of the monotheistic notion of God’s giving ‘Man’ dominion over the earth and its creatures, to exploit them as ‘he’ saw fit.

Witch-hunts also feature in the story, not unusually. However, doubtless because Douglass is a retired historian of early modern Europe, this is in a manner more reminiscent of recent historiography on the European witch-craze than earlier radical feminist suggestions that only women were targeted, or that such women really were ‘witches’ and necessarily healers or midwives.2 In the story those targeted are mostly ordinary countrywomen, only some of whom are gifted with healing powers derived from a knowledge of herbs and, less often, the use of magical song. But, needless to say, being ordinary women does not save them from being subjected by Artor’s ‘Brotherhood’ to ‘purification by fire’ (Douglass 1995: 248). When battle is joined against Artor by forces of the Stargods and Earthmother led by Axis (former ‘battleaxe’ of the Brotherhood), Faraday Treefriend and Azhure the huntress, it comes as no surprise that it is a woman, Azhure, who by then has joined the Stargods as moon goddess, who finishes off Artor and his phallic plough-pulling bulls. This is in the name of all those whose pain he fed off as he ‘hounded and burned and murdered’ them in his ‘righteous’ name (1996a: 471 ff).

One need not labour the point about the religious tradition being savaged by Douglass, albeit with amusing wit and irony. Perhaps her narrative was partly inspired by spiritual ecofeminist visions of women as the main historical competitors and primary victims of Christianity, but she is not inclined to see only women as the defenders of Nature, Life and freedom, even if the female cast of characters—Earthmother goddess figures and other goddesses, witches, healers and the occasional mighty warrior—are rather familiar. Such characters often appear in women’s Fantasy, just as they did in non-fictional discourse by Second Wave radical feminists.

As for other feminist themes in Fantasy by women, Charlotte Spivack raised the question in 1987 of ‘whether there is a distinctively feminine—or even feminist— Fantasy’(7). Surveying Fantasy writers to date—Ursula Le Guin, Zimmer Bradley, Norton and seven others—Spivack proposes the following feminist strategies of subversion (7-15), many of which can still be identified in writing since then. The first centres on female protagonists. A standard theme is women’s being empowered through magical powers or powers of the mind. Spivack also notes how, often, these leading characters are not committed to ‘male goals… of power and domination’ (8). Barbara Hambly’s 2005 Circle of the Moon is one of many examples of women’s empowerment through magical skill. Similarly empowered is another group in the tale, the apparently animalistic ‘teyn’ on whom this world’s slave economy depends. Spivack notes that women’s Fantasy has often expressed sympathy for the ‘marginalized Other’. This, however, can be said of many works of Fantasy centred either on motifs of ‘moral degradation’ and the decline and fall of political systems or civilizations or on both that and their healing, whether this be through a ‘restoration of the grandeur of previous days’ or the creation of new, more humane systems (Mendlesohn 2008: 61).

The second strategy pinpointed by Spivack is ‘feminized’ male characters where male heroes are not so masculinist but ‘intuitive’ and ‘sensitive’. She notes how in women’s Fantasy often the goal has been not to slay the dragon, take the treasure, seize the throne. On the other hand, Spivack acknowledges how writers of Zimmer Bradley’s ilk have women characters retell either historical or mythical events such as the Arthurian legend. So her third point concerns well-known tales being subjected to a ‘feminine perspective’. This also involves a focus less on politics, battles and wars, and more on human relationships; and women’s important relationships are not, of course, only with men either as mentors or love-interests.

Spivack’s fourth strategy concerns a preference for circular time over linear narratives, for example through reincarnation (renewal of Nature) themes. Hence, achieving the goal of the heroic quest may be less important than the return half of the quest, which culminates in rebirth. Spivack cites the examples of Le Guin (Earthsea trilogy, 1971-74) and a few others, but a cyclical view of time and/or reincarnation are still popular themes in women’s Fantasy today, partly as a ‘Natural’, life-affirming alternative to Christian eschatology. A desire for immortality is seen to be egoistic, power-hungry and contrary to Nature— a theme that can be found in the recent Witches of Eileanan series by Australian fantasist, Kate Forsyth (1997-2002). Frequently, it is tied to a spiritual ecofeminist sort of vision of goddess spirituality as both more ‘natural’ and more benevolent than the eternal reward or punishment of Father-Gods.

Drawing even nearer to ‘spiritual ecofeminist’ themes, Spivack’s next point concerns matriarchates, She observes that since the 1960s there has frequently been a focus in women’s Fantasy on early societies before Christianity purportedly displaced goddess worship. At times, this alone has been equated rather problematically—in fact, implicitly by Spivack herself—with ‘matriarchies’. In any case, Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand (1994 reprint) contained one matriarchal group, a female-only tribe of ‘Amazon’ pastoralists. Norton’s Witchworld series which is set on another world included one state ruled by women witches; and not only that one state featured traditionally matrilineal succession and property inheritance (2001 reprint). More recently, there is matrilineal headship of one clan in the Otori series by South Australian author ‘Lian Hearn’ (Gillian Rubinstein) that is set in feudal ‘Japan’, which may or may not reflect the assumption of some earlier historians that Japan was once matriarchal (Hearn 2002). Groups, communities or societies that are dominated by women or restricted to women can also be found in Science Fiction (Zimmer Bradley 1985; Tepper 1988). Nevertheless, ‘matriarchies’ are not always treated with nostalgia. Sylvia Kelso’s Amberlight (2007), which is not conventional historical Fantasy but rather set on another world, exemplifies a different sort of feminist approach to societies built upon female power and privilege. Here there are practical reasons for men’s exclusion from mining the pearl-rock, ‘qherrique’, which is the source of the city of Amberlight’s wealth and power, for men’s handling it is not tolerated by the (earth) ‘Mother’; but the result (rather ironically) is that men are reduced to the role of making themselves sexually attractive and fathering babies. There being less use for male babies, moreover, they are often subject to infanticide. Interestingly, in the conclusion to the tale it is the Mother herself who oversees Amberlight’s destruction.

The sixth feminist strategy Spivack refers to is a critique of binaries (spiritual, moral, and Self/Other): a critique of absolute opposites between good and evil, virtue and sin, etcetera. This includes a tendency to suspend moral judgment. Sex, for example, is seen as natural and blameless as opposed to the patriarchal, monotheistic emphasis on sex as only heterosex, legitimate only within marriage. Furthermore, in pagan style characters, including gods, may not be represented as unambiguously good or evil; often there is no all-powerful Creator; and gods are not so distanced from humans. Australian author, Jennifer Fallon’s Demon Child Trilogy (2000-01) is one example of gods being represented in this way. Also in American fantasist, Laurell K. Hamilton’s contemporary ‘adult’ (erotic) Meredith Gentry series (2000-2007) there is a dominant mother Goddess (albeit with a consort), and here there is even more slippage between mortals, faerie and gods, where once-gods who are still now immortal but disempowered are re-empowered, and even mere mortals become goddesses (for example, Princess Merry in the role of fertility goddess). (Hamilton 2000–2005) As Spivack notes, often this blurring of god-human binaries is tied to a valorization of the natural environment by ‘ecology-minded’ authors—fecundity, nature and natural places as sacred, for example through a focus on the earth worshiped as a manifestation of mother goddess; and a ‘bias against technology’ seen as exploitative and opposed to Nature and life.

Spiritual Ecofeminism and Fantasy

Spivack may have been surveying works of Fantasy only to the mid-eighties, but such themes appear in works published in and from the 1990s, as I have demonstrated. Notably, in at least three of the strategies listed, there are suggestions of a radical feminist or spiritual ecofeminist influence on women’s Fantasy: for example, the notion that women have had a closer relation with ‘Nature’ than men, and therefore once (in pre-monotheistic spirituality) had a greater intimacy with the ‘divine’. Of course, radical feminists of the Second Wave were not the first to essentialize Woman by reference to her Nature-nurturing and Life-affirming qualities. Sylvia Bowerbank (in Lykke and Braidotti 1996: 122-27) has traced debates amongst English feminists about woman’s relation to nature back to Enlightenment thought of the 1790s She notes that such debates were part of a broader modern discourse that exhibited two ‘complementary strains of thought’: first, the hegemonic discourse of ‘systematic and progressive mastery over nature’; and, second, a sympathy for or even identification with nature that ‘continued to complicate and contradict that narrative of successful mastery’ (121).

It is not difficult to see a correlation between ecofeminism today—at least that part of it that sees woman and nature as intimately connected for essentialist or biologist reasons—and the modern discourse of nature described by Bowerbank as gendered from its inception:

Even as it worked to undermine modern man’s connectivity with nature, it reaffirmed that of woman. It perpetuated the ancient division of intellectual labour that associated man with the higher reasoning faculties and woman with the lower feeling faculties, a division of labour that emphasized man’s detachment and woman’s attachment to animal and vegetative nature. The dominant ‘masculine’ strain is the structure of feeling associated with mastery—pride, detachment and even alienation—that fosters competitive projects of management, expansion and exploitation. The recessive ‘feminine’ strain is a structure of feeling associated with conservation—reverence, humility and connectivity—that tries to restrain such projects by nurturing human attachment to non-human nature (1996: 121).

Any wonder, then, that some have sought to appropriate the discourse for feminist uses by valorizing the ‘womanly’ nurturance of nature while challenging ‘Man’s’ (men’s) unthinking exploitation and destruction of it. Yet, as Kirsten Gram-Hanssen acknowledges (in Lykke and Braidotti: 91), it is spiritual ecofeminism that sees woman and nature as ‘closely related for essential reasons’; other ecofeminists such as Victoria Davion have suggested that replicating such binarisms ,may not be the best way to proceed (in Warren, ed., 1994). She regards spiritual ecofeminists as ‘eco-feminine’ rather than ecofeminist because of their uncritical acceptance of conventional gender binaries.

Speaking of differences between feminist ‘goddess’ and ‘cyborg’ adherents, Lykke observes that:

… the goddess metaphor, which for many years has functioned as a common landmark for the international wave of spiritual ecofeminism, seems to point us… toward a return to ‘the natural’. To Donna Haraway and other ‘cyborg feminists’, feminist goddess worship is an expression of a modern nostalgic construction of a ‘good’ (non-existent) [eg., ‘matriarchal’] origin to return to [reflecting] ... a dichotomy between a good ‘organic’ world as opposed to an evil ‘technological’ one (Lykke 1996: 23).

Lykke nevertheless concludes that it is not only cyberfeminism but spiritual ecofeminism, too, that deconstructs the old opposition between human and non-human/Nature, mind and matter (27-28). More than one of the essays in Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs (1996) argue that in many writings of spiritual ecofeminism the ‘Great Cosmic Mother’ or just ‘The Goddess’ or goddesses become a feminist myth or metaphor for the healing of ‘broken bonds between human and nature, between the human mind and non-human matter—body, earth, cosmos’ (Lykke 26). This may be preferable to patriarchal myths, but still one wonders why healing must be tied to a glorification of woman’s ‘reverence for the Earth’, closeness to Nature, the ‘life-giving powers incarnated in women’s bodies’, and so on (Riane Eisler, cited in Davion 1994: 20–24).

There are suggestions of a spiritual ecofeminist approach in the Axis and Wayfarer trilogies by Douglass, even if her defenders of Nature, life and freedom do include some male heroes. It is, after all, the Mother who personifies Nature in opposition to the plough-(One)-God, Artor and his phallocratic, anti-life, anti-Nature followers. Ultimately, in the sequel’s last volume (1999), in the heavenly ‘garden’ that is born from the annihilation of Tendendor perpetrated by another male villain (albeit with a female demon or two in tow), it is the Mother that is reborn as ‘God’, together with the Tree of Life. While male heroes are useful particularly when (defensive) battle is called for, the earth’s healing (rebirth/regeneration) is overseen by a cast of leading female characters associated with Nature/the Earth/Trees: Faraday Treefriend, The Mother and her companion ‘Ur’, while ‘Urbeth’, another goddess sort of figure styled as the original Enchantress and primary ancestor of the human Acarites & winged Acarii, plays a leading role, too.

Central narrative themes in these two trilogies implicitly echo Lykke’s description of the spiritual ecofeminist theme of Goddess-as-healer of the human-Nature rupture. In the ecofeminist ‘myth of origins’ intended to supplant Judeo-Christian and other patriarchal myths:

… we are all born of the great cosmic mother. Originally, we lived in a direct physical-emotional-spiritual connectedness with her, as children of her cosmic womb or egg . Mind and body, human and nature, earth and cosmos were one inseparable whole ... the spiritual and worldly hegemony of the patriarchal father is a late stage in human history, the result of a violent take-over ... On the spiritual level, the patriarchal take-over … meant that creator and creation, mind and matter, human and non-human, I and other, and so on, were separated and set up in a violent hierarchy, created in the image of the ‘colonization of the indigenous female by the imperial male’. (Lykke 1996: 26).

In women’s Fantasy, we might not often find so explicit a critique of the ‘diseased’ dualistic logic of separation in ‘God the Father’ religions as is offered by Douglass (or Tepper), but the language of healing and unity associated with Great Earth Mother or other goddess spirituality is far from unusual.

II. Fantasy and Feminist History

In a work of literary analysis entitled Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction, Anne Cranny-Francis divided feminist Fantasy into three main sub-genres: secondary or other-world Fantasy, (reinventions of the classic European) fairy-tale, and horror (1990: 77). The first category should perhaps have been entitled secondary, other or past world Fantasy in recognition of the many, many works of ‘historical Fantasy’ in print. Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand (1994 reprint) and The Mists of Avalon (1993 reprint) exemplify Fantasy that reinvents stories that are either historical or derived from myth/legend but often taken to be historical. In the first ‘Kassandra’, ‘Amazon’-cum-visionary priestess and twin-sister of Paris, retells the story of the fall of Troy, putting women at the centre of the narrative. Among Bradley’s other works of Fantasy are some set in Roman or later Britain, notably her famous Mists of Avalon, which retells the Arthurian legend from the point of view of ‘Morgaine’, Avalon priestess and sister of Arthur (1993). The actual historical existence, or not, of a ‘Morgan le Fay’ (as named in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur) or a ‘Kassandra’ may seem to be beside the point in a discussion of ‘Fantasy’, though we might note that in the acknowledgements for The Firebrand and in its postscript Bradley makes a point of citing historical evidence of Kassandra’s existence (other than her being mentioned in the Iliad).

Historical Realism and Fantasy

One thing that serves to destabilize the boundaries between Fantasy and History is that writers of Fantasy often draw upon substantial historical research. More than that, especially with ‘historical Fantasy’, the fantastic elements of a story are often elided by combining them with a wealth of even rather mundane historical detail concerning historical social customs, dress and morés, language, cultural artefacts, socio-economic and political organization, and so forth. Like Lian Hearn’s medieval ‘Japan’, Kate Forsyth’s recent Witches of Eileanan series (1997-2006, 9 volumes) is a case in point. It is one of many works of Fantasy where the ‘world-building’ involves recreating an historical society, though Eileanan or New ‘Alba’ (Scotland) is a secondary, alien world to which people escaped, fleeing the medieval witch persecutions on the original world.

In The Firebrand, Zimmer Bradley indicates the extent to which her Fantasy is indebted to History. Nevertheless, she also acknowledges likely challenges to claims of historical realism from readers who might object, ‘ [But] that’s not the way it happened in the Iliad’. Well, ‘of course not’, she replies to her imaginary critics: ‘had I been content with the account in the Iliad, there would have been no reason to write a novel’ (1994: ix). As Fantasy theorist Farah Mendlesohn says, however, most Fantasy needs ‘belief in the dividing line between the real and the not-real’ in order to function, which means that aspects of the world created are designed to be realistic. Yet, the sense of realism in historical and some high Fantasy is only partly created by the reconstruction of the ancient Middle East or Celtic/Roman England or feudal Europe or Japan; this is not the only possible strategy of realism in feminist Fantasy.

In some respects, Anne Cranny-Francis may be right when she attributes to feminist SF/F writers a desire to expose conventions of realism as constructed, arbitrary and ideological (1990: 76-77). There she argued of Science Fiction that: ‘because of its estrangement from the everyday world of experiential reality’ its task is to ‘present women in new roles, liberated from the sexism endemic to their society’ (42). The same would presumably hold for Fantasy as well because there, too, it is possible that the:

imaginative visualization of a different society is seen as a key element in the perception of the mechanisms of patriarchal ideology, the breakdown of its naturalization. No longer will it be obvious or commonsense or natural that women are better adapted to ironing or food preparation than men, that women are intellectually inferior, that men are more aggressive. Rather the economic determinants of these attitudes become visible and with that visibility comes the possibility for change (Cranny-Francis 43).

Yet, it is not necessarily the case that real historical roles of women are being contested and reinvented in Fantasy. Where fantasists represent women in specific sorts of powerful roles, at times even depicting ‘matriarchal’ worlds, the question is whether they do so because they see them as realistic, or at least historically possible.

Reader responses to such feminist interventions in the genre are instructive. On one interactive website the participants were bemoaning the lack of historical realism involved in casting women in powerful roles that are taken to be unconventional for the times. Ironically, the criticism was directed not at feminist History, but feminist Fantasy. (marianperera.blogspot.com) Marian’s site was responding to another Fantasy fan’s blog where ‘Merc’ had expressed annoyance with ‘a Fantasy culture randomly [reflecting] 21st century beliefs that make no sense’ because ‘the author wanted their own personal worldview in the story’. ‘Merc’ and hi/r respondents apparently believe that the feminism in some Fantasy should be toned down, so that heroines do not ‘look like a product of our own times shoehorned into a different culture’. A ‘heroine’s goals should be realistic for her society and time period’, Marian agreed; instead of wearing pants and joining in the fighting, a ‘medieval’ heroine would do better ‘to dress modestly and observe societal morés’, and to refrain from taking lovers or having sex outside of marriage. Such a heroine might even like ‘doing whatever the custom or religion of that time says that women should do….enjoy cooking and embroidery while simultaneously working as a spy or magician’. One is reminded of Mendlesohn’s observation that Fantasy is usually dependent upon ‘belief in the dividing line between the real and the not-real’, the real medieval woman’s lot in Europe apparently being, according to Marion, cooking, sewing, modesty and chastity.

These Fantasy fans substantially blur the already porous boundaries between ‘Fantasy’ and ‘History’ by demanding historical veracity in the former. The irony with this website is that, as Roland Barthes once put it in ‘The Discourse of History’ (in Jenkins 1997: 122), it reveals the extent to which ‘our civilization has a taste for the realistic effect’ (my emphasis). Hence, on this website, even in regard to a genre of literature devoted to realms of the supernatural and magical, we find fans demanding realism. In treating Fantasy as History, they were essentially demanding that writers of fantasy historicize their imaginary past societies more carefully; and that they avoid presentism both in the sense of heroines that ‘look like the product of our own times shoehorned into a different culture’ and in the sense of a writer’s own ‘personal’/political worldview intruding on the story.

What these Fantasy fans were complaining about—namely, according women even in an ‘imaginary’ past too much autonomy or power—also suggests that for them there are limits to just how transgressive this feminist ‘literature of subversion’ should be. Yet, some feminist historians (myself included) would take issue with the assumption that feminist Fantasists are necessarily representing women in ‘unrealistic’ or ahistorical roles. Historically, were women never ‘gods’ or priestesses? Did they never engage in fighting? Was strictly patriarchal marriage (ie., patrilocal marriage with only patrilineal succession and inheritance) always and everywhere the norm? Appropriately, one of Merc’s and Marion’s respondents, ‘Kiwi’, did question the plausibility of the vision of the past being put forward by the others when she observed that: ‘too often … there is a binary establish[ed] in Fantasy novels where a character has to chose [sic] between the modern and “enlightened” or the traditional and oppressive’; that just as there are ‘diverse ways of “doing” femininity and masculinity in the modern world’, diversity, complexity and conflict thrived in the premodern world, too. Indeed, the depiction of a premodern world that universally featured the worst excesses of patriarchy is about as convincing as one inspired by the radical feminist to spiritual ecofeminist vision of a pre-patriarchal golden age of ‘matriarchies’.

Metanarratives in Feminist History & Fantasy

Kiwi’s views on modern enlightenment versus traditional oppression call to mind those of Judith Bennett, an historian of medieval Europe. Bennet in her recent book, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, has commented on an inversion today in Women’s Studies whereby the ‘old grand narrative…of a lost golden age’ has been replaced with a caricature of the past as a ‘wretched abyss from which today’s feminists have luckily escaped’ (2006: 39). Thus, she critiques universalist narratives both of progress for ‘Woman’ over the centuries and of regression or decline. Narratives of decline have been common amongst feminist historians and need not be so extreme, but, as historian of science and ecofeminist Carolyn Merchant suggests, there is all the more reason for such an approach when ecological concerns are also central (2003: 193).

The feminist metanarrative of an historical decline for ‘women’ challenged—and for good reason—the dominant androcentric narrative of a necessary progress for humanity associated with the development of ‘civilization’. The metanarrative, even in its extreme ‘matriarchal’ expression, found its way into ‘a host of popular books in the 1970s’, Bennett observes (2006: 38)—and, I would add including Fantasy books inspired by radical feminist history. She notes how still today feminists can ‘read popular books, attend public lectures, go on packaged tours, and buy statuary and jewelry that evoke the memory of this once glorious matriarchal (or, at least, sexually egalitarian) past’ (38). Here Bennett is acknowledging the fact that some matriarchy proponents have emphasized that ‘matriarchies’ were not an inversion of patriarchies, but more egalitarian. Carolyn Merchant, citing 1970s French feminist, Françoise d’Eaubonne, also comments on how the slow ‘death of the planet’ began with a ‘Fall’ from ‘a presumed matriarchy’ to patriarchy (195–96). While d’Eaubonne may have singled out plough agriculture as heralding this Fall, for her it was male power that was at fault, not the monopoly of surplus and wealth by elites in class or stratified societies as well.

There are both scholarly and political grounds for abandoning the matriarchy thesis, especially where it does involve the romanticization of systems of female dominance. Stella Georgoudi suggests another political consideration, that:

[t]o relegate woman’s power to the remote past, to assign it a place in ‘prehistory’, to associate it with barbarian, ‘gynecocratic’ regimes characterized by the absence of law and morality [is]…to write women out of the picture, to exclude them from…all history (Georgoudi 1992: 449–63).

One might be inclined to say ‘point taken’ in response to this, insofar as the matriarchy thesis can imply that women every-where (and ‘-when’) were completely disempowered under a universal ‘patriarchy’ that was always and everywhere the same. However, in my view it is a little hard to argue with the quite generalized and comparatively rapid trend toward class or caste inequalities, social hierarchies and male dominance that resulted from so-called ‘civilization’ in areas where that was the end result of transitions to settled agriculture.

This is no place to revisit in great detail debates amongst feminist historians on the origins of women’s oppression, periodization in history,3 and the efficacy of terms such as ‘matriarchy’ and even ‘patriarchy’.4 All are pertinent to the issue of feminist metanarratives in History and Fantasy, however, so some explanation is necessary. First, I might observe that ‘a non-patriarchy does not a “matriarchy” make’. Mere matrifocality (mother-centred families) or even that combined with matrilineality or bilateral inheritance cannot be equated with ‘matriarchy’, especially if that does refer to systemic female dominance. The same dualistic (either-or) logic has been at work both in the common assumption that patriarchy has been universal and its inverse: the assumption that, when it looks doubtful that historical societies, communities or tribes were systematically patriarchal, they must necessarily have been ‘matriarchal’. This sort of logic of inversion rules out a third possibility: a greater egalitarianism or complementarity in sex roles and familial-public authority (and if this is what is meant by the term ‘matriarchy’, why use it?).

A further problem with either thesis, of universal patriarchy and its inverse, is that universality has been assumed on the basis of ‘western’ norms, so that the origins of western civilization become ‘world’ origins. A temporal dividing line is frequently drawn between pre-patriarchal times and the rise of statehood, ‘civilization’, class society and patriarchy in ‘ancient’ times. In fact, it was only in a few scattered areas around the ancient world that intensive plough agriculture based on land ownership developed, while competing with and only sometimes displacing, and then very slowly, other modes of subsistence such as foraging, pastoralism and horticulture—modes that, historically, have tended to be less patriarchal. From Herodotus to medieval Han Chinese, ancient and later sources tended to suggest that ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ women, from Eurasian pastoralists to Indigenous North Americans, had more rights, influence and autonomy than women in ‘civilized’ states built on agricultural surpluses, landed property and social stratification (Stearns 2006). (Hence the critique of plough agriculture by Sara Douglass which was not confined to its ecological effects.) This does not necessarily make the Mongol or Iroqois peoples ‘matriarchal’, but in the case of peoples who were not consistently or obviously patriarchal, perhaps we should avoid using that term, too.

Even my suggestion that patriarchy was more associated historically with settled agriculture might be taken to imply a ‘grand narrative’. It does, that is, partly hinge upon a ‘materialist’ argument. What Bennett was referring to is the view influenced particularly by Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) that ‘matriarchal’ or at least matrifocal communities were gradually lost as agricultural surpluses and private (especially landed) property led to class/caste and male dominance. Bennett acknowledges how feminists in and from the 1970s (and let’s not overlook all the socialist feminists around the world before that) found political inspiration in the materialist idea that private property and stratified society had undermined ‘the primordial equality of women and men’; that if ‘matriarchal’ or at least matrifocal societies had once existed, they could again.

Materialist explanations of the origins of women’s oppression can be somewhat over-simplified. Obviously, economic relations have not been the sole determinants of the status of women, though women’s frequent exclusion from the control of agricultural production and landed property does seem to have been an important factor. Patriarchal constraints also differed with the amount of property to be transmitted; differed from class to class, that is. This may also be partly why other modes of subsistence around the world—where there was little or less property to be concerned with—have tended to be less patriarchal. If world historians have testified to the more egalitarian social organization, sexually and otherwise, that has been associated with foraging in particular, and pastoralism and horticulture to a lesser extent (Stearns 2006, Ponting 1991: 52-67, Ehrenberg 1989: 63–74), it is partly because non-agricultural modes of subsistence often did not involve so marked a division between public and private spheres; nor did they involve so strict a gendered division of labour. In addition, other factors such as writing, secular law and the ever-widening dissemination of text-based patriarchal religions impacted greatly on women, as did European colonialism later. Some religions/moral philosophies, such as Judeo-Christianity and Confucianism, were keenly concerned with intervening in the sexual morality of all followers rather than just those of the clergy. We have only to look at the Old Testament to find numerous examples of less sexual autonomy for women due to demands for secure paternity in patrilineal lines of succession and inheritance.

Finally, somewhat paradoxically, Bennett’s own alternative to a metanarrative of either progress or regression is to emphasize (European) examples of a ‘patriarchal equilibrium’: a lack of change for ‘women’ rather than change for the better or worse. This suggests a different grand narrative, but one that still elides ethnic, cultural or class differences amongst women. Although she acknowledges that ‘history-as-continuity’ does not exclude ‘history-as-change’, she does emphasize that ‘broad swathes of the past might have been shaped by a dynamic of “patriarchal equilibrium”’ (80). Yet, in any stratified society any swathe of the past could possibly be characterized by a patriarchal equilibrium for one class of women and regression or progress for another.

To return, then, to the subject of Fantasy, those historical Fantasists who suggest a regression model are perhaps not being as inventive as we might think—at least where they are not universalizing ‘women under patriarchy’ across class boundaries and different subsistence groups. Was Zimmer Bradley merely letting her imagination run wild when in The Firebrand she contrasted the world of elite women of ancient Greece with that of contemporaneous pastoralists? If her inspiration was historical, perhaps she did go too far in representing them as ‘free Amazons’ living without men, but there she may have been taking Herodotus at his word.5 Was Douglass just being inventive in The Axis Trilogy when she associated an authoritarian, patriarchal religion characterized by a suspicion of untamed Nature with plough agriculture and ‘The Book of Field and Furrow’? (Let’s not forget that the Genesis God put agriculture in male hands and gave him free reign to rule and exploit the earth and its creatures.) What would be untenable is the spiritual ecofeminist suggestion that women being displaced from (purportedly universal) leading roles in goddess-centred worship by patriarchal religions marked an implicitly universal transition from matriarchy to patriarchy.6

Some authors merely include ‘matriarchal’ communities of various descriptions in their Fantasy worlds, without necessarily implying that they were originary in ‘world’ terms. The examples of Andre Norton’s ‘Witchworld' (1963-1965) and Zimmer Bradley’s ‘Avalon’ (1983) works come to mind, as well as the more recent Otori series by Lian Hearn (2002) and another Australian, Kate Constable’s Chanters of Tremaris (2002). To the extent that such narratives can be taken to suggest only that clans, cities or communities run by women, whether comprised only of women—for example, religious communities if not ‘Amazon’ tribes—or of women and men, were one possible form of historical organization, perhaps they are not as ahistorical as we might think. At any rate, they do serve a political function that many would take to be legitimate. For, as Cranny-Francis argues, they suggest that ‘the subjugation of women is not a “natural” characteristic’ of human history’ (1990: 76-77).


In women’s Fantasy from the 1960s to today, authors’ inspirations are highly intertextual, and not only literary, for androcentrism both in the discipline of History and genre of Fantasy is routinely contested. History is utilized in such a way as to destabilize the ‘History as factual, Fantasy as fictive’ formula, through presenting Fantasy as partly believable, even if just with regard to drawing substantially upon historical research to reconstruct past worlds. On the other hand, contesting representations of past gender roles and sexual identities that are often taken as normative represents both a challenge to ‘malestream’ History and one way in which authors engage with feminist History, thought and critiques. As to the styles of feminism we find expressed in Fantasy, just as we might expect to encounter feminist ‘cyborg’ motifs in Science Fiction (but this does not exclude ecofeminist ones, too), Fantasy would seem to be a natural home for ecofeminist themes. Yet, works do not have to have recourse to the universal ‘Great Cosmic Mother’ myth to see women’s subjugation and environmental destruction as two sides of the same coin. Women’s Fantasy can be a ‘literature of subversion’ in a variety of ways. When it does contain explicit feminist critiques and alternative world-visions, these are much more varied than merely casting a ‘Morgaine’ or ‘Faraday Treefriend’ in leading roles in ‘fictional’ tales.
  1. A classic statement of the spiritual ecofeminist position can be found in the documentary series, Women and Spirituality (1989–92). It contains interviews with adherents of goddess spirituality such as Carol Christ, Merlin Stone and the ‘pagan witch’, Starhawk, who have drawn partly upon the often-disputed research of Marija Gimbutas (cf. Joan Marler, ed., 1991).
  2. This calls to mind a well-known radical feminist work entitled Witches, Midwives, and Healers (1973). More recent work on the European witchcraze (eg., Briggs 1996, or Purkiss 1996) has sought to dispel radical feminist myths that only women were targeted (about 80 per cent of the total were probably women but in a few areas over half were men); and that midwives (who often were witnesses for the prosecution) were frequently victimized.
  3. A defining statement on androcentric versus feminist periodization was Joan Kelly Gadol’s ‘The Social Relation of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women’s History’ (in Harding 1987: 15–28).
  4. The Feminist History Reader (Morgan 2006) reprints a 1979 exchange between British socialist-feminist historians, Sheila Rowbotham and others, that helped generate an ongoing debate on the efficacy of the term ‘patriarchy’, partly because of its purported association with woman as victim (rather than agent) approaches to history.
  5. The ancient Greek accounts of ‘Amazon’ tribes could have been entirely mythical or just exaggerated. The reports cited by Herodotus may have been of West Asian pastoralist women tending and defending herds while most of the men were away. (Herodotus cited in Stearns 2006: 28–29)
  6. Prehistorian, Margaret Ehrenberg, has argued convincingly against Gimbutas and her spiritual feminist followers. She looked more carefully at the archaeological ‘evidence’ for ‘a significant continent-wide cult of a Mother Goddess’: surviving figurines from various areas (Turkey, the Mediterranean, Europe), in varying shapes and sizes, found in different sorts of locations, and dating from very different periods (from c.25000 to c.2000 BCE). The last issue alone should suggest caution, since a ‘universal religion based on a specific female goddess’ was unlikely in Palaeolithic Europe because foragers typically are animist and ‘personified deities’ were the product of ‘stratified societies’. See Ehrenberg 1989: 73–74.

Works of Fantasy and Sci Fi

Constable, Kate (2002) Chanters of Tremaris, Book One: The Singer of All Songs, Crows Nest NSW, Allen and Unwin.

Douglass, Sara (1995–96) The Axis Trilogy, Sydney, Harper Collins Publishers.

(1995) Book One: Battleaxe

(1996a) Book Two: Starman

(1996b) Book Three: Enchanter

--- (1997–99) The Wayfarer Redemption, Sydney, Harper Collins Publishers.

(1997) Sinner

(1998) Pilgrim

(1999) Crusader

Fallon, Jennifer (2000–01) Demon Child Trilogy, Sydney, Voyager, HarperCollins (Medalon, Treason Keep, and Farshini)

Forsyth, Kate (1997–2002) The Witches of Eileanan (six volumes), Sydney, Arrow Books, Random House.

--- (2004–06) Rhiannon’s Ride, Sydney, Arrow Books, Random House (trilogy: Tower of Ravens, The Shining City, and The Heart of Stars).

Hamilton, Laurell K. (2000) A Kiss of Shadows, New York, Ballantine Books.

--- (2002) A Caress of Twilight, New York, Ballantine Books.

--- (2004) Seduced By Moonlight, London, Bantam Books (Transworld Publishers).

--- (2005) A Stroke of Midnight, New York, Ballantine Books.

--- (2007) Mistral’s Kiss, New York, Ballantine Books.

Hearn, Lian (2002), Across the Nightingale Floor (trilogy), Episodes I & II, Sydney, Hodder Australia.

Kelso, Sylvia (2007), Amberlight, Rockville MD, Juno Books.

Le Guin, Ursula (1971) A Wizard of Earthsea, Puffin Books.

--- (1974) The Tombs of Atuan, Puffin Books.

--- (1974) The Farthest Shore, Puffin Books.

--- (1992) Tehanu, Puffin Books.

--- (2002) The Other Wind, London, Orion.

Norton, Andre (2001) The Gates to the Witch World, New York, Orb (this contains the first three volumes of her Witchworld series—Witch World, Web of the Witch World, & Year of the Unicorn, first published 1963 to 1965).

Tepper Sheri (1999) The Gate to Women’s Country, London, Voyager, HarperCollins (first published 1988).

Zimmer Bradley, Marion (1985) Thendara House, London, Legend (Arrow Books).

--- (1993) The Mists of Avalon, Penguin Books (first published 1983);

--- (1994) The Firebrand, Penguin Books (first published 1987).

--- (1995) The Forest House, Penguin Books (first published 1993)

Film and Websites
National Film Board of Canada (1989–92) Women and Spirituality, N.Y., Wellspring Media (1. Goddess Remembered, 2. The Burning Times, 3. Full Circle),


Secondary Literature

Barthes, Roland (1997) Excerpt from ‘The Discourse of History’, reproduced in Keith Jenkins, ed., The Postmodern History Reader, London and New York, Routledge, 120–23

Bennett, Judith M. (2006) History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006,

Bowerbank, Sylvia (1996) ‘Does Women Speak for Nature? Towards a Genealogy of Ecological Feminisms’, in Nina Lykke and Rosi Braidotti, eds, Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine and Cyberspace, London and New Jersey, Zed Books, 120–32

Briggs, Robin (1996) Witches & Neighbours: the Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft, London, HarperCollins.

Cranny-Francis, Anne (1990) Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction, New York, St. Martin’s Press.

Davion, Victoria (1994) ‘Is Ecofeminism Feminist?’, in Karen J. Warren, ed., Ecological Feminism, London and New York, Routledge, 8–28

Ehrenberg, Margaret (1989) Women in Prehistory, Norman and London, University of Oklahoma Press.

Ehrenreich, B. (1973) Witches, Midwives, and Healers: A History of Women Healers, Old Westbury, N.Y., The Feminist Press.

Georgoudi, Stella (1992) ‘Creating a Myth of Matriarchy’, in Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, eds, A History of Women in the West, I. From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, Cambridge, Mas. and London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 449–463

Gram-Hanssen, Kirsten (1996) ‘Objectivity in the Description of Nature: Between Social Construction and Essentialism,’ in Nina Lykke and Rosi Braidotti, eds, Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine and Cyberspace, London and New Jersey, Zed Books, 88–102.

Griffin, Susan (1978), Woman and Nature, San Francisco, Harper & Row.

Jackson, Rosemary (1981) Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion, New York and London, Methuen.

Kelly Gadol, Joan (1987) ‘The Social Relation of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women’s History’, in Sandra Harding, ed., Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 15–28.

Kelso, Sylvia (1997) A Glance from Nowhere: Sheri Tepper’s Fantasy and SF, New Lambton Sydney, Nimrod Publications.

Larbalestier, Justine, ed. (2006) Daughter of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

Marler, Joan ed., (1991) The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe, San Francisco, Harper

Martin, Julia (1996) ‘On Healing Self/Nature’, in Nina Lykke and Rosi Braidotti, eds, Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine and Cyberspace, London and New Jersey, Zed Books, 103–19.

Mendlesohn, Farah (2008) Rhetorics of Fantasy, Middletown Con., Wesleyan University Press.

Merchant, Carolyn (2003) Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture, New York and London, Routledge.

Morgan, Sue, ed. (2006) The Feminist History Reader, London and New York, Routledge.

Ponting, Clive (1991) A Green History of the World, Penguin.

Purkiss, Diane (1996) The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations, London, Routledge.

Spivack, Charlotte (1987) Merlin’s Daughters: Contemporary Women Writers of Fantasy, New York, Westport Connecticut & London, Greenwood Press.

Stearns, Peter (2006) Gender in World History, London and New York, Routledge (Second Edition).

Warren, Karen J., ed. (1996) Ecological Feminist Philosophies, Bloomington Indianapolis, Indiana University Press.

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