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Title paraphrased from a Sylvie collection…

Clearly I think the answer is yes. But to make the argument, one would first have to have some sense of what the nouns in the question mean. “Fantasy” and “novel” can be described together by example—The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Bridge to Terabithia, the Earthsea trilogy, perhaps The Hunger Games, loads of crap like the Aurian novels, even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series or The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath; but not genuine horror like the rest of Lovecraft, Gothic items like the Twilight novels or any of Stephen King.

But what is a feminist? Maybe my dad was a feminist—he defended the rights of women in his last workplace, where female junior execs had been expected, unlike their male counterparts, to take their turn making the office coffee. (On the other hand, he was also an unrepentant sexist in other ways.) A feminist might just be someone who promotes the rights of women, a proponent of equal pay and so on. But isn’t that just basic fairness? Might that even be viewed as trying to force round pegs into square holes? Maybe a feminist is someone who recognizes the special place women have in our species, and exalts women above other humans for their creative nature, their power to make and nurture new life. Sure… except that the people who make women wear burkhas think they’re doing just that.

The problem is this: If feminism means eliminating barriers that keep women from doing the things men can do, that doesn’t seem to give women credit for things they can (perhaps) do better than men; you could see it as forcing women to compete in areas where men have a natural advantage. On the other hand, if feminism means celebrating and accentuating women’s special role in our species as mothers and nurturers, the logical conclusion is to keep women in the home having babies and changing diapers while men go out to hunt mammoth and club members of other tribes.

And there you have two tribes of feminism:

(1) Promoters and protectors of women as they open up new regions of what had been a man’s world

(2) Celebrants of women’s special role as nurturers and creators of life

And then there is that third tribe, care of Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin:

(3) Separatists who want to see women create an entirely female-centered society (this view can be excluded from the present discussion, because I would have no standing to discuss such matters)

I come at this from a particular angle, because not only am I a highly accomplished unpublished novelist (!!!), but also because I have been teaching math at the college level for exactly thirty years now. I’ve had to argue over and over with people who feel that women and girls are inherently bad at higher math. (They aren’t.) And here is my observation about the difference between men and women:

Paul’s Observation: The differences between women and men vanish as the topic of interest moves away from reproduction and muscle mass.

So are women better or worse than men as senators, medical doctors, architects, French chefs, rabbis? Are they good in different ways from men? I don’t think so. But as a social species, humans have the ability to enforce roles and attitudes even when they don’t represent an actual in-born difference: thus in 1950 it would have been considered absurd for a woman to lead a Methodist congregation or a team of astrophysicists, but in 2015 these things happen without anyone batting an eye.

Long ago, in graduate school, I had the privilege of teaching Calculus I and II in a residence hall. The students came from the dorm and its neighbor dorms; we met at 9 am, right next to the cafeteria, and they came straight from breakfast, sometimes in bathrobes. This was at the University of Illinois, where they run dozens of Calc I and II classes in a year, but since the students came from the dorm, my Calc I class in the fall tended to stay on as my Calc II class in the spring. I typically had 60% of the fall Calc I students in my spring Calc II class.

One year I noticed that in Calc I there were about 50% women, and their grade average was about the same as the men. In the spring, I had 28 men and 6 women; the women’s average was a letter grade higher than the men. What had happened? Confidence had happened. The women who did badly (like, got a C) in Calculus I did not take Calculus II, but the men did. The women who did move on to Calc II were the ones who were really good at it, and they killed the men in the grade curve.

If only I had figured out how to make the women in Calc I who got Cs more confident in their abilities, we might have had equal numbers and equal grades between the two classes—and we might have had that many more women with STEM discipline degrees. But I did learn something from this. I learned that I have a duty to instill confidence along with mathematics (or whatever).

So what is the role of the feminist fantasy writer? Is there one? (Is fantasy automatically anti-feminist? I know people who think so. I think they’re guilty of anti-fantasy chauvinism.)

Vince Lombardi once said, “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” In a world where women can do anything they have the confidence to do, the feminist imperative for a writer is to empower. It’s to tell stories about women succeeding, overcoming, women unbound by roles that don’t bind men. You can see that even in poor old Aurian, whose hero overcomes the death of her parents and the violent opposition of powerful enemies—and who passes through the quintessential female ordeal, having a child. You can also see it in Hunger Games and Harry Potter and, actually, in a lot of Terry Pratchett. (Not so much Tolkien.) Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen and Tiffany Aching of Pratchett’s A Hat full of Sky: none of them stays within some female-only preserve, but at the same time none of them seem interchangeable with male characters. Their authors let them succeed in the world, not “a man’s world,” just the world, not in spite of their feminine nature and yet not exactly because of their feminine nature.

I think this is the most important point. As statisticians I know like to point out:

Differences within groups exceed differences between groups.

Women characters, like women in the real world, are distinctly female and not male, but the difference is subtle, it’s the difference between New Hampshire and Vermont, not the difference between Mars and Venus. And the feminist writer’s responsibility is to show characters, male and female, in all their strength and resolve, in all their potential and all their accomplishment, overcoming challenges and achieving something beautiful, even through sacrifice.

I always have more to say. If my readers (both of them!) will permit me, I want to post one more blog about this, tentatively entitled “Things I swear I will not do to any of my characters.”

And soon, very soon, all too soon perhaps, I will begin posting my next opus, a pure fantasy sword and sorcery veritably Dungeons and Dragons inspired novel tentatively called Daisy and the Dreaded Key.

Thoughts?

 

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