Gender and combat roles in history and fiction

Today, I’ll have a look at the difference when it comes to participation in combat by gender – starting with some look into history and bilogy and then how fiction can change some of the aspects, as well as one of the major tropes.

History and biology

If you look into history, you’ll see that armies were (almost) exclusively made up by men. And while the difference in physical strength is there, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no women strong enough to fight, or no men too weak to fight. Trained woman could beat an untrained man. Hell, I can give an example myself: when I was doing a 1500m run as relatively untrained (when it comes to running, at least) and doing my best, I hit the finish line at the same time as a woman used to running regularly – and I had to push myself to my limits.

Training leads to skill, which can mitigate the physical differences to a degree – but then weapons and gear also come into the equation and it gets even more complex.

In fact, the major reason are biological, but somewhere else: in a world when it was not uncommon to have 5+ children (due to higher child mortality). By the time a woman would be done raising her children, she’d be close to the end of her prime age.

I think that’s enough for a quick summary but there’s a YouTube video by a medieval fantasy enthusiast Shad M. Brooks where it’s explained in detail:

The impact of technology

Over time, new weapons came to be. The first major step was the crossbow: while a bow relies on the user’s strength for the power a shot deals, a crossbow takes care of this, leaving the user with only one thing to do: aim it well. Yeah, I exxagerated it a bit, but the point stands. It’s definitely easier to train a bunch of folks to fire a crossbow than to give them a full combat training should their home be threatened – and if they have the advantage of first strike and knowing their land, such an improvised defense can do quite some damage.

The invention of gunpowder just took this on a new level. Yes, you still need some strength to shoulder the recoil but the damage a bullet can do really squishes the impact of gender in both the shooter and the target. Today’s ground war is about gear the most, and then skill. Even when it comes to vehicles, gear matters the most – in the quality of the vehicle (be it a tank or a jet) AND the support it’s provided (finding targets via satellites, ammo support, etc.), combined with the driver’s/pilot’s skills. Those aspects will be even more dominant in Sci-Fi in case of wars in space. Hi-tech armor will even further diminish the differences.


Elven archer art from Wolrd of WarCraft TCG (Glenn Rane, 2006)

The typical fantasy tends to be at medieval level of technology, which meaks most of what I said in the first section very valid.

Until elves are thrown into the mix. This is not just about the potential physical differences (as elves tend to be more athletic) but about the lifespan. I’ve touched the challenges of longer lifespan in the past, so let’s get to the specific related to this topic.

If a medieval woman had a lifespan of 50-60 years and spent 15-20 of it raising children, that’s 20%-30% of her total life and close to half of her adult life. If an elven woman with lifespan of 500 years spent 20 years caring for children, it’s squished by a zero to 2-3%. And if she lives for 5000 years… I guess you get the point.

Longevity is a complete gamechanger – if an elf matures (almost) as fast as a human (not uncommon in fantasy) but lives much longer, it means that women can be viable recruits just because of the abovementioned difference.

Which gets us to another point: would women, in such a case, want to fight? This question has no simple answer and depends a lot on how the fictional society functions – and thus it’s on each author to make a good background in any case. Still, there tend to be differences in motivations – women would be more likely to fight in defense in their home than going on a conquest campaign around the world.

The latter aspect is something I’ve decided to use in my own writing: while women are quite rare in the infantry, the numbers are closer to even among the archers, the guards (which, similar to a street cops, guard their hometowns), and Magic-Breakers (I’ve described how I came up with them, what they are, and what their role is in my world in past as well). The last two cases build on the fact it’s more reactive/protective role than anything else.

As for the female elven archer archetype… it’s hard to guess exactly where it came from but I believe part of it is because female elves are often shown having an athletic build, which seems to fit an archer more and leaves males for the frontlines – though this gender division has its own issues.

And it looks cool, especially when they’re given hand-carved bows.

Before I fully wrap this up: Mary on Wild Writing Dreams made a post about how women fight, if they have to, that might give some other kind of insight…

And that’s it for today. I hope my latest mix of fiction, history, and biology was interesting enough. Feel free to share your opinions on the topic.

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