When creating my worlds some of the primary questions I start with are:
1. Does magic exist?
2. What can it do?
3. What will it change?
What will it change is the thing which fascinates me. It's so central to the process of my novel-writing, that I'm embarking on a series of posts about the impacts of magic, exploring magic and worldbuilding. For the purposes of this exercise, the answer to (1) is Yes and (2) is Lots!
The first topic on the cards is one which is of primary interest to me: Women.
What does the existence of bountiful, working magic mean to women?
Using magic to get a baby is at least as old as Rapunzel, but magic's key benefit is the avoidance of babies. Whether charmed necklaces, potions, or useful cantrips, effective, readily obtainable birth control can bring about a fundamental shift in the world's society, primarily because the threat of an unplanned pregnancy will no longer hang over "non-committed" sex. Additionally, couples might choose to delay children, to spend more time consolidating wealth or pursuing careers and interests.
And, of course, magic offers the possibility of not only safer childbirth, or safer abortion, but can toss out all those doubts concerning paternity. Where does that leave that insistence on virgin brides? A quick divination before the marriage vows to confirm that there's no baby on the way (or if there is, then the groom was involved), then it's time for the ceremony!
Will birth control necessarily bring about a sexually free society? Of course not. But the chances are much higher, and when building that high-magic fantasy world, it's worth taking the time to ask "why not?" and follow through which rules and symbols (that hymen veil, for instance) will be absent or altered as a result.
Women are not measurably less intelligent than men, or less perceptive, or less agile. They share the same number of limbs, the same senses, the same ability to walk upright, to pick up tools and use them. Yet women, through broad stretches of history and across multiple cultures, have been reduced to chattel - property passed from father to husband.
At its most simplified, this power imbalance comes down the fact that men are physically stronger than women. If you ever see any cartoon about caveman courtship, it will involve a woman being dragged back to the cave by her hair. While, arguably, women are less aggressive than men due to lower testosterone levels, there's a difference between being less aggressive and accepting without protest no property rights, no voting rights, no ability to say No.
Now add working magic to that caveman courtship. Back in prehistory days, we'd expect a fairly simplified form of magic, perhaps a matter of will and emotion. Are you really going to risk dragging sexycavegirl99 around by her hair if, when she's driven and desperate and frightened enough, she can make you burst into flame? Suddenly gender equality hits the negotiating table.
Of course, it's not just a question of mating rituals. A woman who can detonate boulders when she's riled would likely have some interesting approaches to hunting mammoths. If you're having a war, do you send the women to cower in the caverns beneath the fort when they can call lightning down on your enemies? And not to forget the Buffy Summers Effect - just because you tower over the pint-sized blonde doesn't mean she won't have some inborn ability to kick you down the street when you try to drag her into a convenient alley.
Again, no guarantee. The society which forms around women who can overcome inferiority of strength with an equalizer such as guardian spirits will not necessarily be any less inclined to call them chattel. But the odds are better, and when you're putting your world together, and you decide how your magic works, you have to ask: if women can do THIS, why do they allow THAT?
There's a great many more things which will impact on women in a world of actual, working magic, although I think Babies and Strength are the pivotal alterations. I called this section "Other" because it's common to discuss woman's role as "The Other", and there's always a bunch of people who work from the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" point of view - believing that men and women are too fundamentally different to ever really understand each other, to ever really step into each other's shoes and KNOW what it is to be a man, to be a woman, to be Other.
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