Genre Talk

Gender Equity, Fantasy Edition

Flying owl birdThere’s a lot of brouhaha going on over in the land of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America these days about the sci fi/fantasy world old-boys’ network, or the perception of it, and whether said organization buys into it or not. And I have an opinion, yes I do, but I don’t plan to step into that particular steaming pool of kaka here.

Instead, let’s talk about fantasy characters. More specifically, fantasy characters who can do magic. And what they’re called. Because names have meaning (I mean, remember he-who-shall-not-be-named Voldemort? Oops.)

Harry Potter’s as good place to start as any. Here’s the way it works, quite often, in fantasy of all sorts–urban, traditional, whatever. Wizards are male; witches are female. Wizards are more powerful than witches, although witches are often smarter. In the end, however, wizards are more powerful than witches.

Why the hell can’t women be wizards? Men can be witches, after all. There are male witches in the Southern Vampires series (aka Sookie). There are male witches in the Hollows series. The oh-so-enlightened Harry Dresden series has female wizards. Who else? That’s what I thought.

Back in 2009, when I sat down to write the book that would eventually become Royal Street, the first book in the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series, my heroine, DJ, was going to be a shapeshifter. She wasn’t going to be a spectacular wolf or bear or lion shifter. She was going to be a terrier, patterned after my own “Irish terror,” Shane O’Mac. In fact the whole idea started as an idea for a children’s book and somehow took a wide left turn and, all of a sudden, I went from talking horses to rampaging voodoo gods, with DJ the shapeshifter right in the middle of it all.

Then a funny thing happened about halfway through writing the first chapter (thank God). I stumbled across the transcript of a speech given by fantasy’s Sir Terry Pratchett called “Why Galdalf Never Married.”

Was Gandalf too ornery? Did the pointy hat frighten women away? Did he drag his beard through the soup when he ate, creating a smelly barrier to intimacy? Were the ladies not turned on by that whole “You Shall Not Pass” thing with the Balrog?

No, Gandalf never married because there were no female wizards, Pratchett says. And I realized he was right, at least to some extent. Oh sure, the Dresden Files series has a few. But women are usually relegated to “witches” a la Harry Potter, as if their gender makes them incapable of actual wizardry. Now, Hermione is undoubtedly smarter than Harry—no question about that. She’s also powerful in her own right…but not as powerful as a wizard. Professor McGonagall (sorry if I misspelled it; I’m too lazy to look it up) is smart and oh-so-competent, but not so powerful as Dumbledore. Harry and Albus, with their pure hearts and courage, will always be the stronger ones. Hermione got stuck with Ron Weasley, a nice enough boy although not a mental giant. Even JK Rowling is regretting that one, I hear.

I started digging around a bit further and, yes, wizards have been primarily male. And when you have male wizards and female witches, the wizards are always more powerful. Wiser. Stronger.

That kind of pissed me off.

So DJ shed her shapeshifter persona (again, I consider this divine intervention) and became a wizard. She’s not the strongest wizard on the block, but she’s got some skills. Her magic tends to be more of the geeky variety than flashy poof and zap. Her ritual magic is strong, but she has to work at it.  She grows with each book in the series.

The male wizards always sell her short—always—especially the bureaucratic men who form the Congress of Elders (patterned after the U.S. Congress, which should tell you they talk a lot but actually do very little).

But DJ is gradually getting them to take her seriously. In Royal Street, she was untested and flying by the seat of her pants (because, not being a witch, she had no broom), struggling to survive in a New Orleans that had just been slammed to rubble and drowned by Hurricane Katrina.

The reason I limited her physical magic and made her specialty ritual magic is because I didn’t want to make post-Katrina life easy for her. Like the rest of us living in NOLA during those sad, scorching, soggy days of Katrina, she has to do without electricity. No air conditioning in hundred-degree weather. No reliable drinking water. No phone. No Internet. “Coffin flies” swarming out of the sinks.

Oh, and an undead pirate Jean Lafitte hot on her trail, an undead Louis Armstrong acting as a spy, and a preternatural power play in the making. And did I mention her new alpha-male, monosyllabic partner Alex? Alex is the shapeshifter, and he turns into a big, fluffy dog. Admittedly, he’s big and fierce. But he ain’t no wolf. He’s kinda sensitive about that.

Female wizards? You bet. Throw out that glass ceiling, Gandalf, and find you a woman.

Have you read books featuring female wizards? Share them with us! I’ll choose one commenter to receive a signed copy of one of my books or a swag pack.

27 thoughts on “Gender Equity, Fantasy Edition

  1. I love your intellectual vocabulary – wasn’t what’s her name (DJ) in Royal Road a wizard? Yeah ok you covered that. I make notes as I read. Anyway don’t wizards and witches have different skills? Not gender based ones?

    Nope, kiddo you’re the only one I’ve read with lady wizards

    • LOL, Sue–it was “steaming pool of kaka” that gave away my intellectual bent, wasn’t it? 🙂 The Dresden series is the only other one I’ve found, but maybe someone here can offer one up. The gauntlet has been tossed!

    • If you like urban fantasy, definitely. It’s my absolute favorite UF series. Harry Dresden is a wizard p.i. The worldbuilding is great. Good characters. Dry humor. The first book, Storm Front, is probably the weakest but it’s because he’s setting up the characters and the world. It gets better and better. LOVE this series!

  2. Is a sorceress the same thing as a female wizard? I’m adding Morgana Le Fey and Circe from legends to the mix, but of course, they were evil. Great post! Go DJ!

  3. And a mighty fine wizard she is! Love D.J. and her staff Charlie, she does have her problems with control. Will we see Charlie in Pirate’s Alley?

  4. I’ve recently fallen in love with the Raine Benares series by Lisa Shearin. Raine is an Elf and a magician. No wizards or witches, they are all magicians. But they do have different strains of magic, there are spellsingers and mirror magicians and those good in warfare. Raine is a Seeker.
    I have to admit, I thought the word wizard was gender related, not power related. Just like steward and stewardess, host and hostess, wizard and witch. But I have also seen it explained as the difference in power base. Witches receive their power from the earth itself, from everything that lives. And wizards take it with force, hurting those they take it from, or create their own magic by using spells and potions.

    • Ooh, elf and magician–interesting. We don’t hear magicians often, although as I recall Harry Dresden’s father was a traveling magician who had “real” skills. I don’t think wizard/witch is gender related except by tradition, though.

  5. oki i’ve tried to think but i can’t think of any, no …. but i admit it took me some times to really graps the questions because in the fantasy i’ve read i means in the translated one the difference isn’t keps we have ” sorcier./ sorcière” ( = witch) magicien/magicienne or also enchanteur/ enchantress ( wizards)…so yes we do get both males and female but in the translation now that i read more in english i saw the specificity of the vocabulary and it’s true that it’s enerving when we see female always or too often at least as the weaker link, i don’t see why they couldn’t do as good as the male… it strange howthe same book in translation or not can have a different impact on a reader depending on teh langage used

    • That is interesting! I think most often, English words don’t have male or female connotations as in French, for example. Although I have seen “wizardess” once or twice. I remember actors used to be actors/male and actresses/female, but now women want to be called actors as well. Changing times!

      • i think that ‘s even more interesting because while in english woman want to be called teh same, in french recently they have started the now orthography with sevral name that were neutral ( ex author was both for male and female in french expect we could put “a female author” if we really wanted to point it…. now they have created word to have a female one and i hate that to an high degre… they say it’s to see female/ women getting the same attention or power but in my eyes it does teh opposite ( and let be logic for hundred years we had one orthographe and now they suddenly want to xchange it..; iot doesn’t sound good, it hurts the eyes arf…stupid politic as we needed a “e” at teh end of a word to know we can do teh function

  6. Great post! 🙂 Looking forward to reading your book with a female wizard. Often (like in Pratchett and Butcher), “wizards” and “witches” are actually different kinds of beings (ie: different power sources and focus). Your post was great for pointing out that this may be another form of gender inequality as often the “witches” aren’t as powerful – especially individually (they require a coven). I wonder if the difference is intentional and / or simply traditional usage, which doesn’t necessarily make it less harmful.

    • Thank you! In most of the books I’ve read, they are different kinds of beings, with the witches less powerful. I think it’s probably more tradition than intentional, but it’s interesting that the tradition has carried on for so long. Kudos to Jim Butcher for making the head of his wizards council a woman!

  7. You’re right… it is difficult to think of paranormals where the heroine has the most power! In the Shadow Reader series, McKenzie is the best shadow reader… In the Iron Fey series, Megan kicks butt. In the Elemental series, the Spider is TOPS! LOL! That’s the only ones I can think of off the top of my head. Of course, I love DJ in your Royal Road series… Thanks for giving us an awesome female heroine!

    • Thanks! Of course, DJ isn’t the most powerful of wizards, but she’s aware of the inequity in her world and that her significant something-or-other (as she calls him) makes more money than her because he theoretically has the high-risk job, whereas she’s always the one on the front lines.

  8. Great post on gender equity of wizards and witches! The Sentinels of New Orleans and the Dresden series are the only two series with female wizards that I know of. With the great advances women have made in our society, it’s about time for more equity in the fantasy world.

  9. I always thought the universe of Dune was interesting for this. The women of the Bene Gesserit were able to tap into the reality of existence where men were simply unable (women are superior!) – except, however, for the male kwisatz haderach who was able to take that final step and fully become the superman (men are superior!).

    I wonder how often the rule is more: men and women are generally equal, but the one who is uniquely special and powerful is male.

    Tolkien’s wizards (Gandalf & co.) were demi-gods rather than humans, and in his world women were nurturing figures while the men were warriors. There were some very powerful female figures there – especially Luthien and Galadriel, who were never represented as inferior to male peers (as far as I can recall).

    I’ve never seen why women can’t be wizards. It always felt more like an boys’ club with women-not-allowed-to-join rather than a fundamental women-can’t-be-wizards thing. I’m tempted to mention Lyndon Hardy’s trilogy, but I can’t quite remember the balance of genders there.

    (In my first novel, there were only wizards, not witches, and there was no correlation between gender and power. The great and immensely powerful emperor was male, yes, but the most powerful of the gods was female, and her high priestess was arguably the most capable and ultimately the most dangerous of all the wizards.)

    • I know it’s heresy not to have read the Dune books, but…sigh. I do think you’re probably right, though, about the “uniquely special and powerful.” I think Tolkien’s gender roles were generally a reflection of the period in which he lived and wrote, although Galadriel certain broke the mold. She listened to her husband, but she was the decision-maker, as I recall. I love that your novel features both male and female wizards !

  10. After this pits I really started thinking about it and your right. In every book pretty much featuring magic the women are witches and the men wizards. The wizards are always more powerful except in the instances were the witch goes evil. It’s refreshing that DJ is powerful but more in her intelligence and that her power grows with each book. Here’s to more female wizards in literature. 🙂

    • Thanks, Stephanie! Yes, I was determined that DJ’s greatest asset would be her brain and her creativity and her growing independence. Which is probably why she’s never going to make Elder or fit in with the establishment 🙂

  11. Hmm. Interesting.. seems to me there’s no reason why the words ‘wizard’ and ‘witch’ should be single-gender.

    Which makes me wonder: are they even actually different things? If Gandalf were a woman, with the same powers, what would we call her – ‘witch’ or ‘wizard’? If Harry Dresden were female, would she be a ‘witch’? Do we just gravitate to using ‘witch’ for girls and ‘wizard’ for boys?

    Historically, the Catholic Church didn’t care if you were a man or a woman – a witch was a witch. But I’m thinking that in many people’s minds, they are gender-specific words. Authors who use ‘mage’ or ‘magic-user’ or even ‘sorcerer’ don’t seem to feel the need to have separate words for males and females (though there are a few ‘sorceresses’ wandering the pages).

    So yeah. Affirmative action for female wizards!

    • The leader of nine riders was the Witch-King of Angmar. I suspect in Middle Earth that wizardry was something far superior to witchcraft. Galadriel was a sorceress rather than a witch or wizard, I think, but the elves were always confused when people asked about magic.

      So many women were burned as witches that it’s sometimes forgotten that men died as witches too.

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