This applies equally to science fiction. Often, the cultures in science fiction are based on something we've seen before. As humans, we reach to the past to imagine the future. The Romulans are Romans, the Klingons are Vikings, and while they both surpass this limited categorization, their basis is in the past. We often create species based on what we know can exist, because it does exist or has existed in some form. If we are not aware of historical women, and their roles in history, we fail to imagine them in the future.
3) Extraordinary women are rare in history, so there isn't much to base them on. Women didn't go on quests or fight battles.
Totally untrue. While the roles of women in history are often less documented, there have always been women involved. Their roles may be different--in a variety of ways dependent on the era and culture in which they lived--but I fail to see how that makes them less important or compelling. They give themselves in marriage to ensure the peace of their nation (too many to name), they scheme and twist and sometimes murder to get their sons or husbands on “men-only” thrones (also too many to name), they lead revolts against enemy armies to revenge rape and the killing of their neighbors (Boudicca), and they struggle to overthrow ancient religious traditions (Nefertiti). How is any of that in any way less worthy of story time than the historical deeds of men?
The women of Greece, Egypt, the Celts, and even medieval Europe (to name just a few) often found themselves fighting, leading battles or defending their villages, towns and cities. The Scythian/Sarmatian/Sauromatian women might as well have been born on horseback with a bow and full quiver. They weren't even allowed to marry until they'd killed in battle.
Also, historically speaking, medieval women went off to the Crusades just as men did until around 1096. After that, they usually stayed behind when men went off to war, but were expected to be able to defend their homes and take care of the day to day running of estates, counties and entire nations. There are many historical accounts of women who fended off sieges, led war parties, or came to power at this time. This was, after all, a time when one's home was as likely to be attacked as one's war party. The fall of the Roman Empire left a void into which many warlords galloped and the menfolk were, quite often, dead or away.
When the church was the highest authority both men and women made pilgrimages to holy sites. Before that in "pagan" times women were often the ones sent to holy sites, especially if it was a goddess who needed to be appeased. And then there's the Elysian Mysteries, which drew people from all over the ancient Mediterranean world, men and women both, on a quest. How is being a priestess of Bast or a Delphic oracle a less powerful position than what men have held? The oracle of Delphi practically controlled the politicians of ancient Greece.
Even if these were “rare roles” for women (they weren't), why should we only portray "typical" women? The male heroes are almost always 'exceptional' in some way. Why shouldn't it be so for the women as well? And if they are going against the gender roles of your society why sacrifice the extra depth that adds to the story? That should add to the character, and yet so often we see it only subtracting because authors don't run with it, not because it can't be run with.
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