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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

It's a Woman's World. . . Or At Least it Should Be!

Hilary Doda
December 29, 2000
It's a Woman's World. . . Or At Least it Should Be!

Creating a setting for a game, whether for a new game, a new campaign or a new scenario within an ongoing game, can be difficult. You don't want to repeat something that's been done a thousand times before, but it has to make some kind of logical sense, otherwise your players will be left scratching their heads in confusion. It's easy to fall back on something you know, whether it be the medieval hierarchies with nobles and peasants, or futuristic corporations holding a city in their ever-tightening grip. The old faithfuls' can provide a valuable source for setting material, but a few twists and quirks thrown in can keep your players off-balance and prevent them from falling into the trap of complacency.

Today's western civilization has been described as many things, but the one word that seems to pop up over and over, in social commentary and political rabble-rousing, is patriarchy.' It's a weighted term nowadays, bringing to mind images of snarling, whip-cracking, evil men using every bit of power at their disposal to oppress the poor women caught in their oozing snares. While some may consider that an accurate portrayal of both historical and modern western society, the term itself is part of a set of terms describing basic power relationships within a group or culture.

Monarchy: power concentrated into the hands of a single person.
Oligarchy: power concentrated into the hands of a few people.
Anarchy: power in the hands of no-one.
Patriarchy: power concentrated into the hands of males
Matriarchy: power concentrated into the hands of females

While no-one will really argue the existence of a patriarchal society today, many theorists are at odds with each other over the possibility of a matriarchy; that is, whether there has ever been a civilization which can be classified as having the bulk of the society's power resting in the hands of the women. Various pieces of evidence have been put forward by both sides, without much resolution. What has been agreed upon, however, is that women can play a very important role in forming and maintaining the structure of a society and its behaviors. Manipulating that influence can shift a stock society into one that is familiar enough to inspire serious roleplay while being just off-kilter enough to keep the players on edge.

Two concepts vital to understanding social organization are locality and lineage, both expressions of certain kinds of power within a group, and both of which can be expressed in terms of female power or influence.

Wherever You Go, There I Shall Go: Matrilocality

Put simply, a society can be described as matrilocal when children reside in the home of the mother, even after marriage. Households in this kind of society often consist of multi-generation buildings or complexes, and decisions made about the home are deferred to the oldest living female (we'll call her Mother for clarity) in the direct line. The Mother may well be considered subservient to her husband outside the home, be one of two or more wives or have more than one husband, but what she says in her own house is usually the rule to follow on pain of exile.

Whether a newly married couple lives with the man's mother or the woman's mother is up to the GM, and can be based on a huge number of factors depending on the culture you're trying to evoke. A society where men and women are considered equal could involve an element of choice or a residence decision based on wealth or class factors, while a society that values one gender above the other presents its own options. The child who leaves home will often be less valued than the one who brings a spouse and children into the household. The child who is destined to leave may be seen as a drain on the resources of the family and the family will eventually lose the benefits of their labor, whereas the child who will stay will bring in more people to help with the work, and will be around to tend the parents in their old age.

This kind of social structure, which gathers a family into a very concentrated area, indicates a society with a large emphasis on communal rights as opposed to individual rights. The presence of so many able-bodied youngsters in one complex would be very handy for an agricultural society with relatively low levels of technology, where large numbers of active people would be needed to plant and tend crops and/or animal herds.

On the other hand, matrilocality could indicate a regimented society where tight levels of control are placed on children in order to ensure that they follow a strictly prescribed path in life. Concentrating funds and young children in one place would place them under the effective control of the family, making it much more difficult for any single family member to express themselves or conduct themselves in ways that are not endorsed by the collective family entity.

Urban structures and planning will often reflect family structures in the size and placement of private and public buildings, making an impact on both the feel and layout of the urban center. Small villages following this centralized scheme could display a number of complexes as opposed to grid-like streets, small clusters of homes placed strategically across the landscape, those complexes growing in size as Mothers die and their children set up their homes near to their birthplace. A large city, on the other hand, might see similar complexes breaking up the urban cityscape surrounded by large apartment buildings, those buildings nearest to a complex containing children, allies, secret enemies, business partners and a thousand plots, as those next in line for the dynasty vie for control of the central family complex - or to set up their own.

Flesh of My Flesh and Blood of My Blood: Matrilineage

A matrilineal culture is one where descent is reckoned through the mother; property, name, titles and entitlements pass down from the mother to her daughters and then to their daughters after them. This does *not* indicate that the power is necessarily held by women, however, as there are societies (the Kwakiutl from the West Coast, for instance) in which the titles are passed down from the mother to the daughter, but are then held, and the decisions involved made, by her husband.

Societies based around a matrilineal organization tend to be somewhat more laid-back on the issues surrounding female chastity. It matters less, in terms of inheritance and prestige, whom the father is in these cases - the identity of the mother of a child is usually obvious, and if she is the conduit through which inheritance flows, then the issue is really a moot point. These societies often permit women more rights in terms of property, marriage and public presence, and are less inclined to punish a girl for becoming pregnant outside of a binding agreement with one or more men.

Almost anything can be reckoned through a matrilineage, and descent of one kind one does not have to imply the existence of another. In Judaism, for instance, the religion is passed down along the mother's line - if your mother, her mother, or her mother before her was Jewish, so are you. Identity as defined within the tribes of Israel (now reduced to Cohen,' Levi' and Israelite'), however, is passed down along the father's line, so conceivably, if a Cohen man were to marry a non-Jewish woman, their children would be Cohens, but not Jews. (Other laws are usually then put in place to keep contradictions from becoming too muddled.)

Cultures which use matrilineal descent completely or for some aspects of their organization are not restricted in terms of size or location. If a woman carries titles or property of her own right, she is less likely to be treated as chattel or property herself. She is less likely to be one of many wives, and is more likely to have more than one lover or mate in her lifetime than if descent were reckoned through the male.

What does this all mean in terms of daily life? Women in a fully matrilineal society are freer to act as they wish, and not subject to censure from other members of that society for engaging in sexual activity away from an official pair-bond. Women may be seen as resources to protect or as people in their own right, but they have more control to exert over their children through the inheritance that they can give or take away. Women may be permitted to own their own properties and businesses, and remove themselves from marriages or relationships which make them unhappy.

Your People Shall be My People: The Invisible Matriarchy

Despite the prevalence of both forms of organization in real life, no culture exists today that has been identified and accepted as a matriarchy by theorists or archaeologists. Despite the growing influence of women in society, true and lasting power still rests in the hands of males, the product of centuries of theological and social rules which have acted to keep the status quo for as long as possible. This social situation finds itself replicated in many games and game worlds, and that reliance on very similar bases for society-building presents a plump and juicy target for anyone interested in shaking things up a little in their own games. Change one single factor in a culture, drop a rock in the middle of a still pond, and the ripples of change will extend themselves beyond your original hopes.

Supplemental Reading Lists
Despite my best intentions, I can only scratch the barest surface of the issues mentioned in this column. The masochists among you who want to find out more should check out some of the sources listed below. Some are academic in nature, some more in the realm of pop-culture, but all have interesting and often important points to make. If you know of a book that isn't listed and should be, please drop me a line!

A couple of solid examples of women in rural and agricultural societies:

  • Prezzano, Susan C. Warfare, Women and Households: The Development of Iroquois Culture. In Women in Prehistory: North America and Mesoamerica. Ed. Cheryl Claasen and Rosemary A. Joyce. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. (Fantastic example of a matrilocal society with an intriguing system of power-sharing.)

  • Wolf, Margery. Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972. (basic look at a set of families; good introduction to kinship and family interaction.)

Theory and basic anthropology:

  • Fortes, Meyer. The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups. In American Anthropologist, Vol. 55. 1953. (An article from one of the most respected anthropology journals, outlining standard rules of lineage and inheritance.)

  • Radcliffe-Brown, R. The Study of Kinship Systems. In Structure and Function in Primitive Society. San Francisco: Holden-Day, 1965. (how families interact)

  • Sachs, Carolyn. Gendered Fields: Rural Women, Agriculture and Environment. Colorado: Westview Press, 1996. (more academic in nature; a decent amount of theory.)
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The The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths by Hilary Doda

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