Fantasy as a genre is generally perceived as more hospitable to women than Science Fiction and Horror, and more flexible in the choices it offers than historical fiction or romance, yet the standard patriarchal bias imposes limitations which are seldom subverted or even questioned. Whereas sf has the potential to question gender roles and try to envision new ways of living, fantasy looks to the past, seeking out patterns and archetypes.
Writers in search of different, more empowering, roles for women, rather than defining a woman in terms of her relationship to a man, have looked to matriarchal cultures, imagined or real, and particularly to the realm of the Goddess. Celtic Fantasy has been particularly attractive to women writers because, according to Nickianne Moody (in Where No Man Has Gone Before  ed Lucie Armitt), "The images found in Celtic myth ... provide a women's fantasy of freedom and equality which has historical support." Although the Arthur saga centres on a Warrior King, the presence in the legends of a number of interesting female characters, and the possibility of writing about women who are active and important not only in the domestic sphere, in ways not possible in the standard romance, gives Celtic Fantasy its strong contemporary appeal.
One obviously heroic role for women is that of the Amazon, and the 1980s saw the development of a subgenre of Amazonian Sword and Sorcery. In a critical overview in The New York Review of Science Fiction #20 (1990) Jessica Amanda Salmonson declared that this was a reactionary development, that the depiction of the Amazon by most contemporary writers confirmed rather than debunked or expanded feminine stereotypes. She pointed out that the historical image of the Amazon was of a society of women for whom valour and physical prowess were the norm; thus the Amazon was not, as most writers in the 1980s presented her, an anomaly, the exception to the "rule" of passive, unarmed women, and thereby alienated from the society in which she lived. Even the feminist (> Feminism) heroines created by Joanna Russ (Alyx ) and Mary Mackey (The Last Warrior Queen ) were seen as isolated in a patriarchal culture. The only exception she cited was the character Raven from Samuel R Delany's Tales of Neverÿón (coll of linked stories 1979) along with a handful of short stories collected in her own World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Amazons! (anth 1979).
The Sword is an equalizer, allowing individual women free passage in male-dominated worlds; Magic is another. In the past, female magic users were seen in archetypal terms, according to their effect on the hero of the tale. Either they were evil or, as "good Fairies", they were effectively de-sexed by being presented as extremely small, old, ugly or immaterial. In modern fantasy the female magic user may well be the protagonist, often from a Pariah Elite, persecuted for her powers or her Religion. In Margaret Ball's Flameweaver (1991) and Changeweaver (1993) the women of Gandhara rule their country with a benevolent use of magic. Only women have access to magic, and their power must be "grounded" to the service of society by marriage and children. Women who cannot have children are not controllable, so are exiled. In the Inland series by Ann Halam (Gwyneth Jones), women are trained to use their innate magical abilities for the good of society; men's magic also exists, but is considered a useless matter of "tricks" – much as women's magic is perceived in the more traditional High Fantasy, where men alone are allowed to be mages and sages, as exemplified in Ursula K Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), where traditional sayings include "weak as woman's magic" and "wicked as woman's magic".
Even when women's magic is not perceived as fundamentally different from that of men's ("natural" or earth-magic used for household affairs, as contrasted with the training, Sacrifice and book-learning aimed at controlling universal powers), women's relationship to this, as to other powers, is coded differently. Unless she is perceived as evil, a woman uses her powers for the good of others, either to help her community or to provide back-up strength to the Hero (>>> Companions). Hence the many fantasies in which a young woman becomes aware of a Talent within her and subsequently finds her purpose in helping some young man to reach a destiny she would never seek for herself. In The Women who Walk Through Fire: Women's Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol 2 (1990) ed Susanna J Sturgis, Sturgis cites Kathleen Cioffi to the effect that feminist fantasy is concerned with the female hero's attempt to "reintegrate" with her community after the successful completion of her Quest. Knowing too much, or knowing something different, makes a woman an outsider; while a man, accustomed to defining himself in oppositional terms of power and freedom, will consider the achievement of a quest to be the end of the story – his own story – women, who customarily define themselves within a web of mutually reciprocal relationships and responsibilities, cannot rest until the impact of their actions has been accepted by others. Lavondyss (1988) by Robert Holdstock is exceptional in presenting a believable female figure who goes on a quest for much the same reasons and in the same way as the male characters in his earlier Mythago Wood (1984).
In the early 1970s feminists were highly critical of Fairytales for their culturally normative function. Yet "household" or "old wives'" tales were most often told by women, and the range of female roles in the originals was far greater than the extremes of wicked old witch/beautiful passive princess known to modern consumers of the Disney versions. The virtues most often rewarded in fairytales tend to be the same in men and women – values like patience, kindness and cleverness – and, although women today might perceive the inevitable marriage of the happy ending as conservative, Angela Carter has commented – in The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (anth 1990) – that, given the context of the societies from which most of these tales come, the emphasis on Fertility and marital happiness should be seen rather as optimistic, even utopian.
Claims are often made for the universal psychological truths to be found in fairytales, but such readings should be applied with caution. It can be difficult sometimes to recognize the originally intended message. Jack Zipes, in The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (1983), demonstrated how an oral tale about a girl who manages to outwit and escape a Werewolf was transformed almost out of recognition by Charles Perrault in 1697 into a fable about male sexuality and the need to control women and their desires. Today the sexuality and violence of Perrault's tale has been so watered down that the little girl has become stupid rather than licentious. Similar caveats should apply to attempts to read texts as if they were of universal human relevance. Ungendered souls are usually male; it is the female who's marked out, signified as other.
Heroes in our culture have been gendered male, so "the hero-tale has concerned the establishment or validation of manhood", as Ursula K Le Guin put it in Earthsea Revisioned (1993). After writing three Earthsea novels in the tradition of Heroic Fantasy, Le Guin abandoned the "pseudo-genderless male viewpoint of the heroic tradition" and returned to the world she had created to re-imagine it through the eyes of an ageing woman. This novel, Tehanu (1990), disappointed many readers, who felt denied the traditional pleasures of fantasy; at least one critic felt Le Guin was supporting the oppression of women by having her character choose marriage and obscurity rather than continuing her studies in magic. Le Guin herself has said that her aim was to set her characters free: "The deepest foundation of the order of oppression is gendering ... To begin to imagine freedom, the myths of gender, like the myths of race, have to be exploded and discarded. My fiction does that by these troubling and ugly embodiments."
Androgyny, once the goal of many feminists, is now unfashionable; feminist belief in the irrelevance of gender is unusual. Yet there have been important changes in the old, patriarchal, bipolar way of thinking, if only because gender roles have been so expanded and redefined in the past several decades. Women are offered much more latitude in what is considered acceptable in a female. The old-fashioned passive princess is passé; even in retellings of older tales, in which her only role was as the hero's reward, the heroine today is spunkier, depicted in more egalitarian terms, and given more to do – even if the plot isn't actually changed by it, as in Disney's Aladdin (1992).
Woman as spunky Companion is an easy option, a way of seeming up-to-date and flattering readers without diminishing the role or values of the male hero. Woman as hero is more difficult to depict and to define: is there another way to approach her beyond the self-sacrificing, supportive heroine or the man-manqué?
The hero of Geoff Ryman's The Warrior who Carried Life (1985) is a woman who magically shapeshifts (> Shapeshifters) into the form of a powerful male warrior because "a man could take revenge, where she could not". At an important moment in the plot she is recognized as being neither man nor woman – hence able to accomplish what no man or woman could ever do – and subsequently as being both man and woman, hence the first fully human being since the original sin and fall from grace. Ryman is rare in his treatment of gender as something which can be put on or taken off like a suit of magic armour – although Peter S Beagle has a male-to-female shapeshifter in The Innkeeper's Song (1993), and both were preceded by L Frank Baum's The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) and Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928). While a new subgenre of magical sex-change stories seems unlikely, Ryman's protagonist may point the way towards the possibility of a new type of hero, celebrating the best of both genders without devaluing either. [LT]
further reading: There are many other works of fiction that pertain to the subject of gender. A very selective list of additional references is: the Atlan saga (1966-1977) by Jane Gaskell; Les Guerillères (trans David Le Vay 1971 UK) by Monique Wittig; The Wanderground (1979) by Sally Miller Gearheart; Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England (anth 1986) ed Jack Zipes; Carmen Dog (1988) by Carol Emshwiller; Unquenchable Fire (1988) by Rachel Pollack; Sarah Canary (1991) by Karen Joy Fowler; The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) by Michael Swanwick.