Do not be fooled: Women do not have to be Xena to be powerful in eras where men were in control. (“Duet” by Mieris Frans)
Female characters can be challenging to write, particularly when they are placed in male-dominated worlds/eras, and often come in two extremes: damsels-in-distress/story wallpaper/the romantic interest or a man with boobs. Writers, in many cases, seem to think that to have a strong female character, they have to have great physical strength. While it is true that modern audiences expect “strong” female characters, they also want them to be real, not just Rambo with boobs.
My fantasy novels are based on a continent that is patriarchal — albeit the different countries have different views of women’s place in society and their rights — yet I am a woman, so why would I choose such a set up? The answers is quite simple: I like to challenge my characters — female or male, it does not matter. A patriarchal world also allows me to explore social issues, some that are still present today — while not necessarily to the same extreme — thus challenging my own writing skills. Personally, it also makes me smile at my female characters’ abilities to overcome in their own unique ways; just like women today, each of my female characters have their own identities and thoughts on what it means to be a woman, thus they handle themselves differently.
When I approach my characters, who live in an era similar to the late 1600s-early 1700s, I often take inspiration from historical women. Not all were powerless and subservient to the men in their life, albeit there were victims to the system and those who had no thought of ever going against the flow.
Noblewomen and queens — like Elizabeth I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Catherine the Great, Catherine de’ Medici and many more — wielded eminence power from influence of their husbands and their sons to reigning solo or as regents. Patronage was another sphere of influence these women had. Isabella of Castile had to struggle for her birthright, but once in power, she reformed her country while also pulling it out of debt. Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, was also very impressive in her own right, serving as the first female ambassador in European history and as regent of England while her husband, Henry VIII, was away in France; unfortunately, Catherine also met great misfortune due to her husband’s ambitions and the patriarchal system.
Christine de Pizan
Noblewomen were not the only movers in shakers in history with women finding ways of expressing themselves spiritually and through writing. Christine de Pizan was a medieval writer who wrote in the vernacular (in her case Middle French) and challenged misogyny. Julian of Norwich is another woman writer, and her “Revelations of Love” is believed to be the earliest work in English that was written by a woman.
Another woman of interest is Hildegard von Bingen, who was a jack-of-trades of sorts. Hildegard was a writer, composer (there is a lovely CD with some of her songs), philosopher, mystic, abbess, visionary and polymath; she even dabbled in botany and medicine. Hildegard transcended the bans that forbid women from teaching scripture and even corresponded with popes, statesmen and emperors.
Of course, there were some women kicking butt, such as Joan of Arc, and much later, Emilia Plater, a Polish-Lithuanian noblewoman and revolutionary. However, such women, like Joan and Emilia, are rare and far between, so depending on your world or the era you are working in, there probably will not be many women in such positions, but that does not mean that a point can’t present itself where you female character can pick up arms: The only requirement is that it is done in a manner that is believable for the setting.
There are several other women throughout history and beyond Europe who are bound to inspire writers; I only had so much space and so very little time to barely scrape the tip of the iceberg.
It is, however, important to note, while crafting female characters in patriarchal settings, writers need to consider that their characters will still be the product of the era/culture that they grew up in. While your female character might voice radical ideas for their time, it is highly unlikely their ideas would go quite as far as modern day viewpoints. Similarly, not all women will be of the same opinion, so it is good to have a variance of characters with different viewpoints to ground each other. Writers should also realize that social changes will not occur instantaneously with sudden change being unbelievable. One simple has to look at our world with racial integration and equal rights.
Similarly, not only the oppressed will have radical views. There have been men throughout history who have stood next to women, voicing women’s right to education and so on.
I highly recommend hitting the books, as it were, and researching different eras, particularly books that focus on women. There are a lot more out there as historians explore women’s place in history, a subject that for the longest time went ignored. In particular, I recommend “The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing,” which delves into medieval women’s lives and experiences through various kinds of text — please note, it is not easy reading. Of course, there are several other women studies books, in addition to individual biographies, to choose from.