Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Feminism and the Women in Robert E. Howard's Fictional Worlds

A while back, I talked about Howard's feminism - or more specifically, a particular letter Howard wrote to Harold Preece.  This was inspired by Barbara Barrett & Amy Kerr's work on an ACA/PCA conference paper.  Now, the two Howardian Shield-Maidens have returned to those waters on REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, with an expanded version of their fantastic and well-received ACA/PCA conference paper, to be posted in multiple parts.

While the women in Howard’s real world had the vote and could own property, the attitude that women were inferior to men still prevailed throughout most of the world during his lifetime. Robert E. Howard’s fictional world was an exception.  In it he created women who fought bravely, skillfully and fearlessly beside men as well as against them.  In fact, each of Howard’s strong women lived the life she chose for herself and when necessary, she fought to maintain that way of living.  Long before the feminist definition of empowerment, Howard’s heroines, took control over the decisions and issues that shaped their lives.

One of the unavoidable conundrums of feminism in a male author is, while the idea is to offer forward ideals of equality and equal opportunities, an argument sounds much more compelling when made by a woman.  I guess it's due to perspective: after all, it'd be like an Englishman writing a history of Scotland, or a white man talking of modern urban black society.  They can be as learned as any person can be on the subject, but unless they actually are part of the demographic in question, there's always that niggling concern in the back of the mind: how can you really know what it's like?

Thus, because Barbara and Amy are women, the impression is that they are simply more qualified to speak on the feminist elements of Howard's fiction than a man could.  It would seem to contradict the essential point of feminism - that of equal opportunities, not female superiority - to value someone's opinion more simply because of their gender, but at least in this case, it makes sense.  It's the old astronomer/astronaut question: when you want to know about the moon, do you ask the one who's studied it from afar from 50 years, or the one who's actually been there?


  1. Interesting post. I think, though, that there are a lot of women who have no understanding of feminism and what it means. Just because a person is a woman does not necessarily mean that she has any insight on that topic. Similarly, to use your own example, an Englishman who has spent years studying Scottish history would likely know more than a Scot who'd never bothered.

  2. I think that was sort of Al's point though, that even though what you say is true in that they would know more, human perception casts doubt on them regardless of being factually accurate.

    it's a variation I feel of the "No true Scotsman" fallacy.

  3. Lagomorph is right: a variation on "No True Scotsman." Indeed, you bringing up how there are many women who don't have an understanding of feminism illustrates that perfectly.

    That preconception means that, unfortunately, people may only take certain arguments seriously if someone they perceive as being more "authoritative" or "experienced" in some capacity.

    It helps tremendously that Barbara & Amy are both highly respected Howard scholars, regardless of their genders, but sadly, most people's reaction would be something like "Wow, I didn't know there were any female Conan/Howard fans!"

  4. Post Script: hence how I added "it makes sense" - it at least has a logical reasoning behind it, though it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.

  5. Al, I sent a link to that Article to a friend of mine.. she was so impressed by Barbara and Amy's description of an author " Who liked women!" that she now plans to borrow some of my REH books.. and my Copy of "The Whole Wide World". Especially since only a few weeks ago she was gently ribbing me about all the Conan books I'd been reading..

    So, between the three of you, you might have just gained a convert.

  6. Lagomorph, that's seriously awesome. I'll tell Barbara & Amy that they may have made a new fan!

  7. as Boris Vian said... Woman is the future of mankind, man is the future of nothing...

  8. Preposterous. If Red Sonja can be as fierce a soldier as Conan, a man can judge feminism equally as well as any woman.

    Equality means equal. Waiting on women to decide whether or not something is feminist is an affront to the very core of the concept.

    "Because they are women...they are more qualified" is a sexist comment. Plain and simple.