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I have a world I'm working on designed to be the setting for an eastern-style RPG. In the past, magic was used until the mana fueling it ran out and everything people depend on failed. At about the same time, a sort of 'magic pollution' was discovered. It was a side effect of trying to keep spells going despite the fading mana. The idea is that everyone faced a near catastrophe where humanity numbers dropped drastically, but the 'pollution' faded rapidly once magic was no longer used and in only a few generations, society came back.

A few things I know about this pollution:

  1. It has a mutating effect. Most of the monsters of this world are mutated animals caused by the magic pollution. The more powerful monsters only exist due to high presence of pollution 'feeding' their power. Humans are also effected, in particular newborns. For humans, the mutations can vary. Many are debilitating but some are just unusual or even beneficial, but these 'mutations' are not inherited by their children and these mutated people are far less common in 'present' day.
  2. The pollution was the main cause of the societal collapse in a short period of time, and it's fading is what allowed the 'present' day to rebuild back to proper levels quickly
  3. The magic pollution would dissipate faster near humans, as human life (and death) is the source of the mana and the faster mana builds up the more the pollution fades. Thus monsters near human settlements would tend to be less dangerous/common.

I had originally imagined difficulty fighting newly formed monsters combined with high mutation and still births in infants would be the cause of the collapse. However, I realized that taken to the logical extreme this would likely result in a world where women were treated as brood-mares. The focus would be in getting pregnant as often as possible, to compensate for all the still births, and women wouldn't be allowed to do anything else because they were too precious a commodity. This would lead to a society that I don't want in present day, I want women to be treated closer to present day norms.

How can I modify the effects of this magical 'pollution' to stick to cause a major societal collapse for a brief period of time while still developing a culture with women on equal footing to men?

I've toyed with plants being most effected by the pollution and dieing out, making feeding of humanity be the biggest challenge during the Collapse, and with a larger focus on monsters. However, I don't want monsters to be the sole/primary cause of the catastrophe, I would prefer there to be an emphasis on other factors which quickly disappear as the pollution fades, while the monsters mostly 'sticks around'. How can I justify the culture not treating women as brood-mares.

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    $\begingroup$ You assume that men would always want to treat women horribly. That's not always the case, and that alone could be used to explain how women are accepted. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Dec 16 '14 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with your premise. I do not think you've reached a logical extreme, only a society of fear, ignorance, and insecurity. Simply realize that it's not a logical conclusion and you won't have to be worried about readers wondering why you skipped over the explanation for this 'logical extreme'. Adding such an explanation would only make me question how terribly you, the author, view women. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 16 '14 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Samuel morality and reality are not that connected in practice. "In situation X, the morally acceptable result is Y" doesn't in any way imply "In situation X, Y will occur". In particular, the more higher qualities of equality, democracy, human rights, nondiscrimination, non-enslavement are luxuries that are reduced at any situation of social upheaval or conflict. If a world undergoes such changes as described by OP, it would be ridiculously unrealistic to assume that it would stay as equal it was before; all our history and modern conflicts show that it will quickly become much less equal. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Dec 16 '14 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Peteris This is Worldbuilding. A culture where women are treated equally is not "ridiculously unrealistic". Such a world is easy to imagine, so ridiculously easy that it doesn't require any explanation as to why it is that way. If the story were to explain "So, in this culture, men don't treat women like objects.", no one will stand up while reading that and say "But that doesn't make logical sense! Explain yourself!". My point is that it isn't so shocking of a concept, equality, that magical or other narrative intervention is required. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 16 '14 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ I am not an expert on the societal conditions that lead to abusive patriarchy vs. egalitarianism vs. matriarchy, but having lots of children has been a high priority for most of human history, and yet we've had all different types of societies. Don't fall into the false dichotomy of motherhood vs. career -- to the extent that it exists today, it's a result of isolated nuclear families and inhumane work environments, not a logical necessity for all imaginable societies. $\endgroup$ – octern Dec 17 '14 at 12:03
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If the society collapsed recently so did probably the agricultural production. Even if society has recovered, your society probably does not have all that much surplus food, and if monsters are still around it might be difficult to fix that fast.

A society that has issues with food supply and is busy rebuilding, would have people marrying and having children late after careful consideration if the couple can afford that. Also most people wouldn't be able to afford keep women home anyway. They'd be just as busy working hard to rebuild and get a living as the men.

Basically, I think that with such a sudden catastrophe people would accept a drop in fertility and, unless it continued for an extended period, not try to compensate by turning women to "broodmares". With monsters roaming around people probably were too busy trying to find food for themselves to worry about having children. And even if they thought about it they probably would have considered the time less than optimal for raising children.

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    $\begingroup$ It is not obvious if the supply of food is lacking. But if it does, surely people would not try to bring many new mouths to feed. But it would also depend on children mortality. If few survive childhood, you may want to have many, to make sure that at least one will survive to adulthood. This is magical world, anything is possible. So it is hard to give advice unless OP explains what exactly the situation is. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 16 '14 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar During the period of social collapse it would have been impossible to defend farmers from monsters and looting. Also the question specifically suggests population dropped drastically. I can't think of reason for that is not either widespread famine or something that will cause widespread famine. It is of course possible that agriculture has recovered since, it would have been a priority for the new order, but I think it is safe to assume famine for the period where mutations and stillbirths peaked. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 16 '14 at 13:23
  • $\begingroup$ There were many great answers. I picked this one only because it best lead to the world I already had created in my head and wanted to justify. I think though that many good answers here would make interesting worlds and be worth exploring, if not the one I happen to want for this story. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 20 '14 at 21:14
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I think you can handle it just like the video game Mass Effect (particularly the third installment).

There, the Krogan have a harsh and desolate world, destroyed after so much war. On top of that, another race perfected a genetic plague that caused a high sterility rate among the women. There, the few women who can breed are exalted, and those that are barren are just as likely to become warriors as the men.

So, your pollution has reduced the ability of women to breed. Those that can create life are not "puppy mills", but instead treated as a special class. Those women that are barren or unable to produce "pure" offspring take up the mantle of responsibility next to the men. Maybe they even form a protective organization to keep the fertile women safe. Perhaps this could lead to a matriarchal society.

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Your model that ends in "broodmares" assumes that these "equally footed women" simply roll over when the men try to pigeonhole them into their new role. Any reasonable feminist would point out that they will not go quietly. Consider that the average man will still have the desire to "uphold the family name" by having a son (or at least a child). If his wife is angry enough to use that as leverage, he will not hold out for long (the couch is a bad enough threat!)

Women who deserve to be on "equal footing" will simply induce culture to shift around them to value what they can bring. They may still have to rapidly pump out children like crazy, but that doesn't mean they have to have low status. If I was in such a situation, I would certainly be trying to make my wife's life as pleasant as possible. A happy wife means more child opportunities!

My advice would be to relax on the "equality" side of things. "Equality" implies there is a metric with which to value a human life, or else how do you tell if two people are "equal?" Differences must be acceptable. Even today, with our society's push for "equality of the sexes," there is a difference that cannot and shall never be reconciled: women carry a baby for 9 months longer than men, 100% of the time. Any attempt to arrive at equality by removing the differences will fail; one must make a definition of "equal" that embraces the differences.

Your world has that difference amplified to colonial-era times, where women were expected to deliver children at a very high rate due to agricultural manpower needs. You will not succeed in finding "equality" if your goal is to smother this difference. Make this the focal point of how the feminist side of the culture acquires compensation for this duty. Give the men a reason to allow women to coalesce power, instead of seeking to control the women.

Family name is a strong force for men. Another would be any superstition which suggests a happy wife leads to fewer mutations. Any organization within the ranks of the women to coalesce power by denying reproductive capacities would be powerful. A society where women hold the property would also suffice.

Edit: if it proves hard to realistically make large forces play out in womens' favor, consider the effect of the individual. It is well known how much one person can shape the world, and such single-person effects are more within the realm of where stereotypical "women's manipulation" is most effective. If you have a doubting audience, sticking to stereotypes may make your story more believable.

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    $\begingroup$ "induce culture to shift around them to value what they can bring" is working so well for Saudi Arabia women, with all the support from feminist you can get. Or maybe not. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 16 '14 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter Masiar: There are examples and counter examples for every male/female relationship since the dawn of time. America is an example where women gained "equality." Saudi Arabia is an example of where they lost "equality." If one wishes to write a story of how women achieved a cultural victory, the best thing to do is avoid writing a book about Saudi Arabia; write about somewhere else. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 16 '14 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ If you want to have even more horrific world (worse that children with deformities are killed) take this one: children with deformities are raised to adults, then dismantled to provide organs to fix "free" or more lucky ones. Yes, it is not fair. I have news for you: life is not fair. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 16 '14 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ After reading all the comments above, I really think that the realistic approach would be to have multiple situations. Different nations would treat women in specific ways, just like how it is in our world. One nation could give them special status, considering them a living treasure, other nations could treat them like broodmares, hoping to quickly regain their numbers and military strength. Maybe the military plays a new role, where women are forced to x years of service, where their job is to have children. The ones that have more children rise higher in rank. You can try a lot of things. $\endgroup$ – mcbecker Dec 17 '14 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ I would also like to add that barren women or the ones that continuosly have deformed children would probably undergo extreme social pressure and prejudice. The suicide rate among these women could rise sky high. Or maybe they´re killed to spare resources (scarce now) for the ones that can have healthy children. Maybe marriage gets affected too. A man can divorce his woman if she doesnt give him a healthy kid. Or he is stuck with her and cant marry anyone else because he is the father of a deformed baby. It could be the rise of a society ruled by the families that have perfect children. $\endgroup$ – mcbecker Dec 17 '14 at 13:13
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Our gender roles are a result of our past.

A few hundred years ago we were living in a world where most work was manual and many conflicts were solved with physical violence in form of hand-to-hand combat. So physical strength was very important. Men being physically stronger than women made them play an important role in society. Women were considered inferior because they were inferior. They couldn't work as hard as a man and they couldn't defend themselves against men, so they were dependent on males for both economical and physical safety.

It is no coincidence that the current raise of gender equality in the developed world correlates with manual labor getting less important than mental labor and a more effective law enforcement system removing physical violence from everyday life. And thanks to modern firearms, you don't even need to be physically strong to hurt and kill someone. Being physically weaker is no longer a handicap in our society, so we have no reason anymore to treat women as second class citizen.

However, when your world has a history of magic use, the past might have been completely different. Most manual labor would have been replaced by use of magic and most violent conflicts would also have been resolved through magic rather than through hand-to-hand combat. When women had equal or even better magic abilities than men, they would not have been considered inferior during most periods of your worlds history. They would be just as effective at most jobs and they would have no need for a man to protect them from other men, as they would be able to defend themselves using magic. Gender roles would then be quite different today.

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  • $\begingroup$ It would probably be best to have women have unique powers that men can't match easily. Even if powers are on par, men would be able to practice more and reach a more professional level. If there were tasks only women do well - healing, warding, long distance sensing, making sandwiches - then a party of men might be more willing to accept the physical issues of bringing women along. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 16 '14 at 18:11
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Solve magical problem with more magic.

Some/all women have magical power, and whomever they love, is more resistant to magic monsters. It has to be genuine, cannot be forced. So women would be source og magic which helps to heal wounded world.

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    $\begingroup$ I did not downvote it, but I can give a critique: Your solution absolutely would work, so it's not wrong. However, it may be less desirable than alternative solutions for purposes of making an interesting world to visit. Overuse of magic is an easy way to make a boringbook, so there is a preference for solutions that do not involve adding new traits to magic to solve single issues; save it for broad issues. That being said, if Dsollen's magic is already broadly tied to emotions like Love, this could be the best answer for his needs. Less is more, and in that case, this would satisfy that rule! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 16 '14 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ I do think this solution would work, though it's not one I will be going with. The world I'm imagining is a a world where magic is more of a scientific force. I feel like magic being linked to emotion/thoughts is hard to do in a 'hard magic' world (yes I just made that phrase up lol). Still, it would work based solely off of my original description. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 16 '14 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen I'm looking forward to the arrival of the hard-magic tag :) $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 17 '14 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ @githubphagocyte I'm so going to start using that tag. I feel it's a concept that needs a tag :) $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 20 '14 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ @githubphagocyte That seems like a question that would fit the definition I have in mind. Next time I ask a magic question I'm going to use the tag too, almost all my worlds try for hard-magic. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 23 '14 at 13:59
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One possible way to remove the "protect and use the child-bearers to maximum efficiency" drive is to remove the necessity of incubation away from most women, and maybe make it actively more dangerous for women to bear children themselves. Without this, there's no motivation to move towards the scenario you describe.

Say you raise the stakes -- say at some point the stillbirth rate among natural births became intolerable, say, 60-70% or more and started killing the mothers. Some form of sustainable external magical womb that provides some protection might be a necessary development (maybe a tree or ruminant plus the magic required to perform the transfer), and would free up the women, too.

Perhaps one innovative magic-user noticed that a particular animal or plant was much less affected by the magical pollution, and thought it might help, or perhaps your resident theology intervenes to create the means, or maybe it's entirely an accidental mutation.

I'd suggest a large, wide tree, with the children growing as fruit on the branches, and some sort of widely-practiced ritual that requires little or no expert intervention to transfer the child.

(This may be a bit higher on the weirdness-o-meter than you wanted to go, I'll admit.)

You could have one of these trees per settlement of a given size, depending on how local culture adapts to take care of them and how much maintenance and care they require.

Crystals, or pearl- or large opal-like formations would also be a fine option.

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