I have a fantasy world with roughly medieval technology (swords, crossbows, and chain mail for instance), and I have an egalitarian country with an army that's somewhere from 10 to 40% women (it probably varies over time).

It is a fantasy world, so some people do have magic, which is equal among genders. However, I'd imagine that most people with skill or training in magic would be in special units.

Based on this, what should I think about when I'm formatting the structure of this country's army and military life?

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    $\begingroup$ The main reason women didn't fill roles in Medieval Combat isn't just sexism - women have a lot more difficulty with the upper body work needed for swinging a sheild, pulling a bow, etc. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 22 '14 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ One thing I'd like to note to the excellent answers below: be careful of including English-style longbows. Given estimated draw weights of well over 150 pounds it's believed that men would have had to train to use them from their teen years and maintain their upper body strength rigorously. You'd be statistically unlikely to find many women who'd reasonably be able to develop that kind of raw power. $\endgroup$ – Lilienthal Dec 22 '14 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ If some people have magic - would they be able to magically enhance strength or enchant the equipment? This could change the dynamics of things like longbows. $\endgroup$ – Alpar Dec 23 '14 at 9:10
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    $\begingroup$ What race are your characters? If they are humans as we are then, as others already mentioned, you should consider different body structure. Men will be stronger while women will be more agile in general. For dwarves you wouldn't have these differences... $\endgroup$ – algiogia Dec 23 '14 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ For a good example of how this can work, you might look at the Malazan Book Of The Fallen series- they're essential reading for any fan of world-building anyways and they have a lot of military characters of both genders. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Dec 23 '14 at 23:12

11 Answers 11


If it's a truly egalitarian society, then you'll have women in all the same roles as you have men -- female front-line soldiers, female siege engine operators, female sappers, female archers, female mages, female commanders, female medics, etc. The only thing you have to think about here is making sure you remember to represent them, and doing so in a truly egalitarian way.

As for army life, depending upon gender norms in your society you may have separate areas of the camp for the women of your army. Or, you may have a fully-integrated army, but just bunk men and women separately. Or, you may bunk them together, but have separate bathing and restroom facilities. Or, you may just have the whole damn thing fully integrated (see e.g. the movie Starship Troopers for an example of how this might work, albeit not a medieval one). That's really entirely up to you/your society and how they view such integrations.

In any case, there would almost certainly be very strict rules regarding relations between male and female soldiers -- specifically, it would most likely be entirely forbidden. Further, while on the march/at war, women would most likely be strictly forbidden from having any form of sex, lest they become pregnant in the middle of said war, and for egalitarian reasons the same prohibition would probably extend to the men as well. Unless, of course, the magic of your world can provide foolproof contraception and STD prevention (or cure), in which case it might actually be encouraged for morale reasons.

As for the nuances of military training, equipment, etc., if this is a truly egalitarian society then there would be few, if any, special accommodations afforded to women. They'd wield the same swords, draw the same bows, carry the same shields as their male counterparts. That women are, generally speaking, less physically strong than men is likely why there's a smaller percentage in your army than an even 50/50 split -- but there are always women just as capable of the same physical prowess as men, which is how they got in and passed Basic Training in the first place.

Uniforms would be uniform, with maybe a slightly different cut for women (see e.g. United States military uniforms). Armor would not vary between men and women a whole lot. Chain mail certainly wouldn't; since it's not a fitted "cut" anyway, there's no reason for it to. Breastplates for female soldiers might have a little extra room in the bust for their breasts, but nothing like the metal-boobed look of "fantasy armor" in our popular culture. Codpieces for women would similarly be flat, rather than cupped like men's. Where male archers often go around largely unarmored, female archers may where leather or tight, padded cloth around their chests to help avoid catching their breast when they release the bowstring, although those of average cup size (or smaller) probably won't have to worry about that much if at all. It's very unlikely that they'd follow in the footsteps of the legends/myths about the Amazonians -- that is, I find it highly doubtful they'd cut off their right breast to avoid catching it in their bowstring.

Bottom line: Just put some women in wherever you could find a man. And no metal-boobed breastplates, and definitely no chain mail bikinis.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure how "respect" and "objectify" go together. $\endgroup$ – CoolCurry Dec 22 '14 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ For clarification, I'm being facetious. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Dec 22 '14 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ Counter-example to the idea that there would necessarily be a rule against sex; The Sacred Band of Thebes, who were all men but they were all men whose boyfriend was also in the same unit. The STD argument doesn't really cut it either, as its not like soldiers never managed to catch STDs while serving in units comprised only of men and in which homosexual acts were forbidden. $\endgroup$ – Jon Hanna Dec 23 '14 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ @JonHanna Sure, but throughout history the vast majority of societies did not have a military that represented an overwhelming percentage of their population. Aside from notable exceptions like the Spartans and the Swiss, a prohibition on getting pregnant while serving is not likely to have much impact on the population as a whole. Further to that, any such prohibition would almost certainly be lessened if not outright lifted during times of peace, with women who become pregnant moved to other roles if not (or in addition to) outright granted maternity leave. $\endgroup$ – Kromey Dec 23 '14 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Kromey Great, thanks. Now I can't stop thinking how often the Swiss compare themselves to the Spartans and think "Yeah, we are totally alike". They should have a slogan: "Come to Switzerland and see modern Sparta". Damn you and your totally accurate comparisons! $\endgroup$ – Darth Hunterix Dec 23 '14 at 22:27

Most of what Kromey said is true and I mostly am supporting of it. I am, however, going to point out some of the obvious trends of history mostly to show how your military culture may develop.

First, I'm going to come out and say it, women, on average, have less upper body strength and thus are not as good as front line infantry as men. Some women will be stronger then your average man and kick butt, and some men weaker then your average woman, but you should acknowledge the statistical average for imagining how it would affect what roles women would most likely take.

This is not relevant for many types of militaries. Many militaries have one effective tactic that they emphasise and train everyone in. These militaries will simply put women and men all together for the same tactics. For that matter many militaries were disorganized throwing together of men (and women) with swords and pointing them to the general direction with little concept to advanced units or tactics (if you have enough people it's easier to overwhelm others than try to train everyone for anything fancy). However, it sounds like you are more interested in a military with more complex combined arms and specialized roles.

For more specialized militaries I think women would naturally be suggested/preferred for areas where upper body strength was less relevant. Note I say suggested, not forced or required. Unless you have cultural reasons for it your military will likely allow people to train in whatever role they choose to emphasise in without forcing people in to specific roles. Women will thus likely be in every role out there, However, at the same time some roles may be seen as a better fit for women and tend to have women choose to pursue more often.

Getting back to the point, I think this would most be demonstrated in magic. Simply put more women would be encouraged towards magical combat than melee because it makes the most tactical sense for them. If you assume women and men are equally capable at using magic, but men have a better upper body strength which gives them a slight edge in melee sword fights, and a significant edge in range with a bow, then logically it makes more sense for a woman to focus on the magical side of combat where there isn't a potential strength disadvantage. Some women may not feel like doing magic, or may have an aptitude for another combat form, or simply have the build to be good at the other formats, which is why women will likely show up in all roles, but statistically speaking a larger percentage will choose to focus on the area where they have a more equal footing.

This would, in turn, likely lead to men being slightly encouraged towards infantry and bow work, because you need a decent number of all roles and if women are tending towards one you need men to consider the other just to keep from having an over abundance of mages. This would thus lead to a culture that has a slight focus on the concept of men as infantry and women as mages. This culture may not be to the extreme that there is heavy bias and prejudice against someone going in a non-traditional role, but it should be acknowledged as at least a subconscious presumption.

Do people presume a women are all naturally better at magic simply because more women in the military use it on average? Maybe infantry men will complain about the lack of women in their platoon making it harder to find romantic partners due to women being less likely to choose that role. It wouldn't be a significant impact on your overall story, since women would still exit in all roles, but it could add some culture and some of that world building that makes your world feel a little more alive.

Of course you would see plenty of women, as well as men, in all of the many other roles of military, like organization, generals, leadership, etc. Maybe women are more prone to these roles simply because society wants more men on the frontline where their upper body strength gives them an advantage. Though again I don't think this has to be a significant part of the story, just background world building details.

I think that women in any role would likely be held to exactly the same standard as men though. They would have to carry the same heavy packs, do the same work, eat the same food, live the same life. If you hold them to any less standards you're making a weak point in your military.

One option if you would like a more even distribution of sexes in roles is to find ways to de-emphasise physical upper body strength in these roles. For instance I think the use of crossbows over traditional bows could make upper body strength less relevant, certain systems use the whole body to load rather than just the arms which makes upper body strength irrelevant. Horse archery with crossbows would work equally well with any sex, the emphasis is far less on upper strength than coordination, aim, and balance. To make infantry fit more with women simply add use of melee weapons that are less about upper body strength (don't know enough about melee combat to say which). Or alternatively add in light magic use even with melee fighters, which would make quick thinking and good use of magic distractions and fancy swordwork more relevant than pure strength.

Relations would be something to consider. Kromey was pretty accurate with everything he said here, but remember there would likely be more men then women in infantry and traditional archery platoons. This could lead to 'fighting' over the women. I think the obvious response would be to strongly discourage any romantic relationship between women and men in the military, which actually is often done for other reasons too. This is mostly relevant because of just how long a military march can be in these timeframes, the military would be in very close areas for very long times so avoiding potential drama between platoon mates is always good. Perhaps relationships between people of different platoons would be considered acceptable, just not within the same platoon.

Pregnancy, as mentioned, would be another concern, but I can't see the military having much luck with banning all sexual intercourse, military people are pretty notorious for living 'in the moment' and being pretty rowdy as soon as they get to a base with members of the opposite sex. You would have a hard time preventing sex, even if it was technically forbidden. I would say it's more realistic to have it 'strongly discouraged', but admit that it does happen anyways. Of course use of magic or herbs to prevent pregnancy makes it easier, otherwise simply acknowledge that some women will get pregnant and if they make it far enough along without the obvious miscarriage occurring they get medical leave and are shipped off with the wounded until they deliver or something.

Separate tents (remember, most of the time you're likely in the field) for sexes would likely be done for much the same reason, the desire to mitigate romantic liaisons in the field. It doesn't take much more logistics to put people of the same sex in the same tent. Of course your tent may be right next to the guys tent, I doubt they will put in the time to try to have completely separate areas for sexes, just that everyone in a tent is expected to be the same sex.

Otherwise, I really don't think this requires much creativity. The two sexes are mostly the same, one doesn't need to redefine or restructure anything to make it happen. Look at our modern forces, where women are in almost every role men are in without much issue (though I still don't know why we don't let women do every combat role, upper-body strength means nothing in modern military so it's just stupid to treat the sexes remotely different. I wish we were more egalitarian).

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    $\begingroup$ The question of why women aren't allowed in combat roles now is probably best left off stackexchange, as it will almost inevitably lead to discussion and doesn't have a clear answer. I agree with you, though, that it doesn't have a good answer, either. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Dec 22 '14 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ While English-style longbows require quite a bit of upper body strength (which will tend to select for men, not women), crossbows are another matter. So I can easily see archery corps with mixed weapons, with more women among the crossbows than the longbows. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Dec 23 '14 at 4:13
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen In the modern army you still have to be able to carry an injured soldier and his pack a decent way, plus, of course, your own pack, armour, weapons etc. Brute strength is still important. $\endgroup$ – Rowanas Dec 23 '14 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ I've known many skilled black-belts, but I haven't experienced a situation where males learning martial arts focused any less on technique or developed any slower then women. Except for low belt young children, where admittedly the boys tended to be more easily distracted because...young boys lol. From my limited experience teaching martial arts there is no significant difference in development speed or skill between sexes on average. I also never notice women struggling any more starting out, in fact they tend to have slightly better balance and flexibility when brand new. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 23 '14 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ I have seen that very large men tend to be more inclined towards focusing on strong attacks that require more commitment, those work well when you have stopping power to strike through your opponents defense. Those with slighter builds will tend towards developing different styles to compliment their build I myself focused on very defense with a few well timed blows when I could make openings due to my lack of stopping power. However, it's unfair to imply that one side is less skilled then other, both tactics take talent and training to refine. Each simply uses the best method for them. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 24 '14 at 0:07

The biggest limitation on women in the military during feudal times is generally related to child bearing. High mortality rates in child birth and lower life spans usually relegated a woman's position to bearing children and not the army. Strenuous activity such as combat and horseback riding will cause miscarriages relatively frequently. High stress situations (combat) also cause horrible strains on a developing child...for the sake of the next generation, women generally did not involve themselves in combat.

There is some physiology involved...men are wider at the shoulders while women are wider at the hips. The extra width to provide more power in a direct combat sense. Relatively minor all told.

3 examples of historic women in battle during fuedal times:

Germanic women involved themselves in battle quite frequently in combat with Romans (generally viewed as 'barbaric' by the romans)...they would end up having two strong effects that weren't really tied to their to actual combat ability - Wailing and screaming. Especially when fighting a male dominated opponent, the screams and wails of women entering combat is unnerving to say the least. - Cheerleaders. As unnerving as it is to the opponents, it also works as a bonus for those fighting. Men in combat infront of their women are far less likely to break and flee with the knowledge that their woman folk are going to see their cowardice and hunt them down themselves.

Scythian woman were the military elite of their time and where the legendary 'Amazon' woman descend from. They were the fighting elite, rumored to chop off one of their breasts so they may properly use a bow. These woman were equal or superior to most male fighters, just due to their role in society (think of them as the 'spartans', born and bred to fight). They'd be fully withdrawn from the breeding population.

Viking 'Shield Maiden'. Not unlike the Scythian, usually on horse back with spear and shield. Equivalent to men in fighting skill and prowess and were almost always of 'elite status' (you were either 100% dedicated for your life, or you were busy having children and raising the next generation, no inbetween ground). Once again, these woman were not child bearing as their lifestyles wouldn't allow the period required for pregnancy without miscarriage.

When actually given the training and lifestyle, women are pretty equal to men on the battlefield. However, the risks involved in child birthing and shorter lifespans usually prohibited their full use on the battlefield ("save the woman and children" is really "save the next generation"). Medieval technology regarding medicine and birthing usually saw an extremely high mortality rate, requiring the majority of woman to be relegated to ensuring the next generation were on their way. If you can get around that (magical healing), there is absolutely no reason women couldn't play a role in the military.


As an alternative view...

If we're starting from the view of "men and women are equal, always have been equal, and there was never that historical silliness that our earth had", I would suggest that you'll see both genders in all roles, based on their individual abilities. (I'm assuming that you're keeping the current bodytypes of men and women, though.)

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean 50/50 across the board - people have pointed out the Big Ass English Longbows that required training from a young age to use properly. Only the biggest and brawniest are going to get that job to begin with, so it'll probably skew to the men-folk. But that will just increase the number of shortbows and crossbows in use, and for the same reason we have them historically - it's a lot easier to train someone to have steady aim than to have rippling muscles.

As a contrary example, mounted cavalry could easily be a female-dominated unit, since shortbows don't have the same draw-strength issues, and being smaller and lighter is an advantage on horseback.

Infantry is pretty egalitarian - women worked on farms historically, so would be just as adept at polearms and simple weapons as the menfolk are. You may see the same skew in your full-plate crowd, but it could be just as likely that the world would skew to lighter armor (would only take a battle or two where 50 in chain/leather defeat 20 in full-plate to change military thinking)

Siege weaponry would be in the same category - people smart enough to know how to build and control them will be doing it.

In short, you would just need to keep the physiques consistent for the job at hand - in the same way you would do so for your male characters. Longbow archers are going to be broad-shouldered and strong. Folks in heavy armor are going to have the muscle mass to carry that armor. Your classic "damsel" physiques are going to be rare in the same way that scrawny guys in the military are rare - they'll be scouts and spies.

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    $\begingroup$ The cavalry point is a good one- equestrian sports are the only Olympic events where men and women compete against one another. Also, horse archers have probably been the single most effective unit in our history. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Dec 23 '14 at 23:18

Although many good thoughts have been added already I would just like to add my input from my experience with a 12th century reenactment group that I was a member of for a number of years. The reenactment was more skill based than scripted and we trained 2 times or more per week with blunted versions of the weapons that they would have had back then. We had a number of female members, many high ranking who also participated in the combat (though dressed as men with hoods or helmets to hide the fact they were female).

Regarding strength; it is true that women don't tend to be as strong as men on average and that we build muscle more slowly due to having less testosterone but with continued training it doesn't take too long to become adjusted to heavier weapons and armour. Things like spears and shields tend to be as light weight as possible anyway.

If you have little time to train the women or they don't have enough food to sustain the muscle growth, this could be a problem however. We did once have a girl join who was particularly thin and didn't have much muscle strength and she did very badly for a while, particularly when it came to things like shield walls (this is a particular problem as the weak link in the shield wall is not only in danger themselves but the people near them will also be vulnerable - the whole formation can be collapsed that way).

Where women lacked in strength they tended to make up for it in technique - a phenomenon you may also see in certain martial arts.

Endurance: when it came to sustained carrying of weapons and wearing armour for a long time or in intense heat, the difference between sexes wasn't very pronounced. Some girls had problems with arming spears (carried in one hand, the other holding a shield) but made up for this by balancing them on their shields or holding them upright when not actively thrusting.

Things that aren't covered so much by reenactment:

Brute strength - our safety rules generally prevented this but i would say that men would be better at this. This may be where better technique is required by the women to make up for this but many weapons do not necessarily need that much force to do damage. It is also a bad idea to keep exerting yourself to your maximum strength in a long battle as you will quickly tire yourself out.

Mentality - we obviously didn't experience the psychological effects of battle. You have to deal with the fact that you kill people (especially the first time) and also with the friends you have lost in battle and the horrific injuries you may have seen. I am unsure how things like PTSD affect men vs women, though the fact that women tend to feel more able to talk about emotion than men may help.

Recovery from wounds and illnesses: I am unsure if men and women would differ when it comes to likelihood/speed of recovery from things like dyssentry, wounds and infected wounds. Many women in our reenactment group tended to bruise more easily than men and have torn skin or blisters at the start but this would lessen after a while and they tended to get back into it quickly. Joint injuries like dislocations were probably a little more common in women but this tended to be after previous injuries that were unrelated to the combat.

Historically: This isn't related to my experiences but there have been some examples of women fighting in history - though there is some dispute about things like the shield maidens of the vikings. Mostly if women fought they probably disguised themselves as men or did it out of necessity if the camp was attacked so it is hard to know but there are some records out there. Currently only two pirates in later history spring to mind (Anne Bonny and Mary Read) but that's a different period of history and a different style of fighting. It might be worth asking the folks at the history site for more information or when I have more time I can try and provide some sources.

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    $\begingroup$ We've pretty much put to bed the PTSD thing. I need to find a source, but apparently women have no problem killing (not exactly a surprise), and suffer no more from the psychological effects of war. $\endgroup$ – Rowanas Dec 23 '14 at 9:23
  • $\begingroup$ I think it's more accurate to say women have no more problem killing then men do, not that they have no problem killing. Both sexes tend to have a bit of an issue with the use of lethal force, a large part of basic training is actually training reflexes and habituating one to the concept of firing on another person because it goes against one's natural predisposition. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 30 '14 at 18:10

I have an egalitarian country with an army that's somewhere from 10 to 40% women

Then it's not egalitarian. If it were perfectly egalitarian the rate would be 50% (barring there being a reason why in your world women were only 10% to 40% of the population at fighting age, or why an extremely high number of them were otherwise not available for fighting).

Depending on your reasons this is either a flaw in your thinking or an interesting point about your otherwise egalitarian world. One way that it could be the latter is that it already addresses what people have said here about physical strength; men do on average have greater upper-body strength than women, but a given woman might very well have much greater upper-body strength than a given man, and so in a society that was meritocratic about military roles we would likely see a large number of women in the military (certainly more than 10%) but not full parity.

Just what that percentage is depends on a few things:

  1. Innate strength differences between men and women: These are debatable in our world (see the second point) but whatever they are, are they the same in yours? You do after all have some scientific rules different to ours, so this may or may not be the same.
  2. Training: Both physical education as a child and later military training. Considering the egalitarian nature of your world we'd expect the experiences of its people to be such that the ratio of women to men who could e.g. manage the draw weight of a long-bow to be higher than in real-world European countries when they were at a similar level of technology.
  3. Work: In a way this falls under "training", but for it not being actually intended as such. We can expect people to do certain types of work as children, certain types as lads or lasses, and certain types as adults. Given the egalitarian nature of your society we can expect this to further balance out the sexes as far as physical strength goes, compared to other societies with similar technology levels.

An interesting side-point, is that this would affect how people looked. As a rule this would not mean a world of muscle-bound women; if you look at how female weight-lifters and boxers look across the different weight classes, you'll notice how it isn't until the higher weigh classes that you start noticing them as having a body-type much different to what is generally considered "normal". If anything they look more "normal" than normal people, because ideas of "normal" can be skewed by media favouring portrayals of fit people over the average. Particularly dainty women might be slightly rarer and particularly muscular women might be slightly more common though (likewise for men in reverse).

An important question, is how is the army raised? Is this society egalitarian as far as sex goes, but otherwise quite feudal and with relatively poor people being pressed into service for their gentry? (as with early mediaeval) or is there a middle class of soldiers who are well-equipped and trained? (more like late mediaeval) or something else? Similarly, is there a standing army, or are they raised as needed? Is it voluntary or drafted (and if drafted, all of a certain age or a lottery or such)? How common is warfare? What is the general attitude toward the military? (Imposition of one class upon another? the most honourable career possible? a necessary evil? a duty all should fulfil but none should revel in?). Is there a fighting season, or is combat roughly as likely to happen throughout the year.

All of these would affect how having such a high number of women in the military turned out.

If fighting was seasonable, for example, then that would give a natural block of time that could fit with a maternity and paternity period. (If your society is sexually egalitarian then obviously men are spending a lot of time looking after children too, perhaps more once the children are weaned since they can neither birth the children nor breastfeed them, so they may take up more of the burden of looking after children afterwards).

Beyond that, Kromey suggests that strict rules about sexual relations are needed to prevent pregnancy. Maybe you have such rules, but then how well are they followed and how are they imposed (many real-world societies with strict rules against young people having sex have lots of young people getting pregnant). Assuming that either you don't have such rules, or they don't work, what is actually done about pregnancy? Camp followers certainly became pregnant as did women in sieges and that is a practical matter that has already been dealt with in the real world, so one obvious solution is that pregnant women become camp followers unless they can safely leave the campaign entirely.

In fact, the really big difference an egalitarian society would have in how it dealt with pregnancy and combat, is how it would affect the male soldiers. In our world where female soldiers has been relatively rare (though far from unheard of) if a soldier got someone pregnant that he wasn't going to just abandon, then she would either be away from the front or a camp follower and he would continue soldiering as before with perhaps a very small amount of compassionate leave after the birth if he was very lucky. In an egalitarian society were men were seen as having an equal role to play in the raising of children, this would probably not be the case.

Unless people were drafted for very short tours of duty and fully prevented from getting pregnant in the meantime, then the soldiers are going to have sex both with civilians and with each other, and of the heterosexual couplings* there will be some pregnancies, and this is going to impact upon the duties of both the male and female soldiers. Indeed, there might well be a bigger difference in this regard between a male soldier in this world and ours than between the female soldiers and the female soldiers our world has indeed seen.

Which leads to another result; unlike our world, your hypothetical world will not have any "female soldiers", it will have soldiers who happen to be female. We remark upon the all-female unit of Shaka Zulu, the fact that some of the solderas on both sides in the Mexico Revolutionary War were combatants, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces, Nancy Wake, Li Xiu, Jean d'Arc, Deborah Samson Gannett, Boudica and female participants in just about every asymmetric conflict and most conventional wars as being somehow more exceptional than they were considering how we can find so many examples. You won't have any of that in your hypothetical world.

Unless perhaps your egalitarian society is in conflict with one that is not sexually egalitarian. In that case, any propaganda on both sides would likely feature this heavily: For the opposing side you will be able to find a model in the Roman accounts of Germanic tribes and how barbarous it was that their women fought, while for the egalitarian society's side you will be able to find a model in Sinn Féin's propagandising the concept of "Women in Struggle" in regards to both Ireland and other groups they supported around the world. Current arguments for and against women in combat roles in Western countries would also provide models for either side of the propaganda war. It's worth considering whether the non-egalitarian side considers their female enemies an easier proposition than the men, or a worse one (consider the advice given to anti-terrorist police dealing with the Red Army Faction to "shoot the women first" as they were considered less likely to surrender).

If though the egalitarian nature is not politicised within this world, because combatants are similarly egalitarian, the biggest differences are likely to not be for the women—whose experience would be like that of real-world female combatants throughout history, but with more acceptance by their comrades— but for the men, and what is expected of them as well as soldiering.

*It's worth considering just how many of the couplings are not heterosexual. Does a society that is sexually egalitarian naturally entail it having no taboos against homosexuality? The biggest impact on the world building is not that you would gay and lesbian and bisexual soldiers among this mixed-sex army (people only ever being straight is much more far-fetched than anything mentioned so far) but that the cultural signifiers would be likely be very different than in our world, even in the most tolerant communities.

  • $\begingroup$ I figured a lower percentage because pregnant women would be unable to serve in combat. $\endgroup$ – CoolCurry Dec 23 '14 at 2:37
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    $\begingroup$ My exact reasoning was that the ratio would be closer to 50/50 during peacetime when entry was voluntary, but would likely be lower in the event of a draft as there'd be more military aged men available than military aged women due to pregnancy (possibly inflated if some women are becoming pregnant just to avoid the draft). $\endgroup$ – CoolCurry Dec 23 '14 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ Well that would depend on pregnancy rates (and whether they'd be similar to our world at a similar technology levels or not is an interesting thing to consider with arguments to be made in different ways), how far on the average pregnancy was before women no longer engaged in combat (maybe that'd be as soon as found pregnant, but not necessarily) and when they came back. But it'd be balanced either way by this being an egalitarian society and male soldiers having a lot of time not on active duty so they can raise children. $\endgroup$ – Jon Hanna Dec 23 '14 at 12:03
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    $\begingroup$ Lower percentage is quite possible. Statistically speaking today women are less likely to be supportive of military, are more likely to identify as pacifists, and are less likely to choose physical occupations over ones involving mental or social skills. Even in a fully egalitarian country it's quite possible women would simply be less likely to choose military lifestyle. There are biological differences, such as lower testosterone which is linked to aggression, which would likely lead to women being less military minded on average even if societal pressures didn't play a role. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 23 '14 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ I doubt paternity leave would be provided to men in the military if this is during war time (which I assume it is, most stories centered around the military are). In fact I wouldn't be surprised if maternity leave wasn't all that great either. As soon as the mother has recovered enough to fight she would likely be expected to leave the child with a follow on to fight during actual battles. Military can be pretty rough during time of war. egalitarian only means everyone is treated equally harshly ;) $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 23 '14 at 14:43

There is a Alt-History/Fantasy series that does have a military unit that incorporated women. It was a sling-staff unit of peasants throwing gunpowder grenade bombs. The women carried the bombs, and cut and lit the fuse to hand to the men to throw. The men trusted their wives and girlfriends to cut the fuse properly to avoid blowing them up.

While this never happened in our history, it at least gives a way for women to be effective in a close-support role integrated into a unit without the disadvantage to the unit of their inferior strength.

You could imagine other "close support" roles - a woman holding a light shield to protect an archer, or putting out the pointed stakes and anti-cavalry defenses about a position like the British Logbowmen had at Agincourt.

  • $\begingroup$ FWIW I'm pretty sure that series was the "Dance of TIme" series by Flint and Drake. It's about the Eastern Roman Empire and its rivals (not the usual ones) struggling, each side having some out-of-context help/advisors. It's actually quite good, if a bit tongue-in-cheek. $\endgroup$ – akaioi Oct 19 '17 at 18:45

Especially interesting because Britain is discussing having women as front line combat infantry. A large part of the discussion revolves around the physical effort involved in frontline combat; something which is only exacerbated the further back, and the more direct combat becomes. No matter which way you cut it, women don't have the mass that most men do, or the proportions that grant people advantages in combat. Men have longer limbs, heavier bodies, more pure muscle to put into caving someone's head in over and over for hours at a time, while women are, on average, more slender and less heavily muscled.

In terms of support functions, leadership and whatnot, women can serve just as well as men. They won't have quite the draw strength that men enjoy, but that shouldn't stop them from remaining effective archers, magi, siege workers etc. Many forms of indirect combat can be adapted to give women the leverage that men normally enjoy, in which case it simply becomes a matter of handing out jobs based not just on knowledge, but also physique.

As for clothing, it would need to be slightly differently shaped, but athletic women tend to have smaller breasts and more masculine bodily proportions (for many of the reasons listed above). If you look at top female athletes, you'll notice that they're largely restricted in cup size, simply because large breasts aren't a benefit when you're trying to run, lift a heavy load, throw a javelin etc.

  • $\begingroup$ Aside from magi, this is absolutely false. Both seige work and archery are very physical labors, and upper body labors at that. Women are going to be severely lacking in these areas. Wagon drivers, maybe. Cooks and Craftsmen, sure, except maybe for the most severe blacksmithing. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 22 '14 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ I know siege work and archery are physical, but if you reduced the draw strength of the bows in use, women could still be part of, or form, a force of effective archers. Siegework similarly, in that while it is strenuous work, you can increase the length of winch levers for siege engines and the like in order to make it no more difficult than for any man. Some of the more... direct work, like digging and whatnot might have to be given to blokes, but that's all just part of making most effective use of your people. $\endgroup$ – Rowanas Dec 23 '14 at 9:03
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    $\begingroup$ Please don't forget that physical attributes follow a bell curve distribution and while the peak (i.e. the level where most people fall) is lower for women than men, the curves overlap so that there will be some women who are stronger, faster, heavier, etc. than some men. It's these women that will be able (and willing) to compete with men for combat roles. $\endgroup$ – ChrisF Dec 23 '14 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Rowanas - Reducing the draw strength of the bows means part of your unit can't hit certain targets or has to aim entirely differently to saturate an area for effect. This makes it a less effective unit. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 23 '14 at 21:18

How this egalitarianism will manifest in the army will depend upon a few factors - the size of the army relative to the population at large, how long campaigns last, and how far afield the military ranges will change this answer considerably.

'Roughly medieval' covers a wide range of possibilities - this could be small bands skirmishing from town to town for a few days, or large armies of many thousands heading off great distances for a year or three. In the former case women might be fairly common, in the latter they would likely be rare.

Someone needs to look after the livestock and the fields - the bulk of day-to-day work still needs to be done even if there is a war on. Who is going to be left at home looking after the sheep and the fields? I hold that this will still be mostly women tending to the home while more of the men go off to war, even in a truly egalitarian society, as the comparative advantage in medieval warfare is very strongly favoring using men as soldiers even before you consider the issues of birthing/nursing children.

Childbirth will take a woman out of military duties for about 2 years (gestation and breastfeeding), which is time to be pregnant again (peak physical condition is peak childbearing years). This is not going to be done by the men unless you have some unusual magics, in which case just handwave 'magic' to answer everything. Upper class women would send their children to wetnurses, but unless you have some unusual ideas about societal structure (which would need to be mentioned as this drastically changes the conditions), noblewomen will not comprise a significant portion of your soldiers. Near as I can tell, in medieval England a woman would give birth roughly every 2 years (some places and times the most common spacing is 16 months between births while in others it is up to 30 months) and give birth to 5 or 6 children (and around 10% of women died in childbirth or shortly thereafter). This hardly leaves time to go off on campaign as the rigors of a soldier's life is hardly conducive to raising children.

Many people imagine a medieval society which functions just like our modern one - low birth rates because almost everyone lives, and women bounce back from childbirth and are back to work in just a couple weeks, babies are put on formula so the woman doesn't need to breastfeed, etc. If you want to magic away medieval society to make it look like a modern one, you can shape it however you want through 'magic reasons'.

When it comes to effectiveness on the battlefield, men have the significant advantage of strength - obviously I am not saying all women are weak, but I don't expect weaker men to be soldiers either. We are talking about the portion of the population which is best suited to fighting - if a tenth of the population is called up, how many women do you think are in the top 10% of the whole population for strength and military aptitude, as well as not at risk of pregnancy or are not already nursing a child (which could be up to 2 years)?

The units which would plausibly have significant numbers of women would be those not requiring significant strength, and that is limited in a medieval context. Women might make good skirmishers (javelins, darts, or slings for harassing enemy formations to get them to break discipline) or maybe light cavalry. Obviously your magic corp would be the biggest representation of women - probably almost entirely women, as men would be more valuable as melee troops or archers since there are probably more women available for magic who would not otherwise be filling the other roles (back to comparative advantage - even if men and women are equally good at magic, almost all magic troops would be women as almost all non-magic troops will be men).

Great skill would negate a lot of the strength advantage, but who is likely to put so much time and effort into that training? Training is an investment, and people in medieval society did not have that much consistent free time to spend on practice with the money to pay a good teacher - I would not expect many women to rationally make that investment. Spending years training consistently to be a great swordsman might be common among the nobility, but certainly not the vast bulk of the population.

As far as non-combat military life, this too will depend on length and scale of campaign. Risk of pregnancy for a camp follower is not a serious problem from a combat capabilities perspective, but the risk of it removing a soldier from the field is of concern - injury and disease caused enough attrition before adding that complication to the mix. Anything but the shortest of campaigns will need to deal with this issue - war aphrodisia could see a rapid loss of women from combat readiness after a few months unless there was some kind of birth control and they are amenable to using such (then you will need to get into wider implications for population growth with high child mortality, unless you want to give them modern medicine as well - or just magic the issue away). Segregating the sexes would be one approach, but it would need to be fairly strict as I can see the desire to sneak away would be considerable. This would probably break unit cohesion, so you would no longer have mixed-gender units, further tilting the preference for men as soldiers and relegating women to support roles.

You could consider women being combat troops until they get pregnant, and then switch to support roles, but this again raises the question of why would you invest so many resources on training and equipping them for little use - those scarce resources could be better used training and equipping men. Forcing a miscarriage to keep a woman 'fighting fit' might be a solution, but you are going to have to come up with some very strong reasons why they would find that socially acceptable.

If you want plausibility and not just hand-wave 'magic' everything, women in a medieval setting are almost certainly left at home or back in non-combat roles, else they would be remarkably unusual rather than a significant portion of the troops. This isn't sexism keeping women largely off the battlefield, it is practicality.


Morale is going to be a problem. In battlefield conditions, it is imperative for all soldiers to trust one another. Male-female relations are often highly emotional, and are likely to lead to jealousy (of the lover of a good-looker) and revenge (if one partner ends a love affair, the other partner is probably angry). If your society is really egalitarian, this will apply to both men and women. Forbidding inter-sexual relations just isn't going to work (as dsollen and others have pointed out).

The only way I can see it working is if your society has more-or-less complete "free love", Brave New World style (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World). Which will likely influence the rest of your story.


I strongly suggest you read Scott Lynch's novels, which have a fully-egalitarian society when it comes to fighters. One of his most interesting inventions was a naval tradition where women are highly valued as officers, enough so that sailors typically won't put to sea without at least one female officer. The cultural belief is that women are better at planning and (in a world with gods who are believed to intervene on your behalf) generally luckier than men.

Someone once criticised Lynch for this, a few years back. His reply is absolute poetry and should be reposted wherever possible. Read and enjoy!

  • $\begingroup$ If women are presumed better at arbitrary tasks like planning and getting special privileges which allows them to be fast tracked to the more desirable officer roles then I'm not certain the society deserves to be called fully-egalitarian. Women receiving unwarranted privileges is just as anti-egalitarian as men receiving them. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Mar 18 '16 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ @dsollen I suggest you read the books to decide whether it's "unwarranted". Let's just say it's a society where leadership is based on brains and not just brawn. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jul 15 '16 at 10:18

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