1. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    Female Agency in a Patriarchy

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Oscar Leigh, Jun 17, 2019.

    Hello folks,
    I would like the discuss the execution of a character in my WIP. This character is the main character's wife, and essentially operates as a housewife, and as a handmaiden to the Queen(she's a Lady of the Bedchamber). In this domestic archetypally feminine role, I want her to exercise a reasonable amount of influence actually. But I don't want her to be rebellious or odd, and it should be subtle. It's all about playing the game, and she doesn't actually object as such to the standards of the time more that she takes an open interpretation and does what she can with it. Since this is set in history, this is a fairly particular and delicate line. Does anyone have any advice about characters who wield power through social interaction? That would apply to some of the other characters as well.
    While we are on the topic, the other part of her agency, sort of the same thing but, she is slightly older and substantially more high-born than her husband. How do you portray the power dynamic in that relationship? Given she is still supposed to be obedient and she is all about duty. It's not as big an issue as it could because they have a good relationship and I certainly don't want to characterise him as treating her like an idiot or servant. But it is a relevant aspect.
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2019
  2. jannert

    jannert Super Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Not entirely sure what you're asking for here. Are you wondering HOW a woman would have influence in a patriarchy? In other words, how could she exercise some control?

    And also, you hint that this is set in a particular time period. It would probably help you get the answers you want, if we know what period you're using. There's a lot of difference, I imagine, from century to century. Also, where is this being set?

    Just thinking a bit. If she is part of the Queen's inner circle, and if the Queen has power (which I assume she will have) then there could be a bit of manipulation going on there. Perhaps the Queen could use HER influence to get your character what she wants?

    Your character will also have the power of her own personality.

    Obviously if she is cowed or retiring, she won't be able to do much. If she's too forthright and outspoken, she'll create anger, and the patriarchy may see her as a threat. The trick is the middle ground, I reckon. If she is seen as fulfilling her 'role' in society very well, she'll be respected for it. And consequently she might be more likely to be listened to, as long as she seems deferential. Other women will respect her as well. Whether they like her or envy her will, again, be largely down to her personality. But they're likely to follow her lead in some way, whether they enjoy it or not.

    It will also depend a lot on the personalities of the people around your character, including the men. If she can get THEM to think they're the ones making the right decisions...well, that's a long-serving tactic for a woman to use, in order to gain influence. Maybe not quite as blatant as flattery, but simply suggesting things in a non-confrontational way to the right people?

    All this manipulative faff, of course, is anathaema to modern women. This is the sort of situation we hope/believe is behind us—now consigned to history. However, it can be an eye-opener to think back to those days, and realise they're not all that far behind us, actually. Certainly some of these kinds of situations were common when I was young, when most girls my age (I was born in 1949) were still being taught by their mothers to appear subservient. Being too 'forward' (as it was called!) was not encouraged at home, or at school, or in social circles.

    Think of the sitcoms popular in the 1950s and 60s, that contained manipulative wives and somewhat foolish or blustery husbands. These husbands usually ended up doing what the wife wanted because she cleverly set things up to fool him—without damaging his ego or his standing in the community. Nope. Not all that far behind us at all.
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2019
  3. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    This is in the late 16th century England. Not the worst place for a woman, especially given it was considering more free for women by other European society at the time, ambassadors and other travellers noted the women were a bit bolder in trying to influence things. And she's in a position where that's possible her husband is an important person, with a very important father, her father is a fairly senior aristocrat(10th Baron) also has a political office, and she has a place in the Queen's household and affections. But she's still not particularly supposed to get involved, insofar as women's influence usually had to be couched in more feminine terms.
    I thought I mean I might have to explain
    I already know how they would do it, and how I want her to do it, but I would like advice on the execution. In particular, this character Elizabeth (Brooke) Cecil in my conception of her is quite socially skilled, and that is the better part of women's opportunities in this society. So how do I portray her using that opportunity in a subtle way? What kind of things should she do, and if we discuss specific examples how does she do them?
    For example, the scene I am currently writing involves a tense dinner table conversation. She is only one of a number of individuals there, but I do want her to get involved. And it's a circumstance that I have to deal with again multiple times. How does one write that? I'm not very good at social stuff, and I'm not a woman in a largely patriarchal society. What tips do people have on portraying that? Any related tips are also welcome on social scenes or female character design. Relevant thing is that scene is from the third-person limited perspective of Queen Elizabeth I, who is one of the four main perspective characters I have. So the narration should also deal with that, beyond Cecil/Brooke's involvement. The Queen has a somewhat different way of dealing with the issue, with a different outlook. But it's there with her character, she plays the role of "royal hermaphrodite" as David Starkey once put it. I think she's easier for me, because she specifically evokes male power, only occasionally using tactical femininity to hide it. A wife's kind of power is harder, because it doesn't always leave traces.
     
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  4. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    I'm not a history buff by any means, but here are some of my thoughts.

    Patriarchy doesn't just position women as lesser, but as having a certain role, as it does also for men. In this way, women, while treated as lesser overall and denied from certain opportunities and pressured by certain standards, are also given certain priveledges that men are actually denied. So, one piece of advice would be to play into that fact. If the character believes somewhat in patriarchal gender roles, they let them play their role, and play it well.
    For instance, women have historically been positioned as more influential over a lot of the day to day running of the household, and often as figures of a certain moral authority through the notion of their supposed simple purity. That doesn't give them much actionable authority, but it gives them a lot of personal influence they can leverage. Especially with personal connections like your character has. They can be the trusted confidant, one that isn't seen as being as threatening as a man would be. They can use the household position to gain favour with lower status servants and workers, and extend that connection to help gain the favour of others.
     
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  5. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    Yes, that's certainly the idea. The key I want is advice from people who have some kind of experience with this sort of thing on how it should work more particularly in execution. Particular tactics. Particular no-nos. Discussion of implication.
    Also you typo-d "privilege". Not to be snappy.
     
  6. jannert

    jannert Super Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You could do a lot worse that read some of CJ Sansom's Shardlake series of books, set in the period during and just after Henry VIII. This is exciting historical fiction that is meticulously detailed and contains many active (and passive) female characters, both in upper echelons of society and lower as well. While your story and characters will be different, Sansom's content AND modern approach will certainly give you some ideas. And they're set more or less bang in the middle of the right era. The final book (thus far) in the series contains Elizabeth herself, in her pre-queen days.

    You could also do worse than get hold of this book: mortimer.png
    Mortimer's Guides to various eras are pretty much invaluable to writers who want more than just the history of kings and queens in their stories. This is excellent work, and will not only give you lots of ideas on how to approach your subject, but will probably give you a good idea of how to find more information, if you need it.

    What I suspect you already know is that people are people. The same kinds of people you find today would have lived back then. So figure out what kind of character you want, do research into the possibilities and restrictions this type of character would have faced at that time ...and start building your story from there.
     
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  7. Storysmith

    Storysmith Active Member

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    One thing that occurs to me is that at court, information can easily translate to power. She could see or hear something, or perhaps land a tasty bit of gossip. Depending on how you want to portray her, should could immediately spill the beans to someone else, keep the information for when she needs it, or blackmail somebody.

    Also, remember that if she's at court then she's already vastly more influential and powerful than 99% of the population. Just because some men at the apex of society have more power, don't underestimate what she has.

    As to the dynamic of the relationship in her marriage, I'd suggest allowing things to be very different in public to how they are in public. If she's not stupid then she'd know that it would be best for her to make her husband appear powerful and decisive to the rest of the world. And if he's not stupid then he'd know to take her advice and experience into account when they're alone. Of course, characters making stupid choices can make for interesting plots too.
     
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  8. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I think it partly depends on her goals and her allies. I'm also tentatively assuming that you're not looking for things like blackmail or murder, but instead moderately respectable exercise of power?

    One difficulty here is that her exercise of power is probably going to depend on very specific things, and that would involve a ton of research. This is why my fantasy novel is in a completely fictional world, even though that completely fictional world doesn't have a single plant, animal, fruit, or sentient being that doesn't exist in our world. I wanted the power to make up the rules of the culture.

    So, some scenarios if I could make up the rules of society:

    Scenario 1: Perhaps the wife of an important household traditionally has absolute discretion over seating at banquets, and perhaps one's seat is desperately important for status--to be seen in a lower-status seat than one's rank would call for would be terribly shameful. In that scenario, everyone invited to the banquet would be motivated to be on the wife's good side.

    Scenario 2: Perhaps there are elaborate rules regarding introductions--you simply don't speak to people to whom you haven't been properly introduced by a mutual acquaintance. In this case, that mutual acquaintance has the power to confer a sustantial favor. If we want to make this female-focused, perhaps a man must be introduced to a woman by another woman, and there's a man who really really wants to meet a particular woman. If a female protagonist's pretty and extremely marriageable cousin comes to stay, and the protagonist is the only woman who can introduce her to a variety of interested men, then the protagonist is in a position to demand a variety of favors.

    Scenario 3: If the wife manages the house, she manages the house's expenditures. With a wealthy house, that could be a lot of money. Perhaps the butcher, the cabinetmaker, the up-and-coming doctor who is of noble rank but pretty broke, would do her a favor in exchange for her business.

    Scenario 4: Perhaps her son wants to marry a girl, but that won't happen without his mother's approval. Her son is a man, with a man's power.
     
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  9. KiraAnn

    KiraAnn Member

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    If you are going to have your MC be an advisor to Elizabeth I, then I strongly suggest you study Elizabeth for several years. There has been so much written about her and her. Kevin reign, the slightest mistake will get you ripped. Very dangerous subject.
     
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  10. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    I have studied her in some detail and continue to do so as I write. I've got a whole collection of sources I'm constantly adding to. I am trying to write a relatively more strenuously researched and realistic historical fictionalisation, rather than something like Philippa Gregory(god forbid).
     
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  11. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    Oh absolutely respectable. My idea of her given given her contemporary and modern reputation as a model Puritan housewife is her exercising subtle influence with feminine couching and on primarily on matters that are considered more open to female involvement. In particular all family members are considered family representatives who can get involved in relevant negotiations so she can act on behalf of her husband and her blood relatives. In the story she focuses mainly on these, particularly because of her sense of duty
    Those are all at least somewhat true. She does the better half of household management compared to her husband, especially given Robert Cecil is a notorious workaholic like his father. This includes arranging most of the details of social affairs, with his consultation. This comes into play especially when I intend to have a scene with her hosting her brothers, who she really wants to get along with Robert and plays a major role in cementing their families' alliance, which women's marriages often did, even in poorer circles.
    Connections are very important for marriage arrangements because men and women have largely gender/segregated friend circles outside family and court, and the marriage itself always involve other connected individuals arranging the terms(with varying levels of involvement by the engaged themselves). The gender-segregated friend circles also mean most ladies have a grapevine of female discussion, and since hers would centred on her connections in the Queen's ladies, she would have potential to quite private and important information, not only from the Queen, who doesn't share everything with Robert, but also information on the important men other important ladies are married to. And women can serve as intermediaries between the men in their circles, for example when Elizabeth Lady Cecil serves as an intermediary in Robert reporting information to Sir Christopher Hatton during the summer progress. That example is actually recorded and is one reason why some historians think she probably exercised more influence than is obvious, which is where I'm going.
    The only one that doesn't fit much here is her son's marriage, because he's only a few months old at the start of the book, and marriage negotiations even in this society aren't usually done until around puberty. She could be involved with pre-contract negotiations though, in a speculative manner, dealing with suitors who would like advanced rights to the marriage.
     
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  12. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Contributor Contributor

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    You can watch Game of Thrones as high level education about wielding power through social interaction.
     
  13. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    One example that I do find relevant. The books in particular are relatively close to what I'm aiming for; detailed, political and world-building storylines with large scope and cast in a period setting. Mine is obviously more rooted in actual history, given it's actual people mostly versus fantasy, and the politics is in slightly higher focus without anyone like Arya or Brienne running around doing adventurer stuff.
     
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  14. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    Catelyn Stark and Margaery Tyrell are not bad examples to look at how one might do this sort of thing.
     
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  15. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    Catelyn's really a little too explicit and "wolfish" though for this character who is supposed to be subtle and non-threatening. Margaery is a little too... whore-y for a direct comparison. The book Margaery is pretty close though, she's the most subtle and there's less sex in her style than the tv one. That's more what I'm going for.
     
  16. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    But both play a strong assertive role while fitting into a more feminine archetype.
    Also 'a little too whore-y'?
     
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  17. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    In terms of my character not being that sexual. Also I find it a little bit sexist, because it's a trope where the assertive, intelligent woman always has sexiness as a main part of her arsenal, and it's too common to be okay,
     
  18. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    I got that. Your choices of words though...
    But anyway, Margaery does more than just use sexuality. Notably, she is shown knowing how to tell people what they want to hear, and how to spin that to suit her agenda.
     
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  19. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Yes. I'd say that sex is one of her less important weapons.

    Come to think of it, how about Olenna Tyrell?
     
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  20. jannert

    jannert Super Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's an incredibly useful diplomatic skill. The key is persuasion. It can be overt or covert. (Overt means the person being persuaded knows the other person is presenting arguments, etc, attempting to persuade. Covert means the person being persuaded thinks the new outlook is something they came up with themselves.)

    I heard something about teaching the other day that resonates here. The idea that a good teacher doesn't tell students what to think about a situation or dilemma. Instead, a good teacher shows students a situation or dilemma from a particular perspective, and encourages them to draw their own conclusions.

    That's a very powerful skill to have.
     
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2019
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  21. Matt E

    Matt E Ruler of the planet Omicron Persei 8 Supporter Contributor

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    People have always been comfortable with the circumstances they live in. Change has occurred slowly, with the exception of the past century or so. We are socialized into the roles we fill from birth, which have deep roots in the culture we live, especially in the more stagnant societies of the past. When we look back through history, we see it through the lens of the writings of the time, and all of the biases that come with it. Until recently, historians thought that history was influenced by great men. Modern theories look at economic and social forces, and when we think about those, we can't discount half of the population. People are people. While the dusty old books talk about what the rich and important men were doing, that's only one small piece of the larger story. If we had a time machine, I think we would find that women had plenty of power too, even in societies that pretended otherwise.
     
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  22. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    Indeed, that's one of the secondary themes of my story; disadvantaged people still wielding influence. Indeed, given the main character has handicapping deformities, it is relevant to him as well.
     

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