Beyond Matriarchy: Writing the Female-Default World By G.R. Macallister

I thought it went without saying that we live in a patriarchal world, but then I went on Twitter. And the number of people (or bots) who tweet daily that the modern world is a matriarchy – and are mad about it – truly shocked me.

But the truth is, it’s not just a patriarchy. It’s a male-default world. The deeper you get into every aspect of how we use gendered language, from suffixes to idioms to profanity, the clearer that becomes.

I did this deep dive as I wrote my novel Scorpica, which kicked off an epic fantasy series set in a matriarchal world called the Five Queendoms, as well as the recently released sequel Arca. In this world, the queendoms have always been matriarchal, with women in charge, but it’s neither a utopia nor a dystopia—it’s just a world, like ours in many ways, different in others, where society has developed differently because women’s concerns were centered all along.

I’m a writer who loves world-building, and planning my first fantasy series certainly helped me give those muscles a workout. I built five societies from scratch, from women warriors called the Scorpicae, to a religious queendom where the monarch is also the high priest, to a queendom of scholars who rule by consensus. Each started from the same tribal roots but has branched off in its development, arriving at different models of marriage, child-rearing, economic and trade specialization, and so on. What all five queendoms have in common should by now be obvious: they’re all, and always have been, run by women.

One of the ways in which the language of the Five Queendoms differs from ours (besides using the word “queendoms”) is the lack of -ess endings to feminize nouns. Their use is a habit so ingrained I found myself belatedly catching my own errors deep into the drafting process. No goddesses, sorceresses, priestesses, not even lionesses. Women are gods, sorcerers, priests. (The lioness in question became a “mother lion.”) If women have always occupied every key role in a society, a feminine qualifier isn’t tacked onto the default names of those roles. You could even argue that there would be a male suffix instead, though I didn’t go that route.

Then I went a few layers deeper, really digging in, and some of it was even fun. You can learn a lot about society from their insults and profanity—what do they value, what do they scorn? Swearing by the gods is a constant, and bodily functions are always fair game, but the details of how gods and bodies are sworn by, those vary. I borrowed from Pompeii’s famously profane graffiti for some of my expressions, simply swapping in the name of a god from the Queendoms’ pantheon to coin “Velja’s lower beard!” (Think about it.) But not all expressions are created alike. Once you start sorting modern profanity relating to genitals into positive and negative categories, it becomes hard not to notice whose genitals are praised and admired (“wow, you’ve got balls”) and whose are not (“wow, you’re a pussy.”) The idea behind my matriarchal setting wasn’t just to present an exact mirror image of patriarchy, so I tried to take a more nuanced approach, but I did take pleasure in giving an opinionated character the line “Spending too much time with men makes you soft as a scrotum.”

One of the most exciting things about writing speculative fiction is the freedom to create a world that differs from ours in key ways. Presenting an imagined world to readers as backdrop means that it’s up to them to notice and decide how these differences cast an interesting light on what sometimes goes unexamined. In our world, a monarchy is called a “kingdom” even when a queen is in charge. What does that say, if anything? To me, it says that the world is male-default, and we’ve got a long way to go toward equality. And whether the female-centric world of the Five Queendoms thrills you or infuriates you or anywhere in between, I definitely hope it prompts you to see our world in a new way. That’s a big part of what fantasy is for.


Arca is out now and the review is incoming soon. In the meantime, whet your appetite with our review of Scorpica, the first outing in the series: