by Benjamin Rosenbaum
On The Founding of a House
1. When she becomes an adult, a woman who leaves her mother or her older sister’s household must found a House.
When do we say that she has left? If the land she bought adjoins her mother’s or sister’s land, and her mother’s or sister’s men defend it, she has not left. Nor if she takes women under contract, handsbound or mindbound, with the consent of her mother or sister. Nor if she journeys and stays at the Houses of friends and lovers; nor even if she enters into contracts of partnership with other women. It is with her mother’s or sister’s consent: she has not left.
But if she buys land of her own, apart, and if she brings her daughters with her, and if she brings her sons and their bondsmen, and invites her brothers and their bondsmen, to live there and defend her land: then we say that she has founded a House, even if it is a single building. And if she has bloodbound women whose men will fight alongside hers, and do not answer to her mother or to her sister, we say that she has founded a House. Now she is a matriarch.
If she serves another woman in binding contract — be it mind or blood or hands pledged to her service — she must transfer the contract. She serves her employer now in her own right, and no longer for her mother or her sister.
Her younger sisters may come and abide with her, or stay where they were, it makes no difference. But if they are eager to come with her, it is a good omen for a new House.
2. She must name her House.
a. Shall its name derive from her mother’s, as “Three Willows” from “Tall Willow”? She does this if her mother’s House is strong, showing her loyalty. But some say: a sapling cannot grow in the shadow of a great tree.
b. She may take the name of a defunct House, whose last woman has died. She declares it before the assembled matriarchs. If the name belonged to her mentor, or her lover, who has died, they look fondly upon it. If to her employer, they will judge her: if she is worthy, they look fondly upon it, but if it is a hollow boast, they will deride her. If the dead women were great in deeds and she is young and unproven, they will wait and see. She is ambitious, and can rise high, or fall and be ridiculed. If the House has long been dead, and none remember its deeds, they wait to see what she will do.
If the defunct House fell recently and its sons are still alive, they will say: she must take these motherless men to her care. Her brothers and sons must take those men, who were independent men, as bondsmen. Once they were free and served their mothers and sisters: now they must be bondsmen to other men, and serve other women. But they shall have a place, women to feed them and land to dwell on, and not be vagabonds and motherless men.
And the former bondsmen of these new bondsmen shall be taken also, if they can be fed. Especially if no one wants them, and they would otherwise starve or become bandits, it is praiseworthy.
But if these new bondsmen are many and strong at war and seasoned, she must make sure her men are confident. If her brothers and uncles are new and callow, and she is unsure, these new bondsmen will pull them to their own causes, enlisting them in a foolish war of vengeance against those who destroyed the former House. Then we say that the new House is led from underneath: it is a bad omen.
If the new bondsmen are wise and gentle, and the House has many children and few adult men, they shall use them as play uncles and nursing uncles. This is wise. It will cool the anger of the motherless men, and grow their love for the new House, for it is good for men to nurture children. But the men of the House must also take their turn, for it is not good for children to be raised only by bondsmen.
c. Or she may take a new name, that comes to her in a dream, or is taken from a poem. If she takes it from a women’s poem of business, they expect the new House to be strong in trade. If she takes it from a women’s poem of love between women, then in politics. If from a men’s poem of war and love between men, then in war and childrearing. If from a bawdy poem of comedy and love between men and women, then to be fertile, and bear many daughters and sons.
On Relations Between Women
1. When a woman is young and living in her mother’s House, it does not matter who she loves. Some say: it matters, for it plants the seeds. For two girls of different Houses who curl up in bed at ten years of age, may become a great alliance conquering many fields and valleys, in the same time that a sapling grows to a tree.
But if children quarrel and feud, there is no need for their mothers to quarrel on their account.
2. When a woman lives in her employer’s House in a handsbound relation, serving her with the work of her hands and the hands of her sons and brothers and daughters, and she falls in love with her employer’s rival, and visits her and sleeps in her bed and walks with her in the market, and it has not come to war: it is permitted, but unwise. They will deride her and say: from one’s hand the food and from the other’s the pleasure, and yet the two hands contend.
If it comes to war, her employer turns her out of her House: she is disloyal.
So, if she is wise, she will love a woman who is not her employer’s rival, or else satisfy herself with men.
3. When a woman is bloodbound to her employer, offering her advice and counsel, and her bothers and sons and uncles and their bondsmen take up arms in her employer’s service, and carry and nurture and teach her children, she shall not undertake any romance that is against her employer’s interests, not with a woman who is an enemy, nor a rival, nor a woman who may become a rival. For her employer’s House is as her own: they are bound by blood oath.
4. When a woman works for an employer in a mindbound relation, offering expertise, or when she trades and sells goods, she may love whom she wishes. She may go from one woman to another, serving her for a set term, even the enemy of her lover: if it upsets her lover, it is a matter of love and not of contracts. They shall debate it in their halls or in their beds, but it is not a matter for the law. If her employer objects, let her seek a new mindbound councilor at the end of the term. For she is independent: she may love whom she likes.
5. But when a young woman establishes her House, let her take care which women she takes as lovers. The matriarchs will watch and say: she favors that one or this one. If she expects to do well at trade, or at war, or at politics, or in employment, she must consider her alliances, and not only whose lips or hair or breasts or belly inflames her heart.
But she may take any man as a lover, as long as she does not invite her enemy’s son or brother into her buildings, lest they think he is a hostage. But she may lie with him in the market or the forest: it is no matter. He is a man, he cannot sign contracts.
Some say: his mother will call him disloyal, because he will not want to take up arms against the woman who is his lover. Others say: men and women’s relations are not constant; he may lie with her today, and take arms against her House tomorrow.
But relations between women are more constant. Therefore let her consider carefully which women she will love.
On the Bearing of Children
1. If she lives in her mother’s or her sister’s or handsbound in her employer’s House, she must seek their approval to bear a child. She will not feed her child from her own wealth, but from their wealth. If they demand it, she shall spill her male lovers’ gift upon the ground, and not make a child with it.
If she disobeys and grows with child, they take her before the matriarchs. Behold, the daughter of a great Houses cries with shame, for she is forced to serve those who served her, in handsbound contract. For she defied her mother, and took the gift of her male lover, and made a child.
2. If a woman is independent, or bloodbound to her employer, she may bear when she wishes: it is her own wealth. Let her pick a man who has good characteristics. If she wishes to bear a daughter, let her pick a clever and careful man. If she wishes to bear a son, let her pick a bold and laughing man.
3. The man’s gift that he gives, to make a child, is not his, but him. He is a man: he can own nothing, not even his own axe or horse or bowl. This is why a man who loses his axe on the battlefield will say to an ally: does your mother have an axe she can lend my mother?
This is because property is a relation of the mind. Women are of the mind, and men are of the body. See: his body is rough and large, made for bold unthinking action. Her body is smaller and more dexterous, and her mind sharper and more careful.
So the gift that her male lover gives, it is himself. But when it enters her womb, ceases to be him. It becomes property: it is hers. It was freely given. Then she can make a child of it, which is a new person, neither him nor hers, but of her House. This is why women own, and men do not.
4. Pregnancy is a peril. Woman is of the mind, but when she grows a body within her, the male principle inhabits and endangers her.
Therefore, even if she is independent and wealthy, let her not decide to bear too soon. If her constitution is weak, and she has a younger sister who is sturdy and compliant and will live gladly within her House, let her sister bear.
It is a battle between the body and the mind. If the mind triumphs too soon, she rejects the male principle while it is still in the womb: the child dies.
If the mind does not triumph at all, even as she bears: the child is healthy, but the woman will know no joy. She will turn away from the child and all her business: it is winter in her heart.
Thus she must be in balance, and triumph over the male principle only when she bears, expelling it from her.
Therefore she turns away from business and her affairs during this time, and nestles with lovers and friends and is visited by children and old uncles, until the birth. Then let her gradually return to business. But while her milk flows, let her plan no new campaigns of war.
But when she weans the child, her mind is fully ascendant. The male principle is cleansed from her: she has emitted it with her milk.
Then let her turn the child over to her brothers and uncles, and turn herself fully to her affairs: whether trade, or politics, or the sciences, or the planning of wars.
Benjamin Rosenbaum’s stories have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. His first novel, The Unraveling, is a differently gendered far-future coming-of-age story of love, family, and revolution that Cory Doctorow called “…as weird and wild as shoes on a snake.” He is the author of a collection, The Ant King and other Stories, and the Jewish historical fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Dream Apart. Originally from Arlington VA, he lives near Basel, Switzerland with his family.
I have become interested in gender ideology, and how it comes to seem natural and inevitable, so that we blithely accept complex myths about what is expected, honorable, embarrassing, or “natural” to one or another gender. The gender system inside which these characters live (tangentially inspired by some real historical cultural practices from our own world, but largely a thought experiment) is at least as intellectually coherent as our own “Mars/Venus” absurdities. It has its contradictions and absurdities and cruelties, of course. But the people there accept these as unfortunate inevitabilities…or perhaps catastrophes to be avoided, but unsurprising ones. They, in turn, would regard many of our convictions (like, for instance, our idea that it is regrettable but perfectly natural that some large proportion of people with penises will so ardently desire to stick their penises in places where they are unwanted, that they cannot be dissuaded from doing so, and that this unfortunate situation can only be mitigated partially and with great effort; or the notion that basically anything is exchangeable for money, by anyone) as grotesquely absurd. The world described here is premodern, partly because I’m fascinated by what would happen to the kind of stories we tell about the premodern world, from Shakespearean tragedy to sword and sorcery, without the peculiar institutions of patriarchal heredity. (But with alternatives that are every bit as complex, violent, and dramatic.)