Prehistoric Fiction and Feminism

This is a guest post by author Sandra Saidak

Sandra Saidak graduated San Francisco State University in 1985 with a B.A. in English. She is a high school English teacher by day, author by night. Her hobbies include reading, dancing, attending science fiction conventions, researching prehistory, and maintaining an active fantasy life (but she warns that this last one could lead to dangerous habits such as writing). Sandra lives in San Jose with her husband Tom, daughters Heather and Melissa, and two cats. Her first novel, “Daughter of the Goddess Lands”, an epic set in the late Neolithic Age, was published in November, 2011 by Uffington Horse Press. Learn more at http://sandrasaidak.com/

According to Merriam-Webster, the most looked-up word in 2017 was “feminism”. Good timing for the blog I was working on.  As both a reader and a writer of historical fiction, I am always interested in how women are portrayed, how they fit into their own cultures and—my personal favorite–how they interact with members of different cultures. Nowhere is this more vividly portrayed than in Prehistoric Fiction.

Prehistoric Fiction is defined as: “a literary genre in which the story is set in the period of time prior to the existence of written record, known as prehistory.”

Prehistoric fiction is also where I found my first female role-model (in a novel that is, since the movie Alien had come out the year before). When I met Ayla in “The Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean Auel, I could finally say, “I can relate to this person! I get her.” And, perhaps more importantly, “She would get me!”

While the genre existed before Jean Auel, most of it was targeted to a male audience, and often misogynistic. Much of it consisted of lowbrow adventure stories and supported the view that the lives of our early ancestors were nasty, brutish and short.

The new genre of prehistoric fiction offers a mostly positive view on the human race– and more than half of what’s been published since 1980 contains female protagonists. These are women who hunt, explore, speak their minds and assume leadership roles, both political and spiritual. And, since utopia is boring in fiction, today’s authors offer challenges to keep things interesting—which make the characters even more compelling.

The first challenge a Prehistoric heroine often faces is being cast out of her home, where she then gets to live the kind of adventure story that many a reader has dreamt of: finding food, building a shelter, befriending animals (I never knew how many other girls dreamed of having a pet lion until I read The Valley of Horses). The women in these books rarely return to the people who banished them. Instead, they become leaders of their own tribes, or meet interesting people who offer them the chance for new and better lives.

In the course of their adventures, strong, competent women often confront men from male-dominated cultures. I’ve learned it’s hard to pull off this kind of scene well, but Judith Tarr, Brenda Gates Smith and Mary Mackey do an admirable job. These encounters are interesting for the same reasons that “The Silence Breakers” became Time Magazine’s Person of the Year: the clash of conflicting beliefs. Here we have the viewpoint held by one set of people that certain things are universal, “just how it is” meeting an equally strong belief held by a different, possibly newer group who shouts back, “That’s not how it’s going to be for me.”

What I found to be missing from today’s novels are encounters between women from egalitarian societies and women from male-dominated cultures. Here is opportunity for real drama: women defending the status quo, even to their own detriment against women who offer new ideas and don’t understand why the people they want to help are fighting them. Or, as I show in Daughter of the Goddess Lands, women with limited freedom, expecting women who are used to a great deal of freedom to give it up and accept lives of servitude.

As always, if no one writes the book I want to read, I’ll write it myself.