I’ve been developing a setting for a medieval fantasy game. The plan is to have a non-sexist fictional culture (broader appeal, more diverse characters, etc.). It is important that this culture actually makes sense (due to the nature of the game). So I’ve tried to develop something internally consistent. I kinda like the results.
Wu Zetian, China's only female emperor. She's pretty hardcore. You should read about her.
This isn’t a utopia, so there’s plenty of the awfulness we know and love, like slavery and violence! Huzzah!
Most people are the property of another person. They have no legal rights. Their owner can kill them without consequence (it’s just destruction of their own property, after all). Their owner expects obedience. This is consistent with most ancient legal codes.
Most of the population lives in households (the basic social unit). The head of a household owns every person and every thing in it. Typically, this might include:
Above all, the head of a household wants to pass on their surname and genes. There’s no social welfare, so they also want children to support them in their old age.
Ideally, any ‘spare’ children are partnered with the heads of other households (sold into slavery, effectively). A wealthy household might help some of its younger children form new households (more people to carry on the family name). Only one child inherits the household itself (to avoid breaking up the family’s wealth).
When a free person dies, their eldest child (or their descendants) inherits everything. Younger children only inherit if their elder siblings (and their descendants) are dead. Children sold to someone else are automatically disinherited (when someone sells their child, they don’t want rights to their inheritance included).
So far, the setting’s pretty gender neutral. The head of a household can be a man or woman. This is a fantasy setting, so we’ll say they have equal physical strength. We can lose the sexual division of labour, and maternal death can be relatively uncommon.
In this setting, people only need partners to have children with. But since they could have children with any of their slaves, the question is – would marriage even exist?
This is a world based on slavery, so there’s no concept of mutual obligation between husband and wife. One generally owns the other.
Historically, marriage made children ‘legitimate’ (i.e., able to inherit). Now, a man could father a lot of children. For him, using marriage to decide which children inherit would be convenient – it ensures a child he’s never met doesn’t inherit anything. It makes it much easier to decide who actually inherits (especially if he has a harem and, potentially, many children of similar ages).
A woman, on the other hand, can’t have that many children. For her, there is less need to use marriage to decide which children are legitimate and which aren’t.
Historically, marriage also implied sexual exclusivity. Now for a man, this also makes sense. He doesn’t want to unknowingly raise another man’s children, so he would want to forbid his wife/wives from having sex with anyone else.
But again, a woman wouldn’t really care. She knows who her children are, because she gave birth to them. She doesn’t care who their fathers are – it doesn’t affect whether or not her wealth is passed on to her descendants.
Only free men would have much use for marrying their partner(s), although either gender might show their affection with an honorary title (maybe ‘consort’).
A free man would expect sexual exclusivity from his wife/wives, and only their children could inherit. He probably wouldn’t sleep around much himself – most women would be someone else’s wife (of a free woman with her own harem of men). He would be better off being chaste himself, too… just in case someone starts claiming he married them and fathered their children.
This creates an interesting reversal of real-world gender roles...
A free woman doesn’t care much about chastity. She can sleep with whoever she wants, her slave-men can sleep with whoever they want. A person’s daughters don’t really need to be chaste either, at least until they get married off (if they do at all).
By comparison, the household of a man is a place of restraint. His wives can’t sleep with anyone else, and he probably doesn’t sleep around that much either (well, certainly not with women). A person’s sons would want to be chaste (they might own households one day), at least until they get married off (if they do at all).
Obviously, both genders don’t want to have more children than they can look after. But still, I find it amusing that the logical consequence of (this particular) non-sexist setting is that chastity is more of a virtue for men.