When I recently was part of a panel of Steampunk at RWA 2010 we got some very interesting questions from the audience. One of which was “What roles can women play in Steampunk stories, given the traditional roles of Victorian women?”
My answer was somewhere along the lines of “In Steampunk women can do whatever they want.”
Women and girls can be anything in Steampunk–from ladies to air pirates. They could be pushing social norms or they could be the norm. In Leviathan, Deryn works on an airship (though she pretends to be a boy). In the Girl Genius comics, Agatha is the one inventing things and going on adventures. In Clockwork Heart Taya is a winged courier.
A woman in a Steampunk story could wear *trousers* like Madame Lefoux in Changeless or could be like Captain Octavia Pye in Steamed who captains an airship in a skirt and corset.
Steampunk women can still be ladies. Perhaps she doesn’t defy society at all–but that doesn’t have to mean she’s sitting at home drinking tea. Alexia in Soulless is a lady, granted she’s a spinster and a bluestocking, but she’s a lady. She also makes it work for her, going on adventures, solving mysteries, and whacking Vampires with parasols. Percy in The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker is a student. Lyra in The Golden Compass gets into all sorts of trouble.
She could also be chafing under social norms. In my Steampunk YA, my main character doesn’t want to take the path her mother, and society, has laid out for her. The themes of coming into your own in a society (or family) that frowns on your choices can make for a great read–especially in YA where it’s all about grey area, pushing the boundaries, and finding where you fit in the universe.
Maybe she’s stuck in a situation that she feels powerless to get out of–or she’ll fight tooth and nail to improve her situation. The Victorian era has a darker side that I think could be explored a lot more in Steampunk stories. She could have been forced into a loveless marriage, perhaps she’s a prostitute, she could be a child who works in a factory, a “street sparrow”, or a victim of Imperialism. These, too, could make for stories with great character development and tell stories that aren’t yet being told. Darker stories have a place in Steampunk, too.
She could be plucky or permissive, a fighter or a nurturer, turning life on it’s ear or making the system working for her, dreaming of a better life or giving up everything to go after what she wants. She could be wealthy, poor, or self-reliant, should could live anywhere, anytime, anyplace. She could be driven around in a enabled carriage or be building an airship. She could barely read or be a professor.
That is the sheer beauty of Steampunk. So go ahead, tell the story that needs to be told of whether it’s the tale of a bold air pirate, a scrappy street sparrow,or a fine lady.
Women in Steampunk can be anything. They can be anything at all.