When it comes to genre fiction, women are often sidelined. Women rarely get to be in the sci-fi spotlight and are often cast in the supporting role in fantasy, as the heroes take control. The only place girls get to take the lead is when it’s a supernatural romance and even then they could be overshadowed by their paranormal love interest. However, Steampunk women get to have it all and that’s what makes them so enticing to write.
As our earlier post, 5 Elements of Steampunk outlined, the genre generally takes place in the Victorian period, but can go right through to a post-apocalyptic future and sometimes strays into earlier times, such as the Regency. In addition, steampunk is unusual because it is an aesthetic movement and a subculture, as well as a literary genre. There is a thriving community of crafters, musicians and artists, as well as cosplayers, with an emphasis on making your own gear – from goggles, dresses and ray guns, to kraken-inspired jewellery and steampunked laptops.
Steampunk fuses a nostalgia for the fashions and fancies of a bygone era of ladies and gents, with a fascination of clockwork and steam powered gadgets and gizmos. This means steampunk women can challenge the stereotypical view of a Victorian lady and take a sideways look at gender politics today.
Corsets and Crinolines
A female steampunk protagonist may be in a corset, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to swoon at the first sign of excitement. The steampunk
world is a world of technology and excitement, which brings a certain amount of emancipation for women, as did the motor car and domestic appliances in real world history. With this freedom, skirt hems can go up and trousers can be worn by the most daring and adventurous of heroines.
Lady Mechanika, the short-lived comic by Joe Benitez, exemplifies one kind of steampunk woman. She can rock full length frocks, parasols and opera gloves in one scene and then swap them for trousers, Victorian boots, a bowler hat and a gun slung low on her hips, when she needs to.
The steampunk woman’s style incorporates leather, brass buckles and studs, with sensible boots and her own personal arsenal of guns and gadgets. However, she can still handle a bustle, a corset (if she wants to) and a smidgen of lace here or there, depending on her social circle. But there’s more to the steampunk woman than looking good, she can also have a career.
Jobs for the Girls
A steampunk woman can be a society lady with a high-tech lab, captain of her own airship or even a soldier in an alternate history war. Think of Amelia Earhart-style characters, adventuring around the world or even use the suffragettes as inspiration. Maybe female emancipation hasn’t happened in your steampunk world and the suffrage movement is using new technology to help take their cause to the next level.
There’s a temptation to focus on the upper classes because they can afford all the fancy clobber, but that could see you sacrificing the ‘punk’ in steampunk. If Dickens was writing steampunk, he’d be looking in the gutters and the orphanages for his heroines. Think about the factory workers, prostitutes and street urchins for your leading lady. There’s a gritty side of life as a steampunk woman that is often unexplored, but could lead to more interesting stories than the usual airship romps.
She’s Strong but All Woman
The real joy of the steampunk woman is that she can be kick ass and feminine in one neat package. She doesn’t have to play like a boy, as someone like Ellen Ripley did in the Alien films or Sarah Connor in Terminator. As products of the 80s, which came with the whole women in a man’s world ethos, Ripley and Connor were women who had to be tough and almost mannish, albeit in a hot, vest and pants and artfully sweaty kind of way.
The steampunk woman can be the strong, resourceful and independent hero of her own stories, without having to shed her femininity and that’s what makes her appealing.
In a steampunk setting, girls and women can be heroic without having to pretend to be men or waiting for a man to rescue them – in short, the world is her oyster.