Most fantasy worlds are inspired by old or ancient civilizations. Most of those were severely oppressive against females, while we live in a modern era where we have (mostly) outgrown that nonsense and consider it offensive. Moreover, female roleplayers are put off by significant gender inequality. Partly because having to play a house wife is pretty boring, partly because many women still have to put up with discrimination and want to be able to relax and have fun when gaming.
On the other hand, we roleplayers also have a thing for consistency. Plastering gender equality onto a feudal society with no more concern does not create a consistent world. A simple alternative would be to copy the gender relations from your society of choice, loosen them up a bit and allow ambitious or exceptional women to follow their own paths, perhaps to positions of great power. In some periods in medieval Europe women could and did make their own way as merchants, generals and rulers. In ancient Egypt women could marry, divorce, buy and sell land and were entitled to the same wages as men.
The subject of this post, however, is how to construct a consistent gender equal society inspired by old or ancient civilizations. What issues crop up, and how can they be solved?
Many of these societies range from somewhat absolutist to very absolutist, and it is common that this tickles down through society to the smallest units. So, even if there is gender equality, it is likely that each household has some sort of chief.
In the following, I will assume a pre-industrial world, as the inventions of the modern age has nullified most (if not all) of the issues by making them much, much easier to manage. If the world is permeated by magic, you could consider letting magical appliances take the role of modern age appliances. On the other hand, matters are complicated by the fact that in many old societies, regular people were often just scraping by.
Pregnancy and birth
Infant mortality rates were extremely high up until the 20th century, sometimes being estimated that half of all children died before reaching adulthood. In order to just maintain the adult population, each woman would have to give birth to 4.2 children. As the children were the ones to support their parents in their old age, the parents would most likely try to get more children. That is in itself a lot of work. Raising the children is even more.
Looking after even a smallish household, e.g. a family driven farm, is a lot of work. Many of the inventions that we have today did not exist. Cooking needs to be done from the basic foodstuffs. However, in the cities of the Roman Empire, it was common to purchase (fast) food in the street, freeing the family from this work. The home still needs to be cleaned, children and live stock needs to be looked after, clothes need to be washed and maintained. On top of that, add spinning of clothes, brewing of beer and similar trades to bring in extra money for the family, sometimes also working in the trade of her husband (or father). Historically, the task of running the household and performing the house work has been the province of the woman.
Medieval noble women ran the household and sometimes the business of the estate. When husbands were out fighting, they could even be responsible for the protection of the household from invaders. Often they could read and followed intellectual pastimes, e.g. chess. After the Black Death they were allowed to support themselves as traders. After the recovery from the devastation of the Black Death, many rights were taken away, using Christian dogma as leverage, marked by the trial of Joan of Arc.
Marriage and divorce
Upon her marriage, a woman would leave her family and move to join the family of her husband. In some societies, the family of the woman paid a dowry to the new couple (to help them setup shop) or to the family of the husband (to bribe the family to accept the woman into their ranks). Often marriage was some sort of contract between the two families as well as between the new couple. The nobility, in particular, used marriages to cement alliances, making children important assets, and marriages to planned deals between the two families.
The availability of divorce was highly dependent on culture: In the Roman republic, husband and wife could renounce the marriage at will, in Christian Europe, marriage was considered holy and permanent and almost impossible to dissolve. The families of the divorced couple would most likely lose face over the divorce, so there was a very powerful pressure on the couple to stay together. The background for the divorce could also be of great importance, as the person at fault could influence who would get the dowry, additional loss of face, sustenance, children and so on.
Land ownership and Inheritance
How is it decided who inherits from who? Historically, the two major ways to handle inheritance was to either let one get everything or divide everything into equal parts and give one part to each heir. The first strategy kept the estate together, but meant that the children not getting anything would have to find their own way. The second strategy would give each heir something, but would also partition the estate until such a time where a family could not subsist on it.
In order to ensure that it was the children of the husband that would become heir(s), the reproductive capabilities of the wife were often under strict control. Often women were required to be virgins before marriage. This gave rise to the myth that women would bleed upon their first intercourse, however, this is only true for 4 in 10 women. Moreover, study of the hymen is not conclusive evidence for or against virginity. This myth underlines how morality was used as a means of social control.
If you can take and keep something, it is yours. Many societies have laws that govern ownership, but all to often it boils down to power, be it through money, culture or force. In medieval societies in particular, the social order was enforced directly through force of arms. The feudal lord was the local representative of the ruler, and was required to follow the ruler into war.
An ancient or feudal society where the genders are equal have been increasingly common in popular computer RPGs, e.g. the Elder Scrolls series. When constructing such a society, you would have to consider the issues noted above. Before we continue, I would like to touch upon the difference between the cultural and biological gender.
Biological and Cultural Gender
The biological gender is commonly determined by having a Y chromosome or not. Cultural gender are the roles and norms considered appropriate for a gender in a society. In modern western society, biological and cultural gender is usually considered the same.
However, it does not need to be. One option to create a gender equal society is to let cultural gender be something you chose, regardless of biological gender. Males wanting to run the household would take the female cultural gender, and females wanting to be able to work the smithy would take the male cultural gender. Some interesting questions with this is how the society would look upon two cultural females wanting to marry. Would one take the role of the male and the other continue as female? Is it even allowed to change cultural gender? Is it discouraged or even outright illegal for two of the same cultural gender to have a relationship? And should a relationship between two people imply that both their cultural and biological gender is different?
In a gender equal society, either the male or the female could join the household and family of the other. If dowry is part of the culture, it could be given by the family whose member leaves to join the other family, for the same reasons as before. This could cause significant intrigue and negotiations between the families.
Pregnancy and birth
It is difficult to avoid the question of pregnancy. And it is something that the woman has to do. Having to give birth to 4-8 children during the course of her life, would make it a challenge for a woman to work outside the home, but not impossible. However, it should be considered who would fill her role in the family during the period where pregnancy could make it difficult to do the needed work. If one makes a stretch to allow medical technology or magic to be reasonably sophisticated, the mortality rates for children and mothers alike could be reduced significantly, reducing the work forced upon the woman.
Aside from the pregnancy issue above, there is little reason that one gender or the other should be doing the work to maintain the household.
Land ownership and Inheritance
Should all children (regardless of gender) be eligible for inheritance, or just the ones who stay in the family? Both carries with them a number of interesting consequences.
If all children are eligible for inheritance, the land of a family would fragment very fast, causing a lot of time lost walking from one plot to the next. This would most likely lead so significant land sale and purchase upon one landowner dying. Indeed, someone could want to murder a land owner to be able to buy that plot that links his or her lands.
If only the ones who stay in the family are eligible for inheritance, there could be a significant advantage or disadvantage by leaving ones own family, so the discussion of which family to join could be a matter of great contention and discord inside and between the families.
Consider for a moment an army made up of roughly the same number of males and females. How would the social dynamic of such an army be? To my knowledge there is no historical precedent. The closest that I know off are from the time of migrations where entire societies were on march. However, a marching society is very different from a marching army.
Given that an army would consist of young men and women, it would be likely that sexual relations would ensue, sometimes resulting in pregnancies. Some of said relations would be rapist in nature. How would an army handle such issues? Would relationships be frowned upon or even punished? Would pregnancies be forcibly terminated? And how would rapists be punished? Most likely rules would be strict and punishments cruel.
A lot has been written and considered when it comes to the differences between the genders. This could be used to decide upon stat modifications by gender. There are, however, a few things to consider.
Given that there are (roughly) the same number of men and women, the average for a given stat should be neither. Or to put it more bluntly: Do not make one gender the average with the other having stat modifications (Arcanum, I’m looking at you). You should also resist any temptation to make the stat modifications of one gender superior to the stat modifications of another. Any stat changes should be balanced in terms of fun.
It is still unclear to which degree the differences between the genders are biological or cultural in nature. Furthermore, as your world is not Earth, you are fully free to decide that in your world, gender differences are too insignificant to warrant any stat differences. This fits well with a gender equal society.