The lack of female characters in the Tolkien’s legendarium has sparked decades worth of debate. Statistics are extremely depressing: 20% of the named characters in the Silmarillion are women, and the numbers are even worse for LOTR.
The Hobbit contains 1 (one!) mention of a named female character, Belladonna Took, whose sole purpose is to let readers know that Bilbo does, in fact, have a mother and that the various peoples of Middle-earth should be assumed to reproduce in the usual mammalian fashion.
This dearth of women seems to spring in part from Tolkien's apparent aversion to writing mothers. His women stand on high and narrow pedestals: they are virginal princesses, shield-maidens and half-goddesses, set high above the men who worship them, and therefore asexual and far removed from the physical indignities and mundane tribulations of pregnancy, childbirth and family life.
Once the birth of a child makes it undeniable that any given woman is a flesh and blood character sporting female parts she has actually had sex with, Tolkien no longer knows what to do with her, and she is swiftly removed from the proceedings. The pattern is striking: whenever the Professor created a family, his first action was invariably to excise the mother.
If you are a woman in Tolkien's universe and your children are destined for anything worth writing home about, you're as good as dead. The maternal mortality rate becomes all the more striking when you realise that half of these deceased ladies are immortal Elves.
- Miriel Serindë, Fëanor’s mother, dies before she can do anything other than procreate. She is probably Tolkien's most 'forgivable' victim because her death it is actually a major plot point.
- Elenwë, mother of Idril and wife of Turgon, conveniently perishes on the way to Beleriand, the only named character to do so, before she might influence events in Vinyamar or Gondolin.
- Aredhel, Maeglin’s mom, dies long before the Fall of Gondolin. I admit her murder is relevant plot-wise, but it still leaves her son motherless for his main story arc.
-Elwing, Elrond and Elros’ mother, is excised from the action shortly after reproducing and has no further influence on the lives of her illustrious sons. She does disappear in a way that actually moves the plot forward, so this is another ‘forgivable’ one.
- The pattern continues into the Third Age. Celebrian seems to exist only so Elrond can have children, after which she is permanently removed just as her family and Rivendell are about to take center stage.
- Again in Rivendell, Gilraen's only contributions to the resurrection of the Northern Kingdom are pushing out Aragorn and dying before he does anything noteworthy.
-The Shire sees another repeat with Primula Brandybuck, Frodo's mom. True to his usual modus operandi Tolkien kills her off long before the events of LOTR, then makes Bilbo a lifelong bachelor, cleverly avoiding an actual mother-figure for the Baggins family.
- JRRT strikes again in Rohan, twice even. Both Theodwyn, mother of Eowyn and Eomer, and Elfhild, King Theoden's wife and the mother of his son Theodred, are dead long before the action comes anywhere near Meduseld. Eowyn certainly is a strong female character, but why are all the other ones dead?
- The maternal killing spree continues in Gondor, where Finduilas, the mother of Boromir and Faramir, finds herself conveniently dead and buried before the War of the Ring gets underway.
Is execution the worst thing Tolkien does to his poor mothers of Middle-earth? Think again. How about vanishing them without a trace, presumably somewhere beyond the Void?
- In Mirkwood, Thranduil's wife is a non-entity who does not merit a name or even the most cursory explanation of her absence when Bilbo comes to visit. It's a good thing we have Tolkien's essay Laws and Customs among the Eldar, or we might have concluded that Legolas came into existence by Thranduil self-pollinating in some way.
- We might assume the same type of asexual reproduction took place in Dol Amroth, where Prince Imrahil has four children and no mention of or explanation for the lack of a wife.
Then we have those women who are more of a 'named uterus' than an actual character. They exist only to provide their children with a womb from which to spring, but get no dialogue, character development or significant impact on events, and the plot quickly leaves them behind.
- Nerdanel is the one member of Fëanor's family who plays no part in the great upheavals of her time. Her only noteworthy deed is gestating Fëanor's sons, after which she is left behind in Aman without as much as a by-your-leave. As crown princess of the Noldor she sadly, and rather improbably, has no discernible impact on her husband, all seven of her sons, her people, or the plot.
- Indis, Eärwen and Anaïre, too are conveniently left behind in Aman as the action moves to Beleriand. As with Nerdanel, despite making up the highest echelons of Noldorin society and being right in the center of political power, the only thing about them that is plot-relevant in any way, shape or form is their functioning reproductive system.
- We all know Old Gaffer, Samwise's dad, because Sam just won't shut up about him, all the way to Mordor and back. Has anyone ever heard of Bell Gamgee (née Goodchild), his mom? Me neither. At least we know her name. Tolkien did not leave us enough information to determine whether she is dead or alive at the time of LOTR, but poor Bell's chances are slim given the above carnage.
Let's not over-dramatise, you say. Surely some of Tolkien's women have managed to both survive and remain relevant to the plot arc after birthing a person of note? Well..., the pickings are slim.
- Luthien is admittedly the single most important character in the Silmarillion. She was the only Elf ever to defeat Morgoth in single combat and the only one to recover a Silmaril. Unfortunately she instantly became inconsequential, never to be seen or heard from again, after giving birth to Dior.
- Rosie Cotton is alive and well, but hardly involved in or vital to the plot of LOTR.
- Galadriel may be the one exception: she not only survived childbearing, but went on to a major part in LOTR. That said, her daughter Celebrian is not born yet in the Silmarillion and long gone by LOTR, so Galadriel being a mother is irrelevant to events at hand and mentioned only in passing.
Melian the Maia, Morwen Eledhwen, Idril Celebrindal and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins are to my knowledge the only mothers in Tolkien's legendarium who manage to do anything relevant or interact in a meaningful way with main characters while also being present in their children’s lives.
The Professor has written entire volumes’ worth of fathers: good ones, bad ones, mad ones, homicidal and wise ones. He only ever wrote one kind of mother: the absent one.
Once you start noticing the pattern, it is uncanny how consistently Tolkien removes mothers, their influence and their experiences from his tales. There might be a perfectly reasonable psychological explanation that I am nowhere near qualified to give.
In Tolkien’s world, women are not just underrepresented. They are actively culled from Middle-earth by any possible means as soon as they have given birth.