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Scenes from a Long Process

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Scenes from a Long Process

The march towards equal rights for women on Barrayar was sometimes more of a series of stumbles. But, being Barrayar, they approached it with the same grim determination that they produced when facing any and all other threats to civil peace and the survival of the Imperium. And they proceeded in their own supremely Barrayaran way.

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Major Cecil leaned back from his desk and tried to roll the crick from his neck. Dammit, he shouldn’t have to deal with this. Thirty-five years as Commandant of the Academy should be enough for any man. He was going to retire, it was all planned, nice little cottage out in the District where he grew up, roses, vegetables… He could be growing prize vegetables right now. He’d always wondered what pumpkins looked like before they came out of the kitchens.

The reason for the crick in his neck marched up to his desk and snapped briskly to attention. “Cadet Kosigan reporting, sir.”

Try not to sigh out loud. “And what seems to be the problem this time, Kosigan?”

It wasn’t fair. He’d survived one Kosigan – well, Vorkosigan now. And then as well, as everyone knew. One should be enough. Mind you, they couldn’t be more different in some fairly obvious ways. Kosigan Senior – now a Lord Auditor, heavens help the Empire – had been highly focussed and motivated to the point where he was almost a danger to innocent bystanders, whereas this Kosigan was… well, pretty much the same, really. The elder Kosigan tended to treat the staff as his minions, while this one…yes, well, that wasn’t much different either. Perhaps the main difference was simply physical – his first Kosigan had been somewhat undertall, and a bit fragile. This Kosigan was full sized and seemed to be practically indestructible. Oh, and female.

Which was why he wasn’t planting beans right now. Damn Vor duty – when the Emperor himself asks you to stay on for just one more year, to ease the first intake of female cadets into the Academy, what can you do?

Carrots. He could be harvesting carrots right now. He’d never heard a carrot complain.

The cadet with carrot-coloured hair somehow managed to snap even more to attention, “It’s about the hazing, sir. I wish to make an official complaint.”

Damn. Some traditions should be jettisoned with no regrets.

Deep breath, fatherly smile, calm voice, “Well, cadet, you have to understand that hazing new cadets is a normal part of Academy life. I remember being sent out to search for the striped paint. And one unfortunate fellow was soldered into an ammunition locker. He had to blast his way out – very challenging. I believe your father had something to do with that one. Marching in the rain, fake emergency drills, hacking into the simulator programs… ah, happy days. I mean, shocking I know, but it’s all part of Academy life for a Firster grub. But we did speak with the male cadets quite sternly about their attitude to the female intake…” For a moment the major wondered why it was almost impossible to refer to the female cadets without sounding vaguely improper. Cabbages are never improper. Why couldn’t he be out frolicking among the cabbages right now? “So tell me, Cadet Kosigan, what has happened?”

“Nothing.”

“…excuse me? Nothing?”

“Nothing. None of the female cadets have been on the receiving end of any of that. We haven’t been hazed in any way at all.”

Cauliflowers. You never hear a cauliflower complain. He was going to have a herd of cauliflowers. Or a planting, or whatever you called them. “You’re complaining because… because you HAVEN’T been bothered by any of that?”

“Exactly. As you just said, it’s a normal part of Academy life. So why have the female cadets been left out?”

Broccoli. Cucumbers. Zucchini. Lettuce waving in the breeze. Tomatoes roaming free. One day, dammit. And none of them could talk.

It was going to be a long year.

+++++++++++++++

“I want a woman.”

Tsipis gazed warily at the huge shape in front of him.

Technically he was facing Hassadar Municipal Guard Chief Superintendent Mikhail Grozny. But to everyone within the city limits this human mountain was known as Boss Cop. Grozny was built on a heroic scale, it was rumoured that he could stop a speeding lightflyer with one hand. He probably had, too. The man really was massive, with arms like tree trunks and a face that looked as if it had been roughly carved out of granite. In fact, it was a well-known fact throughout Hassadar that there was only person who scared Grozny. Mila Grozny was a tiny little woman, with a will of tempered steel. Everyone knew that Boss Cop was totally under his wife’s delicate little thumb, and that he adored her absolutely and completely.

Knowing all this, Tsipis was wary of jumping to obvious conclusions. He waited for some kind of clarification, to find out if Boss Cop was actually suicidal, or simply expressing himself badly.

“I want a woman.”

Apparently he also wanted an answer.

“Um… what sort of woman?”

“Competent. Trained. Like the ones they’ve got in Vorbarr Sultana,”

Tsipis was still running alongside the conversation, trying to jump on board. “Er… we do have women in Hassadar. I’m told they’re quite… adequate. I’m not in charge of their distribution.”

One large hand waved dismissively, “Trained. Qualified. I want a good one. Our college isn’t doing women yet.”

Light wasn’t dawning, but there was a glimmer on the horizon. “College? We have women at plenty of colleges in this District, the Countess and the Dowager Countess have been actively encouraging them – “

Another wave, “Not those. The proper College. It doesn’t do women yet. I don’t want to wait.”

“Proper… um… you don’t mean the Vorkosigan District Municipal Guard Training College, do you?”

Nod. “They do women in Vorbarr Sultana. We’re not doing women yet. I want one.”

Tsipis made a mental note to check the communications training at the VDMGT College. Although it would take a very brave man indeed to take issue with Boss Cop about his word choices. Tsipis made another mental note, to have a careful word with Madame Boss Cop in the near future. “The Vorbarra District Municipal Guard Training College has been accepting female trainees for several years, there are a number of young women who have completed the course and are now serving. Quite effectively, I believe. I understand that our district’s Training College is planning to accept female applicants next year. There’s been quite a lot of interest, and I’m sure that some of those Dendarii mountain girls would be the equal of any criminals they run across.” Or over, or through – after some of the stories his grandfather used to tell about those mountain girls during the Cetagandan War, Tsipis had a horrible suspicion that they’d raise police brutality to an art form. Or a professional sport. But more likely, they’d terrify any and all criminals into instant surrender. “There’ll soon be some very enthusiastic female Guard College graduates, I’m sure.”

Head shake. “Too long. That’s another three years before they graduate. I want a woman now.”

Tsipis briefly toyed with the idea of trying to substitute the term ‘female municipal guard’ in Boss Cop’s vocabulary, but knew it was a lost cause. He leaned back in his chair and studied the ceiling for inspiration, “I suppose we could apply to the Vorbarra District college. The next class will graduate in a few weeks, perhaps we could offer a position here to one of the female graduates.” He leaned forward again, “May I ask, why the interest? We’ll have our own female graduates in a few years.”

Glum sigh from across the desk, “Women victims, child victims. Women offenders to be searched. Women criminals. We need women municipal guards to do those jobs, not just extras we draft in.”

Tsipis knew that the municipal guards used local nurses, and even officers’ wives, when necessary. Now light was starting to dawn, “It is difficult to deal with females in such circumstances. I know that your wife has been called on quite often….”

“She says we need to get our own women. Real ones, women guards, trained. And do it all properly. She’s tired of having to drop everything to search criminals, or comfort victims. And sometimes she has to go to court and testify. It takes too much time. She said, get our own women in the guard, or start paying the wives and let them be part of the Guard. So we need women. And the men don’t want their wives in the Guard with them. We’ll start training women in our college, but I want a woman right away. To show that…” he seemed to be assembling words from memory, “…that I’m not ‘a misogynistic dinosaur who belongs back in the Bloody Centuries’.”

Domestic harmony is a wonderful thing. Men will do practically anything to achieve it.

Tsipis nodded and reached out to his comconsole, “I’ll contact the Vorbarra District Municipal Guard Training College to offer a place to someone in the graduating class. And I’ll see if the Vorbarr Sultana Municipal Guard has a female guard who’d like to transfer right away.”

Boss Cop rumbled happily and took his leave. Tsipis tapped on the comconsole, reminding himself that it was important to keep the chief of the Municipal Guard happy. And as a far more important bonus he’d also please the Countess, the Dowager Countess, and Madame Boss Cop.

Tsipis, a very smart man, knew who actually ran things. And how important it was to keep them happy.

+++++++++++++++

Sixty bright pennants snapped in the breeze blowing around Castle Vorhartung, showing that each District was represented at the Council meeting. Armsmen lingered in the courtyard, leaning on the aircars parked there as they swapped the latest gossip.

And inside the session was about to begin.

In the private retiring-room behind the Emperor’s door there was some Imperial nervousness.

“You’ll be fine. Just stay calm, and pass on each vote unless you need to break a tie.”

Laisa smiled at Gregor, “It’ll be alright. Really.” She was privately amused by his rare Imperial dithers, but she’d never say so.

A door swung open silently and an armsman ushered Miles into the room. He nodded in answer to the question that hadn’t been asked, “They’re going in now.”

Laisa wasn’t sure if she should be reassured that Gregor would have someone to keep him company, or worried about leaving him with Miles - it was fifty-fifty either way, but no time to think about it now. She smiled a last farewell and moved towards the second door. In a few steps she’d be in the Council chamber, and the fun would begin.

She was still amused at this, it was such a Barrayaran response to the situation. Gregor was gradually increasing the rights of women in the Empire – they were able to serve in the military now, that had been a long and vicious fight but he’d finally inched the door open. They were equal in business and education opportunities – Cordelia had started that process long before anyone realised where she was aiming. Municipal guards accepted female trainees now. Even the marriage laws were fair to all.

Oddly, the women who were still most constrained by law and custom were Vor, especially High Vor. There were more restrictions on them than on proles. Any efforts to change the rules for High Vor met the most spirited resistance from the Counts, they had a death-grip on their last bastion of privilege and power.

Until someone, and she had a suspicion it was Miles, pointed out one area of High Vor inequality that the Counts couldn’t counter.

So now, Laisa was about to preside over Barrayar’s first Council of Countesses.

Every Countess was there, even old Countess Vorinnis. Women who’d been interesting invalids for years found a new surge of energy that amazed and worried their loving relatives.

It hadn’t been all plain sailing, of course. Some of the Counts had tried to pass a ruling that they had the power of veto over any Countess votes. Apparently some domestic discussion had persuaded them to drop the idea. Count Vormuir had been heavily bandaged for weeks afterwards. Politics can be a dangerous business.

The Countesses couldn’t rule on just anything, of course. They were only women, after all. They could only make rulings on those minor, unimportant topics that were too insignificant for men to worry about. Small laws, related to women, and children. And families. And education – after all, schooling was for children. And homes, which also meant houses and housing. Businesses and industries that catered to women and children, or employed large numbers of women. All kinds of unmentionable medical issues – men don’t want to know about any of that. And…. Well, apparently there was almost no limit to the topics that concerned women, children and families in some way. The Countesses hadn’t really stressed that with their Counts yet, there was no need to worry the poor things. Or warn them.

Laisa settled onto the camp stool and looked around. She was wearing her usual Komarran-style pants, fitted top and loose jacket, but these were in black with glittering silver embroidery. Some of the younger Countesses also had Komarran or Nexus-style fashions, but most of them were in very traditional Barrayaran styles. All of them were in their House colours, a proud display. Some of the Counts had been determined that the ladies weren’t to wear any kind of masculine styled clothing. The ladies had agreed sweetly and then ordered lavish afternoon gowns in the highest of traditional styles, crusted with embroidery and even jewels in their House colours. A nice military-styled jacket and walking skirt would have been far less expensive – she hoped the Counts would be pleased with their victory when the bills rolled in. Barrayaran women were experts in subtle resistance, and winning while you seemed to lose. Politics was going to be simple, after dealing with Barrayaran men.

Ekaterin, Olivia Vorrutyer and Tatya Vorbretten were the core of the Reform group. But she’d been surprised during the pre-meeting discussions – Gregor and Miles had lectured their ladies about the importance of getting all votes decided before the actual voting, so for weeks all social events had been full of political wheeling and dealing - and during those discussions, most of the oldest Countesses, those married to the sternest of Conservatives, had turned out to be far more receptive to modern ideas than any of their husbands. ‘It’s about time’ was a comment she’d heard quite a bit lately.

So now the Countesses were going to vote on a few small issues – some education reforms, regulations for industries that employed large numbers of women, some banking regulations about the privacy of wifely bank accounts, a few details about uterine replicators… just small, female concerns that had the potential to eventually steer society in a whole new direction.

A new day was dawning. Laisa watched as the Speaker stepped forward to open this first session. Of course, they’d had to have their own Speaker, too.

Lady Alys Vorpatril, Speaker for the Council of Countesses, tapped the spear down three times and called the chamber to order in a clear, calm voice.

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The path to equality is a long and rocky road. Each polity achieves it in their own way, in small steps.

Some take a slighty more twisty path.

In the words of one expert…… Barrayarans!