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Opinion: on the subject of female Space Marines

The idea of female Space Marines has gotten some people's Power Armour in a twist. Let's talk about why, and see if we can't solve the problem.

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For a little while now the topic of female Space Marines has been put into the spotlight by the hobby communities on Twitter. The cry for female Space Marines has become rather loud, and while I’m rather late to the party I’ve recently given it a little thought and decided that I would add in my own 2 pence. It might be something of a contentious subject for some, but hey, it’s my website and I’ll write what I want! I will however apologise in advance because it will probably get wordy and it probably won’t be very well structured!

For those already scrabbling for the comment section, please be aware that first-time commenters have to wait until their replies have been moderated before they will become visible. If you don’t think your comment is likely to be accepted just save yourself the time and effort. Or don’t – it’ll take me a lot less time to delete it than it will take you to write it!

Who am I to talk about what women want?

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m not ‘directly affected’ by the lack of female Space Marines. I’m an early-thirties straight white English male – I’m about as catered-for as it gets when it comes to the media I consume, short of being American. I think that’s a large part of the reason why I (somewhat shamefully) haven’t given the topic its due attention until recently. I don’t think there has ever been a time when I’ve been reading a book/playing a game/watching a film and thought “there’s nothing here that represents me” – the one exception being when video games won’t let me create a male character with long hair! – and found that to be an issue. The reason I don’t find it an issue on those rare occasions it does come up is because in almost all other aspects of my life I can find something that does represent me – my subconscious need for representation has always been rather sated. 

So why am I writing about this? Rather simply: because not all people are lucky enough to be in the same position as me. I can’t be sympathetic to their issues because I can’t experience things the same way they do, but I can still support them from an empathetic standpoint.

So for those that are unaware of the whole ‘female Space Marine’ conversation, let’s talk a little bit about history, and why we’ve ended up where we are.

Why don’t we already have female Space Marines?

Well, we actually already kinda did! Check out this picture of the RT601 Adventurers range from 1988 and you’ll find two women in Power Armour, top and bottom left.

RT601 - Adventurers
Borrowed without permission from Stuff Of Legends. If you haven’t already seen it their website is a treasure trove of old Warhammer goodies!

So how come we didn’t see more of them and there’s none around now? For that we’ll turn to Alan Merrett, Citadel’s Design Manager at the time. Here’s a screenshot of one of his Facebook comments on the subject:

Alan Merrett on female Space Marines

In short, female models weren’t selling well generally, and adding in a small number of female models to the Space Marine range would have been prohibitively difficult. The design studio back then was much less focused that it is today – they pretty much just threw around sculpts of anything they could think up and tried to see which ones stuck. If it didn’t seem to stick then it got scrapped, and this was the fate of the early female Space Marine sculpts.

Regardless of the reasons behind the lack of sales the numbers didn’t lie, and so the models weren’t pushed. Those few that did end up being sculpted were released, but as Mr Merrett explains below, they were probably only released to make up release numbers.

Alan Merrett - "drawer 101"

In order to explain the lack of female Marines a little lore piece was written which explained that only males could undergo the Astartes transformation process. At the time the explanation was probably deemed acceptable, but as you’ll see below it’s most definitely showing its age now.

Why do we suddenly want female Space Marines now?

From what I can see there are two main reasons. 

One of those reasons is that both the hobbyist demographic has changed, and so has the attitudes they have. 

Victoria Lamb - Sister of Battle vs Ork Killa Kan
Credit Victoria Lamb. Used without permission.

Female representation has existed for a long time in the hobby. Check out some of Victoria Lamb‘s work if you don’t believe me – she’s a large part of the reason we all love OSL effects so much! That said, 80’s Games Workshop (or just ‘Warhammer’, to the younger crowd) was somewhat the domain of nerdy metalhead dudes. These days however while women are still a huge minority in the hobby (I have no stats to back this up, so I hope it can be accepted without hard figures) they make up a much larger proportion of the hobby community than they once did. 

Unsurprisingly many people want to be able to model, paint and play with models that they can associate with, and so some Space Marine collectors want to be able to collect female Marines! Most factions within 40k have at least some models for both males and females (Orks and Tyranids don’t really count, I suppose), but the Astartes are very much an exception to that rule.

The other reason that the female Astartes issue has been catapulted to the forefront of the community’s conversation is the new Horus Heresy rulebook. At a time when Games Workshop are doing their best to improve on the service they provide and build a culture of inclusivity and equality (the latest GW investor report mentions the words ‘equality’, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ a combined eleven times in the first thirteen pages) they have released a book that contains the following passage:

Horus Heresy rulebook

Not only is this doubling down by repeating thirty-something year old lore written as an afterthought to cover up for poor sales figures that wouldn’t necessarily exist today, from a scientific point of view it’s also just as fundamentally wrong as it was back then!

Yes, this is 40k we’re talking about. Daemon Gods made of emotional energy potential made manifest exist, and we use their parallel universe to travel across our own universe at impossible speeds. There are 10,000+ year old super-super-human demi-Gods fighting off sentient mushroom warriors that would have made Arnold Schwarzenegger look skinny and weak. We accept this, in the same way that we accept the possibility of taking regular humans, and through a series of surgical implants and mental conditioning turn them into functionally-immortal super-soldiers that stand 9 feet tall, have the strength of twenty men and never tire in battle. Believable pseudo-science and ‘magic’ are perfectly acceptable within the universe (thanks to ‘suspension-of-disbelief’) as we’re dealing with both Fantasy elements and also the idea of a human race much more scientifically advanced than our own.

So why is it that in this scientifically advanced human race (don’t talk to me about the stagnation and regression of knowledge, because we all know that Magos Cawl is around!) we accept that an Aspirant to the Adeptus Astartes needs to have a ‘male hormonal make-up’? We’re already at a point in modern day science where a person’s hormone balance is something that can be easily altered and adjusted, and this is regularly done for a variety of reasons. To suggest that the Adeptus Astartes (or before them the Emperor and his team of scientists) aren’t capable of the same is simply insulting. 

And the biological differences? Well, if you factor out the differences that are linked to hormone levels (which as we’ve already discussed can be adapted to suit our needs) you massively narrow down the number of functional differences between men and women, but we also know that genetic reconstruction is a large part of the induction process for potential Space Marines. If we’re already taking male Aspirants and modifying their bodies to suit our needs, why can’t the same be done to females? Any minor inconsistencies between the two can easily be balanced out with more future-science, particularly as inductees are taken before they enter puberty.

The video below goes even further to show just how similar men and women are, and how little genetics should actually matter. 

Now we know that Games Workshop products have a long lead time – I believe the last discussion I read on the topic suggested five years from initial concept to product on shelves. The Horus Heresy rulebook may have been written, signed off and printed a year or more ago, and while the female Space Marine conversation has existed for a very long time it’s only been properly in the spotlight again for a fairly short while. That said, for GW to write (or re-write, or sign-off on) lore that is not only so foundationally wrong but also incredibly sexist is rather surprising. Had they at least updated their explanation for the modern era then it wouldn’t be quite so galling, but I think that would have been a stretch given the previously-discussed scope for ‘modifying’ their potential recruits. Instead they chose to run a piece of lore that at best is very tone deaf, but at worst is misogynistic. Either way it’s off-putting to a large number of potential hobbyists, and certainly doesn’t seem to fit GW’s intention to be inclusive, or their ‘Warhammer is for everyone’ claim.

So what is it that people want? 

Female Space Marines! Both an update to the lore and an update to the model range. 

This wouldn’t necessarily have to be a complete retcon, either. I think many who have taken up the call would be perfectly happy if GW opted to take back their previous comments on suitability and replace it with something more along the lines of “previously female applicants suffered from insurmountably high rejection rates of organs/gene seed, and were thus prohibitively difficult to transform in Astartes warriors.” Then in comes Belisarius “The Magician” Cawl, who says that he’s finally cracked the reason behind female rejection rates, and now he can make them viable recipients for the Astartes treatment. 

Shikah Andraste Cahan
Shikah Andraste Cahan, Spears of Ouroboros
By One Inch Heroes, used with permission.

The hobbyists get female Space Marines (well, the 40k hobbyists do at least), none of the old lore needs changing, no books need rewriting, no female characters need shoe-horning into old lore, and most people are pretty happy. It’s a very simple fix to a situation that’s become rather problematic. A few humble words and maybe an apology from Games Workshop for their rather tasteless repetition of the old lore probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

As for models, a set of alternative head options would be easy for GW to produce. They’ve done it to give the Cadian Shock Troops a bit of a refresh (whether this was enough for a ~20 year old kit is up to you), so why not the modern Primaris range? I wouldn’t expect them to extend support to the Firstborn line as we’ve all pretty much accepted that they’ve been left behind by GW, so perhaps they could write in the caveat that the process can only be made to work for Primaris Marines – whatever floats their boat.

Female Space Marine artwork
By Eye of Longinus, used without permission.

This would then lead on to the occasional named female character, a couple of major female characters in the Black Library novels, and all is well and balanced in the world again. They could even try and spin it as a marketing opportunity to bring more girls and women into the hobby, because the Astartes are already on every advertising banner going!

This sounds so simple, why is there even a conversation to be had?

Well, two reasons again here. The first is that Games Workshop have stayed completely silent on the topic. Not a word on the WarCom site, nothing on Facebook or Twitter. The second is that there is a small (but viciously loud) number of people opposed to the idea. Unfortunately those that are most strongly (and vocally) opposed happen to also be individuals with associations to groups and ideologies that most would find distasteful at the very least – those already familiar with the name ‘Arch’ will need no further explanation. 

That said, this group does offer up various reasons why they find the idea of female Space Marines untenable, so let’s have a look at some of them and see if they hold any water. If I’ve missed any arguments that you particularly want to see then do let me know. Alternatively if you feel that you have a legitimate argument for why women shouldn’t be allowed to join the Astartes then again, please let me know!

Space Wolf cosplay
Credits for cosplayers, costume design and photography here. Used without permission.

“The old lore cannot be changed – if it says no female Space Marines then it means no females!”

This is the argument that I see most often, and it’s also the most stupid. The lore in 30/40k has never been immutable. Yes, it has become significantly more stable than it was back in the 80’s, but changes to the lore are made on a regular basis. Things get tweaked with every Codex generation, but the two biggest lore changes in recent years would be the introduction of Primaris Marines (plus Guilliman coming back, Cawl suddenly existing etc) and the Leagues of Votann (who definitely aren’t at all modelled on a faction that may or may not have been thoroughly eaten by Tyranids) being discovered.

Now these are changes to the lore that move things forward, rather than retconning old lore, but this is exactly what is being proposed here. Revising the previously-established canon in major ways is rare these days, and trying to squeeze female Marines into 10,000 years of Imperial history would be impossible to achieve cleanly, so simply moving the Primaris line forward into a more inclusive place is the obvious direction to take.

“Women are weaker than men, Space Marines have to be the very best”

Another common argument – that because even the very strongest women are not as strong as the strongest men, that they are therefore all incapable of being Space Marines. 

Space Marines are not selected for their natural strength/speed/whatever. Every Chapter has a different selection process, and different desirable traits in a recruit. Some will look for pure aggression, some for determination and stoicism, some for fighting spirit… all however take their recruits before they reach puberty, which means that the an inductee’s natural physical characteristics aren’t actually known. The Aspirant will have started to undergo the changes that will make him a Marine before his own natural muscle will have started to properly grow, which means that it’s very possible that many Marines wouldn’t have been particularly impressive physical specimens had they not been selected. By extension to this, it’s entirely possible that many of the girls currently being overlooked would grow into women that are stronger or better capable to fight than many of the inducted boys would have been.

In short, the idea that only men can be Marines due to their muscular capabilities is silly. Space Marines aren’t chosen for being the very best, they are made to be the very best! The requirements for a potential Space Marine to be chosen for induction are such that both boys and girls could be found eligible.

Daughters of Persephone
Daughters of Persephone by @Pantmonger. Used with permission.

“Sisters of Battle already exist”

Sisters of Battle are not the same as the trans-human Astartes. The Adepta Sororitas are not trans-human, but rather regular human females wearing a modified type of Power Armour. This armour boosts strength and offers protection, but due to the lack of surgical enhancements (specifically the Black Carapace) it is unable to confer the same level of functionality enjoyed by the Adeptus Astartes. 

The Sisters of Battle also have vastly different lore, themes and play-styles that might not be compatible with what a potential modeller wants. The Space Marines offer an almost blank slate for possibilities, whereas the Sisters will always be somewhat limited. 

To suggest that the existence of a female faction means no other factions need female elements is also rather crass when dealing with a male-dominated universe. 

“Allowing female Space Marines would mean that girls would be abducted as young children to be operated on and reprogrammed, which isn’t compatible with the sensibilities of the modern day”

This is a rather insidious little argument that tries to play on your emotions. By giving the image of young girls being taken (potentially against their will, depending on the Chapter in question) for indoctrination and invasive surgery, the hope is that you’ll be horrified enough at the thought that you’ll be put off the whole idea of females joining the Astartes ranks. 

This is somewhat at odds with the 40k universe as we understand it. The idea that the Adeptus Astartes would decide to only subject pre-pubescent males to this process due to some kind of preferential treatment is laughable. If the Space Marines saw value in female recruits they would take them, regardless of how we (just to break the fourth wall) might interpret it from our current-day perspective. To suggest that only allowing the abduction of male aspirants is ‘okay’ is ironically also rather gender-biased, which is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to achieve here.

If your concerns for young girls being recruited into the ranks of the Adeptus Astartes are not mirrored for their male counterparts then I would suggest that the foundations for your concerns are somewhat questionable.

“40k is grimdark – women being excluded and oppressed fits the theme”

This is simply an attempt to condone real-world misogyny by projecting the values of a fictional universe onto our own. 

That the Imperium is a fascistic regime doesn’t allow for the acceptance of fascism in the real world. The subjugation and extermination of groups with opposing ideals to your own might be a pillar of the Imperium’s modern and history approach, but it is still a piece of fiction we’re dealing with. Similarly taking an interest in 40k doesn’t allow you to argue in favour of indentured servitude for the lower classes, enforced religious zealotry or frothing-at-the-mouth xenophobia, so to suggest that it makes the oppression of women acceptable is clearly cherry-picking in a cheap attempt to score points.

“After being transformed into Astartes women would look as masculine as men, so what difference does it make?”

The answer to this is simple. Even if this were true, masculine women would still be women, and not men. This argument tries to miss the point intentionally. 

Daughters of Persephone artwork
Daughters of Persephone artwork by @Pantmonger. Used with permission.
Did I miss an argument that you think needs addressing, or do you have one yourself? Feel free to drop it in the comments!
Did I miss an argument against female Space Marines?x

Okay, so female Space Marines are still a good idea. What should I do?

Put the pressure on Games Workshop!

If you want to see the not-so-fairer sex donning Astartes battle plate in Citadel sculpts then you’re going to have to take the fight to ‘The Man’. 

Join the conversations on Twitter – I’ll not link to specific accounts so as to not leave anybody out, but the #FemaleSpaceMarines tag isn’t a bad place to start! You can tag in the @WarComTeam to keep their notifications full of reminders, too. Just be aware that there’s always the chance that you’ll gain the attention of some slightly unsavoury types – whether you choose to engage with them, block them or ignore them is entirely up to you. 

You can also email Games Workshop directly if you want to get your message across – [email protected] seems to be the best email address to use for this. Don’t expect a response from any channel of contact however – as I’ve already mentioned GW have decided to stay quiet so far. 

If you want to reference or link back to this post in your messages then you are of course more than welcome to do so. 

While Games Workshop is still figuring out what to do about the issue you can also…

Just make the models yourself!

Warhammer enthusiasts have never been shy about converting, kit-bashing, and scratch-building their own models if there isn’t an official one, or one they like. There’s no reason that this has to be an exception! Damn the currently-canonical lore, this is your hobby!

Let’s look at a couple of ways you might try to create your female Space Marines:

Heads from other Citadel kits

Unfortunately you’re a little bit limited when it comes to using other Citadel kits. The Sisters of Battle range is the obvious choice, being a 40k faction, but their aesthetic is rather distinct. There are however also a few different human female heads in the Age of Sigmar range. 

For a couple of examples, check out this tweet from @Pantmonger

3rd party heads

There are plenty of third parties sculpting female heads, many of which will fit your Space Marine bodies with little to no work. I can’t personally vouch for any of these (either the quality of the product or the fit), so a little bit of research and trial & error may be required here, but here’s a few places I’ve come across that offer heads that might work:

Statuesque Miniatures – check the sizing suggestions at the top of the page. Some examples shown here.
Victoria Miniatures – remember this place from before?
Aurel (Shapeways) – a mixture of African, Asian and Caucasian style heads

Blank heads and sculpting hair yourself

If you’re looking for different hairstyles, or hair that’s long enough to fall onto their armour/interact with the model then you’re going to have to do a little sculpting. The easiest way will be to start with a blank head, such as these from Statuesque Miniatures, or these from Victoria Miniatures. From here you can start sculpting your hair. A video I rather like on the subject is the one below, by YouTuber Valbjorn. The subject matter is male Space Wolves, but I think that the principles still work for our purpose.

Any final thoughts?

Not really, I think I’ve covered pretty much everything I wanted to. 

The only other thing that I would maybe say is that while I’ve made mention of some unsavoury types that are dead-set against the idea of female Space Marines, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody who doesn’t agree with the idea is some kind of gatekeeping monster. There will be people who simply accept “Space Marines are men” because that’s what they’ve always known and never questioned – some of these people may yet decide that actually the idea isn’t so bad. There will also be some people who simply don’t care one way or the other, or don’t want to be involved and are happy for other people to worry about it. This is perfectly valid and these people shouldn’t be harassed or made to feel bad for their position – not everybody wants to fly the same flag or die on the same hill, and that’s okay.

By the same token, you shouldn’t allow yourself to be made to feel bad for expressing yourself either. If you want to make female Space Marines, do it. If somebody disagrees with you, it’s entirely up to you whether you avoid them, encourage discourse with them or block them entirely. This is your hobby. These are your plastic soldiers and you can do whatever you please with them! So have fun, and stay safe. 🙂

Thanks to:

Matt Austin (@BitsHammer) for proof-reading and feedback
@Pantmonger and One Inch Heroes – for being kind enough to let me use their models and artwork

pawl has been an on/off hobbyist since the late nineties but still possesses significantly more enthusiasm for the hobby as a whole than skill with a brush, and so is always on the hunt for fast, easy and lazy techniques that give good results. Despite this he sometimes still attempts to paint Space Marine helmet lenses, and occasionally even manages to stay within the lines!

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