Also, if functional two-handed longswords aren't heavy and require skill and control, and functional war bows require a lot of strength, then (buying into gender stereotypes for a moment) why not give the swords to the women and the bows to the men?
You’re asking me to explain gender stereotypes to you and how those stereotypes influence what we’ll call “conventional wisdom” in a way that ultimately has no relationship to reality.
It’s like asking, “if women have always fought then why do people keep insisting there were no women warriors?”
Sexism, stereotypes, and even some cultural conventions have nothing to do with reality. To begin with the premise you started with, you’re already challenging stereotypes with the idea that women have any role in combat at all. Now, you’re asking “why aren’t women front line combatants while men are relegated to artillery?”
That’s hitting the ground running when everyone else is still up on the helicopter wondering if women can even make the jump. When most people are wondering whether it’s possible for women to fight at all, despite a large bevy of historic women who’ve bucked the trend. This is a subject on which PhD research papers are built, exploring social mores, conventions, gender roles, and stereotypes handed down to us century by century that insist women have no role in combat at all, that war and combat are “men’s work”, to be glorified for men by men and men alone.
So, why would the sword, which is a symbol of leadership, kingship, and heroes, be given to a woman?
We live in a culture that can barely acknowledge women have different body types, that their bodies are influenced and changed by the kind of exercise they engage in. We live in a culture that fights tooth and nail against taking female sports professionals seriously. We live in a culture where women being forced to register for the draft is up for debate, and large swaths would prefer they didn’t. We live in a culture where plenty of girls still see recreational martial arts as not for them, not because they don’t want to, but because they think they can’t do it.
Now, you’re here arguing for the fiction because that’s what’s been presented by the vast majority of media and culture as true.
Consider the number of female professionals and enthusiasts today, from the army to the police to the martial artists to the traditional fencers to the HEMA fencers. There has and always will be a strong interest by women in the combat arts. However, cultural perceptions and acceptability will also always be a factor. To ask the question you did is to both overlook the pervasive nature of sexism and disregard its normalization by buying into the idea that “if this is true then we’d see widespread evidence of it” without bothering to look. To overlook misinformation. To overlook gender bias. To ignore the fact that female contributions to history are, by and large, routinely ignored.
We live in a culture that can barely acknowledge women have different body types. We live in a culture where a vast number of women become disillusioned with working out because they were never taught muscle weighs more than fat. That weight gain is a natural first step to a work out because their bodies are building up muscle then the muscle will inevitably begin devouring the fat and they lose weight.
If one works out their upper body, consistently and constantly, whether male or female, they will develop those muscles. Drawing a bow works out the upper body as it relies on strength in the arms, shoulders, and chest muscles. This will lead to a much thicker upper body and strong shoulders, which is not necessarily an appealing mental image for someone buying into cultural stereotypes about feminine beauty.
There are very few female characters who accurately represent what a
women would look like after their training and often, in fiction, the
feminine ideal of physical beauty is what’s chased. Wish fulfillment
fantasies, generally, have little room for reality.
Assume instead that the person who is making the choice buys into the stereotypes. They’re looking for a kind of combat that is more safe, more feminine that active physical conflict. They may say they are about “female power”, but are buying into the idea that the bow is a safe, ranged weapon that requires less physical exertion/danger than a sword.
If you’re confused the stereotype is:
“Women are weak and therefore not suited to close combat. I know! I’ll give her a bow. Bows are ranged weapons, so she can kill at range, stay outside of combat without having to get her hands dirty.”
Never assume people argue from a position of knowledge, most of the time we work from a position of perception.
The sword also has the longstanding symbolic reputation as the weapon of the Chosen One in literature.
So, watch writers trip over themselves to make sure certain characters never get to lay their hands on one.
This is the famous epic fight scene from the anime “Ha! It’s Not True”, Produced by “It’s Just a Commission” studio, premiering soon - in your dreams 2017!!
Fenris, the son of Wolf King Fenrir, teams up with Shiro the demon hunter against a horde of demons! The two badasses even took their shirt off for fan service purpose and stuff! You bet this anime is gonna be a top hit!!
What challenges would a character with extensive training in modern fencing face in switching to *real* blades and using them for the first time in a life or death swordfight?
Modern fencing and historical fencing are different beasts. The sword weight is different. The sword length is different. The weapon class is different. Everything is different, including the vectors of attack and the possibility of death. Now, to be fair, someone who went from historical (HEMA) fencing into a sudden life or death duel with a historical personage would also be screwed. They’d be slightly less screwed, but still screwed. The same is pretty much true when you put most sports martial artists up against cops or professional soldiers. They’re not trained for it.
Modern fencing has moved in the direction that is beneficial to itself as a sport rather than as a form of combat. There are a great many techniques performed by fencers that are excellent in competition but would get you killed (or at least a double suicide) in a live bout with live weapons.
This is true of any type of sport martial art. When you remove death from the equation, people have the opportunity to be more reckless and, in some ways, more creative than they would be if there was a chance of actual impalement on an enemy’s blade.
The real problem for this character though is going to be the blade weight. Even if they’re just shifting to a historical epee from a modern one, they’re going to pick up a few pounds. Given no time to adjust, that additional weight will hamper everything from speed to accuracy to their endurance. The time they waste adjusting to blade weight is time their enemy has to break their defenses and stab them. They will face similar difficult with the historical sabre. That’s if they’re lucky enough to hit a historical period with a blade they recognize. They won’t know what to do with the rapier, or any of the other swords.
There are also three types of modern fencing blades that each have their own associated rule set. This could be a problem for them.
The Foil - thrusting only, hits only count when struck with the tip of the blade. Striking is limited to the torso, but covers the groin, neck, and back.
The Epee - the epee like the historical epee is a dueling sword, strikes include the whole body. Thrusting weapon, scored only with the tip.
The Sabre - the traditional sabre is a military/cavalry weapon, it is curved. It’s a cutting and thrusting weapon, and the entire upper body is an available target. So, this includes the arms.
It’s worth noting that “cut” and “thrust” with modern fencing weapons mean which part of the blade touches the opponent’s body. It is possible to be hurt with a modern fencing blade when not wearing protective gear, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as the historical swords.
This doesn’t mean the sport doesn’t have value, it does. It’s an incredible form of exercise, show of athleticism, developing incredible reaction speed and timing. It’s great for your brain. It isn’t combat. It doesn’t prepare you for combat.
However, assuming they survive, those ancillary skills they mastered in sport fencing can be re-applied to a study of historical fencing. They go into this story athletic, quick thinking, strategic, creative, and with reaction times that are well above average. Sport fencers are fast on their feet.
There’s some good maneuvering that can be done with this character on a story level, but their skill set isn’t on a 1 to 1 parity with a practiced swordsman straight out of history.
Me, about to write a fight scene:
They'll just get a little scraped up, no biggy.
Me, 3/4ths through the fight scene:
*desperately googling how much blood someone can loose and still stay conscious, how long someone's heart can keep beating after they stop breathing, and how much flesh you can rip out of someone without causing permanent damage to the muscle.* They'll still get out alive, probably. No biggy, no biggy. This is totally under control...