In the late stages of Dishonored, when protagonist Corvo Attano infiltrates the corrupt Lord Regent’s tower stronghold, there is a safe in the executive suite. Quite the bounty is to be found inside, including a taped confession wherein the Lord Regent admits to plotting the assassination of the Empress. The account is chilling, spoken by a man who feels wholly justified in what he has done—”She had to die, you see,” he explains fervently. “She had to die,”—with no hint of remorse. The idea of such a carefully calculated murder is disturbing enough, but it becomes even more unsettling when considering the Empress’ position: in a city packed with aristocrats and politicians, she is the only woman in Dunwall holding an office of esteem; it is also a largely male cohort that, deeming her unfit for rule, turns on her.
This is no coincidence: in a city where women are restricted from certain professions, accused of witchcraft for practicing mathematics, and are much more likely to be maids (or prostitutes) than Parliamentarians, the culture of Dunwall perpetuates a wide-reaching gender disparity where women hold little social power. (For those interested, Becky Chambers has an awesome essay on just this topic over at The Mary Sue.) But, as anyone who has played the game knows, there is another world to Dunwall: a dark, slimy world of organized crime and dark magic, existing in the abandoned factories, darkened alleyways, and hidden places of the city. In this underworld, where guardsmen and politicians tread at their own peril (and may lose a tongue, limb, or life for their efforts), an interesting thing happens: women rise to power. In Dishonored, feminine power thrives in the underworld, where women are able to assert authority and influence that is largely out of reach in “legitimate” society.
Although the main campaign of Dishonored is limited in its portrayal of feminine influence in the Dunwall underworld, it introduces the first indications of such power dynamics for later exploration. As most of Corvo’s assassination targets are aristocrats, the majority of his time is spent focusing on the residences of the upper class—the head offices of state religion, a brothel frequented by the city’s elite, the estate of a powerful family, or the royal palace itself—with alleyways and sewers working as convenient pathways to these locales. In addition, most of Corvo’s trusted associates are part of the Loyalist conspiracy (itself structured according to mainstream ideals), and there are few other people he interacts with regularly outside that group.
As a result, much of what Corvo sees reflects mainstream Dunwall society, painting a vivid picture of the city’s culture. In terms of the position of women in society, the landscape Corvo sees is bleak: women are relegated to the lowliest positions of employment (with only one male servant seen in the entire game—Pendleton’s manservant, Wallace Higgins, who still believes himself to be in a position of authority over the female staff), are barred from work in certain industries, and the city’s recognized religion associates the education of women with witchcraft. Although women are technically allowed to hold positions of influence—such as Royal Protector, High Oracle, or Empress—or use their economic resources for political gain, they are often targeted for the privilege: by Dishonored‘s end, anywhere from half to all of the game’s prominent female political figures (the Empress, the Boyle sisters, and Emily Kaldwin) are dead, often at the hands of men who saw them as acceptable collateral casualties. Even the Outsider points to this dynamic, claiming in the high chaos ending that Dunwall “is not kind to little girls, or Empresses.”
However, it addition to this dynamic, Corvo does see some hints of feminine power in the city’s darkest corners. The first and most oft reoccurring figure in this regard is Granny Rags, who at first appears to be a feeble old woman living in squalor. However, Corvo soon discovers that she harbors incredible power (given to her by the Outsider, who himself warns Corvo to be wary of her) which she wields to fashion runes used by the Outsider’s other marked individuals, and to take down a notorious gang singlehandedly. While Granny Rags functions as a solitary actor and does not stand in a position of authority, her formidability speaks to a power that is uniquely her own.
From there, other powerful female figures begin to emerge within the crime world of Dishonored, though in less obvious form. The Eradication of Black Sally is one of the only sources of information on the notorious, titular Black Sally, who was said to “rul[e] over the meanest street gang Dunwall had seen.” She was known to “stun a man with her looks…then smile a one-sided smile and suddenly run him through with a knife.” She also mentored a new generation of leadership in the city’s underbelly, namely the young up-and-comer Slackjaw (who still, despite her reported execution, lists her as a current buyer on his elixir accounts). Other notes and books focus on powerful unnamed witches, commanding fascination and reverence from those who speak of them.
While these individual examples are telling, they stand disconnected and peripheral to the story as a whole, and don’t show the prevalence of female authority in the Dunwall underworld; clearer illustrations of this phenomenon appear in the game’s two story-based DLCs, The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches. Starring the assassin Daud, the add-ons focus on his journey through the city’s ganglands to discover the importance of the name Delilah. He and his lieutenant (a woman named Billie Lurk) carry out an investigation spanning the Dunwall underground, where they encounter a breadth of different groups headed by ruthless and imposing women.
Over the course of his efforts, Daud meets the likes of Abigail Ames—a mysterious and charismatic operative who leads the workers of the Rothwild Slaughterhouse in a debilitating labor strike; Lizzy Stride, the leader of the Dead Eels gang with near-exclusive access to the strategically critical Wrenhaven River; and Delilah Copperspoon, the ruthlessly ambitious leader of the Brigmore Witches, who seeks to destroy Daud to keep him from interfering with her plans.
All three stand in positions of great influence, commanding followers ranging from weak but numerous factory workers, to full-time thugs and gifted conjurers. In turn, they are formidable players in the black-handed political landscape, affecting the world in ways felt throughout the city—Abigail, for instance, is able to cripple the Rothwild Slaughterhouse through carefully leveraged charisma, with one of Rothwild’s advisors noting, “As I interview the workers, it seems she really has them in thrall. They’ll do whatever she says, and their belief in her is absolute.” Lizzy Stride couples her notoriety for theatric violence (one report claims she was witnessed tearing out a man’s tongue with her teeth) with a natural aptitude for leadership—she is purported to have inspired a mutiny on the ship she worked on as a child, when her previously hidden gender was discovered and her cohort fought off the crew trying to apprehend her. She is able to utilize the Dead Eels to alter the landscape of Dunwall, taking over territory once held by the Hatters gang and limiting business access to the Wrenhaven.
Delilah, meanwhile, is arguably one of the most powerful syndicate leaders in the city, rivaling Daud’s own skills and acting as the primary antagonist for the two DLCs. An alluring woman able to (literally and metaphorically) charm those around her into subservience, she is also able to physically manifest her power over her subordinates, granting them a portion of the magic ability given to her by the Outsider. Even Daud’s Whalers gang, largely a male organization, is not absent female leadership—Billie Lurk acts as a competent second-in-command of the syndicate and, had she chosen to follow through on (or, in high chaos, succeeded in executing) her plan to eliminate Daud, the Assassins would have been added to the list of gangs headed by women.
In opposition to the social restrictions placed on women in Dunwall’s “legitimate” society, the female gang leaders of the city’s crime world act with much more freedom, and in some ways transcend gendered treatment entirely. For instance, while the Boyles are decried as nothing more than “lucky trollop[s]” for their ascent to wealth and political esteem (along with the suggestion that they need to be “put in their place,” specifically with sexual punishment and shotgun weddings) the women of the underworld rarely, if ever, see their gender being used to discredit them. When Lizzy Stride’s treacherous second-in-command, Edgar Wakefield, betrays her, it is not with a cohort of men who find her leadership too feminine to be tolerated; it is a simple power grab, and when Wakefield hears that Lizzy has escaped Coldridge, it’s her he fears, rather than the theoretical presence of a male accomplice. Delilah, too, inspires fear and respect in those around her, and her formidability is made clear to the player through Daud’s perception of her: she is a force to be reckoned with, one that Daud must struggle to combat, very much his opposite and equal—and he knows it.
Further, it can be argued that even the underworld’s male leaders—such as Slackjaw, Mortimer Hat, and Daud—are products of strong female mentorship. Slackjaw cut his teeth working for Black Sally, and his most dangerous adversary is none other than Granny Rags. Mortimer Hat, who ran the most powerful syndicate in the city prior to the arrival of Sally and Slackjaw, maintains great admiration for Lizzy Stride. Even Daud himself is molded by female influence, trained by his brilliant and ruthless mother and supported—for a time—by the determined and industrious Billie.
The cause of this disparity in female power between legitimate and underground society likely stems from both the structure of gang society and the coming of the rat plague. As displayed by such scenarios as the betrayal of Lizzy Stride and Slackjaw’s rise to power (which involved, among other things, staging mysterious deaths for mob bosses who would not recognize him), the underworld of Dunwall appears to be largely kratocratic: the rightful leader of a gang is the person who is strong enough to usurp the title, and maintain the position against encroachers. As a result, it is not as important to adhere to strict gender roles in the underworld, for a woman is equally entitled to a position of power if she can take and keep it. A strong leader also ensures prosperity for a gang, so it isn’t in the group’s best interest to discriminate if the strongest candidate for leadership—and therefore the person who will benefit them the most—is a woman.
At the same time, the rat plague has weakened the social structure of Dunwall—which, in some ways, has been positive for women. In the same way that World War II benefited women’s rights in America by depleting the male workforce and forcing an acceptance of female labor (or, perhaps even more relevant, the way the black plague created greater social mobility for members of the lower classes that survived it), the shattering of Dunwall’s social structure has made room for ambitious women to grab power where it would not have been possible previously. A book found in The Knife of Dunwall called The Hatters supports this idea, explaining how the plague altered the structure of gang society:
The Hatters used to run all the rackets ’round Dunwall…Whatever the game, the Hatters had a big stake in it. Then the plague came and tore the whole damn city apart. All that chaos led to new bosses cropping up.
Most were shitheels that didn’t last a week. But there were some hard cases like Lizzy Stride, Jim Dundermoore, and Black Sally.
While evidence (such as Lizzy Stride’s history and Black Sally’s mentoring of Slackjaw), suggests that there were female gang leaders before the coming of the plague, the subsequent upheaval has shaken up the old guard, allowing for the rise of new—and often female—talent. While Dunwall’s legitimate society shows some hint of this shift (namely with the Boyle sisters rising to power in absence of a patriarch, due to valuable resources being found on their lands) it is not nearly as noticeable or widespread, and incurs more ire than respect. As the Boyles are disregarded and punished for their rise to power, the women of the Dunwall underworld grip tight to theirs, using their authority to change the social landscape to their liking.
At the beginning of The Brigmore Witches—wherein Daud and his assassins are pitted against the Brigmore coven—Daud records an audiograph to explain what has happened since the end of The Knife of Dunwall. In the recording, after noting that his men don’t know how much danger they are in, he reminisces, “My mother warned me never to make an enemy of a witch.” After coming from Dishonored‘s main campaign, where women were treated as second-class citizens, reviled for their success in the absence of men, and used as pawns in greater political schemes, this statement is somewhat surprising: the great and fearful Knife of Dunwall, calling back to the wisdom of not a father, but a mother? Eventually, through both his and Corvo’s adventures in Dunwall, it becomes clear that oppressive social constructs have not kept women in the city from attaining power—they simply take it by less “legitimate” means, and in that regard, they shake the world.
In Dishonored, feminine power thrives in the underworld, absent the restrictions placed on women in legitimate society. As Lizzy holds sway over critical river passage, Abigail shapes future industry; as Delilah and Granny Rags work for their own nefarious purposes, Sally commands authority the likes of which Parliamentarians dream of. And as Jessamine Kaldwin takes possession of the world’s secrets, whispering them to Corvo from the depths of the Heart, the women of the Dunwall underworld bury their heels and force themselves upon the city—for when the politicians and the aristocracy have abandoned it, and a young girl sits the throne, they will have a critical hand in reshaping the city from its remains.