Women as heads of Houses

Been thinking on this recently and wondering what exists in “canon” for Dune. As I understand it, and from what the corebook for this game hints, anyone can become the heir, and it’s basically up to the current Head of the House to designate who they want as heir. Obviously, the eldest child is favored, but the Head’s will is paramount.

That said, and based on the above, what’s the issue with Irulan taking the Imperial Throne? It seems to be implied that she must take a husband (understandable) and that husband would rule (even Duke Leto is once considered a possible match). Or not? Perhaps I misread the books? Or was the idea that Irulan would rule, and the husband would simply be a consort (like many real world European monarchs now)?


If you are going by the novels then I don’t think there are any Female head of Houses. From that you would assume that Frank Herbert implied a male primogeniture system where the eldest male inherits.
But that is the American 60’s view of the European monarchies.
Not sure if that changes in the prequels, but I don’t recall any off hand.

For how things would work now with the RPG I would assume this would be changed to absolute primogeniture, which as you say, the eldest inherits unless someone else is specifically named.
Got to love all those palace intrigues over who is the formal Heir (Na-[Title] in the books).

Looking at the second point in the view of the male being more important Irulan simply becomes the method for someone else to take the Throne. Herbert seemed to relegate women to being the power behind the scenes (See Margot Fenring) rather than being able to be fully independent in their own right.

From a more a realistic reading would go with that if a powerful Duke like Leto was to marry Irulan he wouldn’t consider himself inferior to the Corrino but on par, and his heir might be instilled with the view that the Atreides line was superior to the Corrino.
Shaddam might see that as a threat to Corrino supremacy.

Of course the other thing to consider is what the Bene Gesserit plan was in all of this. Irrulans mother is expressly stated to have been ordered to only bear females to Shaddam. For this to happen at the same time as their Breeding program was coming to a peak doesn’t feel like coincidence.

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It’s been a while since I read the original novel, but I think I recall at some point it’s mentioned that the BG plans/expects one of Shaddam’s daughters to take the throne, so from that (if I’m remembering correctly) I’d assume that there’s no impediment to an Empress rather than an Emperor.

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I assumed the plan was to marry a BG to the Kwisatz Haderach who would be on the throne. But there’s some uncertainty about that, because of character ages as mentioned in the book have some issues and the fact the BG were expecting the actual Kwisatz Haderach in perhaps 20 years, circa 10210 or a bit later.

The Appendix IV in Dune is almost certainly incorrect about Shaddam’s age (who is 72 in 10191, while the Appendix claims he was born in '34) and when Anirul Corrino died. Epigraphs in Dune indicate Irulan is about Paul’s age, and that Anirul is alive in 10191-92 at least.

So i figure the idea would’ve been, had Jessica followed her orders, that Atreides daughter would be wed to presumably Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in mid-10190s, and some 20 years later a son (the predicted Kwisatz Haderach) from this union would be wed to Shaddam’s daughter, presumably Irulan. Irulan would be 35ish then, and most likely a Reverend Mother at that point.
EDIT Maybe closer to 40. Anyway. A bit old for having children classically thinking, but not a problem for the BG. Plus i figure the BG figured that age difference might make it easier to control their Kwisatz Haderach.


Hmm. Maybe? Though, as you point out, the timing seems a little off (since Irulan would be “old”). Though, also as you said, a BG would have no issue there, but that feels like it’s too obvious (i.e. everyone would realize what the BG were doing if that marriage happened; they’d want to keep their hidden hand secret, right?).

Irulan was unmarried when Dune started, and seemed a bit “old” for being single as the eldest imperial child. So, was the Emperor holding out for an ideal husband for her? Someone she could easily control? Or was he really trying to find the “best” political marriage he could for her (but I can’t imagine why he’d wait so long out of the pile of possible husbands from the Great/Major Houses; surely SOMEONE was good/interesting/controllable enough). Or was Irulan younger? If she’s about Paul’s age that makes some sense (since he’s a teenager at the start of the books), though still, odd not to have a line of potential matches already in the wings.


Dune’s epigraphs, specifically Irulan’s writings, also indicate there’s a Guild-Bene Gesserit treaty in place that mandates a Bene Gesserit on the Throne after Saddam IV. (I read that as meaning a spouse rather than the Emperor.)

Content and context of the treaty are not elaborated upon, though i suspect this ties into continued production of spice. And IRL, it maybe a bit of a hold-over from the time when the spice was intended to be a recent (approximately 100 year old) discovery, Herbert clearly changed his mind at some point though hard to pinpoint when (post- God Emperor books indicate spice is a very old discovery, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune are ambiguous on this matter).

This treaty would probably limit Saddam’s options, as any potential husband would require BG and Guild approval. (If it still in place at end of Dune, Paul probably just strong-armed them into accepting himself.)
And Irulan being underage (in as much as that matters in the Imperium) would be also a good reason why she wasn’t married yet.

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I suspect this is one of the hold overs from he books being written in the 1960s :slight_smile:

We’ve added some female House leaders in some of the upcoming stuff and the estate has been fine with it (even suggested it) so its certainly fine in terms of the RPG.

But given Irulan’s case you might argue a woman can lead a House but not sit on the throne (although you’d hope in another 20,000 years things might be more enlightened :slight_smile: ).

That’s good to hear. Just one of those things; my players, once we started a game, would definitely ask/wonder what’s up with succession and the like. And again, I’d imagine whatever holds true for the lessers would translate for the uppers (so, if absolute primogeniture holds sway, then that’s expected, top to bottom).

For me at least, if one can lead a House, why not the Throne? Also, I imagine matrilineal marriage is a thing? I realize Dune never said anything on it (and thus, Herbert didn’t even imagine it), but I image for a House it’d be a thing (or a similar fight over the House naming as happened when Phillip Mountbatton became Consort to Elizabeth II; fun fact: when he gave up his Greek and Danish titles, he took on his maternal grandparent’s family name, Mountbatten).

I’d love it if Dune (or the RPG) dipped it’s toes a bit more in these waters…

I’ve taken the view that essentially each House will have its own system of title and lineage once it is ennobled by the Emperor (although some are more common than others).
So any House might have a matrilineal succession, only allow men to lead, vote for their leader, seek out a successor like the Dalai lama or even have the new leader picked by a special groundhog. :slight_smile:

Same goes for titles, as European ones like Duke and Baron can easily sit beside Caliph, Daimyo, Graf and Jarl.

Basically, the Imperium doesn’t care as long as the status quo is maintained and no House claims more than the Emperor has given them.


The above makes perfect sense, that its House specific.

To be honest minus the Bene Geserit being only-female I think all organizations and orders in the setting are gender neutral in operation. That is they don’t care.

But I really like the idea that the Houses might have different standards. The thing is once those standards are accepted by the Throne than its that way forever.

As a note this really makes me look forward to when House books are made - not individual books for the Houses, but a Book about the Houses. hehe


One possibility that occurred to me with people mentioning the BG is that the system of male-led dynastic houses we appear to see in the book might have been deliberately introduced by the Sisterhood. To the eyes of people living in our culture this seems strange, especially since the BG are an all-female order that must have actively worked to reduce the political power of women in order for this to be the case. But that’s because we’re thinking like modern people with modern value-sets. The BG don’t work like that.

What a system of male-led dynasties means for the BG is that they actually have more power. They can influence those male leaders more than a mixed-gender political elite by setting themselves up as both prized breeding stock and the most effective route to gaining power that intelligent and ambitious females have. The number of BGs acting as consorts to bear House heirs and noble-born women having BG training suggests that they’re actually being very successful in this.

The setup so described allows for two things. First, it gives the BG more long-term political power. Second, it makes it far easier to work on their great eugenics project. In either case I don’t see the BG as having any problem manipulating society back into a patriarchal model if that would give them what they want.

Modern people using the Dune universe as the setting for a TTRPG are naturally free to do whatever they want when it comes to portraying how common female rulers are and I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. This was just a thought I wanted to share that could explain the patriarchal setup of the Imperium In-Universe, rather than just saying it was written in the early 60s. Hopefully some might find this interesting.


I believe that the BG would have done everything in their power to destroy any house without patrilinear succession because, that’s the only way they retain their power over all the houses in the Landsraad. Thus the existence of the very powerfull BG is the reason no female house leaders or even elected house-leaders exist. They cannot allow elected house-leaders, because they might not be part of the bloodlines the BG controls. They cannot allow female house-leaders to exist because they cannot marry them to a BG in order to control the bloodline of that house. The only exception would be a BG of hidden rank as house-leader. For the BG to have all the power described in the novels, they must not allow non-BG female house-leaders or even elected house-leaders to exist. They have to enforce a very strict patrilinear succession law in the Imperium.

Dune is a setting which has no place for modern sensibilities like gender-equality.

Well, I don’t think that’s the only way the BG control bloodlines. For example, I could see them (behind the scenes) getting certain sorts of marriages arranged or, as with Jessica, making sure a certain bloodline, uh, deposited itself somewhere even unintentional (and thus, Jessica was born).

I would also imagine, genetics being what they are, that there were obviously certain women who also carried certain desirable traits/markers/characteristcs of certain bloodlines, who were NOT BG, who the BG could manipulate into marrying who they wanted anyway. At least, in my head canon, the spider web of the BG would be lots of places, centered around the bloodlines they wanted to preserve.

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Remember as well that good ‘stock’ may not need to be the ruler of a House.
Heirs, cousins and other relations, as well as non-nobles might all be viable and part of the breeding plan.

Even if a woman is a ruler, the BG will do their best to make sure she marries (or at least sleeps with) the ‘right person’ in the same way they would a male one. That is if the female ruler wasn’t already connected to the Sisterhood and following orders in some way anyway.

I disagree, because I do not believe that the BG could not control all those bloodlines if they were now somehow part of that bloodline. They want to create and control the Kwisatz Haderach. They can’t do that if he has not a BG mother. They could create him, but not control him. So the only way for them to achieve that goal is by working from the background and marrying into all houses. And that’s not possible if a house has a matrilinear succession, because there a no male BG.

Sometimes modern sensibilities do not have place in a SciFi (or Fantasy) setting. We would not have this discussion if we were talking about a historical and not a fictional setting.

i’ve forgotten to write why the whole concept of the BG only works if all houses have patrilinear succession and thus most likely only male house leaders. It is the way how the BG sisters are able to control the bloodlines. They can control their own fertility. Remember that Lady Jessica had been ordered to give birth to girls only, an order she ignored out of love? This can only work if all houses are patrilinear. The bloodline of a matrilinear house is beyond their control, because these women would not be BG sisters. With no male members it would be impossible for the BG to control the bloodline of a matrilinear house. Even if they arrange a liaison between a female of a matrilinear house and a male with a bloodline important to the BG, they could not control the sex of the children born from that union, because the man has not the control over his own body a BG has and the women is no BG sister. And that makes the union in most cases worthless to the BG.
I know that not all wifes of house lords are BG sisters, but many house lords have concubines which often are. This guarantees that even in the case of a house lord not married to a BG sister the bloodlines is still under their control. If he does not take a concubine, well, then they use other male members of that bloodline.
In this system female house leaders can only exists if the house is patrilinear and they are always the daughter-in-law of their predecessors. In this case the BG can still control the bloodline by inserting a BG sister in the house as a concubine and using certain methods to ensure that only the BG concubine will produce children (see Dune Messiah).
The goals of the BG and the ways and abilities to achieve those are unknown outside the BG. Not even the Emperor knows that the BG sisters can control their own fertility and thus the sex of the children they give birth to.

I think you’re forgetting that many noblewomen are BG trained and have a lot of loyalty to the Sisterhood. Irulan being a prime example.
Plus, even if they don’t control the mother and the sex of the child there is still a 50/50 chance they get the one they want. They may even want male children to mate off to particular other lines they control.
While Jessica did choose to have a son, she didn’t choose never to have a daughter. All she actually decided to do was put the Sisterhood second rather than completely ignore their orders.
The breeding plan is vast and complex, with many options to shift and go back a few branches if what they want doesn’t appear naturally. Something like women being able to lead Houses would never be enough to give it any problems. The plan isn’t just restricted to high ranking nobles and leaders anyway.
After all, the BG have millennia of patience when it comes to the plan.

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As far as I know all noble women are somehow associated with the BG sisterhood, bcause only through the BG sisterhood they get power. And the fact that noble women have no chance to have any sort of career in the patriarchaic society of the Imperium except with the BG, allows the BG to control all the bloodlines of the noble houses. And the BG want complete control of the bloodlines. So it is important for them to ensure that the mother of a nonle child is always a BG, because that is the best way to achieve the control they want. And that’s in my opinion the reason they would do anything to prevent both matrilinear houses and female house leaders. In a matrilinear house the important women would not be members of the BG or BG trained or even have any loyality to the BG, same applies to female house leaders.
(BTW if female house leaders were possible the Emperor could easily persuaded the Landsraad to declare Irulan his heir, but that never happen. It was made clear that who ever marries Irulan will become Emperor.)
It sounds paradox but the best way for the BG to have power and complete control of all the bloodlines is by preventing women to have any form of power. Then women have to join the BG to gain power, even if it is ‘only’ the power to manipulate the men in power (and this is a very useful power, used by many women through out history).
Well, a though crossed my mind. What if a house leader is not the nominal head of the house but the person who really has the power? Then a female house leader could be possible, if she is married to the nominal head and just has to make sure that her weak willed husband is more interested in his newest BG approved concubine than in doing his job… :wink:


I imagine this is not at all uncommon in the Inperium…

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There is another way a female led house could work: if you look into the history of the Holy Roman Empire you will find the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, an edict that allowed Maria Theresia of Austria to inherit hereditary possession of House Habsburg and led to the War of the Austrian Succession. A similiar scenario could also function in Dune. A house leader with no male heir but several daughter declares that his eldest daughter will eventually succeed him. After his death at least one house supports a distant cousin as rightful house leader. The more important the now female led house is the more houses support the distant cousin or even their own male candidates leading to a real war of assassins…