The Prelude reveals that in the past women were mainly regarded as sexual or for breeding children: Cospatric married a Pictish lady and
got on her bairns.
Jean Guthrie is a tragic modern example of such a woman. Although she is loved, she is trapped in a marriage where she is subjected to persistent sexual demands and constant child-bearing.
Some women are seen to take the initiative or to be predatory. In Wallace's time, the barren wife of Lord Kinraddie had gone to her cousin to provide her with a child; the Kinraddies' decline is put down to the evil influence of a woman:
a Morton quean with black blood in her who drove her husband to drink and death.
In modern times Kirsty Strachan traps Chae into marriage and bringing up another man's child.
Sarah Sinclair is described as
raddled with blushing after her episode with Ewan in the larch wood, and Ewan later tells Chris that Sarah had begged him to go with her. However, Sarah pays for it by becoming the subject of ridicule and gossip.
The most sympathetic female characters are shown as being aware of their sexuality. Mollie Douglas visits Chris to ask Will to come and see her:
I love him so sore I can't live if I don't see Will.
Chae's daughter Marget's attitude to sex is frank and fearless – she is able to tell stories and joke about it:
Marget was laughing and fleering, trying to shock her.
Chris, too, is frank about her sexuality. Before her marriage, she contemplates being in bed with a lover, and enjoys reflecting on the stolen kiss and has erotic dreams about it.
After marriage, she sometimes takes the initiative in love-making, causing Ewan to joke that she is
a shameless limmer – and not nineteen yet.
In the brief affair with Rob, it is Chris who makes the first move:
it was her arms then that went round his neck.
Scenes like this caused great offence when the book was published in 1932, when female sexuality was still thought shocking and many people denied it existed.
Chris breaks new ground and overcomes prejudices by remaining independent after her father's death. She also takes the initiative in proposing marriage to Ewan after he has said he can't afford to marry.
Financially, intellectually and emotionally she is the dominant partner in the relationship. At the start of her marriage she is a conventional wife and mother, supportive and loving to her husband.
When he changes, we see the brutality that some women may be subjected to. Although Chris is distressed, she stands up for herself, at one time even drawing a knife on Ewan.
A few other women in the book are presented as taking control of their lives and their sexuality. Marget Strachan leaves home to pursue a career as a doctor. Maggie Jean Gordon is also presented as an ideal.
She shows compassion for daft Andy, who comes close to sexually abusing her. She is able to shake off her unpleasant family and follows her own heart and principles: she opposes her father's attempt to crush the Ploughmen's Union.