If you’re looking for full gender equality in Dune, you may be let down. But if you want to see an order of women who shape humanity through control of mind, body, religion, and politics, welcome to Frank Herbert’s multi-layered masterpiece of worldbuilding.
To properly analyze the women in Dune—specifically the members of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood—we need to recognize the complexity of their characterization and activities within the larger context of the world. Many, though not all, of their roles fall within the boundaries of those traditionally held by women. The main female character, Lady Jessica, for example, is a concubine, mother, advisor, and religious leader.
This makes sense as such roles fit within the feudal, medieval-style world that Herbert creates. It is not a reason to dismiss Dune’s female characters as weak, inferior, or passive, as some critics have done. Herbert makes the Bene Gesserit a believable part of his world while showing how its members exert agency in the face of plausible limitations and tensions in life. The women of the Bene Gesserit are active, influential, and powerful, even if not in the ways we might expect.