Whether carried off by the Bug Eyed Monsters on the covers or chasing them down with ray guns, whether reading the pulps or writing for them, women have been a part of SF—will the women of yesteryear vanish to suit the narrative of today?!
Apparently, women working in science fiction today need a hand up. For the past few years, women writers who got their start after the year 2000 have complained that they need to use male pen names and initials to get published. They need Kickstarter help to get into magazines, and they need assistance to sell their fiction to the sf world at large.
Male writers and editors whose careers started this century are more than happy to extend that hand—because, I guess, those men have joined all the other men at the top of the heap, apparently with no effort at all.
Everyone is so busy storming the barricades that they’re ignoring the fact that bestselling and award-winning women writers already work in the field. Women—without using pen names or initials—have written about strong women in science fiction for decades.
We women—those of us sitting with the men at the top of that mythical heap—have become invisible. The bestsellers, the award winners, the women who have dominated the field since the 1980s and are still active in it, we apparently are beneath the notice of the new generation of writers. Even the women who edit major magazines (a tip of the hat to Sheila Williams at Asimov’s), edit, run, and own major publishing companies (another tip of the hat, this time to Betsy Wolheim of Daw and Toni Weisskopf of Baen) have become invisible.
Ironically, we’re perfectly willing to extend a hand to those women who want a start in the field. Heck, we’re happy to extend our hands to the men too—and often do. In fact, we’ve extended our hands to the LGBT community long before it had an acronym.
Although, to be fair, we probably deserve this mistreatment.
After all, we did the same thing to the women who came before us.
In fact, we might’ve treated them even worse than the younger generation is treating us. That younger generation is just looking past us as if we don’t exist.
We’ve relegated our founding mothers to busty women who were carried off, kicking and screaming, by bug-eyed monsters. We’ve complained for decades about the art on sf pulp covers, without really looking at it.
Before I go further, let me say categorically, much of that art is breathtakingly racist, particularly with the rendering of Asians before, during, and after the Second World War. A whole lot of the art is eye-popping: women in a state of undress, being whipped or chained by some villain.
The women are busty. The men have muscles on their muscles. Almost everyone is white.
But…if you really look at those covers, you will see the unexpected. You will see that women aren’t the only ones being carried off by bug-eyed monsters. Men are too. And who is running after that monster, trying to save the poor he-man who can’t extricate himself? A competent woman holding a blaster, demanding that evil alien put the man down.
Men didn’t draw that art to subjugate women. Men and women drew the art to sell magazines—to men and women. One of the most famous female pulp artists, Margaret Brundage, is slowly being rediscovered. Vanguard Productions published a book of her art titled The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage three years ago.
Scroll through some of her covers, and you’ll see that she illustrated the work of some of the best writers of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. One of Brundage’s most famous covers illustrates one of the most famous stories by C.L. Moore, “Black God’s Kiss,” first published in Weird Tales in 1934. And why is that important?
Because “Black God’s Kiss” introduces Jirel of Joiry, one of the most famous fantasy heroines of the mid-twentieth century. Jirel was a sword-and-sorcery fantasy heroine who ruled her own country (Joiry) and who could have gone toe-to-toe with Conan or any other S&S male hero—and beat the crap out of him.
Jirel’s creator, C.L. Moore, happened to be a woman as well—perhaps the most influential woman to write science fiction and fantasy in the early period because C.L. Moore—Catherine Lucille Moore—also influenced other writers, including Leigh Brackett (a woman) and someone named Ray Bradbury.
Oh, and let’s dispel that myth that constantly follows poor Catherine Moore everywhere she goes. C.L. Moore didn’t write under initials because sf was a male-dominated genre and she had to hide her gender. She wrote under initials because, at the time, the pulp magazines were disreputable. She had a real job, in a bank, and she was terrified she’d be fired if anyone knew she was moonlighting as a writer.
You see, there was this little thing called the Depression, and jobs were hard to come by, so Miss Catherine Lucille Moore decided that caution was the better part of valor and put initials on her byline for deniability.
She knew a lot about the magazines she submitted stories to. She knew, for example, that women had been editing sf since the modern sf era began. Miriam Bourne acted as both associate editor and managing editor of Amazing Stories in 1928—y’know. The magazine credited with starting modern sf? The one edited by Hugo Gernsback? That magazine? The person who worked side by side with Gernsback, and got credit for it at the time, was a woman.
The editor who bought C.L. Moore’s first story at Weird Tales was a man, but his successor at the magazine was a woman named Dorothy McIlwraith, who edited the magazine for fourteen years. She retired before most of the women who wrote sf in the latter half of the twentieth century were born.
Those of us who came of writing age in the 1980s and 1990s also believed we were storming the barricades. I remember asking if I needed to use initials to publish sf. Fortunately, I asked my college buddy, Kevin J. Anderson, who was a student of the field, even at the ripe old age of 19. He laughed at me, and introduced me to my female predecessors.
I’ve been using my full name ever since.
It’s become very clear to me in the past few years that women tend to get lost to history. Some of that has to do with the changes in publishing in the past twenty years. Publishing companies stopped reprinted the award-nominated and award-winning stories in comprehensive volumes every year long about 1992. So all of the women who’ve won awards for their writing—including two most decorated writers in sf history, Connie Willis and Lois McMaster Bujold—have the record of that particular accomplishment vanish.
The people who compile year’s best anthologies do so before the awards get announced, and seem to choose stories by women (including the award-nominees and award-winners) less often than stories by men.
I just completed an entire book for Baen trying to reclaim some of that lost history. Called Women of Futures Past, the book showcases some of the best female writers of the 20th Century, and has a long introductory essay about the influence of women in the field.
I plan to do more projects like that. Because women do get marginalized—by everyone. And it’s time to stop that.
Not only do the writers get marginalized, but so do their female characters. Jirel of Joiry is an amazing woman. And she’s not alone. Read anything by Leigh Brackett, and watch the strong women parade by. Even if they’re minor characters. They’re always strong, always interesting.
Leigh Brackett had her fingers in everything and influenced pretty much everyone. She taught Ray Bradbury how to write. (He says this, not me.) She wrote iconic character after iconic character, often standalones, whose strength and power and sass is just plain breathtaking.
She also wrote screenplays. You want to see a representative Brackett woman in film? Pay attention to Angie Dickinson’s character Feathers in Rio Bravo. Her dialogue crackles and she leaves poor John Wayne flummoxed.
Rather the same reaction that Han Solo has to Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back—which Brackett wrote the first-draft screenplay of.
But those are easy to point to. What’s harder to point to is just one strong female character in her fiction. Because all of the women she wrote about were strong. And while writing these amazing science fiction stories, she managed to inspire writers of the next several generations. Writers who list her as an influence include Michael Moorcock, John Brunner, Jack Vance, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Marian Zimmer Bradley, Gene Wolfe, Tanith Lee, and Andre Norton.
Oh, Andre Norton. Another woman. Who wrote about strong women. Who influenced everyone from me to Lois McMaster Bujold to the recipient of this year’s Grand Master Award, C.J. Cherryh. Long before I knew that Andre Norton had been born Alice Mary Norton, I knew I loved her fiction. I loved those women who piloted spaceships and explored strange new worlds long before some TV show appropriated that phrase.
Norton’s spaceship captains weren’t the only female professionals to appear in the pulps and the digests and the sf magazines of the time. Women of all professions dominate sf fiction—from the beginning of that fiction until now. Women do most everything that men do (only backwards and in heels—oops, wait. Different subgenre). And it wasn’t just women who created powerful female characters. Men did too.
In fact, one of the most famous women in all of science fiction—Dr. Susan Calvin—came from the brain of none other than Isaac Asimov. As I was researching this article, I found a very stupid essay in a major publication about the fact that there were only three female scientists ever in sf.
Apparently, the person who wrote the essay needed to have the word “scientist” in the story, because he ignored all the female characters who actually worked in the sciences. For example, Asimov doesn’t describe Calvin as a scientist. She was a “robopsychologist” who happened to have done post-graduate work in cybernetics. But I guess cybernetics only counts as science when someone labels it “science.”
It’s that kind of ignorance that has caused women to vanish from the histories of sf—both as writers and as characters. We get ignored or misunderstood.
Even when we’re trying to “correct” the problem of the way women are treated in sf.
Over forty years ago, now, Pamela Sargent published seminal volumes of fiction called Women of Wonder. Her agenda—and she definitely had one—was to show that women have written sf from the beginning, and that women have written sf about women.
Ever since then, anthology editors felt that women could only write about gender and women’s issues. Look up women in sf, and you’ll find anthology after anthology that took Women of Wonder as prescriptive rather than as a corrective.
Women who write space opera or sword and sorcery or action adventure, women who have hit bestseller lists with that fiction, women who have huge fandoms in sf, generally don’t get included in those anthologies.
Nor do their predecessors, from Pauline Ashwell to Katherine MacLean to Zenna Henderson. Most of the writing by those women is long out of print. I’m hoping at some point to bring back some of their stories, so that readers can encounter the brilliance of Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee in Ashwell’s “Unwillingly To School” or meet Zenna Henderson’s People and the humans who help them survive.
But not every female character kicks butt and takes names. Sometimes the female characters in science fiction and fantasy follow the model created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in Princess of Mars. Dejah Thoris, the princess of the title, often acts as a damsel in distress in the Mars stories, but just as often she proves that she can rescue a hero with the best of them. If you actually look at these female characters, they get rescued and they rescue in equal measure.
Fans know this. As I started on the book for Baen, which I was initially calling The Women in Science Fiction project, I got letter after letter from fans and readers, recommending their favorite female writers or their favorite female characters. You can find some of this information on the Women in Science Fiction website (http://www.womeninsciencefiction.com/) that I started (and keep up when I have time).
It’s a great place to search out writers you might never have heard of and discover great science fiction and fantasy.
Yeah, some of the stories listed are dated. Some of the attitudes make me sad because they are so reflective of their time—particularly when it comes to people of color. But much of the fiction you’ll find still holds up. That’s the one cool thing about sf and fantasy adventure fiction—it doesn’t have an agenda besides entertainment. And it entertains so well that it still seems fresh today.
We lose our history—not just in the writing and the fiction, but also in the real world. And we forget that the women of the 1920s had just gotten the vote. They led what’s now being called The First Wave of Feminism. They redefined what it meant to be a woman.
Their daughters survived the Depression and became the inspiration for Rosie the Riveter. Their granddaughters led the second wave of feminism, helping women change the laws so that this current generation of women can play professional sports, can sue if they get discriminated against on the job, and can fight sexual harassment through the courts if necessary.
The women in our past were strong and mighty. They wrote about strong and mighty women. So did the men who loved those strong and mighty female writers.
At some point, we all need to stop assuming we know what happened in a previous generation and actually do the research. In this instance, the research—reading sf and fantasy—is fun and enlightening.
There’s lots of great lost heroines in our past. Time to revive them.
Or at least acknowledge them.
Or maybe just remember them for what they were.
International bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch has won or been nominated for every single major award in the science fiction community. Her latest novels completed the Anniversary Day saga in her Retrieval Artist universe. The former editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, she now edits Fiction River and special projects in sf, writes a weekly blog on the business of publishing, and publishes many books under pen names in other genres.