Trigger Warning: Humor, Snark, Truth, Thoughts That Might Be Different Than Yours.
In case you’re wondering, yes, the title of this post is a riff on the James Tiptree, Jr., story “The Women Men Don’t See”. And yes, there is a book review buried in here. I’ll provide the pertinent information about the book later. First, though, some context.
I’ve heard for years that there were virtually no women writers in science fiction and fantasy before [insert date du jour here] because they were discriminated against by all the men in the field and had to use masculine pseudonyms or initials if they wanted to write sf/f. The actual date when this began to change is something of a moving target and depends loosely on the age of the person making the statement.
This belief is pretty widely held in the field, to the point that it’s almost holy writ. And while men have spread this myth, women tend to be the loudest in voicing it.
I’ve always been skeptical of it because it just didn’t fit my observations. I began reading science fiction (and later fantasy) in the late 70’s and early 80’s (late elementary, junior high and high school, in other words). Because my father monitored my reading to make sure it was age appropriate, I tended to read a lot of older stuff because I knew it was more likely to pass muster. Fortunately, at that time older science fiction and fantasy was pretty easy to come by.
There were a number of anthologies edited by Robert Silverberg in my 7th grade junior high library. The Del Rey Best of series was just wrapping up, and DAW’s Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF series was just getting started. Plus many older works were available in paperback reprints or in second hand book stores.
Know what I found in those volumes, especially those edited by Silverberg and Asimov? Women writers. Margaret St. Clair. Julian May. Mildred Klingerman, Carol Emshwiller. Miriam Allen deFord. Katherine McLean.
I was blown away by “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras. I felt like the central character (who was not the narrator) could have been me. I tracked down Children of the Atom, the mosaic novel of which “In Hiding” is the first section when I discovered there was an SFBC edition.
At some point, I’m fairly sure I was still in elementary school, I found an old reading text. For those from different educational backgrounds, these are basically anthologies, similar to those of the university level, that contain grade appropriate stories or novel excerpts along with some discussion questions and writing exercises. Why do I mention this? Because it contained the first story in Zenna Henderson’s series about The People (which was begun in the 1950s). The book was old enough in the late 1970s that it was no longer in use as a text, which would probably give it a publication date somewhere in the 1960s. (BTW, part of this series was adapted as a TV movie in 1972 for ABC and starred William Shatner.)
Know what was well represented on bookstore shelves at the time (again, I’m limiting the discussion to late 70s-early 80s)? A number of women writers. There were plenty of titles by Andre Norton, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Kathryn Kurtz, Evangeline Walton, Doris Piserchia, C. J. Cherryh, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jo Clayton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tanith Lee, Vonda N. McIntyre, Jane Gaskell, Chelsea Quinn Yarbo, and others who have faded into the mists of time and memory.
My point is that I never considered that women writers weren’t part of the field. I took it for granted that they were. After all, I had no trouble finding (and enjoying) their work. Or did I imagine reading those books by Phyllis Eisenstein, Patricia McKillip, and Jane Yolen?
It was only later that I was told that women weren’t part of the field until “recently”. Really? I hadn’t realized Anne McCaffery, Pamela Sargent, Judith Merrill, and Kate Wilhelm were such
Johnny Jane come-latelies.
I was also told any science fiction and fantasy authors who wrote for the pulps in the 1930s and 1940s had to hide their sex from the editors and readers.
For example, there was C. L. Moore, who was forced to use her initials so editors would buy her stories. Except, uh,…no. She used her initials because she started writing after hours at the bank where she worked. This was the depths of the Depression, and she was supporting her elderly parents. She was afraid that if her employer found out she had a second income and how she earned it, he would fire her. Moore is on record as saying so as early as the 70s. There is also abundant evidence that her gender was known to fans and editors within the first couple of years of her career.
Then there’s Leigh Brackett, who had to hide behind a man’s name. Except that she didn’t. Leigh is her birth name. Brackett had an impressive body of work in the pulps in the early 40s but then her output slowed, becoming sporadic until her death in the late 1970s. But not because she was ostracized, discriminated against, or blacklisted. She had moved on to more lucrative fields, namely screenwriting.
Brackett had written a hard-boiled detective novel which caught the attention of producer Howard Hawks. Hawks hired Brackett to co-write the screenplay for the film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Her co-author was a studio hack, now what was his name…oh, yeah, William Faulkner. (Yes, that William Faulkner.) Among her screen credits is the film Rio Bravo, starring an obscure actor named John Wayne. (Perhaps you’ve heard of him.) Brackett wrote screenplays for several of his movies. The last thing she worked on before her death was the first draft of a little movie entitled The Empire Strikes Back.
Not to put to fine a point on it, Brackett moved on from writing for the pulps because her talent was recognized by someone who could pay her what her stories were worth. Brackett also mentored some kid named Ray Bradbury, who completed “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, which she was working on when she got the assignment of The Big Sleep. He not only finished her story but also went on to have a minor career in the field and openly acknowledged Brackett’s influence on his own writing. Maybe you’ve heard of him as well.
I never bought into the idea that there were few women in science fiction and those few had to hide their sex, nor did I buy into the myth of a patriarchy who actively tried to silence female voices. But I never realized just how many women wrote for the pulps until I read Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin. I’d read his earlier book, Pioneers in Wonder, which is a history of some of the early sf writers of the pulps. I found Pioneers in Wonder to be informative, interesting and insightful. I expected Partners in Wonder to be similar, a brief history of a few early women writers.
Hoo, boy. Was I in for a surprise.
No, you aren’t reading those prices wrong; they’re not typos. Lexington is a small press in the UK. And this book won’t be light reading. I’m not expecting anyone to rush out and buy it at these prices.
But that’s beside the point. Davin is a historian at the University of Pittsburgh, or at least he was when this book was written (2006). So some of the things he says about the current state of the field might be a little out of date in places.
Davin, like I said, is an academic, and as such takes an academic’s approach to the material, in this case a cultural historian’s approach. What that means is that I’m going to try to attempt to summarize his results and acknowledge up front that I may get some technical points wrong. And make no mistake, this is an academic book. There are footnotes, or rather, end notes. Davin documents his information. He doesn’t take the predominant historical narrative of the field at face value but checks everything.
Davin examined every issue of every science fiction and fantasy magazine published in the US between 1926 and 1965, looking for women writers. First he limited himself to magazines that were devoted to either science fiction or fantasy (and admits there were women who published science fiction and fantasy in general fiction magazines that aren’t included in his count). Second, he only counted authors who could be verified as female. Any author with a gender neutral byline or who used initials who couldn’t be verified as female weren’t included.
Davin goes into detail in his chapters, describing and/or quoting some of the authors at length. He also conveniently provides tables and summary figures in Appendices. From 1926-1949, 65 female authors published 288 stories in 20 magazines (i.e., all of the genre magazines of the period), From 1950-1960 another 138 female authors joined the field, for a total of 203 women writers who together published a total of 922 stories.
These figures don’t include women who published in Weird Tales. In The Unique Magazine, 127 known women writers published 365 short stories and serials, or 13.45% of the fiction. These figures do not include female poetry authors (63, or 40% of the poets), nor do they include authors of indeterminate gender.
I could go on with the figures, but I won’t. I sense that some of your eyes are starting to glaze over. I think you’re starting to get the idea: although in the minority, women were a significant portion of the active writers during the era of “patriarchal oppression.” Davin provides brief biographies of 133 of these women.
And Davin doesn’t limit himself to just women authors. He also lists 26 women who edited science fiction, fantasy, and weird magazines between 1928 and 1960. Included are Cele Goldsmith (Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories), Dorothy McIlwraith, (Weird Tales), and Bea Mahaffey (Other Worlds) of the swimsuit fame that got Resnick and Malzberg removed from writing for the SFWA Bulletin.
In addition, Davin shows that women were active in fandom from the very beginning of organized fandom (Chapter4). One of the ways he determined how active women were in fandom was through the letters columns in the magazines. Which resulted in something I found amusing. Isaac Asimov is on record for stating that male fans didn’t want females invading their space. According to the letter columns of the time, it seems that the only fan who held that opinion was… Isaac Asimov. A number of males fans welcomed their female counterparts. As did the editors, something Davin goes to great lengths to document.
And in Chapters 8 and 9, Davin examines (respectively) anti-Semitism and racism in the field, and shows that these things may have been exaggerated, especially where accusations against a certain editor are concerned.
I’ll stop here. There’s a great deal of detail in the book, which I won’t try to reproduce.
I will address two more points. First, the science fiction women wrote has always differed from the science fiction men wrote, especially in the 1950s. Whereas male oriented science fiction of the time focused on exploration, that of women tended toward empathy and community and was often set in some type of utopia. This is less true these days as gender roles have blurred in the intervening decades. Davin refers to this as “First Wave” feminist fiction, which he distinguishes from the Second Wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The second, and in some ways more important point, is why have all of these women writers been forgotten? Davin offers several contributing things. First, science fiction at the end of the 1950s (there were almost no pure fantasy markets at the time) moved from being a magazine (and thus short story) oriented field to a novel oriented field. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, many women writers didn’t make this transition. There was a significant drop in the number of female science fiction authors in the early 1960s.
But I think one of the major reasons that many of the women writers from before the 1960s have been forgotten is that they wrote the wrong kind of science fiction and were not recognized by women who came later. Here’s what Davin has to say:
…for political reasons Second Wave feminists did not believe science fiction had a female past. They were not able to see back, beyond the early-Sixities contraction, to that female past because their mythology said it had never existed. And one does not seek something one believes does not exists. (p. 307)
…many women who came into the field with a working knowledge of only Second Wave feminist science fiction, denigrated the Fifties female counter-culture for its somehow “inferior” emphasis on “hearth and home”…Thus, asserting that only their own overtly-politicized version of women’s science fiction really mattered, they disparaged and denigrated the vast bulk of early women’s writing. (p. 309)
The counter-cultural concerns and worldviews expressed in First Wave women’s science fiction are just as valid and important as the themes, concerns, and sensibilities found in male or Second Wave feminist science fiction. We are talking about such concerns as human interdependence and the struggles for emotional connection, we are talking about cooperation, and community…Surely cooperation, altruism, and community are worth writing about. And First Wave’s women science fiction writers did exactly that. (p. 310)
Davin takes his fellow social historians to task for taking the narrative of the science fiction and fantasy fields as being a sexist patriarchy at face value without verifying the narrative with actual data. He’s right to do so. As Davin shows in his book, with actual numerical data, that myth ain’t so.
Women have always made a significant contribution to the field ever since science fiction as a genre came into existence. They contributed as fans. They contributed as editors. They contributed as writers. To say otherwise is to marginalize their contribution and their work. Especially if you’re pushing an agenda.
Some of the authors and stories Davin goes into detail about sound interesting, even some I know I will have major philosophical differences with them. I’d like to read them. To some extent that’s possible. I’ve got collections or novels by some of these authors, and copies of old pulps that contain other stories. I’ll be looking at them from time to time, starting with the next review post.
Update: The same day I posted this, Kristine Kathryn Rusch announced a new project she’s working on to bring the work of many of these women back into print. You can find out more here.
Kris, thanks for doing this. Most of these women who have faded into obscurity were excellent writers, and I want to read more of their work.