Tagged: Theme

Although a genre defined and long dominated by men, sf has a particular affinity with feminism. This became clear in the 1970s with the publication of such challenging books as Walk to the End of the World (1974) and Motherlines (1978) by Suzy McKee Charnas, The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ and Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) by Marge Piercy.

The impact of feminism on the sf field can be observed not only in sf texts themselves, but also on the development of feminist approaches to sf criticism and history, as well as conversations and debates in the sf community.

Despite the reputation sf has as a mind-expanding, possibly subversive, always questioning form, these strengths were seldom brought to bear on the subject of male/female relationships, sexual roles or the idea of "woman's place" prior to the rise of the Women's Liberation Movement. As Kingsley Amis pointed out in New Maps of Hell (1960), "Though it may go against the grain to admit it, science-fiction writers are evidently satisfied with the sexual status quo." He was referring, of course, to male sf writers. With a very few exceptions – examples include Philip Wylie's The Disappearance (1951), John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" (in Sometime, Never, anth 1956, ed anon) and Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960) – the men who tried to imagine alternatives to patriarchy did so only to "prove" how nasty and impossible life would be without the "natural" dominance of woman by man. (For more novels featuring women-ruled societies see Sociology.)

A decade later, author and academic Joanna Russ made a similar argument from an explicitly feminist perspective, in "The Image of Women in SF" (1970 The Red Clay Reader #7; February 1974 Vertex). Russ charged sf with a failure of imagination and "social speculation", arguing that the lack of believable female characters in sf resulted from an unthinking acceptance of cultural conditioning and Clichés. This stood in stark contrast to what Russ believed sf should be about: "science fiction writers have no business employing stereotypes, let alone swallowing them goggle-eyed".

One of the primary concerns, then, of the feminist writers coming to sf in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was to write women into sf futures; to create active female characters rather than the unbelievable or unimportant caricatures too often standing in for womanhood in past sf (see Women in SF). As Ursula K Le Guin argued in "American SF and the Other" (November 1975 Science Fiction Studies #7):

"The women's movement has made most of us conscious of the fact that SF has either totally ignored women, or presented them as squeaking dolls subject to instant rape by monsters – or old-maid scientists desexed by hypertrophy of the intellectual organs – or, at best, loyal little wives or mistresses of accomplished heroes".

Perhaps the most obvious attraction of sf to women writers – feminist or not – is the possibilities it offers for the creation of a female Hero. The demands of realism in the contemporary or historical novel set limits which do not bind the universes available to sf. Although the history of sf reveals few heroic, realistic, or even original images of women (see Women in SF), the genre had a potential recognized by the women writers drawn to it in the 1960s and 1970s. The desire to write (or read) about women who wield swords, pilot spaceships or simply lead lives from which the threat of male violence is absent might be seen as escapist, but such imaginings can also be read as part of a political agenda. As Pamela Sargent wrote in a letter to Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Fall 1977, "Science-fiction writers are limited only by human potential, not human actualities. Sf can serve to show women, and men, how large that potential can be".

Writers such as Octavia Butler, Suzy McKee Charnas, Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre and Joanna Russ led the way in challenging traditional understandings of Sex, Gender roles, sexuality, and race. Importantly, unlike the realist consciousness-raising fiction which arose out of the women's liberation movement, feminist sf did not focus solely on exposing the ways patriarchal society had limited women's lives, but asked what could be done differently. If we had societies that were not built on unequal relations between the sexes (and races) what would they look like? How would they function? Would science and technology be done differently? Feminist writers seized on sf's potential to critique contemporary social roles, mores and Politics. For feminists, sf offered the possibility to challenge the notion of women as "other" to men and conduct what le Guin calls "thought experiments" about how the sexual order might be differently structured. Such experiments could include deliberately exaggerated or reversed sexual orders, which worked to defamiliarize the existing relations between the sexes (see Sociology).

One of the major challenges of modern feminism has been to the idea that gender roles and relations are in some way permanent, arising from a natural and immutable law, based on Biology. These ideas can be challenged through inventing societies which encourage or demand different roles for women: imagining women performing work traditionally thought of as masculine; re-thinking traditional notions of reproduction and parenthood; presenting different models of marriage, families or communal living.

Many of these themes are seen in the group of 1970s utopian texts (see Utopias) identified by Russ in her "Recent Feminist Utopias" (Future Females: A Critical Anthology 1981. Edited Marleen Barr). Works such as Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) re-imagine a low-tech egalitarian society where childrearing, parenting (and even breast-feeding) is shared by men and women and people's roles are not determined by sex, but by ability. Drawing on ideas about the use of technology to free women from the "slavery" of reproduction outlined in Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), Piercy's text is unusual in depicting an integrated two-sex society. Many of the other texts in this group turn to separatist societies to imagine different roles for women (see {GAY AND LESBIAN SF}). The point of these texts is not to advocate a separatist politics, but rather to allow female characters to inhabit all the roles normally ascribed to men. Examples range from the essentialist split between the sexes in Amelia {GEARHART}'s The Wanderground (1978) (where women live a Pastoral existence in touch with nature and eschewing Technology, while men are confined to Cities), to the more complex female-only societies of Charnas's Motherlines (1978), Russ's The Female Man (1975) and Tiptree's Houston, Houston, Do you Read? (in Aurora: Beyond Equality, anth 1976, ed Vonda McIntyre and Susan J Anderson; 1989 chap dos). Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Shattered Chain (1976) includes the breakaway female-only society of the Free Amazons, who offer an alternative to the repressive lives led by women on the rest of Darkover. As Russ noted, the societies in these texts were often sexually permissive and open to alternatives to heterosexuality, both to explore different sexualities for women, but also to disconnect sex and sexuality from reproduction (see Sex; {GAY AND LESBIAN SF}).

The use of separatism to better explore women's relations to politics, power, and sex has been explored in more contemporary texts, most notably in Nicola Griffith's Ammonite (1993), where a sex-specific virus has killed off all men on the planet Jeep, and Joan Slonczewski's A Door Into Ocean (1986), which features a female-only pacifist society (see {GAY AND LESBIAN SF}). Other interesting examples of women-only worlds include the comedic Daughters of a Coral Dawn (1984) by Katherine V Forrest (1939-    ), and Retreat: As It Was! (1979) by Donna J Young.

Texts which explore some measure of sex segregation often place women in charge of the public sphere, thus effecting a "role reversal" where women hold power, as in Jayge Carr's Leviathan's Deep (1979). (Misogynist examples of this theme, or what Russ terms "battle of the sexes" texts, include Thomas Berger's Regiment of Women [1973] and Edmund Cooper's Who Needs Men? [1972; vt Gender Genocide 1973] [see Sex Sociology].) Some role reversals directly swap the positions of men and women, and are usually written as straight satires, such as Gerd Brantenberg's Egalia's Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes (1986; vt Daughters of Egalia 1985) and Esme Dodderidge's The New Gulliver: Or the Adventures of Lemuel Gulliver Jr. in Capovolta (1992). The complicated reversal of patriarchy found in Ursula K Le Guin's "The Matter of Seggri" (Spring 1994 Crank! #3), postulates a skewed Gender imbalance which has "produced a society in which ... men have all the privilege and the women have all the power". A similar gender imbalance produces a world where only women marry and men must focus on producing children in Elisabeth Vonarburg's In the Mother's Land (1992). A number of works play with the notion of biological determinism to suggest that males should be segregated to protect society from their aggressive natures, as in Pamela Sargent's The Shore of Women (1986), Sherri S Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988), Le Guin's "Solitude" (December 1994 F&SF), and Eleanor Arnason's Hwarhath stories, in which a furry humanoid Alien species keeps the sexes apart after adulthood, forms homosexual romantic relationships only, and reproduces via artificial insemination; their shock and confusion in the face of human gender intermingling nearly forces a war.

Dystopian worlds are also an important thread of feminist sf (see Dystopias); these work to critique various elements of gendered relations through exaggeration. Often texts include a dystopian society or element to balance out a more Utopian one, such as in Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), where the contemporary world of Piercy's narrator is rendered dystopic against the freedoms women enjoy in Mattapoisett. Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World (1974) is a stark dystopia which pushes ownership of women to its limits, resulting in a form of animalistic slavery which contrasts sharply with the women-only society of the sequel, Motherlines (1978). Other works imagine societies where women are stripped of all civil and political rights, as in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), and Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue (1984), where women's groups develop rebellion through the formation of a woman's language (see Linguistics).

Another common approach in feminist sf is the defamiliarization of traditional gendered roles, often through the depiction of Alien societies with different gender structures and/or biologies. Examples include many of Le Guin's Hainish stories, C J Cherryh's Chanur novels, and much of Eleanor Arnason's work, such as A Woman of the Iron People (1991), Ring of Swords (1993), and other Hwarhath stories. Some works play with our understandings of Gender by depicting races with only one gender, such as Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969); or with no gender, as in Gwyneth Jones's Aleutian Trilogy; or explore races with multiple genders, as in Melissa Scott's Shadow Man (1995). Less common are texts which deal directly with political – and occasionally violent – struggles between the sexes; powerful examples are found in Gwyneth Jones Aleutian trilogy; Charnas's Holdfast series, L Timmel Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle, and Carol Emshwiller's "Boys" (January 2003 Sci Fiction).

While feminism has been incorporated into the field to the extent that active female characters are more common, it is harder to identify a core group of contemporary texts that are "representative" of feminist sf than was the case in the 1970s. This is, in part, due to the proliferation of political positions now encompassed by feminisms, and an increasing focus on the ways Gender intersects with race, class, sexuality and age (see Race in SF; see {GAY AND LESBIAN SF}). Thus it is increasingly difficult to identify a coherent sub-genre of "feminist sf" even as more feminist writers have entered the field. Additionally while there are a number of sf writers might consider themselves "feminist", they do not necessarily always produce overtly feminist work. Nevertheless, there are certainly a greater number of works in the field that could be called "feminist-friendly". For some, however, feminism in sf has lost its radical edge, with writer and sf critic Gwyneth Jones arguing that we are seeing a retreat into what she calls "fem-sf": a conciliatory nod towards gender equality which is more concerned with fantasies of tough heroines who don't really challenge the status quo, rather than pursuing the difficult questions of what societal changes could produce political or economic equality.

Part of the problem may lie in the kinds of books publishers think will appeal to readers. While some are more open to feminist and other overtly political texts, there have been few publishing companies which have explicitly associated themselves with feminist products. A crucial role in this regard was played by the sf imprint of the UK publishing house, The Women's Press. Under the direction of Sarah Lefanu the imprint brought together an eclectic range of texts, some reprints of classic feminist sf texts by Russ, Charnas and Gearhart, others originally published as straightforward sf, as for example A Door into Ocean (1986) by Joan Slonczewski, or as mainstream literature, like The Book of the Night (1984) by Rhoda Lerman (1936-    ). The Women's Press also published books by writers who had not necessarily been seen as feminist writers, such as Josephine Saxton, Tanith Lee and Carol Emshwiller, and reprinted the nineteenth century utopia, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (January-December 1915 The Forerunner; 1979). The imprint also included the work of lesser known authors such as Rosaleen Love from Australia, and Elisabeth Vonarburg and Candas Jane Dorsey from Canada.

A good sample of the range of contemporary sf that could be considered feminist can be seen in the output of Aqueduct Press, a dedicated publisher of feminist sf. Aqueduct has produced some of the more radical and overtly feminist texts of the last decade, including Jones's Life (2004); Duchamp's Marq'ssan series; as well as work from feminist writers of colour, such as Andrea Hairston, Vandana Singh and Nisi {SHAWL}.

The impact of feminism in the field has also extended to studies of sf (see Critical and Historical Works About SF). Feminist approaches to sf criticism have now become common, with numerous monographs and collections, and hundreds of articles on the subject. Early examples were mostly critiques of the way women were represented in sf (see Women in SF), coming as often from writers as critics: Russ's "The Image of Women in SF", already cited; Beverly Friend's "Virgin Territory: Women and Sex in Science Fiction" (December 1972 Extrapolation vol 14 #1); Pamela Sargent's Introduction to her Women of Wonder: SF Stories by Women about Women (anth 1975); Ursula K Le Guin's "American sf and the Other" (November Science Fiction Studies 1975); Mary Kenny Badami's "A Feminist Critique of Science Fiction" (December 1976 Extrapolation vol 18 #1) and Susan Wood's "Women in SF" (Winter 1978/1979 Algol/Starship #33).

From the late 1970s, the focus of critics turned towards sf produced by women and feminist writers. An important part of this work was the recovery of "herstory": documenting the work of earlier women writers such as C L Moore, and situating feminist sf within a longer history stretching back to Nineteenth-century Utopian works that arose as part of the movement for women's rights. Unlike the utopias of male writers, these fictions always question the sexual status quo and foreground the position of women. Mary E Bradley Lane's Mizora (November 1880-February 1881 Cincinnati Commercial; 1890) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (January-December 1915 The Forerunner; 1979) depict an all-women society and show its superiority to societies in which men rule. Two Australian examples depict future Utopian societies brought about by political reform and franchise for women: Henrietta Dugdale's A Few Hours in a Far-Off Age (1883) and Catherine Helen Spence's A Week in the Future (December 1888-July 1889 Centennial Magazine; 1987). A radical example of a female utopia built on appropriate Technology and science is "Sultana's Dream" (1905 The Indian Ladies' Magazine) by Bengali writer Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein. This utopian tradition in women's writing had been mostly forgotten in subsequent decades until its rediscovery by feminist scholars in the 1970s.

The early 1980s saw the consolidation of feminist criticism as the Academic Journals ran special issues on women's sf: "Science fiction on Women – Science Fiction by Women" (March 1980 Science Fiction Studies) and "Women in SF" (Spring 1982 Extrapolation #23). In one of the first detailed studies of the topic, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (1988; vt Feminism and Science Fiction 1989), Sarah Lefanu, makes a distinction between feminist sf and "feminized sf". The latter, she argues, while it challenges established sexism by valuing women and feminine values over men and masculinity, and has been an important influence on the development of sf as a whole, does not dispute the man/woman paradigm or question the construction of gender as more radical feminist writings do. Feminist ideas are able to flourish within sf despite reader resistance because, she claims, sf at its best "deploys a sceptical rationalism as its subtext" and "feminism is based upon a profound scepticism: of the 'naturalness' of the patriarchal world and the belief in male superiority on which it is founded".

Another British study, Aliens and Others (1993) by Jenny Wolmark provides sophisticated readings of feminist sf against postmodern and literary theory, while Jane Donawerth's Frankensteins' Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (1997) undertakes a thematic approach to women's sf, including useful analyses of science in women's sf (see Scientists). Recent work has tended to take more historical approaches, looking at the function of gender, sex and feminism in earlier texts, including Brian Attebery's Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (2002) and Justine {LARBALESTIER}'s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (2002). 1999 saw the establishment of Femspec, a feminist journal dedicated to sf and other genres. Outside the field, feminist literary criticism has paid scant attention to sf works. However interesting analyses of feminist sf are offered by a number of feminist science critics, notably Donna Haraway (whose "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" [1985 Socialist Review #80] influenced Piercy's He, She & It [1991; vt Body of Glass 1992 UK]), Hilary Rose, and the literature and science critic, N Katherine Hayles.

Feminist critiques of sf first emerged from within the sf community (see Fandom), as writers and fans wrote articles, reviews and letters debating feminist issues, and conducted often fraught dialogues with other fans. Just as earlier male editors and reviewers from the 1930s onwards had argued that women and "Sex" did not belong in sf, feminism was seen by many as something that had no place in sf, even if one did believe in equality between the sexes in principle.

A fascinating document reflecting the state of debate at the time is the round-robin symposium on "Women in Science Fiction" published in the Fanzine Khatru (1975 #3/#4) edited by Jeffrey D {SMITH}. Participants included Suzy McKee Charnas, Virginia Kidd, Vonda McIntyre, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, as well as Samuel R Delany and James Tiptree Jr (still in "his" disguise as male). The letters debated, agonized and raged over Sex, Gender roles, literature, violence, rape and motherhood, with friction evident not just between the "male" and female writers, but between radicals like Russ and others such as Wilhelm and Kidd.

Khatru captured in microcosm a form of feminist consciousness-raising being carried out in many other Fanzines and Prozines of the time. From the early 1970s onwards, Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre and fan writer Susan Wood in particular wrote articles and responded to letters and reviews, attempting to make clearer connections between sexist representations of women in sf with the broader feminist critique of society. For these writers, sf was not just a reflection of broader sexual politics, but was itself a site for struggles over cultural representation. Russ and McIntyre were involved in often heated debates about sexism and feminism in sf in venues such as the Semiprozine The Alien Critic (1973-1974), and the Fanzine Notes From the Chemistry Department (1974), which contained responses to Russ's above-cited "The Image of Woman in SF". As these exchanges made clear, the issue of feminism in the sf community was emotive, hotly contested and at times highly acrimonious. Often, debate devolved into personal insults which totally missed Russ's point that "sexism isn't a personal failing, it's institutionalized oppression" (1975 Notes from the Chemistry Department #10). As Susan Wood recalled in "People's Programming" (1978 Janus/Aurora #11), "Joanna, Vonda, and a very few supporters were rousingly trashed for being bitter, vicious feminist bitches". Wood felt that her own increasingly vocal critiques of the field impacted on her status in the community: "Complaining about dirty-jokes panels and strip-tease acts at ... conventions was 'crazy libbers' behaviour, 'making a fuss about nothing' (again), and terribly 'uptight'" (1978 Janus/Aurora).

Nevertheless, in the mid-1970s feminist fans began to impact on the physical and discursive spaces of sf. Susan Wood was instrumental in organizing women's programming at conventions, convening the first "Women in SF" panel at the 1974 Worldcon Discon II, and organizing women-only spaces named "A Room of Our Own" (see Conventions). A 1977 Worldcon report from Jeanne Gomoll indicated that although it was more frequent, feminist activity and programming remained controversial, becoming "the target of more and more frequent jokes and sometimes, too, of open anger and resentment by those people who think fandom is no place for feminism ... or that sexism simply doesn't happen in fandom and doesn't need to be dealt with" (1977 Janus/Aurora #9).

Not surprisingly, feminist fans created spaces for conversations with like-minded souls, establishing the Women's APA (see APA), a number of feminist Fanzines, and the feminist convention Wiscon. The longest running and best known of the feminist fanzines was Janus/Aurora, initially edited by Janice Bogstad and Jeanne Gomoll. Janus/Aurora contained reviews, articles, letters and lively conversations between feminist fans. It also collected important bibliographic information aimed at recovering the work of earlier women authors, resulting in a compendium of 180 female sf and fantasy writers published in the 1979 issue. Other feminist or anti-sexist fan publications included The Witch and the Chameleon edited by Amanda Bankier; New Moon: A Quarterly Journal of Feminist Issues in SF edited by Janice Bogstad; Women and Men edited by Denys Howard, and Avedon Carol's The Invisible Fan. Much of this activity had only a small impact on the broader community, and some fans feared that their efforts would be forgotten. In her "An Open Letter to Joanna Russ" (1987 Janus/Aurora #25), Jeanne Gomoll felt that her own experiences of Fandom and sf in the 1970s were being rewritten by men choosing to ignore the impact of feminism and characterize a whole decade as "boring". "Today I sit in the audience at all-male 'fandom of the 70s' panels ... and don't hear anything of the politics, the changes, the roles that women played that decade (excepts sometimes, a little chortling aside about how it is easier now to get a date with a female fan)".

Perhaps the most accurate barometer of the long-term impact of feminist activity in the community has been the success of the feminist sf convention, WisCon. Running continuously since 1977, despite attracting criticism in its early years, WisCon's Guest of Honour list reads like a Who's Who of feminist sf writers and fans: in chronological order, Katherine MacLean, Vonda McIntyre, Susan Wood, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joan Vinge, Octavia Butler, Elizabeth A Lynn, Lisa Tuttle, Suzette Haden Elgin, Connie Willis Samuel R Delany, Pat Cadigan, Emma Bull, Pat Murphy, Pamela Sargent, Lois McMaster Bujold, Karen Joy Fowler, Nicola Griffith, Le Guin, Judith Merril, Melissa Scott, Susanna {STURGIS}, Sherri S Tepper, Nancy Kress, Elisabeth Vonarburg, Nalo Hopkinson, Carol Emshwiller, Eleanor Arnason, Gwyneth Jones, Kate Wilhelm, Laurie {MARKS}, Duchamp, Ellen {KLAGES}, Nnedi Okorafor and Nisi {SHAWL}.

After a somewhat depressed period in the 1980s, the numbers and enthusiasm of WisCon attendees was boosted by the 1991 announcement of the James Tiptree Jr Award for gender-bending fiction, which is usually presented at a ceremony at the convention. In recent years, WisCon has also been at the forefront of difficult conversations around the issue of Race in SF and the position of people of colour in the sf community – as seen in the Aqueduct Press series, The WisCon Chronicles, especially Provocative Essays on Feminism, Race, Revolution and the Future (anth 2008) edited by L Timmel Duchamp and Eileen Gunn, and Writing and Racial Identity (anth 2011) edited by Nisi {SHAWL}.

While feminists in sf continue to work on these difficult issues, and to promote writing by women (see Women SF Writers), there remain segments of the field for whom feminism is an irrelevancy, and women's writing inconsequential to the male-authored core of the genre. To many, women as well as men, the revolution is over, equality has been won, and we are living in a post-feminist age. For others, Russ's account of the ways in which women's work is discounted in How to Suppress Women's Writing (coll 1983) remains uncomfortably resonant. Yet, even as younger generations of feminist fans and writers replay many of the arguments and debates that characterized the reception of feminist work in Fandom in the 1970s, feminist activism with the sf community is experiencing something of a renaissance. Contemporary expressions of feminism in the field are increasingly visible online, where numerous feminist fans and writers maintain blogs discussing feminist issues, including Ambling along the Aqueduct, the blog of Aqueduct Press. The Broad Universe website promotes sf and fantasy by women, and a number of feminist-related podcasts have emerged, such as "Galactic Suburbia", a feminist discussion of Speculative Fiction news.

Despite resistance, feminist issues continue to be a vital part of conversations within the sf community, and sf itself remains an extremely fertile ground for Thought Experiments relating to Gender, social relations and new ways of being human – topics which remain central to twenty-first century feminism. [HM/LT]

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