Science Fiction

Science Fiction: Women in SF


Science fiction is often accused of being behind the times in its attitudes—particularly towards women. And those looking hard enough can find "evidence" to support their case. But the searchers tend to be people with an axe to grind, and the tendency is for them to deliberately overlook anything that doesn't support their pre-conceived ideas about the "prejudices" of popular fiction.

The important thing to bear in mind is that SF has traditionally been a form of "serious" fiction not taken seriously—and therefore forced to seek "popular" outlets, where creative writers and worthless hacks have often found themselves side-by-side. Especially during the period between 1911 and the ascendancy of John W. Campbell Jr. at ASTOUNDING in 1938, most SF was published in "pulp" magazines edited by men who usually had little understanding of good standards either for literature in general or SF in particular.

Nevertheless, there were writers who took SF seriously enough to think about what they were writing—appearing in the same magazines as the hacks who wrote abysmal SF according to the same formulas that they wrote abysmal westerns, abysmal adventure stories and abysmal romances.


Science fiction's attitude towards women has been a mixed one—but stereotyped roles for women have actually been less common than in mainstream fiction, because women rarely appeared in a lot of traditional SF! This phenomenon apparently derived from the unconscious assumption that since women didn't go in for science and engineering much, they wouldn't be interested in SF and wouldn't need any characters to identify with.

Until the 1930's, women appeared primarily in the scientific romance mode of SF popularized by Edgar Rice Burroughs—as beautiful princesses to be rescued from villains. Yet the princesses of the scientific romances, while hardly candidates for the National Organization for Women, weren't necessarily shrinking violets either. Often they showed considerable bravery and resourcefulness. In a typical, if minor, case—Charles R. Tanner's "Tumithak in Shawn" (1933)—the heroine is an expert swordswoman, and the only person in her underground refuge of humans courageous enough to go out and fight the Venusian Sheiks who have conquered the surface of Earth long before.

There were, however, SF writers who took women's liberation seriously. In George Allan England's "June 6, 2016" (1916), women have become the aggressors in sex—and the men don't mind it a bit. Others took it seriously—but in a negative way. In a typical example, David H. Keller's "The Feminine Metamorphosis" (1929), Taine of the Secret Service thwarts the plans of a group of women who have altered themselves with hormones to masquerade as men and take over the world in revenge against the Male Establishment.

Stanley G. Weinbaum, who had already revolutionized the image of aliens in science fiction, also revolutionized the image of women. Beginning with "The Parasite Planet" (1935), he introduced Hamilton Hammond and Patricia Burlingame, an engineer and biologist who explore worlds, share adventures in which they show equal intelligence and resourcefulness, and make the partnership mode of romance seem a lot more fun than the Victorian one of old. Burlingame and other Weinbaum heroines anticipated television's Emma Peel of 30 years later—and Weinbaum's attitude towards sexual relationships has much in common with that of the fiction in women's magazines of the 1930's, toward which Betty Friedan looked back nostalgically in THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE.

Science fiction of the thirties was aimed mostly at a male audience and viewpoint, and even the chauvinists couldn't complain for lack of glamorous beauties in Weinbaum's "The Red Peri" (1935) with its tempestuous woman space pirate; or "Dawn of Flame" (1936), with the world-conquering Black Margot—who remains one of the most bed-worthy heroines in the annals of SF. But Weinbaum's heroines were always intelligent and self-assertive—and they conveyed the idea that intelligent, aggressive women are more desirable, even from the male point of view, than the submissive Victorian type.

Weinbaum's early death of cancer in 1935—a number of his stories were published posthumously, including "The Revolution of 1950" (1938), in which the president turns out to be really the president's sister who has injected herself with huge amounts of testosterone (a daring idea for the time)—cut short his influence, although practically every major writer was trying to imitate him in the late 1930's.


The most direct inheritor of the Weinbaum tradition is James H. Schmitz—who claims he can't remember even having read Weinbaum in his formative years, but whose attitudes toward both aliens and women are so Weinbaumian, it's hard to believe there wasn't at least an indirect influence somewhere. Schmitz' alien creatures and ecologies in such stories as "Grandpa" (1955) and "Balanced Ecology" (1965) are as imaginative as anything Weinbaum ever did, but he has achieved a sudden reputation among SF women's liberationists in recent years for his characterization of women—something he has taken for granted since he started writing in the 1940's, when there was no social pressure against male chauvinism. One Janet Kagan even made it a subject for an appreciative essay—"The Natural Heroine of James H. Schmitz," in a bibliography of his works published by Mirage Press.

Beginning with "Agent of Vega" (1949), most of Schmitz' heroic protagonists have been women—although, in the series that began with that story, they haven't always been human! Schmitz not only avoids stereotyped roles for women, but even avoids giving names that identify sex to his characters—it's hard to tell Gefty Rammer and Ticos Cay (both men) from Trigger Argee and Nile Etland (both women), and as far as their roles are concerned, it doesn't matter much. In THE DEMON BREED (1968), it is Nile Etland who single-handedly foils the invasion of a planet—by showing greater intelligence and adaptability than the alien invaders. And in A TALE OF TWO CLOCKS (1962) it is Trigger Argee who plays the key role in solving the secret of the Old Galactics—a species that lives at a far slower subjective time rate than humans. Schmitz' women are more than able to take care of themselves and tackle the same kinds of problems men traditionally do.

Telzey Amberdon, the 15-year-old telepath who made her first appearance in "Novice" (1962) has become a favorite with readers—she has been featured in a novel, THE LION GAME (1971) and a collection of stories, THE TELZEY TOY (1974) that pit her against assorted alien or evil forces. Some of her adventures are among the best "psi" stories ever done in SF—though, as in too many series, the theme seems to have gotten out of control and lost credibility lately.

John Wyndham, the British SF author best-known for THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS (1957, filmed as Village of the Damned in 1960), took an interest in the status of women in several of his works. In TROUBLE WITH LICHEN (1960), the fate of a drug that retards aging turns on the issue of women's liberation—with a woman scientist who discovered the drug and believes she has been robbed of due recognition playing the key role. And in "Consider Her Ways" (1956), a woman finds herself mysteriously transplanted into the body of a brood-mother in aparthenogenetic female society of the future—and is unable to answer the arguments of the future women that their society is an improvement over that in which men (who were accidentally wiped out by a male-specific plague) exploited women with false ideas of "romance."

Joanna Russ is one of the contemporary SF writers who have consciously treated sexual liberation themes in SF—from the homosexual protagonist of AND CHAOS DIED (1970) to the all-female society of castaways in "When It Changed" (1972).

Although a lot of the "sexual liberation" movement of the 1960's in SF actually took a reactionary direction—towards mindless pornography and "stud fiction"—it has also resulted in imaginative stories that challenge traditional preconceptions. In Thomas N. Scortia's "Woman's Rib" (1972), a plain-looking woman scientist clones a handsome stud to be her lover, in a reversal of the sort of fantasy that would usually be aimed at male chauvinists.


Since the 1930's, science fiction has welcomed women writers too, and they usually testify to finding fewer professional barriers than in any other field. Catherine Moore, who made her reputation in the 1930's WEIRD TALES with historical fantasy series about the swashbuckling heroine Jirel of Joiry, and an SF series featuring the interplanetary adventurer Northwest Smith, later created such classics as JUDGMENT NIGHT (1943), an antiwar novel published in the midst of World War II; and "No Woman Born" (1944), the tragic story of a dancer who must adjust to a metal body after she is nearly burned to death in an accident. Moore later collaborated as an equal partner with her husband Henry Kuttner under a variety of pseudonyms.

Leigh Brackett, best-known for her fantastic romances of a Mars that never was, became another top-rank woman writer in the late 1940's and 1950's, as did Zenna Henderson and Miriam Allen DeFord.

Ursula K. LeGuin became one of the topranking SF writers of all time in the late 1960's, winning her first Hugo for THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS (1969), a landmark novel set on a planet where humans are androgynous and psychological conflict involving the male envoy of the interstellar Ekumen centers on this fact. LeGuin was accepted by SF readers without regard to her sex—while PLAYBOY insisted on calling her "U.K. LeGuin" to conceal her sex when it ran "Nine Lives," a story on the psychological consequences of cloning, in 1969! Other women writers of note who have emerged in recent years include Anne McCaffrey, Suzette Haden Elgin and Doris Piserchia.

It's not the millennium yet. Some of the older writers—even major talents like Robert A. Heinlein and Poul Anderson—don't seem to have quite gotten the message. They're perfectly capable of portraying women in equal roles, and have—but when they don't watch themselves, they can become condescending.

And it's easy to find sexual Neanderthals like John Norman, whose Me-Tarzan, You-Jane philosophy in the GOR novels (1966-74) turns off even some male readers. Entertaining as they are, other SF adventure novels like Andrew J. Offut's MESSENGER OF ZHUVASTOU (1973) leave one wondering if their authors oink in their sleep.

But SF readers have shown they're ready to accept women heroines and women writers, and both asexual SF without women protagonists and the dwindling amount of male chauvinist SF seem destined to fade away.