First article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month series.
by Tammy Walker
Just imagine: the twenty-first century, a time in which all people across the Terran globe enjoy lives of equality, peace, and freedom. A time in which discrimination based on gender, race, and culture is a thing of a dark and distant past. A time in which secular humanism guides all people to treat each other fairly on the home planet and on colonies on distant worlds. And, if you can, just imagine a time in which the achievements and interests of men and women are held in equal esteem and made available to all.
We haven't achieved this science fiction vision of the twenty-first century yet. We live in a time and place in which we're arguing about whether or not a woman can be a geek and enjoy science fiction and its offshoots. “Booth babes” still adorn tables at conventions in which organizers eschew harassment policies. And covers of science fiction novels often show more of a woman's skin than her character. On the surface, science fiction doesn't appear to have much to offer women. The genre has been largely male-dominated and male-focused. Yet, given its history and potential to help us think about the present and the future, science fiction has benefited—and benefited from—women. Women have contributed to the development of the genre throughout its history, and female authors have engaged in conversations significant to the advancement of the genre as well as of society.
Science fiction provides a medium through which, as many authors and critics note, writers and readers can explore possibilities in future worlds and criticize the present reality. This should be of interest to secular women in particular for a couple reasons. First, science fiction gave women a voice when they might otherwise have been silenced. Their visions of future worlds contributed to conversations about what women's roles could be. Second, science fiction should be of interest to the secular community because it allows us to ask questions like “What happens if we allow religion too much power in society?” or “How would a society without religion approach sexual mores?” and have a possible view of the answers. We may or may not like what we see. Given the vision, though, we have the power to act on what we have seen.
Women as Science Fiction Pioneers
From the beginnings of science fiction, women wrote novels and poems that helped define the genre and its concerns. Some literary scholars contend that science fiction began with Mary Shelley's 1818 publication of Frankenstein. Though others argue that science fiction had its roots in earlier works and intellectual movements, such as the concept of Utopia, both Frankenstein and Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man, undoubtedly influenced other authors, male and female. Adam Roberts, in The History of Science Fiction, cites Jane Loudon's 1827 novel, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, as another early influential work. Roberts notes that “Loudon's novel dramatises the dialectic between technology and religion that continues to determine the development of the genre.” That tension between technology and religion is key to much of science fiction that followed.
Even before Shelley and Loudon wrote about science and society, women used fiction to explore social structures by creating utopian worlds in which men and women were equal, or more nearly so. An early example is Margaret Cavendish's 1666 The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, in which an Empress, interested in science, controls the planet. Lee Cullen Khanna, in her essay “The Subject of Utopia: Margaret Cavendish and Her Blazing-World” argues that Cavendish, writing about gender and science at a time when women's speech was restricted, created work that “may be seen to initiate an alternate utopian tradition.” This tradition was one that remained important to women who may have otherwise had no means to voice their concerns about a society in which gender-based discrimination prevailed.
A Woman's Place is in Science Fiction
Women continued to use the utopian form after Cavendish. Activist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose famed 1890 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, looked at the poor treatment of women in her own time, created a utopia for her 1915 novel Herland to further explore gender and society. Roberts notes in his history that utopias that portrayed greater opportunities for women came before the wider backlash against roles imposed on Victorian-era women. He cites examples such as Mary E. Bradley Lane's 1890 Mizora: A World of Women, Elizabeth Corbett's 1889 New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future, Elizabeth Wolstenholme's 1893 poem Women Free, as well as Gilman's Herland. The construction of utopias in women's science fiction continued throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century as a way of questioning the role and effects of gender on individuals in society. Notable examples include Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness, Joanna Russ's 1975 The Female Man, Marge Piercy's 1976 Woman on the Edge of Time, Suzy McKee Charnas's 1978 Motherlines, and Doris Lessing's 1980 The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five.
Despite all the success of women science fiction authors, many twentieth century female authors published under male or unisex names as a way of obscuring their gender or identity. In Science Fiction in the 20th Century, Edward James cites the example of Catherine L. Moore who had to publish as C.L. Moore in order for her work to be accepted by pulp magazines in the 1930s. In the introduction to Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten note examples of women using “androgynous names”, authors such as Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and J. Hunter Holly, all of whom published in the 1950s. Alice Sheldon wrote under the decidedly male name James Tiptree, Jr. As these women created fiction, they also had to create a fictional identity. That they had to use names that were not specifically female became part of their fiction and part of their criticism of a period in which femininity hindered one's chances of publication and success.
Race, Religion, and Politics
Gender is only one of the topics women science fiction authors have explored through the genre. Throughout her work, Octavia Butler examines the effects of race on individuals and societies. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale displays the horrors of religion given too much control over a society; Sheri Tepper's Arbai Trilogy is also critical of religion. Susanne Collins's recent Hunger Games trilogy, aimed at younger readers, investigates the damage an all-powerful government can inflict on its deprived citizens.
That these women authors create female protagonists who succeed on some level—Katniss survives the games, Offred escapes and writes her narrative of her ordeal, Olamina founds Earthseed and survives in spite of hardship—is a feminist statement in that these women aren't rescued by men. But the focus isn't on gender alone: Katniss survives because of her strength and wit, Offred survives because she's willing to take risks, and Olamina survives because of her intellect and ability to connect with others. They are fully drawn and individuated women, equal to the men in their societies, if not legally, then in their characters.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Science fiction often privileges the male; this is especially true of the classic science fiction that contained two-dimensional female characters. Yet there is a long, rich history of science fiction that respects women, written by both men and women. And those authors contributed to larger conversations about the role of women in society. Just imagine, again, a genre of literature that can help us see the potential benefits and dangers that result from our culture taking one path or another. Science fiction can give us this view; it's up to us to learn from what we see.