Women And Science Fiction
My early science fiction stories had no women in them for the most part. There were two reasons for this, one social, one personal. The social reason first.
Prior to public recognition in the United States that babies are not brought by the stork, there was simply no sex in the science fiction magazines. This was not a matter of taste, it was a matter of custom that had the force of law. In most places, non-recognition of the existence of sex was treated as though it was the law, and for all I know, maybe it was indeed local law. In any case, words or actions that could bring a blush to the leathery cheek of the local censor were strictly out.
But if there’s no sex, what do you do with female characters? They can’t have passions and feelings. They can’t participate on equal terms with male characters because that would introduce too many complications where some sort of sex might creep in. The best thing to do was to keep them around in the background, allowing them to scream in terror, to be caught and then rescued, and, at the end, to smile prettily at the hero. (It can be done safely then because THE END is the universal rescue.)
Yet it must be admitted that science fiction magazines showed no guts whatsoever in fighting this situation. That brings us to the personal reason. In the 1930s and 1940s, the readership of the science fiction magazines was heavily (almost exclusively, in fact) masculine. What’s more it was young-and-intellectual masculine. The stereotypical science fiction reader was a skinny kid with glasses and acne, introverted and scapegoated by the tough kids who surrounded him and were rightly suspicious of anyone who knew how t o read.
It stands to reason these youngsters knew nothing about girls. By and large, I imagine they didn’t dare approach them, and if they did, were rejected by them scornfully, and if they weren’t, didn’t know what to do next. So why on Earth should they want this strange sub-species in the stories they read? They had not yet gotten out of the “I hate (translation: “I’m scared of”) girls” stage.
This is an exaggeration, perhaps, and no doubt there were a number of tough young men and girl- chasing young men who read science fiction, but by and large, I suspect it was the stereotypical “skinny intellectual” who wrote letters to the magazines and denounced any intrusion of femininity. I know. I wrote such letters myself. And in the days when I was reading and rating every science fiction story written, I routinely deducted many points for any intrusion of romance, however sanitized it might be.
At the time I wrote and sold my first few stories, I had not yet had a date with a young woman. I knew nothing about them except what I could guess by surreptitious glances from a distance. Naturally, there were no women in my stories.
(I once received a letter from a woman who denounced me for this lack. Humbly, I wrote back to explain the reason, stating that I was, very literally, an innocent as far as women were concerned at the beginning of my writing career. She had a good answer for that, too. She wrote back in letters of flame, “That’s no excuse!”)
But times change!
For one thing, society changed. The breath of liberty brought on by all the talk about it during World War II weakened the censor, who retreated, muttering sourly under his breath. The coming of the pill heralded the liberation of women from unwanted pregnancy, and marked the weakening of the double standard.
For another, people will grow up. Even I didn’t remain innocent. I actually went out on a date on my twentieth birthday. I met a particular woman two years later, fell in love at first sight, and all trace of fear suddenly left me. I was married five months later and you’d be surprised how I changed! I have in my proud possession a plaque handed me by a science fiction convention. On the brass plate is inscribed that quality of mine that had earned me the plaque. It reads “Lovable Lecher.”
And yet science fiction lagged a bit, I think. Old habits didn’t change easily. My own stories, for instance, remained free of sex except where it was an integral part of the development and then only to that extent, and still so remain. I have gotten rid of my fear (witness my five volumes of naughty limericks), but not of my sense of decorum.
What, then, really brought on the change and brought science fiction more nearly into the mainstream of contemporary literature?
In my opinion, it was not chiefly social evolution; it was not the daring new writers; not the Russes and LeGuins.
It was the coming of women into the science fiction readership!
If science fiction readers had remained almost entirely masculine-even had the acne cleared up and the youth withered-I think science fiction would have remained male chauvinist in the crudest possible way.
Nowadays, I honestly think that at least a third, and possibly nearly half the science fiction readers are women. When that is so, and when it is recognized that women are at least as articulate as men and (these days) quite ready to denounce male chauvinism and to demand treatment as human beings, it becomes impossible to continue villainy.
Even I have to bow to the breath of decency. In my new novel, Foundation’s Edge, of my seven central characters, four are women-all different, all perfectly able to take care of themselves, and all formidable. (For that matter, I introduced Susan Calvin in 1940, and she strode through a man’s world, asking no quarter, and certainly giving none. I just thought I’d mention that.)
And what brought in the women readers? I suppose there are a large number of reasons, but I have one that I favor. It’s Mr. Spock’s ears.
There is no question in my mind that the first example of decent science fiction that gained a mass following was the television show Star Trek, nearly twenty years ago. For a wonder, it attracted as many women as men. I don’t suppose there is room to doubt that what chiefly served to attract those women was the unflappable Mr. Spock. And for some reason I won’t pretend to guess at, they were intrigued by his ears.
Very few of the “Trekkies” leaked over into print science fiction (or all the magazines would have grown rich), but a minor percentage did and that was enough to feminize the readership of the science fiction magazines. And I think that was all to the good, too.
With so many women thumbing the magazines, women writers were naturally more welcome and their viewpoints greeted with greater reader sympathy-and women editors made more sense, too.
Don’t get me wrong. There were women writers even in the early days of magazine science fiction, and women editors, too. When I was young, some of my favorite stories were by A. R. Long and by Leslie F. Stone. I didn’t know they were women, but they were. In addition, Mary Gnaedinger, Bea Mahaffey, and Cele Goldsmith were excellent editors. I never met Ms. Gnaedinger, but I did meet Bea and Cele and I hereby testify that in addition to lots of brains, character, and personality, they each happened to be beautiful. (Irrelevant, I know, but I thought I would mention it.)
Consequently, when George Scithers left us, I found it delightful that Kathleen Moloney agreed to be the new editor. It never occurred to me for an instant that a woman couldn’t handle the job just because she was a woman and, as a matter of fact, Kathleen took to it with a kind of rabid delight. She introduced interesting changes and stamped her personality on the magazine.
But then, there came along the all-too-frequent villain in such cases, the offer-one-can’t-refuse. It may have been Kathleen’s performance here that aroused interest in other publishing houses and-well, one can’t turn down a chance to advance in one’s chosen profession, so we lost Kathleen.
And yet all is not lost, either. I have on numerous occasions mentioned the charming Shawna McCarthy, who is as sharp as a scalpel, and who is universally liked for the excellent reason that she is universally likable. I like her.
Shawna served faithfully as right-hand person first to George, and then to Kathleen. In the process, she learned every facet of the editing business and developed (thank goodness) the ambition to hold the top position.
So when Kathleen left, I said, “It has to be Shawna “ and everyone agreed with me, especially Shawna.
And here she is. Readers-female and male-I give you Shawna!