Women of Wonder in Hiding: What Can Classic Science Fiction Offer Young Women?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Does classic science fiction have anything to offer to young readers, especially young women? In recent years I’ve read reviewers providing trigger warnings about older SF having no women writers, almost no female characters, claiming stories were rife with sexism and misogyny. How true are those charges?

I just finished listening to the new audiobook editions of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B edited by Ben Bova. When the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) formed in 1965 they began giving out annual awards called Nebulas. Members decided to vote for their favorite stories to create a series of anthologies that recognize the classic works of older science fiction published before the award era.

Out of 48 stories in the first three volumes, only three women writers—C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Wilmar H. Shiras—were included. C.L. Moore’s stories were as a coauthor with her husband Henry Kuttner, so only two stories were just by women. Until recently, I thought only one, but then I learned that Shiras was a woman. Is this evidence that women were excluded from science fiction?

Partners-in-Wonder-Women-and-the-Birth-of-Science-Fiction-1926-1965-by-Eric-Leif-DavinEric Leif Davin in his 2006 book, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926–1965, makes a well-documented case that women were not excluded as writers, editors, artists, in fandom, or as readers, and in most cases were welcomed. Davin carefully examined science fiction magazines from 1926–1965, finding 203 women writers who had published almost a thousand stories. It’s far from equality but showed more women participating than anyone previously thought. He also studied editorials, letters to the editors, book reviews, biographies, fanzines, con programs, histories, looking for clues to how women were accepted. Davin says there were a few men who personally opposed women coming into the genre, but for the most part, they were shouted down by other males. He also found women writers that couldn’t break into writing until they tried science fiction. Overall, Davin was convinced the genre was open to women professionally and as fans, and that women slowly entered the field well before the 1960s, a time many readers felt was the opening decade for women writers.

Decade Women Writers Stories
1920s 6 17
1930s 25 62
1940s 47 209
1950s 154 634

Partners in Wonder is a fascinating history. Unfortunately, it’s a shame it’s so damn expensive: almost $50 for the paperback, and just a few dollars cheaper for the Kindle edition. Evidently, it’s meant for the academic market, so it should be available at most university libraries. I wish that the Kindle edition was priced like a novel because it’s a readable history that corrects many myths and misconceptions about women in the genre. (A significant portion of this book can be read at Google Books.)

Children-of-the-Atom-by-Wilmar-H.-ShirasWhile reading Davin’s history I also read “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras, which first appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. John W. Campbell, the conservative editor of Astounding, said this when “In Hiding” was voted 1st Place in the readers poll, “Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, ‘In Hiding.’ I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author.” Shiras wrote four more stories in the series to create a fix-up novel, Children of the Atom (1953 Gnome Press). Many older fans fondly remember that novel, even if they didn’t know Shiras was a woman. (I thought Wilmar was the male version of Wilma.) Shiras only wrote a handful of stories after that, and then disappeared. Why?

In Hiding” is about a school psychologist discovering a brilliant boy named Tim who hid behind his B-average grades. Thirteen-year-old Tim eventually reveals in confidence to the psychologist he has several secret identities, even making money publishing stories and essays, as well as completing several college correspondence degrees. Tim hid his intelligence because at three he learned that other people, young and old, resented people smarter than themselves. I wondered while reading this story if Wilmar Shiras was using her story as a metaphor for how women hid their intelligence from men. The second story, “Opening Doors,” features a young girl. She had to hide her intelligence by pretending to be insane.

Partners in Wonder convinced me that women writers were welcomed by the science fiction community. Most women were not interested in science fiction. But back then, most people weren’t interested in science fiction. It was not socially acceptable to read science fiction before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977). It was a shunned subculture, considered geeky,  nerdy, uncool, and only pursued by social zeroes.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does classic science fiction have to offer young readers today, especially young women? Most bookworms prefer new stories and books. Classic science fiction is no more popular than classic literature with young readers. But classics have always appealed to some readers? Why?

In a popular Facebook group devoted to science fiction, I’ve read several accounts by young women listing their favorite books, and sometimes they are classic science fiction, even titles by authors who get trigger warnings about being sexist or misogynistic. I’ve asked them if they don’t have gender concerns, and some of them have told me not everything is about gender. And it is true, much of classic science fiction is about ideas, ignoring gender, sex, and romance. Modern science fiction stories by men and women writers can deal with gender and readily present female characters, but then gender is a popular subtext to all kinds of fiction today. Is it fair to single out SF’s past when other genres were just as sexist in their past? We’ve all changed, and we will all continue to change.

Astounding-Science-Fiction-March-1950-with-Shiras-getting-the-coverI believe one reason young people read old science fiction is to study those changes, and study how people in the past looked at their future, our present. It’s quite revealing to learn what doesn’t change and what does, and why. Another reason to read classic SF is to search for all those pioneer women writers who were hiding in plain sight. In a recent Book Riot essay, “Women Who Imagined the Future: Science Fiction Anthologies by Women” I listed six new and seven out-of-print books that collected stories by women writing science fiction. I don’t believe any of those anthologists discovered Wilmar H. Shiras, and I wonder just how many of Davin’s 203 women writers are yet to be rediscovered? Reading their stories will tell us how women of wonder imagined us, their future. Have we failed them, or lived up to their hopes?

Listening to all three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame showed me not all science fiction stories considered classic by science fiction writers in the 1960s are still classic today. I wonder if the SFWA voted today would they pick an entirely different lineup of the best SF stories of 1926–1964, and maybe include far more women writers. “In Hiding” was my favorite story from volume 2B, and I wrote about why at Worlds Without End. I hope it gets included in some future feminist SF anthology, and I hope Children of the Atom gets reprinted.

We should not ignore the past, even if it’s offensive, but study older pop culture to see how we’ve grown. We should continually search the past for the pioneers whose anticipated who we’d become, the one that resonates with our best humanistic beliefs. A great example of this is “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. Not by a woman writer, or even a science fiction writer. But this 1909 story, featuring a woman protagonist who lives a life much like ours, living alone, but participating in a worldwide social network. She is essentially a blogger. Science fiction has never been about predicting the future, but about speculating about the fears we want to avoid, and the dreams we want to create in reality.

I wonder if the members of SFWA held a vote on classic stories in 2018 would any of the stories from the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame be selected? Time changes our view of what’s great about the past. What has fifty years taught us? Surely, we must see different classics today.

What we need are Hindsight Hugo and Nebula awards, where we give awards to stories that have stood the test of time. We could even have 100, 75, 50, 25-year trails, so in 2018 we’d reevaluate stories for 1918, 1943, 1968, 1993. If we had a 200-year trail, we could award a Hugo to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein.

Then every 25 years, the years would be reevaluated and we’d see what stories last, or which are rediscovered.


14 thoughts on “Women of Wonder in Hiding: What Can Classic Science Fiction Offer Young Women?”

  1. “Vintage Season” is sometimes credited to Catherine Moore alone, but who wrote what in the Kuttner/Moore partnership is too difficult to determine.

    I love the idea of Hindsight Hugos. Where do I vote? 🙂

    1. “Vintage Season” feels more like a C. L. Moore story, and is one of my favorites from the three volumes. However, “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” is harder to peg. It has some clunkiness that might indicate two writers. Yet, some of its ideas also feel very much Moore’s earlier stories.

      The trouble with actually creating Hindsight Hugos is getting enough qualified voters. How many fans carefully read stories from the past? There seems to be more of us every day writing and discussing the old stories on the Internet.

      Now that the gender ratio of SFWA members have changed, and it’s gained so many more members, especially younger writers over the last several decades, I wonder what stories they’d vote in as classics. Maybe SFWA should offer Retro Nebulas. There certainly is a lot more interest in researching and writing about the history of science fiction.

      I wonder how many stories were ignored by fans 75 years ago that today’s readers would think are brilliant?

  2. When I reread Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION TRILOGY a few years ago, I was struck by the fact that there are very few women characters in that classic (it also had a lot more dialogue than I remembered). When I was taking a course in HERMAN MELVILLE a couple decades ago, I asked the woman student sitting next to me, “What did you think of MOBY DICK?” She glared at me and responded with, “There’s just one woman in the whole friggin’ book.” Clearly, gender is an important factor in appealing to an audience.

  3. Dear JSH

    I was happy to see your latest post endorsing Wilmar Shiras’s CHILDREN OF THE ATOM, a book that was tremendously important to me as a kid. You might be interested to read my story “The Qualia Engine” (Asimov’s, Aug 2009), which was my attempt to write a slightly disguised sequel about the *grand*children of the atom. For a start, we now know their mutation could not have been caused by radiation, and I solved that problem. You might enjoy decoding the names of the original Shiras characters, and seeing what became of them. And of course women feature prominently in the story, which is narrated by a snotty adolescent male who Learns Better by the end…

    (The story is also in my collection titled, amazingly enough, THE QUALIA ENGINE, from Fantastic Books.)

    Regards, Damien


    1. I’ve had other folks tell me that Children of the Atom was an important book to them, or an early science fiction read.

      I’ve got a copy of your story in the Horton anthology. Hope to read it soon. I bought a copy of Shiras fix-up novel, but haven’t finished it yet.

      I see you have a new book out though, Psience Fiction: The Paranormal in Science Fiction Literature that I want to read. That’s an SF theme I’ve always wanted to write about. You review many of my favorite books, especially Time for the Stars. However, I feel science fiction expected too much when it wants PSI powers.

  4. I made a list of fifty stories that might have been in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One—but weren’t.

    The same rules apply as for the original book: One per author, below novella length, and published no later than 1964. No stories from the original book were considered, but the authors are allowed—with different stories, of course. Also, some allowance was made for historical perspective (but not all that much).

    “Mellonta Tauta”, by Edgar Allan Poe (1849)
    “What Was It?”, by Fitz-James O’Brien (1859)
    “The Star”, by H. G. Wells (1897)
    “Finis”, by Frank L. Pollock (1906)
    “As Easy as ABC”, by Rudyard Kipling (1912)
    “The Fate of the Poseidonia”, by Clare Winger Harris (1927)
    “The Conquest of Gola”, by Leslie F. Stone (1931)
    “Old Faithful”, by Raymond Z. Gallun (1934)
    “The Gnarly Man”, by L. Sprague de Camp (1939)
    “The Day Is Done”, by Lester del Rey (1939)
    “Black Destroyer”, by A. E. van Vogt (1939)
    “Farewell to the Master”, by Harry Bates (1940)
    “Into the Darkness”, by Ross Rocklynne (1940)
    “No Woman Born”, by C. L. Moore (1944)
    “Desertion”, by Clifford D. Simak (1944)
    “Private Eye”, by Henry Kuttner (1947)
    “The Man Who Never Grew Young”, by Fritz Leiber (1947)
    “Child’s Play”, by William Tenn (1947)
    “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson (1948)
    “He Walked Around the Horses”, by H. Beam Piper (1948)
    “Dune Roller”, by Julian May (1951)
    “Angel’s Egg”, by Edgar Pangborn (1951)
    “Hobson’s Choice”, by Alfred Bester (1952)
    “A Sound of Thunder”, by Ray Bradbury (1952)
    “What’s It Like Out There?” by Edmond Hamilton (1952)
    “Common Time”, by James Blish (1953)
    “Sail On! Sail On!”, by Philip José Farmer (1953)
    “So Proudly We Hail”, by Judith Merril (1953)
    “Lot”, by Ward Moore (1953)
    “The Ruum”, by Arthur Porges (1953)
    “Anachron”, by Damon Knight (1954)
    “Memento Homo” (“Death of a Spaceman”), by Walter M. Miller (1954)
    “The Star”, by Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
    “The Man Who Came Early”, by Poul Anderson (1956)
    “The Tunnel Under the World”, by Frederik Pohl (1956)
    “The Mile-Long Spaceship”, by Kate Wilhelm (1957)
    “Who Can Replace a Man?”, by Brian W. Aldiss (1958)
    “Day at the Beach”, by Carol Emshwiller (1959)
    “All You Zombies—”, by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
    “The Store of the Worlds”, by Robert Sheckley (1959)
    “The Man Who Lost the Sea”, by Theodore Sturgeon (1959)
    “The Sources of the Nile”, by Avram Davidson (1961)
    “Rainbird”, by R. A. Lafferty (1961)
    “The Ship Who Sang”, by Anne McCaffrey (1961)
    “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, by Cordwainer Smith (1961)
    “Harrison Bergeron”, by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)
    “An Alien Agony” (“The Streets of Ashkelon”), by Harry Harrison (1962)
    “To See the Invisible Man”, by Robert Silverberg (1963)
    “The Terminal Beach”, by J. G. Ballard (1964)
    “Semley’s Necklace”, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1964)

    1. Piet, I don’t think you just whipped this list out today. It’s extremely well thought out. This is the kind of list I want to make, but it might take me years.

      But I already see one story I’d swap out on my list. I really love “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp, but I’m even more partial to his story “Living Fossil.” I’ve written about it here:


      Well, two. I’d exchange “The Menace from Earth” for “All You Zombies–.” “Zombies” is the more famous story, but I believe “Menace” captures Heinlein better.

      What we need to do is to get everyone who wants to play this game to come up with a list that follows the rules, and then compare all the lists to see which stories are the most popular for each author.

      Of course, the original volume one anthology only had 26 entries, if I remember right, so you’re doubling its size. I think that’s fine though.

  5. Piet, I am awed by your list making abilities! I’ve read about 50% of the stories you recommend and now I’m going to have to track down the rest. Keep up the Good Work!

  6. Actually, I did just dash off the list today. I just scrolled through my story index, going “Oh, that one was good … that one was also good … etc.”

    I would very much enjoy substitution ideas. Some stories were deliberately chosen because they’re famous. “All You Zombies—” isn’t my favorite Heinlein short, either (that honor goes to “They”), but it’s famous and influential. Remember, in drawing up such a list, you have to imagine that a body of knowledgeable people voted for it. I don’t rate Jim’s substitution as highly as he does. “The Menace from Earth” is basically teen fiction, and “The Green Hills of Earth”, “It’s Great to Be Back!”, and perhaps even “The Year of the Jackpot” would all be at least equally good choices.

    Same with other greats. The Bradbury story is excellent and seminal, but for sheer literary quality I might have chosen “There Will Come Soft Rains” or “And the Rock Cried Out”. Also totally worthy are “The Fog Horn” and “The Veldt”.

    I was very tempted to list Asimov’s “The Ugly Little Boy” instead of “The Last Question”, but the Good Doctor would have wanted the latter story to represent him.

    You can go on and on like that. One gaping hole is that I couldn’t think of a Cyril Kornbluth story. “The Little Black Bag” was in the original book, and “Two Dooms”, which I liked, is too long. Any suggestions?

    1. Picking the best Heinlein will be a challenge. I also considered “Requiem.” “The Menace from Earth” originally appeared in F&SF, an adult magazine. But Heinlein was at his best writing for young adults so such a story would be a good way to represent him. “Menace” has many other advantages. It has a female protagonist who wants to be a rocket engineer. It’s about the Moon, Heinlein’s stomping ground for many of his stories, which also stands in for a lot of his work. Plus it has a great science fiction idea, of human-powered flight on the Moon.

      We have several tasks to accomplished. One is to pick stories that best represent the evolution of science fiction. I think because the original book was called The Science Fiction Hall of Fame we should stick to science fiction. Others can work on The Fantasy Hall of Fame. I know many people love both kinds of stories and use SF to encompass almost all kinds of fantastic fiction. However, there are people who only like SF and others who only like fantasy. Why waste story space that many readers will filter out automatically?

      Are we trying to showcase what was loved in the past, or showcase what still works today? Classic fiction should have lasting success.

  7. Jim—yes, I doubled the size because I just couldn’t stop! Generally, I chose shorter stories than the ones in the original book. If you aimed for the same page count, you could probably squeeze 30 – 35 of these in.

    1. Maybe we can set up new rules. The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by the VanderMeers, is 1218 pages. It’s an unwieldy size but works well as an ebook. Let’s aim for a 1,000 pages of classic stories. That gives us a lot more room to work with.

  8. Lay on MacDuff! We wi’ oot the len’th an’ stren’th be cheerin’ ye on! And hoistin’ a few in yer name.
    Hoot, Mon! An’ e’en more, hoot ye’ an’ th’ rest and cheer fer them wha’ hae the bollocks ta step up and sing! E’en if they be less ‘cumbered by sech bollocks.

    At the risk of seeming both dull and uninformed, until reading the last few blogs (including ” The Resurrection of Lady Dorthy Mills”) I’d never even considered that female writers were not “well” represented in science fiction. I’ve only known a very few women who were at all interested in science fiction novels and stories, so perhaps that is my excuse. Or perhaps I’m just that shallow. I certainly can’t claim an exemption based on age alone.

  9. I remember reading ‘In Hiding’ as a kid: it left a huge impression on me. Looking back I can’t help thinking that Shiras hit on a fairly fundamental part of human nature, in terms of the social reaction to anybody who happens to be outstanding from whatever is defined as the ‘norm’.

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