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.

JWH

Books To Read To Save The World

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 15, 2015

  • We will destroy civilization before the end of the century.
  • Denying science is denying reality.
  • Denying evidence for personal gain is treason to our species
  • Greed is destroying all the species on this planet including our own.
  • Self-interest is leading to species suicide.
  • We have the knowledge and technology to solve our problems.
  • We must change the way we live to save the planet.
  • Human nature is too stupid to survive free market capitalism.
  • We will not save the world just by buying LED light bulbs and driving electric cars.
  • Reading books will not save the Earth, but it will help understand the complexity of the problems we face.
  • Reading these books can be depressing.
  • Not reading these books only makes our problems worse.
  • Read and recommend books that help us understand the reality of your actions.
  • We can only divert the collapse of civilization if we find a new sustainable way to live.
  • Read ten books before deciding if I’m wrong.
  • Read another ten to begin to find hope.

If you know of other good books, recommend them in the comment section.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon

Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil

How Will Capitalism End? by Wolfgang Streeck

EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet by The Worldwatch Institute

Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope

The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

White Trash: The 400-Year Untol History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisis Coaste

Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

Getting to Green: Saving Nature – A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich

The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World by Paul Gilding

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life by David R. Montgomery

The Carbon Farming Solution by Eric Toensmeier

Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein

The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon

Climate Change and the Health of Nations by Anthony J. McMichael

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by by Jared Diamond

JWH

An Old Guy Tries To Catch Up With Current Feminism

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 11, 2016

I got started reading books on feminism at the beginning of the 1970s when I was required to read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Growing up male in the 1960s and 1970s was difficult because the females we chased were transforming. They told us we didn’t understand what it meant to be a woman and we should read the books they were reading, even though they also told us we could never understand. Since then I’ve occasionally read books on feminism trying to keep up. As a male, talking or writing about feminism, can be dangerous, so I’ve mostly kept this reading secret. Decades ago the women I knew often talked about feminism, but I seldom hear the topic mentioned by the women I know today. During the 1970s feminism was talked about as much as we talk about climate change today.

I assumed in the 1970s, before the ERA amendment failed, that all women would become feminists. Understanding why that didn’t happen is fascinating, but exceedingly complex. Reading Backlash by Susan Faludi gives one view. Feminism as a movement fractured, and became less public. It never went away, but retreated to rebuild in many different smaller movements. Trying to define feminism today is contentious. Like President Obama, males can say they are feminists, but I’m not sure what women think of that, especially by younger women who are pushing newer feminist insights. We live in very different times from the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s. Try to keep up with feminism is nearly impossible for men, but I think it’s even harder for women.

53% of voters in 2012 were women. If women voted together they could rule the country. Why don’t they? I’ve always wondered why all women weren’t at least feminists politically. Well, that’s rather naïve of me. How women think politically is just as diverse as how men think. Men don’t agree, so why should women. In fact, women disagree bitterly over the goals of feminism, and even its definition. As a man, I’m an outsider and have to be very careful how I comment on feminism. I’m hesitant to even write this essay, but as a bookworm I feel I must promote the books I admire. Liberal men have the duty of educating ourselves about gender issues, but without trying to lead. Our active role is to learn and follow, which is hard for us. The current issues of gender equality goes well beyond the old binary view of men and women. It’s hard for me to understand because I’m out-of-date, but I don’t think it’s any easier for the young and hip, of any gender.

Since I’m a life-long liberal, I want to keep up with current liberal thought, but knowing what’s happening at the front is difficult. Even trying to understand the subject of current feminism is a minefield, because some women believe it’s an outdated concept, and other women define the term with distinctions that cause conflicts. One way to understand how feminism is evolving is look at the past and study how the concept has changed over time.

Since prehistoric times there have been women who have rebelled against cultural enslavement. They weren’t labeled feminists, but they were. American feminists now talk of first wave feminists and second wave feminists, but those are inexact labels, although useful. Before the first wave feminists organized in the 19th century to get the vote, there were feminists who campaigned for equal education for girls. Even today we can see societies around the world that still don’t believe in this. After equal education, women worked for political equal rights. Most countries accepted this idea in the early 20th century. Then in the 1960s women pressed hard for equal career opportunities. We’re getting very close to electing a woman U.S. President, so this goal appears ready to be checked off, but that’s illusory too. There’s still plenty of inequality in the workplace, but our times are very different from 1960. That brings up the first book I want to recommend.

When Everything Changed by Gail CollinsWomen’s rights have transformed American society far greater than computers and smartphones. I hadn’t realized that until I read When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins. I doubt younger people will believe that, but I’m old enough to remember life before computers, and before women had jobs like they do today . Many women now ignore current feminist thinkers, believing they already have all the rights and opportunities they want. That is far from true, but to understand why requires studying how things used to be. If you think old typewriters and dial phones are archaic, just study people from the 1950s.

When women got the vote after 200,000 years of oppression, you’d think they’d vote en bloc until they got complete equal rights. Yet, the Equal Rights Amendment failed in the 1980s – and maybe because of one woman. 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. So why haven’t women elected a president? Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for President in 1872. Why have so few run since? Why isn’t every American woman voting for Hilary Clinton?

The easy answer is people vote for what the candidate promises rather than the candidate. Clinton is not campaigning on women’s issues, nor are women’s rights an issue in 2016. Many women feel they have equality, at least in education, voting and jobs. The reason why equal rights haven’t dominated elections since 1920 is because some women want other changes in society more than equal rights.

I highly recommend When Everything Changed. It’s a fantastic overview of second wave feminists. Collins doesn’t preach, but chronicles what happened, case by case, where laws were changed and society adapted. The book profiles dozens of women who fought legal battles proving one person can make a difference.

Will gender even be an issue on November 8th? Surprisingly, I don’t think so. Electing Hilary Clinton could psychologically uplift women everywhere. Or has that time past? Most white Americans never understood what electing Obama meant to African-Americans, and people of color around the world. Maybe we won’t know the impact of a U. S. woman president until after it happens. On the other hand, maybe the changes made by the second wave feminists have already permeated society, and that’s why so many women don’t feel compelled to vote by gender.

Other Powers by Barbara GoldsmithIf Collins’ book explains the huge changes in our lifetime, what was the impact of the first wave of feminists? We need to constantly remind ourselves how we used to think. For this, I highly recommend Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith to understand the first-wave feminists in 19th century America. (Sadly, it’s out-of-print except as an ebook and audio book.)

Gail Collins, a New York Times writer, gives a reporter’s chronology of events in her book. Barbara Goldsmith takes a different approach, by writing a biography of Victoria Woodhull, a prostitute, madam, medium, free lover, con-woman and women’s right advocate who was able to run for president in 1872 on a technicality (long before women could vote). Woodhull is the sex that sells Goldsmith’s story, but the heart of this book is Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I’ve read other books and seen documentaries about Stanton and Anthony, but Other Powers presents these two pioneers holistically alive, in ways that moved me the most.

Other Powers presents 19th century America like no other American history book I’ve read. It’s neither academic or idealistic. When Everything Changed is moving because the facts are powerful. Other Powers is powerful because it’s passionate. Goldsmith showed how women fought for three causes, often in conflict with one another.  Women fighting for suffrage had to compete with women abolitionists fighting against slavery, and with women in the temperance movement, who fought alcohol to save the family. Goldsmith fills in her portrait of the past with competing religious movements, politics, money, graft, corruption, greed, and forgotten 19th century pop culture artifacts, like spiritualism. It’s both a history of women struggling for their rights, and a dynamic story of life in United States during the time of my great grandparents.

One reason Other Powers makes the 19th century pop out, is not by revealing how the past is different, which it was, but by showing how the past is very much like now. We think our times are over-the-top exciting, but wait till you read this book.The base qualities of our souls never change, but our souls do evolve with enlightened insights, discovered in every new generation.

I’m still left wondering about the goals of modern feminism. Third wave feminism got very complicated, and fourth wave feminism may or may not exist. In developed countries, among all liberals, and probably most conservatives, there’s almost universal agreement that women should have the same educational, political and career rights as men. Third wave feminists work to stop gender violence, rape, and misogyny, but that means changing men. Evidently modern men are open to women getting an education, voting or pursuing careers, but convincing them to think differently about women sexually is an apparent impossible task. Second wave feminists transformed our society, but I think the work of third wave feminists is ongoing. We might need to wait another thirty years for a book like Gail Collins to know. The first and second waves were tsunamis. I’m sensing the next wave will be even bigger, if it happens.

Sex-Object-by-Jessica-ValentiThere are two books I recently read to recommend for third wave feminism, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti and Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein. Valenti’s book is a memoir and confessional. She uses her own life as a piece of performance art to dramatize her title. Orenstein is a journalist, taking a social science approach by interviewing over seventy high school and young college girls. Even though Valenti is from an older generation, her life fits in with the data Orenstein collects, and I found a synergy to reading them back to back. The difference is we get to see Valenti as a grown woman, and mother. Most reviewers focus on Valenti’s early story, where she deals with the worst kinds of males and misogyny. But I found her later story of becoming a mother more moving, and revealing. Valenti shows how hard it is to be a feminist, but she also writes about how much harder it is to be a woman and mother.

Both of these books describe the problem of objectification without offering solutions. When second wave feminists identified these problems in the 1970s and tried to offer solutions, it caused deep divisions among feminists. Those feminists were labeled radical, and were often hated.

None of the goals of third wave feminists have found much political traction. There are no planks with the Democrats’ agenda in 2016. I don’t even try to describe third wave goals because they’re too complex to understand without reading many books. These two books only deal with sex objectification, and that’s only one puzzle piece in a complex picture.

Girls and Sex by Peggy OrensteinThe more I try to understand feminism, the more I read why one word, feminism, can’t represent all women. The complexity of gender could eclipse all old ideas about feminism. Time and time again, I’ve read accounts by older feminists telling their daughters about why they should be feminists only to discover their daughters have other ambitions. They are already seeing a newer world. Both Valenti and Orenstein have daughters, and of course they desperately want a better world for them. We all do, but finding out how to achieve that is more difficult than passing laws, organizing politics or voting. It requires men to think differently. But it will also require women to think differently. And it’s not something we can even make into political correctness. I wonder if that’s why some fourth wave feminists think a spiritual component is required, because we all need to evolve into a higher awareness of a multiplex gender reality.

I am reminded of a favorite science fiction story, Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. His young protagonist leaves a simple home world to explore a diverse galaxy and is told there are three kinds of thinking: simplex, complex and multiplex. With all the problems humans are facing today, it’s time we start multiplex thinking. You’ll have to read these books to understand what I mean, and then keep reading.

JWH