Where are the women of SF?

OHOTSCoverWhy are people focusing on this question so much lately? Is it some weak tie-in to women’s history month (March)? Does this happen every time spring rolls around? Or has something reached epidemic proportion and now it’s time to Do Something?

I don’t know but there does seem to be a rash of blog posts on the subject. There’s this. And then there’s this. And finally there’s this. Regardless, as Kathi Kimbriel pointed out on Facebook (I would include the link but I’ll be damend if I can figure out how to find anything at Facebook) the answer is: we’re here at BVC. Can’t help it if no one is bothering to look.

Perhaps the larger question and the one the Strange Horizons post seemed to be asking is why aren’t the women being reviewed? Which actually translates to: why isn’t women’s writing being taken seriously? I’ll let the academics, the people that study science fiction, answer that. They’re the ones falling down on the job.

Meantime another question that has more relevance is: where are the female space heroes? One answer is that people don’t seem to like ‘em. When I workshopped my story, “Mission of Greed,” before submitting it to The Other Half of the Sky anthology (mandated to contain only stories of women space heroes) one comment was: “I can’t see a woman being in this position.” Basically my hero was a captain on a space faring vessel. Not much of a stretch after Captain Janeway.

Now it might have been more complicated than that. Maybe it was because my captain had hidden a tiny weapon in her commode and the only way she could get to it secretly was to pee in public so everyone would turn their backs. I’m not sure I would have the balls for that either, so maybe my co-workshop-participant was right. That might not be womanly behavior. But I don’t think that’s it. I just think people are uncomfortable having women in command. And the only way you can be a space hero is to take command. Either be assigned a leadership role through the story’s invented hierarchical structure, or usurp the ineffectual deadbeat sitting on the throne. However it happens people are uncomfortable with a female leader.

Which leads to the wider world from which the problem stems. Not with literature, writers, reviewers, and publishers, but with ourselves and our culture. As pointed out in 2011’s Sundance Film entry, “Miss Representation,” female leaders in our culture/country (Western/US) are bashed, abused, unrecognized, beaten down, or just plain ignored more so than their male counterparts. (Watch the trailer for this most excellent documentary.) You can believe this just from your own witnessing of Internet behavior. Women’s voices and opinions are scoffed at relentlessly, even if they say the same thing as some guy.

Out in the traditional media, this situation is more dangerous than here in Internetworld. Out there opinion has an ungodly reach. And it’s respected more than a random face slap on a blog. It’s as if because Rush Limbaugh gets time and space on the air every day, he’s much closer to God and therefore the truth.

So in our culture, women heading up a surveillance operation, an undercover spy mission, a seek and destroy, a reconnaissance foray, or military maneuver usually go undocumented, glorified, noticed, or praised in public. Even though these things are going on all over the place. These women are either invisible or spat upon. How then can the public react when they read space opera run by women? That uneasy, queasy feeling creeps in and pretty soon our reader is all sweaty and itchy. They’re just not comfortable.

Fortunately our heroines just keep on keepin’ on any ol’ way, anyway. They do not have time to stop and ponder the consequences of their actions. They’ve got to deliver the ammo, hunt down the predator, kickbox the alien, kill the enemy at the door, find the closest pitstop because the antimatter drive is getting cranky and we’ve got a Vogon on our tail. And as long as our heroines keep on, us authors are going to keep on writing about them keepin’ on. So roll over Beethoven, cowboy the heck up and take the e-news like a man. There’s a new sheriff in town and she don’t need no balls. That’s how effing tough she is.

For a good dose of female space leadership check out The Other Half of the Sky. Here’s what a few people have been saying about it.

Library Journal: “Freed from many of the male-oriented clichés, the selections present vividly depicted male and female, human and alien characters as fully fleshed individuals coping with a wide variety of issues.”

Publishers Weekly: “Space opera aficionados of all persuasions will enjoy these and the other stronger inclusions.”

Read more at Goodreads.

Sue Lange

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Where are the women of SF? — 13 Comments

  1. It is my hope that ours will be the last generation that has to fight this. Women have now come so far that there is no going back, at least in the First World. (Still a lot of room for improvement elsewhere on the planet, alas.)

  2. Thank you for highlighting the anthology, Sue!

    I had a very similar experience with the screenplay that I’m offering as an extra reward for readers of The Other Half of the Sky: great plot, great dialogue… but why did the protagonist (a driven, haunted, lethal rogue scientist on the run from government assassins) have to be “a girl”?

    There are so many women who wrote/write SF that this discussion strikes me as tiresome. The real question is, why are SF women writers mostly invisible? And why are women heroes so denigrated? The toxic gas of devaluing women is dissolved in the air, like oxygen. We breathe it each time we inhale. No wonder Library Journal called The Other Half of the Sky “fearless writing” — the concept of women heroes alone makes it that.

  3. I had occasion the other day to cite “The Women Men Don’t See,” a short story by the great James Tiptree. Who, as you know, was Alice Sheldon. Layers of irony here.

  4. Actually…I can think of several female “space heroes” who are doing well in the marketplace. Tanya Huff’s series about a space marine sergeant-to-master sergant, Torin Kerr, is highly popular with readers. David Weber’s Honor Harrington plays better with male readers (or so it seems from the outside) and has worked her way from cadet to admiral. My own two female space hero series did very well in the market (including old women space heroes) and I still get pleas from male readers to go back to them, instead of writing fantasy.

    Readers of space adventure (either heavily mil-fic or more space opera-y) will accept a female in command even if that reader will happily bash real-live female leaders or even deny their existence. It’s part of the sense-of-wonder thing in our genre. (Reviewers are another class of critter, and some of them do indeed seem to loathe female space heroes. There’s also a division of feminism that’s very pacifist and thinks showing a woman capable of, and competent with, violence is inherently bad.)

    The male-reader resistance to books with a female hero (space or otherwise) is indeed related to societal sexism…these men will say they just don’t find any book “about a woman” interesting. The book has been contaminated with girl cooties because it has a female central character and their ability to synch with the character is utterly gone….those cooties will eat their brains; they dare not even peek into it. There might be…mention of Female Stuff…like, er…periods. Or vaginas. Or uteruses. Or babies or breastfeeding or (gasp) feelings other than anger and terror. Can’t risk that. Instant contamination with girl cooties. Best to avoid those books altogether. (Fortunately there are now a lot of male readers who aren’t like that, and take to female heroes easily. If there weren’t, I’d be broke.)

    So I agree that societal sexism, particularly where the anti-feminist right-wing backlash is going on, is the deeper cause of difficulty in making a go writing female space heroes (or female leaders/heroes) but would argue that you’d get farther writing a female space hero, admiral of a fleet, than you would writing a mainstream book showing a female commander in combat in current/near-future this world.

  5. Thanks for weighing in Elizabeth. I’ve been coming across stuff lately written by males that includes the word vagina. They’re fascinated with it. Pussy is so last year. If you want to be in with the in crowd use the word “vagina” in your work. It’s so elevating.

    • Even better: make the t-shirt in male sizes and give it to guys to wear. Maybe edit it down a bit: “If you’re interested in how women think and feel — and what guy isn’t — read books by women.” And on the back, list all the women authors we can think of.

        • Hmm. Maybe we should get with the guy who said it originally so he can be credited (though it should still be edited for a t-shirt). It would make a nice item for WisCon. Or really any con.

          • It sounds brilliant to me. Although, if you want GUYS to read the tee shirt, then snug and low-cut will help. But Cafe Press can do a range of sizes!

            • Guys may read the shirt if it’s on a women with a buxom figure, but I bet more of them will read the authors listed if the person wearing the shirt is another guy. That is, one way to get guys to read books by women is to let them know that other guys read books by women.

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  7. Actually, Sue, women have balls IE gonads — we’re just lucky enough to have them inside, where they have a bit of protection. ;^)

    I always thought it was bizarre that young girls should not ride horses astride because they might injure themselves (sure that’s the reason) while a man might permanently injure the family jewels, and no one stops him from riding.

    Great questions. I like the tee shirt idea. But the way to guarantee sales is a great image on the tee shirt. So, what should we use?