Women in Historical SFF

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how prevalent women are in contemporary Sci-Fi and Fantasy literature as writers and literary characters, and how that should be recognized. There have been some really great pieces that address this and also bemoan the genre’s conflicted relationship with women in the past. This is only a sampling:

2016-08-14_ent_23609335_i1However, most of these critiques and praises are aimed at contemporary SFF. When I think about SFF, I start to wonder why it was ever perceived as a “men’s genre.” It’s hard to see where any literary genre starts, but a case can certainly be made the that modern SFF novel was born with a teenage Mary Shelly, writing Frankenstein in 1818. Of course you could make the case that the genre was born in the seventeenth century, when Margaret Cavindash wrote The Blazing World.  In 1762, Sarah Scott wrote the Utopian novel A Description of Millenium Hall. So the argument can be made that the roots of the genre go back a hundred and fifty years before Shelly started writing. In any case, women played a formative role in the very roots of the genre. Shelly was undoubtedly an influence on Jane Webb Loudon, who wrote The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty Second Century in 1827.

15849412Feminist Utopian novels such as Man’s Rights (1870) by Annie Denton CridgeMizora (1880-81) by Mary E. Bradley Lane and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915) were somewhat prevalent before WWI. After the war, women were even more prolific in the genre. Gertude Barrows Bennett (aka Francis Stevens) is credited as “the woman who invented dark fantasy,” penning a number of novels in the early twentieth century. Her work, including Claimed and Citadel of Fear, influenced the likes of HP Lovecraft. Thea von Harbou is best known as the wife of filmmaker Friz Lang, but she was a writer, actor and filmmaker in her own right. She wrote the futuristic urban dystopia, Metropolis, in 1925. She later rewrote it as a screenplay for Lang’s adaptation that eventually became the classic 1927 film of the same name. In 1928, Virginia Woolf ventured into the genre with Orlando. Though that novel is often looked at as a pioneering work in terms of feminist and transgender studies, it’s also undeniably a fantasy. It’s about a character, born in Elizabethan England as a man, who undergoes a mysterious sex change at the age of 30 and then lives another 300 years without aging perceptibly.

51x2b6udvlml._sx352_bo1204203200_By the 1930’s Catherine Lucille Moore (aka CL Moore) had created the character Jirel of Joiry, who appeared in a series of sword and sorcery stories originally published in the magazine Weird Tales. Jirel of Joiry was a female warrior in an imagined alternate version of medieval France. Fun side fact: in 1985 SFF author Mercedes Lackey wrote a song called Jirel of Joiry and included it on her album Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. After WWII writers including Shirley Jackson, Judith Merril, and Alice Eleanor Jones came to prominence. By the 1950’s and 1960’s authors including Joanna Russ, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer BradleyMadeline L’Engle , Angela Carter and Ursula K Le Guin, had begun publishing.

Today you could argue that women dominate the speculative fiction genres with Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and Twilight. Dive even a little deeper and you’ll turn up Diana Gabaldon and Charlaine Harris who both had their bestselling fantasy series’ turned into hit TV adaptations. And that’s just the tip of the bestselling iceberg! In fact, women have produced some of the most notable and influential works in the speculative fiction genre. Beginning (perhaps) with Frankenstein, and continuing with Orlando, The Left Hand of Darkness, A Wrinkle in Time, The Handmaid’s Tale, and many more. So why is there a perception that their involvement with the genre is something new?

Well, I think that part of it is that the contributions of women to literature have been overlooked and ignored historically. Part of it may be due to the fact that many of these authors initially published under pseudonyms, initials or gender neutral names. But it makes sense that a genre that depends on seeing the world not as it is but as it could be, might appeal to writers who have been dismissed and ignored due to factors such as race, class, and gender.

In fact, I think that it can be argued that speculative fiction and SFF is where storytelling as an art form begins. Oral tradition featured folklore and mythology. Telling stories is a nurturing act in which the listener is connected to the storytelling through the story. Historically women filled this nurturing role. The 9th century fictional Scheherazade is both a character and the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights, in which she saves herself from execution by telling stories. This oral tradition of fantasy has been recorded by men (the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault) but also women. Madame d’Aulnoy coined the term “contes de fées (fairy tales)” as we now use it, 130 years before the birth of the Grimm Brothers).

So women have been shaping, creating, writing, and playing a starring role in SFF and speculative fiction since it began. How about finally giving them credit for playing a major role in the creation of the genre, and its development, instead if treating it as something new?


International Women’s Day Reads

March 8th is International Women’s Day. Women have done amazing things throughout history (often with no credit) and continue to do amazing things every day. Here are some books that I’d suggest to female (or any) readers who want to explore, celebrate, and understand womanhood.


How to Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis and The Heroine’s Bookshelf are two books that look at how female protagonists have been portrayed in literature, and how these depictions have influenced the authors.

51-74n0euhl-_ac_us218_2. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf- In this extended essay Woolf asserts that there have been female literary geniuses throughout history and that the reason that so many go unknown is that women have traditionally not been educated and encouraged to write, as men have. They’ve been pushed in other directions. Even when they did produce great literature it was often anonymous or under pseudonyms, so their work could be judged on its own merits. “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,” she says. Contemporary female writes still face sexism which doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. But enough of us “have money and a room of [her] own,” (what Woolf saw as the necessities if a woman is to write fiction) so that women are a very real force in publishing.

41appkv7zjl-_ac_us218_3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood– Atwood’s feminist dystopia is frighteningly close to reality, unfortunately. But then Atwood has said that when writing her tale Gilead (once the United States) she set a rule for herself: “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time.” She makes a strong case for why a woman’s ability to control and make decisions about her own body cannot be separated from discussions of feminism, or humanity for that matter.

51avlw-rakl-_ac_us218_4. Americanah by Chimiamanda Ngozi Adichie- Obviously the lens of my own experience is limited. It’s limited by various factors: education, economics, race, gender and a million others. Everyone has those limits to some extent. Adichie’s work helps us step outside those limitations for a little while. It can help us understand what the world may be like for someone different. In this case, I’m very different from Ifemelu, the female protagonist in this novel. But it allowed me to see some of the struggles that an immigrant woman of color faces in the US, in contrast to her native Nigeria. It also shows what life is like for a Nigerian woman in her home country. Ifemelu’s race and nationality influence how she is perceived in both countries. Through allowing me to see how Ifemelu’s race and gender affect her life, this book helped me see how my own life has been shaped by those factors in a very different way.

51bven7uisl-_ac_us218_5. The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess by Leonard Shalin– This is the only book in this post written by a man, but it may be of interest to anyone interested in gender issues. During pre-literate times, feminine values were dominant. Goddesses were worshiped and a lot of societies had a matriarchal structure. This changed with the rise of alphabetic literacy, which reconfigured the human brain. The act of learning to read exercises the left hemisphere of the brain, making it dominant over the right, which is more holistic and visual. The left brain is linked to masculine values and the right to feminine. As Western culture became more literate there was an insistence on a male deity and a rise in misogyny. Interestingly if you look at major witchhunts in the last millennium, they tend to happen within about a hundred years of a printing press being introduced to that part of the word. Does this explain why the past 2000 years have seen so much subjugation of women? That’s up to the reader to decide. It’s definitely an interesting thesis.



The Books that Made Us Feminists

This article came out in The Guardian yesterday. In it, a lot of female writers (Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein, Jeanette Winterson etc) discuss the literary work that made them feminists. Some of the answers were predictable (The Female Eunuch, The Second Sex) and others less so (The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch was a favorite of mine and Mary Beard; The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, Middlemarch by George Eliot,  An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria by Sigmund Freud, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson).  Naturally this made me think about the books that made me a feminist.

The first question I asked was “did books make me a feminist?” Perhaps in part. I think that my parents were huge influences in making me a feminist. My mom is a fierce, strong, loving, generous woman. My dad is one of those rare men who sees women as people; actual human beings who are worthy of the same respect and consideration as men. So having those role models was instrumental. But my parents also read to me. A lot. When I learned how, they encouraged me to read for myself. They recommended a wide range of books. I think they were both instrumental in making me a feminist and making me a reader. And reading definitely strengthened my feminism.

51fkpmqzdyl-_ac_us218_Perhaps the first book to get me thinking in that direction was Jane Eyre. To be clear, I was already of the opinion that women are capable of far more than they’re given credit for. That was a belief that wasn’t uncommon in the media that I consumed as a teen. But reading about a woman in the 19th century, written by a woman of the 19th century, who not only espouses those beliefs but lives her life by them was a bit of a revelation. Jane was a character born “poor, obscure, plain, and little” and finds herself thrust into what seems like an almost Cinderella-like situation. Her wealthy employer, with whom she is in love, wants to marry her. But when she realizes that the marriage would compromise her principles she walks away from love and financial security in order to be true to herself.

“I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”

Not only was this the first time that such an idea  was so clearly laid out, but it was laid out by a woman who, based on circumstances seemed to have won a jackpot. Career prospects for a 19th century woman were limited to say the least. Marriage prospects for someone with no money and not much in the way of looks were also not great. Jane had no family to fall back on. But she lived according to her principles, consenting to marry only when she, and Mr. Rochester were in positions where it wouldn’t compromise her integrity to do so.

41appkv7zjl-_ac_us218_I read Jane Eyre as a teenager. I think it was during my sophomore year of high school. A few years later I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which highlighted just how much of a public space women’s bodies are. Not only are they used to sell everything from clothing to jewelry to  and fitness, but people feel that they have every right to tell a grown woman what she can do with her body. The choice to share her body with someone should belong to the woman in question. Instead it often becomes a public discussion. Is what this woman doing “moral” or “right”? Those questions are seldom asked of men. If a woman is pregnant her body becomes even more public. In her novel, Margaret Atwood took all of these ideas, which are so prevalent and pushed them just a little bit further. She created a society in which fertile women are stripped of their names and given the names of the men to whom they “belong”. In this society, women have no agency regarding their bodies. They are required to be part of a fertility ritual, if they conceive they must bear the children and then given them away. Essentially they are denied personhood and defined only by their bodies.

“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”

This highlighted how much of some physical aspects of womanhood are considered public domain in our society (while others, such as menstruation, are inexplicably taboo) and it pushed my thinking further in the direction in which it was already heading.

51hapmjw7cl-_ac_us218_When I was in college, I encountered Virginia Woolf for the first time. A Room of One’s Own highlighted how much of our literary tradition has been defined by men. Women’s voices have traditionally be silenced. That’s not because they haven’t had the talent or the ideas. It’s because they lived in a world that wasn’t willing to listen. In this book, Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister of equal genius. But she was illiterate. She was never educated or encouraged and she never wrote a word. Obviously if that were true it would be a tremendous loss for humanity. According to Woolf it is all to possible:

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

She therefore leaves us with a call to action:

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no means confining you to fiction. If you would please me – and there are thousands like me – you would write books of travel and adventure, and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science. By so doing you will certainly profit the art of fiction. For books have a way of influencing each other. Fiction will be much the better for standing cheek by jowl with poetry and philosophy.”

I think that seeing so many female writers, of different ages, genres, and experiences talking about the books that made them feminists, means that her words were headed. We can never know what talent was never developed because of people feeling threatened or being small minded. But we can work to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future.

Did these books “make me a feminist”? I don’t know. Perhaps I was already a feminist and these books gave me a vocabulary for my ideas. Or perhaps them illuminated aspects of feminism that I might not otherwise have considered. But the literary work of other women has definitely shaped my thinking, and it’s been interesting to reflect on how.