We Have Always Been Fighting this Fight

N K Jemisin recently gave a speech in response to the latest kerfuffle around sexism and racism in science fiction. It’s a very fine speech. Go read it.

One of the points she makes is this:

women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there.

I would go further than that. Not only have women always been in SFF1, there have always been women (and some men) critiquing the misogyny and sexism of the genre. We have always been fighting this fight. As Jemisin says “memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.”

How do I know that we have always been fighting misogyny in our genre? Because I wrote a whole book about it: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.

As research for that book I spent years reading science fiction magazines from the 1920s through to the 1970s. I particularly paid close attention to the letter columns wherein I found gems like the ones featured here which argue about whether women have a place in science fiction. Here’s Mary Evelyn Byers in 1938 arguing against teenage sf fans, Isaac Asimov and David McIlwain (who went on to be the science fiction write Charles Eric Maine):

To [Asimov’s] plea for less hooey I give my whole-hearted support, but less hooey does not mean less women; it means a difference in the way they are introduced into the story and the part they play. Let Mr. Asimov turn the pages of a good history book and see how many times mankind has held progress back; let him also take notice that any changes wrought by women have been more or less permanent, and that these changes were usually made against the prejudice and illogical arguments of men, and feel himself chastened.

I found many such discussions and arguments. Arguing about the place of women and sex in science fiction turned out to be one of the continuing themes of science fiction, which is what Battle of the Sexes is about. We have always been having these arguments and fighting these fights. Our rebuttals have gotten a lot more inclusive and nuanced but those arguing for sexism and misogyny? They’re playing the same old song. Read Asimov and McIlwain’s 1938 letters if you don’t believe me.

The biggest difference is that in the 1930s women like Mary Evelyn Byers were far rarer than they are now. And the men supporting them were even rarer. There are more of us now and we have more allies than ever before. Things have gotten better.

N K Jemisin also observes:

[P]eople of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms—and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role.

I have seen many, mostly white people, doubt it, saying things like “I never saw anyone who wasn’t white at a science fiction convention in the old days.” Yeah, I wonder why that was. Could it be the same reason so few white women dared show up? Why, to this day, women sf writers are avoiding the predominantly white male sf conventions?

The role call of sf writers of colour is a long one and almost all of them, like Samuel R. Delany, grew up reading and loving science fiction. In 2009 during RaceFail there was an outpouring of fans of colour talking about how long they and their families have loved SFF to prove that they were not, in fact, rarer than wild unicorns.

I did not find letters from people of colour, or many arguments about race in those letter columns,2 but a) I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking for arguments about sex and gender and b) how would I know? As Nora points out, in print racial anonymity is easy. Also, judging by the rude, patronising, idiotic responses brave letter writers such as Mary Evelyn Byers got to their arguments that women are human too, any such letter writer would have gotten an even worse response.

Those letter columns were hostile spaces for women who didn’t want to play the role of good girl fan. Hell, there are enough online spaces right now that are still hostile to women who speak out about pretty much anything. What would those letter columns of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, have been like for a person of colour wondering where all the sf stories about the civil rights movement are? It’s bad enough when similar questions are asked now.

Which is why I fully endorse N. K. Jemisin’s call for reconciliation:

It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps—some symbolic, some substantive—to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.

Jemisin is so very right that learning the history of this genre and acknowledging that we have always been fighting these fights is a crucial first step.

NB: I have not done any research in this area for more than a decade. Someone else may have found such letters and fanzines. If anyone knows of such research it would be lovely if you could share in the comments.

  1. The abbreviation is for science fiction and fantasy. []
  2. There were many stories in the old magazines dealing with questions of race. Almost all of which were very, very racist. One of the stories I discuss in Battle, “The Feminine Metamorphosis” by David H. Keller, is about uppity white women using Chinese gonads to turn themselves into men and rule the world. The gonads turn out to be syphilitic and the women all go mad as the hero lectures them on bucking God’s plan for them to be “loving wives and wonderful mothers.” No, I’m not making this up. The story was first published in 1929. []


  1. Mike on #

    I’m wondering if in your research you ever read anything about Andre Norton being embroiled in this, or publishers unwilling to publish her because she was a woman. If I recall correctly, she changed her name so her books would appeal more to boys.

  2. Kaethe on #

    Thanks for bringing that speech to my attention. And for reminding me I want to read the Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.

  3. Kris McDermott on #

    And of course, the first SF woman toiling in the background was Mary Shelley. My grad school Romantics prof., Anne Mellor, read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as (partly) an extended critique of the inbred misogyny of the Romantic poets — an interpretation that makes even more sense in the light of your call here.

  4. furicle on #

    Samuel R. Delany is African American?
    I had no idea…

    Jeez isn’t the point of SF to consider foreign concepts on their own merits? To surround them with a backdrop that makes them seem a natural progression and decide if the results are sensible/moral/interesting/etc?

    The race/religion/gender/sexual orientation of the authour doesn’t matter – what they write is what matters.

  5. furicle on #

    Just a minor point since the blog stripped my side bar in angled brackets. I was laughing at myself when I realized I didn’t know Mr. Delany’s race…

  6. ACE Bauer on #

    Excellent post! I am glad I read it yesterday before the latest SFWA craziness came up relating to Jemisin’s speech. My reaction yesterday was, “Yes!” and “You should talk to my mother (age 79) who introduced her children to Star Trek when it was in its first season, gave us a bunch of SF books to read, thought that comic books were just fine, and is still an upstanding member of her local SF fan club.”

    (Today, my reaction is colored by several layers of disgust–not at you, I add immediately.)

  7. Keith on #

    Wow! Resnick and Malzberg (writers I never cared) for are…words actually escape me.

    I must, however, if being honest, admit that I am prejudiced on the issue of female writers.
    In the genres* I currently read, my experience (i.e. my opinion of what I read) is that the women are reliably better. By that, I mean that I am rarely disappointed in a book written by a women.

    *I am a past-middle-age, white male who reads SF, fantasy, crime and thrillers. And I have a shelf of Andre Norton, whose books I first found in the local library as a teenager.

  8. Justine on #

    ACE Bauer: Your mum sounds deeply awesome. Good on ‘er!

    Yeah. There are spiteful nasty racist sexist horrible people out there. But we’re all fighting back.

    Keith: Ha! Obviously I can’t support such a sexist judgement. (Except that I think it’s mostly true. Tell no one!)

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