cover of The Battle of the Sexes in Science FictionMost of the source material for Battle of the Sexes comes from science fiction magazines from the 1920s through to the 1970s, such as Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and Thrilling Wonder Stories. I referred not only to the stories published in those magazines, but also to editorials as well as letters from readers.

I loved reading the letters, they made me feel like a teenager from the 1930s discovering science fiction for the very first time (better than sex!), just as it was coming into existence. I would get caught up in the energetic debates about the best writers, about science, about who the Big Name Fans were. I’d have to read the next issue to see who’d responded to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s letter and what they said, and then I’d have to follow that up in the next issue, and then the next, and the next.

The letters are extraordinarily evocative. Gary K. Wolfe, science fiction scholar and reviewer for Locus, says “there must be a whole volume of Raymond Carver-style stories and dramas in those letter columns.” I couldn’t agree more. Here’s one of my (and Gary K. Wolfe’s) favourites:

Five of a Kind

Dear Editor,

Am warning you that this is merely a women’s [sic] (five of them) opinion of your new magazine. Somebody brought home a copy of Science Fiction last week and it has gone the rounds. We noted your contest announcement and decided to take a crack at it. If you did not know that women read scientific fiction, give a listen:

There are two housewives, an office worker, a high school girl, and a trained nurse among we five sisters and we all read Science Fiction (when we can snag it from brother and two husbands). With one accord we greeted your new magazine with whoops of glee and took turns curling up with the durn thing.

We all read a good many “slicks” and quite a few “pulps,” and we think you’ve got something there. Since we like our “pulps” to scare us, chill us, and give us to think, we go for Science Fiction. Looks like it might be going to fit the bill. It’s going to keep me awake and give me goose-bumps when I’m on night duty (I’m the nurse) and the other four sisters say they expect to read it when the baby is cross or the teacher isn’t looking or when the boss isn’t in. (Don’t think I’m trying to say we’ll all buy a copy every issue. I wouldn’t kid you.)

We read Science Fiction to help us picture what the world will be in years to come, or to get someone’s idea of life in a different world. We know what present-day life is like on this earth (it’s a mess! And Science Fiction is about the only way we can forget that fact for a few minutes). As to the plots of science stories; keep ’em clean. If we wanted to read about “curving pearl-pink flesh, blushing dimpled cheeks and passionate pulsing buzzems” we could get a copy of one of the “Spicies.” If you have to have a female in the picture, make her sensible. Let her know a few things about space-ships, heat-guns and such. Phooey on the huzzies who are always getting their clothes torn off and walling an amorous eye at the poor overworked hero. If she’s fitten to be in the story, she’s gotta be a pard to the poor guy and give him a hand.

You’d be surprised how many women read magazines of this type. Even the pussy-cats who go for sticky romances makes a grab for a copy when I’m dealing out magazines to the patients at our hospital. The nurses read them too, as I said, to keep awake and think of something besides a cranky patient. So how about giving us females a thought when you are picking tales for futures issues? We like our men to be nice guys, maybe a bit bigger and handsomer than our real boy-friends, and our women we want to be nice guys too, good-looking but not soft. Sensible and good sports. (As we all imagine WE are).

—Naomi Slimmer of Russell, Kansas
Science Fiction, June 1939 pp. 119–20

Gary K. Wolfe comments:

For years I’ve been fascinated by the image of rural dustbowl farmers and small-town nurses reading SF pulps and debating in the letter columns, and your study seemed to make these people more hauntingly real than ever. One letter you discuss in particular, from Naomi Slimmer of Russell, Kansas—the one who passed the SF magazines on to “patients at our hospital”—prompted me to do a brief web search which turned up the following:

The Russell Record, Monday, March 24, 1980

Naomi Slimmer

Naomi Slimmer, 76, 448 E 3rd St., died Friday at Wesley Memorial Medical Center in Wichita. She had lived with her friend & former Russell City Hospital co-worker, Jean Brown, for the pastseveral years. A longtime Russell-area resident, since about 1929, Mrs. Slimmer started the first hospital ever in Russell in her home. Trained as a registered nurse, she worked as an office nurse for Dr. Hawes in Russell and retired in 1961 as an RN at Russell City Hospital. She was born April 18, 1903, in Marshall County, the daughter of John and Fayla Dooley. She married Samuel R. Slimmer on Sept. 14, 1931, in NewMexico. He died Oct. 20, 1952. She attended (then) Kansas State Teacher’s College at Emporia and taught school in Marshall County for two years. She then attended the Halstead School of Nursing. She worked for a year at Gallup, NM, as a nurse at a Spanish-American Mission. She then came to Russell.

Funeral services will be at 2 p.m. today at Pohlman’s Memorial Chapel, Russell, the Rev. Hans Poppe officiating. Burial will be in Russell City Cemetery. A memorial in Mrs. Slimmer’s name has been established with the Russell City Hospital Foundation.

She is survived by a brother, William Dooley of Warsaw, MO. , four sisters, Mrs. Stanley (Leona) Chestnut, Wakefield, KS; Mrs TO (Leanore) Fryberger, Wheat Ridge, CO; Mrs Ralph (Mavis) Holliday, Soldier, KS; and Mrs. Don (Joyce) Erickson, Fairfield, CA.

—Submitted by: Jackie Langholz

The following are some of the letters that appeared in the letter column of Astounding Stories, “Brass Tacks,”  from July 1938 to September 1939 debating the place of women in science fiction. At the time Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell was the most prestigious and serious of the science fiction magazines. Each letter was given a title by the editor and published with the letter writer’s full address thus allowing them to get in contact with each other outside of the letter columns.

Misogynist! Bet you hear from Miss Evans!

Dear Editor,

In the last six or seven publications females have been dragged into the narratives and as a result the stories have become those of love which have no place in science-fiction. Those who read this magazine do so for the science in it or for the good wholesome free-from-women stories which stretch their imaginations.

A woman’s place is not in anything scientific. Of course the odd female now and then invents something useful in the way that every now and then amongst the millions of black crows a white one is found.

I believe, and I think many others are with me, that sentimentality and sex should be disregarded in scientific stories. Yours for more science and less females

—Donald G. Turnbull, Toronto Canada
Astounding Science Fiction July 1938 p. 162

The Miss Evans referred to in the title is Patricia Evans of New York City. She’d had a few letters published in Astounding; none of them about the place of women in science fiction.

Dear Editor,

Three rousing cheers for Donald G. Turnbull of Toronto for his valiant attack on those favoring mush. When we want science-fiction, we don’t want swooning dames, and that goes double. You needn’t worry about Miss Evans, Donald, us he-men are for you and if she tries to slap you down, you’ve got an able (I hope) confederate and tried auxiliary right here in the person of yours truly. Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science!

—Isaac Asimov, 174 Windsor Place, Brooklyn, N. Y.
Astounding Science Fiction September 1938 p. 161

Isaac Asimov was eighteen when this letter was published.

Down with Love!

Dear Editor:

I just wish to amplify certain sane remarks by Don G. Turnbull which appeared in the July Brass Tacks.

“Love interest” has no place in serious science-fiction—and it should not be necessary to include it. A good story, by which I mean a well-written piece of science-fiction based on a sound, ingenious plot, should be in itself sufficient to grip the readers’ attention, without necessitating the introduction of the sex bogey.

Science-fiction (especially Astounding) does not cater to sentimental old maids who like a bit of “slop” in their literature. Neither does it cater to love-sick nymphs who attempt to gain the Elysium of their frustrated desires via the doorway of books.

Your male readers greatly outnumber your female fans, so why not cut out the age-old love idea, and give us newer themes?

The only kind of tale in which love interest is (perhaps) permissible is the humorous one. When the “mighty emotion” is stripped of its banality and dressed in the ludicrous garments of frivolity—it becomes bearable. If you don’t believe me, refer back to the works of S. G. Weinbaum—particularly his Van Mauderpootz series—and laugh.

There are few writers today who can handle L. I. so effectively.

Congratulations on Brown’s wonderful cover, the best I’ve seen in years. I liked L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dangerous Dimension” too! Quite amusing!

—David McIlwain, 14 Cotswold St., Liverpool, England
Astounding Science Fiction, November 1938, p. 158

David McIlwain went on to write science fiction under the name “Charles Eric Maine.” He was seventeen when this letter was published.

In other words, it isn’t what you say, it’s the way you say it.

Dear Editor:

After reading Isaac Asimov’s letter in the September Brass Tacks, I feel the necessity of taking the issue of “swooning dames” up with him.

To begin, he has made the grave error of confusing the feminine interest with the sex theme—for proof of this turn back to the time-honored Skylark stories and note well the fact that the presence of Dorothy detracted from the general worth of the story not one bit, then compare one of Kuttner’s pieces of hokum with it, and the distinction will be evident to even the most unobservant reader.

Continuing this bigoted line of thought, he goes on to express himself as regards much in s-f. Undoubtedly it has never occurred to him to wonder whether the girl fans like the incredible adventures of an almost-ridiculous hero any better than he likes the impossible romance of an equally impossible heroine. He probably still cherishes the outdated theory that a girl’s brain is used expressly to fill up what would otherwise be a vacuum in the cranium.

To his 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.

Also, the fact that the feminine sphere of influence carries over to Donald Turnbull is shown by the inference that he reads s-f. to escape from them. Did you ever want to escape from an authority that didn’t exist, Mr. Turnbull? Regarding the occasional “white crow”—all famous people are “white crows,” according to that theory, which reasons that to have invented or done something useful makes a “white crow” of the person. There is a larger percent of famous men than of famous women—sure, but remember that women haven’t been actually included in the sciences except for the past hundred years or so. Note the number of successful women today, though!

Yours for more like “Who Goes There?” and “The Terrible Sense” and less like “The Legion of Time”

—Mary Byers, Chaney Farm, R. F. D. 5, Springfield, Ohio
Astounding Science Fiction, December 1938, pp. 160-61

Mary Byers was an artist who went on to marry sf writer, Cyril Kornbluth, whom she met through Isaac Asimov.

And Simak’s got a woman this time! Anyway, 1000 years ought to be old enough!

Dear Mr. Campbell:

Having barely survived the bludgeonings of Miss Byers in the December issue, I return undaunted to the fray.

First, I wish to point out that she herself considers the “sex theme” as unadulterated “hokum.” She tries to get out it, though, by bringing in the idea of “feminine interest” and saying that it’s not women in themselves, but the way they are handled that causes the whole trouble.

Very well, granted! Women are pretty handy creatures! (What would we do without them, sniff, sniff?) But, how in tarnation are you going to enforce a rule that the “feminine interest” must be introduced in an inoffensive manner?

There are certain authors (very few) that can handle women with the greatest of ease. The great Weinbaum simply permeated his stories with women and yet I never read a story of his that I didn’t enjoy (may his soul rest in peace). E. E. Smith’s women are swell, and I find I get along with them. Jack Williamson is pretty good, even when he brings in his goddesses. However, that about exhausts the list.

The rest of the authors, while all very good in their way, can’t bring the “feminine interest” into a story without getting sloppy. There is an occasional good one (“Helen O’Loy” is a beautiful case in point) but for every exceptional one there are 5,739 terrible cases. Stories in which the love interest drowns out everything, in which “swooning damsels” are thrown at us willy-nilly.

Notice, too, that many top-notch, grade-A, wonderful, marvelous, etc., etc., authors get along swell without any women, at all. John W. Campbell, Jr., himself, is the most perfect case of all. Nat Schachner has very few indeed. Clifford D. Simak has none. Ross Rocklynne has none. The list can be extended much further.

The point is whether we can make every author a Smith and Weinbaum or whether we cannot. What do you think? Therefore, let Smith and Williamson keep their women, but for Heaven’s sake, let the rest forget about them, partly anyway. I still say we’re after science-fiction.

Of course, we could have women-scientists. Madame Curie is immortal, so are many others. Unfortunately, instead of having a properly aged, resourceful, and scientific woman as a savant, what do we have? When there is a woman-scientist (which is very rare in fiction, believe me) she is about eighteen and very beautiful and, oh, so helpless in the face of danger (gr-r-r-r).

Which is another complaint I have against women. They’re always getting into trouble and having to be rescued. It’s very boring indeed for us men. I should think the women themselves (proud creatures) would be the first to object.

In the third paragraph, Miss Byers wants to know whether I think girl-fans are interested in the adventures of an “almost-ridiculous hero.” Oh, don’t I? How about Robert Taylor and Clark Gable? I’ll bet all the females swoon just reading their names in Brass Tacks. Besides, if they don’t go for heroes, what are they doing reading science-fiction? Let them go back to love stories (which are written by women for women) and they’ll find even slap-happier heroes there.

Furthermore, Miss Byers is very ill-advised in her attempt to bring up the greater influence of women as against men in the course of history. Let me point out that women never affected the world directly. They always grabbed hold of some poor, innocent man, worked their insidious wiles on him (poor unsophisticated, unsuspecting person that he was) and then affected history through him. Cleopatra, for instance. It was Mark Antony that did the real affecting; Cleopatra, herself, affected only Mark Antony. Same with Pompadour, Catherine de Medici, Theodora and practically all other famous women of history.

But I’ll quit now before I create a national vendetta against myself on the part of all female science-fictioneers in the United Stated. (There must be at least twenty of them!)

This answer may be taken as a defense of Donald Turnbull’s courageous stand against the ace menace to science-fiction as well as a defense of my own stand. I say this, because Donald may not find time to answer, and I have promised to defend him against attack with all the power of my good right arm

—Isaac Asimov, 174 Windsor Place, Brooklyn, N. Y.
Astounding Science Fiction, February, 1939 pp. 159-160

We’ll say this; the elimination of women would certainly have eliminated history!

Dear Mr. Campbell:

After I read your magazine it was your misfortune that my eye happened to light on the good old typewriter. And once fixed upon that organ of torture, I could not tear it away. It became my intention, irrevocable, to write my reaction to the current Astounding so that all, (yes, all!) might read it. I knew that you might not want my comment, that you could probably get along very well without it, but, well, maybe I wanted to see my name in print again. Or, perhaps, I just got mad at Mr. Isaac Asimov’s letter.

In any event, I will tear into Mr. Asimov first. He says he is against women in science-fiction because the authors do not handle them properly. Mr. Asimov! Is that nice? It would be equally just for the women readers of science-fiction to campaign for the elimination of men in science-fiction because of a few idiotic, imbecilic males in science-fiction stories. We do not judge the men or the value of the men in science-fiction by a few blunders, so—why should you? Then, too, pictures of the future would not be complete without women. Or don’t you agree that there will be women in the future? I agree with you that the women should be convincing, human creatures. Not goddesses, or silly, simpering saints of sweet sixteen, but honest-to-goodness human creatures. However, that should not put a ban on the entire sex. Nor do I agree that all authors, except Smith and Campbell, give up writing about women. Practice makes perfect, you know, and how are the other writers ever going to learn the right way to handle the female characters if they don’t experiment. Another fault I find is your contention that women did not affect history. You say that women only affected the men who made history. Isn’t that the same?

Ah, well, to leave Mr. Asimov for a space—until he answers, at least, I wish to say that I like the new artist, Rogers. No, he isn’t related to me (he would probably be the first to deny it), I am not pulling for the family name. It is my sincere opinion that he is good. I think my favorite illustration of the issue was the one illustration “The Shadow of the Veil.” Jack Williamson’s story was good, one of his best stories, I think. The “Living Fossil” was excellent. Oh, well, why go on? ‘Tis sufficient that I didn’t find a single story in the magazine to make me disgusted or even mildly resentful. The forecast promises great things, too. I’ll be sitting around waiting for the next Astounding to appear on the newsstands with feverish impatience

—Mary Evelyn Rogers, 2006 Court Street, Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Astounding Science Fiction, April 1939 p. 160


Dear Mr. Campbell:

It’s unfair! It’s terribly unfair! It must be a conspiracy!

Do you mean to say that you have received no letters upholding my courageous stand against slop? If not, why not? Are all the males married and afraid to breathe a word lest the little wife lift the rolling pin? Bah! A fine state of affairs! They’re henpecked! All of them!

To take up the Rogers combination first: To wit, James Michael and Mary Evelyn, I state emphatically that this business of two against one is unsportsmanlike. However, right is on my side, and right always triumphs.

Who says that only men are responsible for only war and repression? Yes, I mean you, James Michael. How about Catherine II of Russia? How about Catherine de Medici of France? How about Semiramis of Assyria? How about Queen Elizabeth of England? A sweet lot—not. The very Joan of Arc you mention, while an inspired national heroine, was chiefly remarkable in the fact that she led men to slaughter and be slaughtered.

On the other hand, the great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world – the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindness and justice—were all, all men.

Mary Evelyn talks of a “few blunders” and “practice makes perfect.” There have been too many blunders, and the most consistent offenders are those who have had the most practice and who, indeed, make literary (?) capital out of descriptions of lovely damsels and melting slop scenes under the impression that that is what the readers want. I refrain from mentioning names, but no doubt certain ones spring to the mind.

Here I must admit that as the months pass by Astounding offends less and less, though there have been several lapses. The editor, I must say, does not seem to be very fond of slop himself, judging from the stories he’s written—except “Escape”—and the magazine he’s edited.

Charles W. Jarvis says I am creating an issue. That is wrong. The issue exists and is vital. You have but to cast a look toward the outer darknesses and see certain magazines which make their living out of purveying slop. This system has invaded stf. itself before this, and symptoms of such an invasion are appearing again. Not serious as yet, but to the keen eye none the less alarming. I have the best interests of stf. at heart—believe me—and I assure you that slop is put out merely to cater to a lower class of readers. There is an attempt to increase circulation by attracting certain groups. Very well! They want to make money, so they can have those groups, but they lose other groups far superior in intelligence, in emotional maturity, and sensibility.

Let me state my position clearly. I want no more love interest for the sake of love interest alone. I want love interest written capably, written cleanly, written logically, written inoffensively. I want it written by those who can write it. Lastly, since my critics make long speeches about realism, let’s have realistic love interest and not slop.

Is there anyone who disagrees with the last paragraph? If so, let him speak now or forever hold his peace, and let this be the last word!

—Isaac Asimov, 174 Windsor Place, Brooklyn, N. Y.
Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939, p. 107

Of course, there are Lucretia Borgias as well as Neros.

Dear Mr. Campbell:

The Rogers combination desires to answer Mr. Asimov. To begin with: we are not married! And second, he is mistaken when he says all philosophers and religious leaders were men. Will he condescend to tell us the sex of the following? Mary Baker Eddy (started the Christian Science Church), Clara Barton (founded the Red Cross), Florence Nightingale (nursing), George Elliot (authoress), Evangeline Booth (started Salvation Army). Men who have advanced ideas of the strong over the weak are too numerous to mention, but I will give you a few of the names. Nietzche formulated the doctrines used by Hitler. Then there was Napoleon, Mussolini, and Alexander the Great, whom doubtless even Mr. Asimov admires.

All in all, we find the score about evenly balanced, with women in the minority because of suppression by men. In ancient Rome it was seriously debated as to whether women had souls. In the time of Shakespeare it was considered indecent for women to have an education. Witness the fact that women’s part on the stage was played by men. Many universities today are closed to women. If men had progressed against such odds—

We thought the current Astounding very good and congratulate the editor on the capture of Finlay for next month. The best interior illustrations were Schneeman’s for “Greater than Gods.” All of the stories were up to their usual high standard and we were perfectly satisfied. And, don’t you dare give us rough edges!

—James Michael Rogers II and Mary Evelyn Rogers, 2006 Court Street, Muskogee, Okla.
Astounding Science Fiction, September 1939, p. 97