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Women SF Writers

Entry updated 6 May 2024. Tagged: Theme.

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In the opinion of many it was a woman, Mary Shelley, who created sf with Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). But after such a strong start women's contributions to the genre, while never entirely absent, were not substantial – certainly not in American Genre SF – until the late 1960s. Nevertheless it should be noted that women contributed to the Proto SF tradition as early as the seventeenth century, the most obvious example being the important Margaret Cavendish with The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666), and that others like Aphra Behn in the eighteenth century and Jane Loudon in the nineteenth century were significant figures. For the relatively large number of notable women authors of the Scientific Romance, see that entry for details.

As a commercial genre, American sf was formed chiefly by the men who edited, wrote for and read the US Pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. For decades the belief that most sf readers were adolescent males imposed certain restrictions on subject matter and style – women, and women's supposed interests, were sentimentalized or ignored, and Sex was Taboo. Yet women not only read but wrote sf: by 1970 or so nearly 300 women authors had published Genre SF stories, sometimes but not usually under androgynous bylines, real or assumed. Pamela Sargent has drawn attention to some of the more memorable stories written by and about women in her excellent pioneering anthologies Women of Wonder (anth 1974), More Women of Wonder (anth 1976) and The New Women of Wonder (anth 1978) [for later additions see further reading below]. Among the most popular some, like Leigh Brackett, C L Moore and Andre Norton, wrote vivid, action-packed adventure tales, as ungendered as their names, while others, like Mildred Clingerman, Zenna Henderson and Judith Merril, wrote stories more centred on "women's interests" often concerned with domestic themes (and consequently criticized by both male and feminist critics for being overly sentimental and trivial). Other women known for writing sf prior to the 1960s include Marion Zimmer Bradley, Miriam Allen deFord, Clare Winger Harris, Joan Hunter Holly, Lilith Lorraine, Katherine MacLean, Margaret St Clair, Wilmar H Shiras, Evelyn E Smith, Francis Stevens, Leslie F Stone and Thea von Harbou. In addition, there have always been women producing borderline sf in the Mainstream or in sf-related fields such as Fabulation, surrealism and Absurdist SF, experimental, Gothic and Utopian fiction. And women have quite often been unattributed collaborators in works published under the names of their male partners, a role that has only recently begun to be recognized.

By the 1960s the sf field was changing in ways that would make it more accessible and exciting to a wider audience. Younger writers, in particular, rebelled against the old pulp limitations and set about writing sf which would combine the old-fashioned Sense of Wonder with more sophisticated literary values. New editors, some of them women, none of them committed to the concept of a primarily adolescent readership, played a large part in this expansion. In particular, Cele Goldsmith encouraged many new writers during her editorship of Amazing Stories and Fantastic (1958-1965). Ursula K Le Guin, now one of the most respected and influential of all contemporary sf writers, credits Cele Goldsmith with "opening the door to me".

In 1972 Harlan Ellison stated in his introduction to Joanna Russ's "When it Changed" (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison) that "the best writers in sf today are the women" – an opinion echoed by other knowledgeable readers throughout the 1970s, occasionally with the caveat "excepting James Tiptree Jr". Despite Robert Silverberg's now notorious claim that there was something "ineluctably masculine" in the Tiptree stories (in "Who is Tiptree, What is He?", introduction to Tiptree's Warm Worlds and Otherwise, coll 1975), in 1977 Tiptree was revealed to be Alice Sheldon. Of the response to her unmasking, Sheldon commented in an interview with Charles Platt (in Dream Makers: Volume II, coll 1983), "The feminist world was excited because, merely by having existed unchallenged for years, 'Tiptree' had shot the stuffing out of male stereotypes of women writers."

The reason that sf began to change in the 1960s and 1970s was that increasingly writers were drawn to it not because of an interest in its pulp traditions but for its still largely unexplored potential. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing in the (largely male) New Wave, sf displayed a growing interest in social and psychological concerns (perceived by some as a shift to Soft SF), which could be seen as more accommodating to women writers. Also significant were initiatives to improve girls' education in science and maths, as well as the impact of the Women's Liberation Movement (see Feminism). Certainly the impact made on the field from the 1960s by such diverse writers as Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, Russ and Tiptree was undoubtedly stronger and more lasting than that of any single, self-proclaimed movement.

Among the women sf writers who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s are E L Arch, Bradley, Rosel George Brown, Octavia E Butler, Charnas, C J Cherryh, Jo Clayton, Juanita Coulson, Sonya Dorman, Suzette Haden Elgin, Carol Emshwiller, M J Engh, Gertrude Friedberg, Phyllis Gotlieb, Diana Wynne Jones, Lee Killough, Tanith Lee, Madeleine L'Engle, Le Guin, A M Lightner, Elizabeth A Lynn, Anne McCaffrey, Vonda McIntyre, Janet Morris, Doris Piserchia, Marta Randall, Kit Reed, Russ, Sargent, Josephine Saxton, Jody Scott, Kathleen Sky, Tiptree, Lisa Tuttle, Joan D Vinge, Cherry Wilder, Kate Wilhelm, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Pamela Zoline.

Writers who became better known in the 1980s and 1990s include Gill Alderman, Kim Antieau, Anna Livia, Eleanor Arnason, Wilhelmina Baird, eluki bes shahar, Lois McMaster Bujold, Emma Bull, Pat Cadigan, Raphael Carter, Storm Constantine, Candas Jane Dorsey, Carol Nelson Douglas, M J Engh, Sheila Finch, Caroline Forbes, Karen Joy Fowler, Esther M Friesner, Sally Miller Gearhart, Mary Gentle, Molly Gloss, Lisa Goldstein, Eileen Gunn, Elizabeth Hand, Anne Harris, Barbara Hambly, Gwyneth Jones, Janet Kagan, Leigh Kennedy, Nancy Kress, Kathe Koja, R A MacAvoy, Julian May, Judith Moffett, Pat Murphy, Jane Palmer, Rachel Pollack, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Melissa Scott, Joan Slonczewski, Sheri S Tepper, Connie Willis and Sarah Zettel.

Other popular and award-winning writers of the new century are Alma Alexander, Nina Allan, Catherine Asaro, Kage Baker, Elizabeth Bear, Julie E Czerneda, L Timmel Duchamp, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Mira Grant (see Seanan McGuire), Sarah Hall, Nalo Hopkinson, Tanya Huff, Kij Johnson, Kay Kenyon, Ellen Klages, Mary Robinette Kowal, Sue Lange, Sandra McDonald, Maureen F McHugh, Louise Marley, Susan R Matthews, Lyda Morehouse, Chris Moriarty, Linda Nagata, Yvonne Navarro, Ruth Nestvold, Susan Palwick, Severna Park, Cat Rambo, Kristine Smith, Steph Swainston, Rachel Swirsky, Amy Thomson, Mary Turzillo, Catherynne M Valente, Jo Walton, Leslie What and Janine Ellen Young.

As with the genre as a whole, such lists of notable names tend to be dominated by Anglo-American, white authors. There are, however, an increasing number of women of colour writing sf (and fantasy). Best known is the late African-American writer Octavia Butler, whose work first appeared in the 1970s. Other notable writers include Aliette de Bodard, Tananarive Due, Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, N K Jemisin, Karen Lowachee, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Nnedi Okorafor, Nisi Shawl, Vandana Singh and Sheree Renée Thomas.

While a number of influential female writers in the field have been British, there is a relatively small pool of contemporary women writers in the UK, as noted in recent online discussions about the Arthur C Clarke Award. In addition to established authors such as Storm Constantine and Gwyneth Jones, writers hailing from (or now living in) the UK include Jaine Fenn, Mary Gentle, Caitlín R Kiernan, Sarah Hall, Justina Robson, Alison Sinclair, Tricia Sullivan, Sue Thomas, Karen Traviss and Liz Williams.

The Australian sf scene, while much smaller in terms of impact, has a surprisingly strong contingent of female authors (many of whom are predominantly fantasy writers). In the 1950s Norma K Hemming wrote stories for magazines such as Science Fantasy, and has recently had an award named in her honour (see Awards). A few women writers garnered attention in the 1970s and 1980s, including Rosaleen Love, Gillian Rubinstein, Lucy Sussex and Patricia Wrightson. Other contemporary writers include Deborah Biancotti, Isobelle Carmody, Marianne de Pierres, Thoraiya Dyer, Leanne Frahm, Alison Goodman, Sue Isle, Margo Lanagan, Gabrielle Lord, Penelope Love (?   -    ), Maxine McArthur, Michelle Marquardt, Lara Morgan, Sally Odgers, Kate Orman, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sally Rogers-Davidson, Cat Sparks, Kaaron Warren, Kim Westwood and Tess Williams.

From a global perspective, the paucity of translations of non-Anglophone sf effectively obscures many international, non-Western sf writers. Perhaps the largest body of home-grown sf is found in Latin America. Female writers include: Angélica Gorodischer and Magdalena Mouján Otaño in Argentina; Daína Chaviano in Cuba; María Elvira Bermúdez in Mexico; and Marcia Kupstas, Carla Cristina Pereira and Cristina Lasaitis in Brazil. Writers who have achieved recognition in English-language editions include Lauren Beukes in South Africa, Aliette de Bodard in France and Johanna Sinisalo in Finland. In India, Sukanya Datta has published sf/fantasy collections written in English.

In addition, a number of Mainstream writers have made detours into sf, even if their publishers have not always labelled their novels as such. They include Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009); Maureen Duffy with Gor Saga (1981); Zoë Fairbairns with Benefits (1979); Maggie Gee with The Ice People (1998) and others; Cecelia Holland with Floating Worlds (1976); Rhoda Lerman with The Book of the Night (1984); Doris Lessing with the Canopus in Argos series; Joyce Carol Oates with Hazards of Time Travel (2018) and many shorter works; Marge Piercy with Woman on the Edge of Time (1976); Fay Weldon with The Cloning of Joanna May (1989); and Monique Wittig with Les guérillères (1969; trans 1971). Writers as diverse as Jean M Auel, Christine Brooke-Rose, Angela Carter, Anna Kavan, Ayn Rand, Emma Tennant and Christa Wolf are also claimable for sf.

The above lists make no claim to being anything like complete, but their very existence should make it clear that, while women writers of sf may still be outnumbered by men, they are by now far too numerous to be considered rare, and too various to be generalized about or compressed into a subset of "women's sf". Women contribute to all areas of the genre. Where once anthologies of stories entirely by men were customary, they are now more unusual (and indeed, anthologies with few or no women attract swift criticism of editorial practices).

Nevertheless, women sf writers remain much less likely to win the major genre Awards than their male counterparts. Whilst some might argue that this is because they produce less work, there are few reliable figures for comparative output of male and female writers (although some indication might be provided by membership of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which according to the Broad Universe website was roughly 40% women in 2007).

Between 1953, when it was established, and 1967 there were no women winners of the Hugo. From 1968 to 2011 there were 46 awards to women in all the professional fiction categories (just over 20%). All of these were won by only 21 female writers, with most awards taken by Willis (11), Bujold (5) and Le Guin (5), the other winners being: Elizabeth Bear, Octavia E Butler, Charnas, Cherryh, Susanna Clarke, Kagan, Robinette Kowal, Kress, Link, McCaffrey, McHugh, McIntyre, J K Rowling (1965-    ), Rusch, Russ, Tiptree, Vinge and Wilhelm. The figures for the Nebula awards are better; from 1968 to 2011 there were 72 awards to women (about 39%) from a pool of 39 writers. Better again are the results of the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, with 19 of the 40 awards to date going to women. In all cases, more men than women vote.

Have women writers been discriminated against? Such things are hard to quantify or prove, although most women in the field can cite occasional instances of sexism (the editor who declares that sf by women doesn't sell; the disgruntled author who scents a feminist conspiracy when his novel fails to win awards; the claim from an old-time fan that the values of Hard SF are being destroyed by female editors with an innately feminine preference for fantasy). More recently, a number of women writers of Hard SF have talked online about the difficulties of being accepted as a woman writing in this area, and the perceived benefits (to publishers at least) of using a gender-neutral name in this subgenre.

On the whole the "Old Boy Network" of sf has been largely receptive to any women who care to join, even if various generations of male writers and editors have expressed surprise at sf's attraction to women writers and readers. Even after 40 years, there are still significant segments of the sf community that remain oblivious or indifferent to the work of women writers. Whether this stems from ignorance or implicit bias against women's writing, the result is the same: a view of the history and contemporary state of sf that fails to acknowledge the contributions of women in the field.

In 2011, a number of online polls of readers' favourite sf and fantasy works produced lists that were overwhelmingly male (the Guardian "best SF books" and NPR's "Top 100 SF/F books", for example). Such lists suggest that the most obvious examples of continuing sexism are to be found in the more mainstream readership of sf, which remains persistently male-dominated, rather than among the core of dedicated readers of sf in fandom. However, just as the online proliferation of lists, comments and reviews gives expression to a continuing dismissal of women sf writers, so too does it allow the many women now active in sf publishing, editing, writing and Fandom to challenge such marginalization. The debates may continue, but women are undeniably a part of the history and present of the sf field. By 2019, as the shortlists and winners from that year's and subsequent years' Hugo awards amply demonstrate, debates may continue but the war is won. [LT/HM]

see also: Women in SF.

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