When It Changed: A Personal Look at Women and Science Fiction

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Laurie D. T. Mann

(A personal look at women & science fiction, written in 1993 for a magazine symposium on the topic. Due to procrastination, I don't think I sent it in on time. So...)

"Katy drives like a maniac..."

If there's any one line that sticks with me when I think about '70s SF, it's that one.

I started reading SF when I was a kid in the '60s, but stopped when I was about ten. I don't know why I stopped. I've never been ladylike or apologetic about being a smart, opinionated person. It's inconceivable if people had told me "Girls don't read sci-fi," that I would have listened.

When I started reading SF on my own again in 1973, I found it mind-expanding. One of my first exposures to SF was Damon Knight's Orbit anothologies. Published during late '60s and early '70s, they contained many fascinating stories, but it helped to reinforce the notion that SF was male-dominated. Reading Orbits, with their strong Wilhelm and Vinge stories, taught me this wasn't always the case.

Then I picked up Again, Dangerous Visions. Ellison's gushing intro to "When It Changed," told me this story was going to be something different. And it was different... ...and that's when it, my vision of SF, changed. (A '90s note: Even in 1973, Ellison's little sexist zap in the intros really bothered me. Why the hell should readers care that the female writer looked better in a bikini than the male editors who had rejected her work? Ellison perpetuated real-life male chauvinism while supporting Russ's vision of a feminist utopia. Such is this culture, even to this day!)

Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" taught me that it was the women, not the men, who were truly having the "dangerous visions" about SF and society. Katy and Janet were lovers with three daughters. Men "discovered" Whileaway but no one really knew what to do with them because they were superfluous. The individual women were not in immediate danger from these alien invaders, but the culture of women was on its way to obliteration and the protagonist knew it.

The next "dangerous vision" I read was Ursula K. Le Guin's superb The Left Hand of Darkness. The king was pregnant, and no one could rely on sex roles to provide cues about the characters. The book is rich and more a romance than you might glean from a casual reading. (As I update this essay for the WWW in the fall of 1994, Walker Publications has just republished a hardback edition of this book, with some additional essays by Le Guin.)

I've read these works as a teenager, a young mother, and now as a middle-aged woman with a career. As a feminist, I find that the Russ story has aged a better than the Le Guin novel. It still has a certain freshness, as if our society has changed little in the last twenty years. It's a major kick for me to read about women who fight duels and how they attempt to deal with the ultimate in the clueless men.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by contrast, feels dated. It is an older story, written a few years before "When It Changed." The parts that irritate me the most are portions of the story narrated by Genly Ai. Is it that Genly is a sexist individual, or is it his culture? Le Guin was a wise enough writer that the portions narrated by Estraven do not have this feature. Genly is the "stranger in a strange land" and Estraven is writing about home.

In the more than twenty years since those works were written, many things have changed in society. Women now comprise over half the work force and over half the students in colleges. More men are actively raising their children. Adults have more control over their reproduction---anatomy is not necessarily reproductive destiny. The proliferation of technology is a reminder that intelligence and adaptability, not mere physical strength, now drives this society.

Some things, sadly, have regressed. The feminist and anti-gay backlashes have been painful to watch. The looney fringe led by folks like Jim Jones and David Koresh (and their "establishment counterparts," Pat Buchanan and Phylis Schlafly), has been very painful to watch. (A '90s note: The Eagle Forum has been using women's BBS groups to propagandize, but the postings for this ostensibly "women's group" are made by a man!) Seeing all-too-frequent misogynist, homophobic, and racist comments on BBSes has been painful to read. Finding out from your adolescent daughter that she's treated badly by her peers in part because she'd rather not play girl games has been painful to listen to. (The '94 elections have been painful to watch, too!)

While society's gains have been mixed, women have made enormous gains in the science fiction field over the last twenty years. Women are in leadership positions throughout the field, as editors, publishers, agents, and writers. About the only position where women are still dramatically underrepresented is that of the professional artist. Twenty years ago, writers like Russ, Le Guin, Delany, McIntyre, Wilhelm, and Tiptree presented variants on the traditional gender roles, variants still being experimented with now. Now, Yolen, Varley, Mixon, Scott, Lackey and other writers are continuing to push the envelope. (A '90s note: I suspect Beth Meacham is being treated better in the publishing field now, than Marilyn Hacker was thirty years ago. Check out Delany's superb memoir The Motion of Light on Water for his thoughts on women in publishing in the early '60s.)

Society is a trickier nut to crack. While folks in the field love to discuss their assorted forms of literacy, many folks out in "the real world" don't have this trait. Taking my cue from "When It Changed" again:

I do not like to think of myself mocked, of Katy deferred to as if she were weak, of Yuki make to feel unimportant or silly, of my other children cheated of their full humanity or turned into strangers.

These attitudes persist. Even now, I find myself reminding folks that my husband is not useless in the kitchen or as a parent because he's a man, that my daughter is not unfit to be a scientist because she is a girl, and that, yes, I really have managed most of the family finances for the last seventeen years.

There are little things we can to "don't forget the women," as Abagail Adams reminded her husband over 200 years ago. As a technical writer, I always includes women in my examples and procedures, perhaps to the point of over representation. When I wrote fiction, I wrote about varied individuals of all sexes, cultures, and strengths, but I particularly wanted to write about women. And as a reader, I want to read about characters and ideas that will continue to broaden my ideas of the possible.