women in early sf

flyingcupsBrian Aldiss once argued in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973) that the genre begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818).

Even if we don’t accept Shelley as the founder of science fiction, women still have a claim to co-ownership of the genre.  The truth is, women have always read, purchased, written, and contributed their labor to science fiction; their presence is only invisible to those who aren’t looking.

That presence was, of course, made more visible by the fiction and criticism of writers such as Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin in the 1960s/70s, as well as by the founding of Wiscon in 1977.  However, to maintain that the feminist revolution of the 60s/70s was the starting point for women’s contribution to the genre erases a vast number of female writers, fans, editors, artists, poets, anthologists, and others who contributed their labor, money, devotion, and talent to the genre before the revolution.

On a side note, since I mentioned Wiscon, this is perhaps a good opportunity to sneak in a recommendation for  Flying Cups and Saucers: Gender Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy (2010) by Debbie Notkin, a collection of the best fiction produced by the winners of the James Tiptree Jr. Award, an award presented annually at Wiscon.  Terrific anthology.

But, I digress…

Yes, women have always been a part of the genre.  This doesn’t mean that women’s voices weren’t marginalized at different points in different markets, or that women weren’t patronized or “patted on the head,” so to speak, for their efforts by certain male colleagues.  A few writers from the 1950’s come to mind, as does the term “femfan.”  (See the section below on the 1950s.  Also see Eric Leif Davin’s Partners in Wonder, discussed below.)

For certain women, the struggle to be recognized was painfully real, one with economic as well as other professional consequences.  I have no wish to minimize or deny their histories.  It is true that women had to fight, dodge, ignore, and outwit a number of adversaries in order to participate (and innovate) in all areas of the genre’s production and reception.

Yet, they continued to contribute.  They wrote fiction, screenplays, and poetry; edited and anthologized; organized cons and writing workshops; published fanzines; created cover art; served as literary agents, booksellers, sf librarians, translators, and so on.

It’s that struggle, alongside that enormous amount of time and work, that points to just how committed these women were to the genre.

For women fiction writers, dedication and resilience sometimes paid off with careers. Some, such as C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, garnered fans, earned the respect of colleagues, and generated enduring legacies.  (See the section on Moore and Brackett below.)

I offer Moore and Brackett as examples because I’m familiar with both due to the nature of my research, but the growing number of histories and biographies highlighting other women writers leads us to the same conclusion:

Women were (and are) an integral part of the genre. 

They worked toward its success.  They put in the time. They shaped the genre in a manner that demands that any serious study of the genre acknowledge their influence and co-ownership.

To say that women were simply “not there” before 1970–a claim I have heard recently from friends outside the genre who have heard or read about the recent events at Worldcon, and the claim that finally pushed me to write this post–is to erase a network of influences that extends throughout the body of sf’s history.  Subtracting those influences would be like removing part of the skeletal system: suddenly, we have a body that doesn’t make sense, one that can’t stand straight unless it’s propped up by willful ignorance.

Additionally, when we ignore the history of women’s participation in the genre, we also erase the efforts of men within the genre to promote such participation.  We paint all men in the early history of the genre, including all male writers, fans, and editors, with a sexist brush and lose their actions as advocates for their female contemporaries.  We deny that men were fans of women’s work.  That they collaborated with female authors.  That they were influenced by them. We erase their fanzine reviews, fan letters, awards votes, book purchases, scholarship and criticism, and, in general, their loyalty to their favorite female authors. We deny that they were mentors to (or mentored by) female authors.  We deny that male and female fans and authors could be close and trusted friends.

Sadly, the male fans and writers in the genre today cannot refer to these men as models because they do not know they exist.  Recent controversies have made it clear that some male fans today believe that the genre has always operated according to an adversarial, male vs. female model–or, that women only recently began to participate in the genre. This is not to excuse any recent bad behavior on the part of male fans; however, if the full history were better-known, it would render sweeping claims along the lines of “sf is an all-male genre and women have never been present or welcome” ridiculous.  While women did have to consistently fight for their place in the face of a male majority–and, just as today, fight against the threat of erasure–they weren’t always alone in that fight.  There were some men standing at their sides, writing by their sides, and their support of their female contemporaries should not be erased, either.

Rather than focus attention on some mythical “pure” past, when men were men and sf was sf, perhaps we should instead look backward to highlight and learn what we can from examples of collaboration, cooperation, and mutual respect.

Read for Yourself

If you’d like to explore the history of women in sf further, I recommend the anthologies and scholarly studies below.  All highly readable, they represent some of my favorites.

salmonsonIt’s not surprising that women would be interested in genre fiction in the short story form in the early twentieth century given that women writers dominated the short story magazine market in the nineteenth century, particularly in the area of supernatural fiction.

For an informative introductory essay regarding this period and a terrific collection of fiction, see Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s What Did Miss Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction (1989).

Salmonson’s anthology concludes with a list of recommended reading for the twentieth century, including works by Joan Aiken, Angela Carter, Mildred Clingerman, Isak Dinesen, Marguerite Duras, Ellen Glasgow, Zenna Henderson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jamaica Kincaid, Tanith Lee, Joyce Carol Oates, Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, among many others.

darkersexMike Ashley’s anthology, The Darker Sex: Tales of the Supernatural and Macabre by Victorian Women Writers, serves as another example of an enjoyable introduction to this period and its writers. This anthology features fiction by George Eliot, Edith Nesbit, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Mary E. Braddon, among many other superb writers.

A few other notable authors who extended the women’s supernatural fiction tradition into the twentieth century include Dorothy Sayers, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, and Agatha Christie.

Daphne du Maurier’s “The Blue Lenses” (1959), available in the anthology, The Others by Terry Carr, is among my personal favorites.   Cynthia Asquith‘s God “Grante That She Lye Stille” (1930), which is collected in The Venus Factor by Roger Elwood, is another creepy story with a feminist undertone.  This anthology also includes Agatha Christie’s disturbing tale, “The Last Séance” (1926).

Some of these writers were also editors and anthologists, as one might expect.  See, for example, the horror/sf anthology edited by Dorothy Sayers, Human and Inhuman Stories (1963).

daringtodreamIn addition to women’s involvement in the supernatural fiction market, women writers in the 19th century were also carrying on a long-standing tradition of women’s utopian ficton.  See this list of pre-1923 feminist utopias.  See, for example, The Blazing World, written in 1666 by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

Two scholarly treatments of this subject include Daring to Dream: Utopian Stories by United States Women, 1836-1919 by Carol Farley Kessler and Dream Revisionaries: Gender and Genre in Women’s Utopian Fiction, 1870-1920 by Darby Lewes.

What happened to this tradition of women’s utopian fiction?  Some argue it migrated to the pulps either before or after the Depression.  Both Eric Leif Davin and Jane Donawerth offer hypotheses on this point.  See Davin’s Partners in Wonder and Donawerth’s article, “Science Fiction by Women in the Early Pulps, 1926-1930.”  Davin argues that the Depression encouraged sf pulp editors to court female readership and female authors in order to gain more readers.  Donawerth believes that the Depression forced women out of the pulp market; she asserts that female writers returned after WW II, the very period that Davin seems to believe initiated the erasure.

dreamrevisionariesHowever, Donawerth and Davin agree in the sense that they both find that  the female-authored sf of the (late 20’s) pulps has certain characteristics, such as having a more empathetic view towards aliens (Donawerth 138).  Donawerth’s article details how many of these utopian pulp stories involved a re-visioning of labor, home design, war, government, reproduction, education, marriage, and male-female roles. While some stories tended to present exceptional women “as exceptions” or preserve separate spheres for men and women, these stories sometimes also offered fascinating technological and socialist utopias from a female point of view (143). Other authors, such as Leslie F. Stone, Louise Rice, and Clare Winger Harris emphasized suffrage and equality of the sexes, with Stone presenting a female astronaut in a world in which “sex made no difference” (144).

thedreamingsexTwo anthologies that provide helpful commentary and context for this period are fairly recent anthologies by the British writer and bibliographer, Mike Ashley.

The first is The Dreaming Sex: Tales of Scientific Imagination by Women (2011) and the second is The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers (2015).  The fiction featured in these anthologies exceeded my expectations; Ashley’s selections were excellent–intriguing, well-written, and comprising a variety of perspectives and styles.

Because I’m recommending three works by Ashely in this post, I should point out that I have no financial interest in the sale of his works.  I merely appreciate how he selects and introduces his texts, as they run to my taste.

partnersEric Leif Davin’s Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965 (2005) organizes the results of Davin’s review of the genre’s authorship records from 1926 to 1965.

Davin concludes that over a hundred women women were regularly writing for the science fiction markets during this period under recognizably female bylines.  (This number doesn’t include the women writing under androgynous or male-sounding pseudonyms.)  While some authors sought to conceal their identities as pulp writers, in no case could Davin find an example of a female writer during this period intentionally trying to hide her gender from the sf community.

Davin’s main argument regarding the erasure of women from the history of science fiction concerns the actions and claims made by male editors, writers, and anthologists in the 50s, around the same time that sf was first presented to mainstream audiences in hardcover form.  These men made statements to the effect that authors such as C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett had to hide their identities under pseudonyms in order to publish (see the section on Moore and Brackett), even though Moore herself denied this in interviews and even though Brackett was born with the name Leigh.  Male industry members–not all, but some, and with enough power–presented a picture of early sf in which women were absent.  This became the new party line.  It was so effective that some male sf writers who had been married to one or more female sf writers writing during this period repeatedly maintained that women didn’t write for the sf pulps. (Read the book.)  The tacit goal, it appears, was to create a true “boys’ club” out of science fiction.

(As an alternate hypothesis, Davin argues that it is possible these male writers, editors, and anthologists devalued women’s sf to the point where they simply didn’t recall that women wrote for the pulps–or, perhaps, that they didn’t remember it because they choose not to read women’s pulp sf when it was being published.)

And, it appeared to work.  When the feminist sf revolution occurred in the 60s/70s, some feminist writers during this period believed that the early history of sf was empty of women (and why wouldn’t they, packaged as it was as “history”-?), which lent some credence to the myths perpetrated in the 50s.  Grandmaster Connie Willis and others have talked about this unfortunate phenomenon at different points and in different venues, and you will find their comments in Partners in Wonder.  See also Willis’s introduction to A Woman’s Liberation (2001) and her 1992 guest editorial in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. 

I want to stress that I don’t think feminists–and I would include myself in that category–are responsible for this erasure of a tradition of women’s authorship.  Rather, they believed what had been accepted as the genre’s history, they believed what appeared to be reasonable conclusions based on names such as Moore’s and Brackett’s, and they believed their eyes.  Meaning, the climate in the 50s towards women’s sf was hostile at times and in different ways, and there was  fallout from that hostility still evident in the 60s.  By this time, men as well believed that sf had always been (and therefore, perhaps, was supposed to be) an all-male club.  Review the anthologies from that period, as I have, and you will find some pretty blatant sexism, even in contexts where women are supposedly being “praised.”  The subtext is clear: “You, lady sf writer, should be grateful that we’re allowing you to participate…”  It’s wearying to simply read about this period; I can only imagine what it was like to live through it.  (See the section below on the 50s.)

Finally, back to Partners in Wonder and the pulp period…Davin’s study documents women’s substantial contributions to fandom, which included organizing conventions and publishing fanzines, as well as the existence of female Big Name Fans.  Davin also chronicles the substantial history of women serving as editors, writing poetry, creating art, participating in fan clubs, and anthologizing, among other forms of fan and paid labor.  This, I think, is one of the most valuable aspects of this book.  Davin goes to great lengths to detail women’s myriad contributions to the genre, which can sometimes be overshadowed by a one-dimensional discussion of whether or not women were publishing fiction in the pulps and slicks.  He clearly is passionate about arming the reader with facts to support the argument that women are co-owners of the genre due to their contributions as writers, but also due to their contributions as fans and as industry professionals.

Also see Lisa Yaszek’s upcoming project:

Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction. Co-edited with Patrick B. Sharp (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming January 2016).
This anthology shows how women contributed to the development of modern science fiction between 1880 and 1950. It explores how women used their diverse roles as authors, artists, science writers, editors and fans to shape science fiction as a distinct popular form and to participate in debates about the necessary relations of science, society, and gender. It features a wide range of writing and artwork by women involved with the early science fiction community as well as critical essays and headnotes by the editors and a concluding essay by contemporary award-winning science fiction author Kathleen Ann Goonan.

daughtersofearthFor a critical anthology covering several key texts from the pulp period and mid-century, see Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (2006) by Justine Larbalestier.

I’m particularly eager to recommend this anthology because the editor and critics involved showcased two well-written and thought-provoking texts from the pulp period: The Fate of the Poseidonia (1927) by Clare Winger Harris and The Conquest of Gola (1931) by Leslie F. Stone.  The texts are accompanied by scholarly articles by Jane Donawerth and Brian Attebery, respectively.

To skip ahead a bit:  The rest of the anthology features fiction and criticism pertaining to the 1950s through the early 21st century.  This is a remarkably fine collection of fiction and scholarship; accordingly, I’m going to provide the ISFDB entries for your perusal:

bestofmooreC. L. Moore–or “Catherine the Great,” in the words of superfan Forrest J. Ackerman, who collaborated with Moore on the short story, “Nymph of Darkness” (1935)–influenced  contemporaries at Weird Tales and then Astounding, as well as her friends in the Lovecraft Circle.

Robert E. Howard, author of Conan, was among Moore’s fans. Howard shared unpublished work with Moore and considered it an honor  to have been able to collaborate with her on the short story, “The Challenge from Beyond” (1935).  (See the introductions and essays in Robert E. Wagner’s Echoes of Valor II and Sam Moskowitz’s Horrors Unknown.)

Moore was also greatly admired by writers such as her friend, Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho), who gave an address in her honor at Denvention Two.  Bloch recalled that when he first met her in person in 1937, it was already clear that “[e]ven then, like all your readers, fans and fellow-writers, we were ready to swear that you were going to make it. Your talent and imagination were already beginning to revolutionize the genre…” (Denvention Two program).

CLM-REH -1935-01-29 - 1

Correspondence between C. L. Moore and Robert E. Howard, Jan. 29, 1935

It’s important to point out that, contrary to the myth, Moore never concealed her gender in order to publish in the pulps, although she did attempt to hide her identity as a pulp writer from her employers, hence the initials.  (See Moore’s correspondence in the 30s with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert H. Barlow.  See also Moore’s interviews in the 70s with Dee Doyle, Byron Roark, and Jeffrey Elliot, in which she stated several times that she never sought to conceal her gender.  See also Moore’s Afterword to The Best of C. L. Moore.)

Moore made no attempt to hide her gender from the sf community, and the fact that she was female was well-known as early as 1935, if not earlier.  Moore’s readers knew to refer to “Miss Moore” in their letters to the editor, and correspondence between writers Clark Ashton Smith (who was among Moore’s fans) and Donald Wandrei refer to her as “Miss Moore” as early as February 1935.  Moore herself signed a letter to the editor of Weird Tales as “Miss Catherine Moore” in October 1935.  Except for a brief period of at most a year, Moore’s gender wasn’t a secret to any of the male editors, writers, and fans who celebrated her work throughout the pulp period.

This revelation made no perceptible difference to fans, nor to her fellow writers and competitors at Astounding.   In 1935, E. E. “Doc” Smith, the “Father of Space Opera”, wrote a fan letter to Astounding in response to her first science fiction story, “Bright Illusion” (1934), what might be viewed as pulp science fiction’s first successful “love story.”  Smith praised “Miss Moore’s” story profusely, remarking that “I perceive in her ‘Bright Illusion’ a flame of sublimity” (Astounding January 1935).  (Meanwhile, she continued to win Reader’s Choice awards for her weird fantasy series, Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith, in Weird Tales.)

“Bright Illusion” remained a genre favorite for many years.  In 1966, Laurence M. Janifer asked twenty major authors and editors in the field to pick five stories for inclusion in an honor roll anthology. Moore and Kuttner together ranked as the fourth “most often cited” author, below Heinlein, Sturgeon, and Fritz Leiber, but above twenty-eight other authors, including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and H. G. Wells. Moore was the only author to have each of her stories nominated more than once. Of the three tiers created by number of votes, “Vintage Season” ranked in the top, “No Woman Born” in the second, and “Bright Illusion” in the third (despite not being reprinted since 1934). (See Laurence M. Janifer, 18 Greatest Science Fiction Stories. Originally entitled: Master’s Choice. New York: Tempo Books, 1966.)

Moore’s influence was felt for decades, including in the much later work of Robert Silverberg, who wrote In Another Country (1990) to serve as a sequel to Moore’s short story, “Vintage Season” (1946).

Poul Anderson also credited Moore as an influence and, like Silverberg, was a fan.  In his introduction to Pulp Voices, he remarks: “My first C. L. Moore story, ‘There Shall Be Darkness,’ was a revelation…It was gorgeously romantic, evocative, emotional, and poetic…I will never forget the awesomeness of ‘Judgment Night’ or the poignancy of ‘No Woman Born’…If I have managed here and there to use language a bit strikingly myself—that is for you, the reader, to decide—then a considerable part of the reason has been that I read her” (Anderson 7).

Moore, of course, also influenced her younger friend, Leigh Brackett, a science fiction writer and the wife of Edmond Hamilton, also a science fiction writer.  Moore’s husband, Henry Kuttner, served as Brackett’s mentor early in her career, and the four writers were fast friends, corresponding regularly and sometimes vacationing together.

brackettLeigh Brackett–aka, “The Queen of Space Opera”–was greatly admired by a number of writers, including Marion Zimmer Bradley and Michael Moorcock.

According to Rosemarie Arbur in Brackett, Bradley, and MacCaffrey: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1982), Bradley, who considered herself heavily indebted to Brackett, once remarked that her only regret was that she “waited too long” to dedicate a work to Brackett (xxxiii).

Meanwhile, Moorcock and his fellow writers were holding informal writing contests to determine who could best imitate Brackett. See Moorcock’s introduction to Martian Quest: The Early Brackett (2002) from Haffner Press.

See Haffner Press’s other volumes of Brackett’s work (Stark and the Star Kings; Lorelei of the Red Mist: Planetary Romances; Shannach – The Last: Farewell to Mars) for introductions by Anne McCaffrey, Harry Turtledove, and John Jakes.  (Disclaimer: Haffner Press published my chapbook, C. L. Moore: Significance to the Genre.)

northwestMoore and Brackett also are associated with one of the genre’s most iconic examples of filmic sf: Star Wars.

Brackett, of course, wrote the first draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back  shortly before her passing.

Moore’s pulp hero, Northwest Smith, the wise-cracking outlaw with the “crooked grin,” is believed by some to have been the prototype for Han Solo.

(See Brian Attebery’s comments on this topic in Fifty Key Figures, as well as Thomas Bertonneau’s articles on Moore in Anthropoetics and the New York Review of Science Fiction in 2000 and 2007, respectively.  Personally, having read the Northwest Smith series, I think this is a reasonable conclusion: either Han was based on Northwest, or he was based on a character created by one of Moore’s imitators.)

hansoloMoore and Brackett are also good examples of female writers who were mentored by male authors.  For example, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore’s husband, was a mentor to  Leigh Brackett early in her career.  See Brackett’s essay, “My Friend, Henry Kuttner” in Etchings & Odysseys #4.

Moore, herself, was mentored by H. P. Lovecraft. Although I do not believe they ever met in person, they engaged in extensive correspondence from April 1935 through December 1936.

During this period, Moore also received publishing and other industry-related advice from influential sf fan Robert Hayward Barlow, who corresponded with Moore from March 1934 through February 1940.  She also was an enthusiastic member of the fan community.  By 1936, Moore could count among her correspondents Robert E. Howard, E. Hoffman Price, Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, and influential fans Forrest Ackerman, Herman Koenig, Stuart Morton Boland, and Charles Hornig. We know from this correspondence that she visited or was visited by several writers and fans, including Hornig, Barlow, and Kuttner.

Finally, both Moore and Brackett are examples of women writers whose influence crossed genre boundaries.  Brackett, of course, co-wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep (1945) and wrote the screenplay for The Long Goodbye (1973).

Moore began her career by making a splash in weird fantasy via Weird Tales; moved on to pen several classics of sf; then, with Henry Kuttner, wrote mysteries and detective novels; and eventually, after Kuttner’s passing, wrote for tv Westerns and detective series.  See Brian Attebery’s “Fifty Key Figures” in which he discusses Moore’s scripts for television: Maverick (1961), 77 Sunset Strip (1960, 1962), and the “unconventional western Sugarfoot (1958-59)” (172). Moore also wrote for the short-lived series, The Alaskans (Byron Roark. “Interview: C. L. Moore Talks to Chacal.” CHACAL Winter 1976: 25-31).

galacticThe 50s were a time when women’s history was suppressed in an effort to underwrite the attempt to get women back in the kitchen, and science fiction was no exception. Several of the myths and erasures regarding the early history of women in sf can be traced back to statements made during this period.  (See Eric Leif Davin’s Partners in Wonder.)

And yet, women wrote…

Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (2008) by Lisa Yaszek covers this period in depth and is a very enjoyable, informative read.  While writing about the genre from an appreciative, yet resolutely critical, perspective, Yaszek makes this period come alive.

The description on Amazon is a little long but, I think, worth including here:

In this groundbreaking cultural history, Lisa Yaszek recovers a lost tradition of women’s science fiction that flourished after 1945. This new kind of science fiction was set in a place called galactic suburbia, a literary frontier that was home to nearly 300 women writers. These authors explored how women’s lives, loves, and work were being transformed by new sciences and technologies, thus establishing women’s place in the American future imaginary.

Yaszek shows how the authors of galactic suburbia rewrote midcentury culture’s assumptions about women’s domestic, political, and scientific lives. Her case studies of luminaries such as Judith Merril, Carol Emshwiller, and Anne McCaffrey and lesser-known authors such as Alice Eleanor Jones, Mildred Clingerman, and Doris Pitkin Buck demonstrate how galactic suburbia is the world’s first literary tradition to explore the changing relations of gender, science, and society.

Galactic Suburbia challenges conventional literary histories that posit men as the progenitors of modern science fiction and women as followers who turned to the genre only after the advent of the women’s liberation movement.

As Yaszek demonstrates, stories written by women about women in galactic suburbia anticipated the development of both feminist science fiction and domestic science fiction written by men. (See Galactic Suburbia on Amazon)


Judith Merril

Both Galactic Suburbia and Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin (previously mentioned) document the experiences of several 50s women writers, such as those of Judith Merril, who received harsh treatment in the 50s at the hands of a contingent of male writers and editors who sought to transform science fiction into a properly masculine boy’s club.

Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin (previously mentioned) also documents the experiences of several 50s writers, such as Judith Merril, who received harsh treatment in the 50s at the hands of a contingent of male writers and editors who sought to transform science fiction into a properly masculine boy’s club.

This contingent criticized Merril’s fiction as too domestic.  Too feminine.

As Newell and Lamont note:

Writers such as C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, although innovative space-travel authors in their own right, did not write so brazenly about topics—such as families, children, marriage, home, and everyday life—that were conventionally marked as ‘feminine’ and ‘domestic’ and eschewed by advocates of a more ‘manly’ science fiction. In its day, a leading critic and colleague, Damon Knight, dismissed some of Merril’s later fiction as sentimental, romantic, and, in the extreme view, ‘sweat-and-tears-and-baby-urine variety,’ ‘kitchen-sink’ science fiction. (62)

(See Diane Newell and Victoria Lamont’s “Daughter of Earth: Judith Merril and the Intersections of Gender, Science Fiction, and Frontier Mythology.” Science Fiction Studies 36:(1) (2009). 48-66.)

Given the events of 2015, one cannot help but think that history is repeating itself…What would have been lost had Merril succumbed to the “girls get out” attitude of some of her peers during this period?

Thankfully, she didn’t.  Lisa Yaszek’s Galactic Surburbia discusses the importance of Merril’s contribution to science fiction during this period in detail.

englandswingsNor did Merril lose her sense of devotion to the genre.  Merril, it should be noted, is quite important to the history of sf.  By the end of her career, she’d served as one of the first female members of the fan group, The Futurians; collaborated on several novels with C. M. Kornbluth; edited an influential Best Of series; edited the influential New Wave anthology, England Swings SF (1968); co-founded the Milford Writers’ Conference in Milford, Pennsylvania; endowed the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy at the Toronto Public Library; founded the Hydra North network of writers in Canada; introduced Canadian broadcasts of Doctor Who between 1978 to 1981 as the “Undoctor”; edited the first Tesseract, an anthology of Canadian science fiction; and initiated  projects to encourage the translation of Japanese science fiction into English. (The anthology, Speculative Japan, edited by Grania Davis, is dedicated to Merril for this reason.)

The Women of Wonder Series (1940s – 1990s)


The Women of Wonder series edited by Pamela Sargent

This extensive anthology series consists of five volumes, the last being Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years (1995).

Serving as a somewhat marvelous chronicle, this is an indispensable series for anyone interested in female-authored SF,  feminist SF, and the sophisticated identity/gender-related fiction that would follow and that continues to be produced today.

Selected for inclusion were some of the most provocative pieces from each time period covered, beginning with the late 40’s.  Volume One introduces the new reader to widely-anthologized classics such as Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother,” Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang,” Joanna Russ’s “Nobody’s Home,” and Vonda McIntyre’s “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand.”  Two particularly savvy but perhaps less well-known pieces concerning gender and identity include “Contagion” by Katherine Maclean (in which members of a landing party must adopt a standard “body” in order to survive conditions on an alien planet) and the sardonic “When I Was Miss Dow” by Sonya Dorman (in which the near reverse occurs: natives of a planet adopt customized bodies and “gender” in order to infiltrate the ranks of colonizers), the latter being one of my personal favorites. Also worth noting is Kit Reed’s disturbing sketch of a woman “imprisoned” by her body image in “Food Farm.”

Volume Two, More Women of Wonder, covers much the same time period (1935-1974), beginning with C. L. Moore’s daring weird fantasy pulp heroine, Jirel of Joiry, an armor-clad warrioress and rescuer of men.  Although not technically science fiction, the story sets an appropriate tone for an anthology that also includes Joanna Russ’s female pirate, the ultra-cynical, ultra-competent Alyx.

Volume Three, The New Women of Wonder, offers a number of classic texts from the 60’s and 70’s, including the stylistically-daring “The Heat Death of the Universe” by Pamela Zoline, a classic of  New Wave science fiction; “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr.; and “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ.  Interspersed among these classics are a number of unique visions and a few self-reflexive texts, in that they either comment on the genre or on feminism, such as Kit Reed’s tongue-in-cheek tale of a liberation movement in “Songs of War” and Eleanor Arnason’s satire of early pulp heroines in “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons.”  Also of note is Josephine Saxton’s surreal “The Triumphant Head.”

Volume Four, Women of Wonder: The Classic Years, reprints material covered in prior volumes but also adds C. L. Moore’s classic “female cyborg”/Frankenstein text, “No Woman Born” and Margaret St. Clair’s edgy tale of a female soldier in “Short in the Chest,” among other delightful pieces.

Volume Five, Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, draws its texts from the years 1978 to 1994.  While it is perhaps too soon to refer to some of the later texts as classics, certain texts stand out as works that have garnered attention in academia, such as Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” and Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love,” the story of a young girl whose mind is transplanted into that of a chimpanzee.  Both of these are among my personal favorites.

New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow (1910s – 1990s)

New Eves

New Eves, 1994, eds Janrae Frank, Jean Stine, and Forrest J. Ackerman

Despite some flaws (including a prodigious number of typos), for those with no experience in the genre, New Eves serves as an enjoyable introduction to the breadth of topics taken up by 20th century female science fiction writers.

This lengthy anthology offers everything from early 20th century matriarchies (Leslie Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola,” 1931) and role reversals (Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island,” 1918) to early challenges to conventional notions of masculinity/femininity (Leslie Perri’s “Space Episode,” 1941) to the merciless dissection of gender and identity offered up in the fiction of such writers as James Tiptree, Jr. and Ursula Le Guin.  Those interested in themes of communication and empathy will find ample material, as will those in search of depictions of women as friends, mothers, wives, social leaders, astronauts, survivors, and heroines.

Perhaps most importantly, New Eves contains examples of powerful writing and skillful executions of science-fictional concepts by authors who are, unfortunately, better known outside the genre for their mainstream, mystery, or other types of fiction.  Thus, the anthology helps to reclaim and publicize their work within sf, as well as to showcase exceptional work by more well-known sf authors.

You might start with the following: “Friend Island,” “The Conquest of Gola,” “Idol’s Eye,” “A Sense of Duty,” “Bluewater Dreams,” “Death Between the Stars,” “The Snows are Melted, The Snows are Gone,” “Changeling,” “Fears,” “Speech Sounds,” and “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things.”

I encourage you to find your own favorites.


* The history sketched here is obviously limited to that of Anglophone science fiction.  At this time, I am not aware of any histories of women’s participation in non-Anglophone traditions.  If you have this information, I’d be grateful if you could share it in a comment on this post.


About jennre

Lifelong sf fan, first-time blogger
This entry was posted in 1926 and earlier, 1926-1939, 1940-1945, 1946-1959, gender and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to women in early sf

  1. Jen says:

    Thanks for this amazing list! My site reader found you post and I’m so glad it did. I have a couple of the anthologies on this list, including the excellent “what did miss Darrington see?” , and I look forward to finding the more obscure one that you mentioned. Thanks for making this.

  2. Sybylla says:

    This was amazing! Thank you so much for this text and all this wonderful information. 😀

  3. Denny Lien says:

    LOCUS listed as forthcoming circa January 2016 a new relevant anthology, SISTERS OF TOMORROW, which you’ll likely want to cite when it’s available — see description at

    While looking for a link to the above, I happened on a relevant Wikipedia page which may also be worth a look and a link — for one thing, it reminded me of THE BLAZING WORLD, probably the earliest sf novel by a woman,


    and of some recently renewed interest because of tie-in between Cavendish’s book and the mythos in Alan Moore’s LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN graphic novels (of course, “Gentlemen” in the title notwithstanding, the leader of that group is Mina Harker).


  4. jennre says:

    Thanks, Denny! I’ve added the material on Yaszek’s upcoming project. Sounds exciting!

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  6. iansales says:

    Some posts you might find useful:

    Women writing sf – critical works: http://iansales.com/2014/07/04/women-writing-sf-critical-works/

    Women-only science fiction anthologies: http://iansales.com/2014/04/17/women-only-science-fiction-anthologies/

    More women-only science fiction anthologies: http://iansales.com/2014/06/16/more-on-women-only-science-fiction-anthologies/

    There’s also the SF Mistressworks site which reviews 20th centiry and earlier science fiction by women: https://sfmistressworks.wordpress.com/

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  8. Denny Lien says:

    I was just alerted to an article in the latest NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION that you’ll want to look at:


  9. Denny Lien says:

    Here’s a very long and detailed (and very favorable) analysis/review of Mike Ashley’s FEMININE FUTURE anthology, which I think you’ll find of interest:

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