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Publisher: Bluejack

June, 2004 : Sub-Genre Spotlight:

Feminist SF

Futures for Humankind

Since Mary Shelley invented the genre with Frankenstein (1818), science fiction writers have been inventing new technologies, creating new lifeforms, visualizing distant planets, and envisioning the future. They've imagined sweeping scientific and technological change. But what they did not imagine, in SF's first century and a half, was social change. With rare exceptions, the early SF writers' new worlds and times presented the same sex roles as Ozzie and Harriet.

The exceptions include the utopian novels Mizora (1890), by Mary E. Bradley Lane, and Herland (1917), by Charlotte Perkins Gilman—women both. But few women wrote SF in the nineteenth century or the first six decades of the twentieth century, and most of them (Shelley included) joined the men in upholding the sexual status quo. It's true Marion Zimmer Bradley began her influential Darkover series in 1958, but its most significant novels appeared in the 1970s and after. Andre Norton's SF evinced dissatisfaction with patriarchy, but her most feminist creation, the Witch World series (begun in 1963), is fantasy.

Ironically, most of the mid-twentieth-century SF challenging the sexual status quo was written by men. In The Disappearance (1951), Philip Wylie envisioned a world from which all the men have disappeared—and all the women have disappeared. Each sex finds itself living suddenly on a single-sex Earth, and forced to assume all the roles and responsibilities of the missing sex (the novel even raises the question, radical for the early 1950s, of same-sex relations). Other significant proto-feminist SF works of this pre-feminist period are John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" (1956) and Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960).

Then came the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s-70s. Women were demanding, and achieving, new and expanded roles for themselves (and men) in society. These changes naturally found expression in SF, the literature that envisions new futures and allows the imagining of worlds free from our historical and cultural biases and restraints.

Many of the women writers exploding into SF in the 1970s issued radical challenges to the sexual status quo. The word "radical" is not used lightly: much feminist SF from this period still shocks. In stories like "The Women Men Don't See" (1973), "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976), and "The Screwfly Solution" (1977), James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon) provided no hope that men and women would ever get along. In Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Marge Piercy envisioned a truly egalitarian future—one that is, however, accessible only to a contemporary woman certified as crazy. In Walk to the End of the World (1974), Suzy McKee Charnas portrayed a brutal dystopia in which women are dehumanized as "fems" and blamed for nearly destroying the world. Its sequel, Motherlines (1978), is even more disturbing, presenting an independent, women-only culture that reproduces parthogenetically; this description doesn't begin to suggest the shocks in this book. For many readers, Joanna Russ's novel The Female Man (1975), in which the battle of the sexes becomes literal war, is even more disturbing. For others, the most disturbing feminist SF work is Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which imagines a planet of humans who are neither male nor female. They have no gender, except during that time of the month, when they may become either men or women.

In the 1980s, Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) envisioned a fundamentalist Christian takeover of America with horrific oppression of women. Unlike some 1970s feminist SF, The Handmaid's Tale offers a glimmer of hope—an optimism that strengthens in the feminist SF of subsequent decades.

At the start of the new millennium, woman's status in the West is greatly improved, but inequities still exist, and feminist SF is still vital. Since 1989, L. Timmel Duchamp has illuminated female (and human) problems and potentialities in stories that range from alternate history to far-future SF; five of her speculative fictions (three new) are collected in Love's Body, Dancing in Time (2004). Nicola Griffith's Ammonite (1992) creates a women-only world that is healthy and whole. Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower (1996) and its sequel, Parable of the Talents (2000), portray a woman who founds a new religion in opposition to the collapse of near-future America. Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine (1997) looks beyond North American concerns to consider the real-world, contemporary practice of female castration.

The following list can only suggest the full range of feminist SF. I've confined each author's book-length fiction to a single entry (novel or collection), to prevent the list from becoming unwieldy. Authors marked with an asterick are essential feminist SF authors, and most or all their SF is relevant. Good starting places for further exploration are the entries "Feminism," "Sex," "Women as Portrayed in Science Fiction," and "Women SF Writers" in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993), edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. Good online starting places are Laura Quilter's "Feminist SF/F & Utopian Literature: A Checklist;" L. Timmel Duchamp's "Science Fiction and Utopias by Women, 1818-1949: A Chronology;" Kay Fowler's "Selected Book List of Feminist (or Proto-feminist) SF by Women Writers;" "Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy;" and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award website.

Essential Novels

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith*
An offworld anthropologist must discover how the women of planet GP continue to reproduce after a virus kills all the men.
Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns
Men use near-future reproductive technology to control women.
Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey
A challenging saga of mothers and daughters.
The Book of Ash by Mary Gentle*
The complex story of an alternate-history Joan of Arc. Published in the U.S. as four books, A Secret History et seq.
The Disappearance by Philip Wylie
The opposite sex vanishes.
Divine Endurance by Gwyneth Jones*
A female android wanders a matriarchal post-apocalyptic land.
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre*
Nuclear holocaust alters male-female relations.
Egalia's Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes by Gerd Brantenberg
(a.k.a. Daughters of Egalia) Biological differences between men and women prove female superiority.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ*
The battle of the sexes becomes literal war.
The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper
Men and women must live apart to ensure human survival.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
A near-future theocracy systematically dehumanizes women.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Three male explorers discover an isolated all-female society.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin*
On the planet Gethen, gender does not exist...most of the time.
Mizora by Mary E. Bradley Lane
A race of technologically advanced superwomen inhabits the hollow Earth.
Native Tongue et seq. by Suzette Haden Elgin*
Oppressed women invent their own language.
Parable of the Sower et seq. by Octavia E. Butler*
As America descends into barbarism, a woman founds a new religion.
Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
A mysterious woman polarizes reactions in nineteenth-century America.
The Shattered Chain et seq. by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The first novel focusing on the Renunciates, or Free Amazons of Darkover (collected with its sequels in The Saga of the Renunciates).
Triton by Samuel R. Delany
(a.k.a Trouble on Triton) In a future of dazzling diversity, one man becomes a woman.
Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon
The only way to end the war between the sexes is to replace both men and women with a new sex.
Walk to the End of the World et seq. by Suzy McKee Charnas*
Enslavement of women leads to war—and more shocking acts.
A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason*
Humans encounter an alien race trapped by its own sexuality.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
A contemporary woman visits a future of true sexual equality.

Essential Short Fiction

"All My Darling Daughters" by Connie Willis
New reproductive imperatives engender profound sexual alienation.
"Baby You Were Great" by Kate Wilhelm
In this proto-cyberpunk classic, a woman is used and abused to broadcast emotion to the masses [available online].
"A Birthday" by Esther M. Friesner
Scary dystopia extracts a grim price for abortion.
"Consider Her Ways" by John Wyndham
Men are extinct and society is perfect.
"Even the Queen...." by Connie Willis
When menstruation is eliminated, women take over the world.
"The Forbidden Words of Margaret A." by L. Timmel Duchamp*
One woman's words are so powerful, a Constitutional Amendment is passed to silence her.
"The Heat Death of the Universe" by Pamela Zoline
A housewife experiences entropy.
"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr.*
Timewarped astronauts find themselves in a future in which they, being men, are obsolete.
"My Lady Tongue" by Lucy Sussex
A near-future women-only community engenders prejudices of its own.
"The Logistics of Carthage" by Mary Gentle
Those who write history stunt identity. Set in the world of The Book of Ash.
"Motherhood, Etc." by L. Timmel Duchamp
Men respond to a woman with a crucial difference.
"The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree, Jr.
Aliens interfere with the human reproductive drive, to deadly effect for both sexes. (First published under the byline Raccoona Sheldon.)
"The View from Venus" by Karen Joy Fowler
Aliens observe male-female mating rituals.
"When It Changed" by Joanna Russ
A lost extrasolar colony is rediscovered by Earthmen centuries after plague killed all the male colonists.
"The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr.
Life with unknown aliens is better than life with men.

Essential Anthologies and Collections

Flying Cups and Saucers: Gender Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Debbie Notkin
Reprints many Tiptree Award winners and finalists.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.
This indispensable collection contains several classic feminist-SF stories.
Love's Body, Dancing in Time by L. Timmel Duchamp
Women find within themselves the freedom and power denied by society.
The Start of the End of It All by Carol Emshwiller*
Eighteen incisive stories about women, men, animals, and aliens.
The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women by Sally Miller Gearhart
In an estranged future, men and women live apart.
Weird Women, Wired Women by Kit Reed*
Collects twenty stories from thirty years of insightful science-fictional examination of women's roles and issues.
Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s and Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1970s to the 1990s edited by Pamela Sargent
This definitive two-volume historical overview collects short SF written by women.

Other Recommended Fiction (Novels, Anthologies, and Collections)

Copyright © 2004, Cynthia Ward. All Rights Reserved.

About Cynthia Ward

Cynthia Ward ( lives in the Seattle area. She has published stories in Asimov's SF Magazine (, Bending the Landscape: Horror, and other anthologies and magazines, and has written articles and reviews for, Locus Online, and other webzines and magazines. Her market-news columns appear in Speculations: The Magazine for Writers Who Want to Be Read ( and The SFWA Bulletin ( With Nisi Shawl (, she has written the nonfiction guidebook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press,, which is the companion volume to their critically acclaimed fiction workshop, Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction ( Cynthia is completing her first novel, a romantic SF mystery tentatively titled The Killing Moon.


Jun 21, 17:31 by John Frost
Comments on Feminist SF
Mar 17, 13:22 by Roz Poz
WHAT! No mention of Sherri Tepper?!

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