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June, 2006 : Feature:

Who Needs Feminist Science Fiction?

Who needs feminist science fiction? Well, for one, the thousand writers, critics and fans who attend WisCon every year, the world's leading feminist science fiction convention. (1)

This essay will not be a treatment of feminist science fiction per se. That has been done more than adequately by a number of authors, for example Natalie Rosinsky, Marleen Barr, Sarah Lefanu, Jenny Wolmark, and Cynthia Ward. Instead, we will be considering the role of feminist science fiction within our own comfy genre ghetto and why it has become an integral part of contemporary speculative fiction—and remains important, even in these (relatively) emancipated days.

Expanding the Genre to Include Gender

It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.
—Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd

As Joanna Russ pointed out way back in 1983, "Minority art, vernacular art, is marginal art. Only on the margins does growth occur" (Russ 129). While there are plenty of women writing science fiction here at the beginning of the new millenium, in the last twenty-five years women have taken only about a fourth of the Hugo awards for fiction. (See also: "Tough Times for Beset Manhood,") Before Ursula Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr., among others, revolutionalized the genre in the late sixties and early seventies, female science fiction writers were a fractional minority at best.

This is not to say that issues of gender were entirely absent from science fiction. In her study The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Justine Larbalestier states that the "period from 1926 to 1973 is absolutely crucial to the formation of contemporary feminist science fiction" (2). She goes on to demonstrate how the "battle of the sexes" stories of the time, most of which were written by men, were at least as important to that development as the feminist movement itself.

Nonetheless, the thought experiments that have characterized science fiction since its inception did not regularly extend to forays into new roles along the male/female continuum before women writers and feminist SF made its mark on the genre. According to Brian Attebery, "Until the 1960s, gender was one of those elements most often transcribed unthinkingly into SF's hypothetical worlds. Even if an author was interested in revising the gender code, the conservatism of a primarily male audience—and the editors, publishers, and distributors who were trying to outguess that audience—kept gender exploration to a minimum" (Attebery 5).

In the forties and fifties, several women writers, such as Andre Norton, C.L. Moore, and Judith Merril, began to question accepted assumptions about male and female. But it was works such as Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See" (1973), and Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) that changed the genre in such a way that the unthinking repetition of gender clichés became more and more difficult:

In the wake of these stories, it is virtually impossible for an SF writer to take gender for granted any more. If a writer wishes to portray unchanged sex roles in the future or in an alien society, that fact has to be explained somehow. (Attebery 6)

Whether or not we agree with the changes feminist science fiction has wrought on our genre, SF is not the same as it was fifty years ago. Feminist SF is part of the tradition, part of the line of descent we look back on when we interact with our predecessors, both positively and negatively.

Feminist Writing and Feminist Reading; Or, but I'm a Boy, Can I Do That Too?

If anatomy is not destiny, still less can it be language.
—Mary Jacobus, Reading Woman

If, in terms of tradition, feminist SF is as important to male writers as it is to female writers, what is the situation when it comes to readers? There is hardly a biological imperative that makes feminist science fiction inaccessible to male readers. Of course, there are a number of aggressively anti-male works of speculative fiction in the feminist school which are just as difficult for men to read as much of the "Golden Age" science fiction is for women, for example, the kind of painfully unquestioned gender role assignments exhibited by such classic stories as Lester del Rey's "Helen O'Loy" (1938).

But just as a woman reading can reject worlds in which men are portrayed as universally evil, a man reading can also reject worlds in which women are largely empty-headed sex objects, or household conveniences, or both. One of the things feminist SF has done for all of us is to show these preconceptions and train us to be more critical readers. As Jonathan Culler argues in his book On Deconstruction, "reading as a woman" is more a deliberately adopted stance rather than a biological necessity. This means that a male critic is quite capable of reading or writing as a feminist critic (Culler 43-64). Marleen Barr, on the other hand, distinguishes between antipatriarchal fabulation (for men) and feminist fabulation (for women), alongside feminist science fiction.

To what extent do we actually need such distinctions? Is feminist science fiction a big enough term to cover work written by both men and women, fiction that covers the gamut from openly political and didactic to playfully critical of gender roles? Can a man read as a feminist, as Culler posits the male critic reading as a woman?

To answer the first question, if the Tiptree Award is to be regarded as the award for feminist SF, then, yes, men certainly can write it, since for the last several years the winning works have been written by male authors. The Tiptree Award is given "for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender." This goes along with the definition of "feminist" given in the faq of WisCon: "We define "feminist" broadly to include race and class issues, gay/bisexual/lesbian/transgender issues, and anything else that touches on strong women (authors, artists, readers, characters) in science fiction, fantasy, and horror."

Thus, as so often, it is really a matter of definition.

The second question can be answered in a similar way, by examining recent publications of feminist literary criticism that treat science fiction. The bibliography of literary criticism at contains a number of works by male critics, and while the majority of the authors are female, an increasing number of men are treating questions of gender in SF. In the introduction to his own study, Brian Attebery directly addresses his position in this feminist discourse:

My reading of SF is grounded in my experience in a male body and a masculine social role.... Yet I read fiction not only as my individual situation determines, but also as I have been taught....From both the fiction and the criticism [of writers such as Russ and Le Guin], I learned something of reading with an eye to gender assumptions, inequalities of power, and differences in metaphoric structures. (Attebery 10)

Even in general studies of science fiction, gender is becoming a topic treated more and more regularly, for example in Carl Freedman's acclaimed Critical Theory and Science Fiction, which devotes a chapter to "Joanna Russ and the Violence of Gender."

Fiction itself can teach us to read in new ways as well, to introduce us not only to new worlds, but to new ways of seeing. For Jay, for example, reading Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin in his college years created a new awareness of gender roles in speculative fiction, and while it is not a case of becoming magically enlightened or having his consciousness raised, Native Tongue opened some doors for him which he had not previously even realized were closed. At its most effective, feminist fiction can provide that kind of transformative reading experience, making readers, female and male alike, consciously aware of the layering of gender assumptions, masculine metaphoric structures, and the kinds of "truths" societies take for granted and that make up daily life.

Taking Science Fiction Seriously

The title women and fiction might mean...women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the fiction they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light. But when I began to consider the subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion.
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

While many science fiction writers like to bemoan the fact that next to no one takes our genre seriously except those within the genre, in the last couple of decades a major change has taken place in the attitude of academic scholars towards SF. This can be seen in such studies as Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy directly examining the phenomenon. Of course, there are still plenty of critics such as Sven Birkerts of The New York Times Book Review who regard SF with unshakable antipathy, spouting clichés that have nothing to do with the state of the genre at the beginning of the twenty-first century; at the same time, there many more academics like Marleen Barr, Brian Attebery, Carl Freedman, and Gary Westfahl who recognize the importance of science fiction in the contemporary literary scene.

This critical recognition is in part due to the works of women science fiction writers who have helped to transform a genre that used to be seen as trash into a respectable form of literature. Feminist SF is a frequent subject of academic articles, books, and seminars. The impulses feminist science fiction has contributed to the genre such as the introduction of "soft" sciences, the examination of biological unthinkables, and the thought experiments concerning social and gender roles are all aspects that have contributed to the increased "respectability" of science fiction in universities and the classroom. Whether or not the individual reader cares for that kind of change in the genre or not, it is something that can no longer be thought away from our ghetto.

Feminist SF belongs to all of us.

As the back cover of the first annual Tiptree Award anthology phrases it:

Stories for women
Stories for men
And stories for the rest of us

That's who needs feminist science fiction.


  1. For this year (2006) Wiscon was already sold out by the beginning of April. back

Works Referenced

Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Barr, Marleen S. "Antipatriarchal Fabulation: or, The Green Pencils Are Coming, the Green Pencils Are Coming." In Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, ed. Barr. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993. 108-39.

———. "Octavia Butler and James Tiptree Do Not Write about Zap Guns: Positioning Feminist Science Fiction within Feminist Fabulation." In Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, ed. Marleen S. Barr. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993. 97-107.

Elgin, Suzette Haden. Native Tongue. New York: DAW Books, 1984.

Fowler, Karen Joy, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin, and Jeffrey D. Smith, eds. The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1: Sex, the Future, and Chocolate Chip Cookies. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2005.

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Jacobus, Mary. Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism. New York and London: Columbia University Press and Methuen, 1986.

Larbalestier, Justine. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Lefanu, Sarah. Feminism and Science Fiction. 1988. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Le Guin, Ursula. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace, 1969.

Rosinsky, Natalie M. Feminist Futures: Contemporary Women's Speculative Fiction. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984.

Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women's Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Tiptree, James, Jr. Warm Worlds and Otherwise. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975.

Ward, Cynthia. "Feminist SF: Futures for Humankind." IROSF June, 2004.

Westfahl, Gary and George Slusser eds. Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Wolmark, Jenny. Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism, and Postmodernism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own (1929). New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Copyright © 2006, Ruth Nestvold and Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at


Jun 5, 20:57 by IROSF

A thread to discuss Jay and Ruth's discussion of Feminist SF.

The article can be found here
Jun 6, 16:14 by Jed Hartman
Interesting article, and provides timely comments on some things I've been thinking about; thanks.

But I'm a little surprised to see you refer to the Tiptree as "the award for feminist SF"; it seems to me that in that paragraph in particular, and to some extent in the rest of the article in general, you're conflating "feminist" with "having to do with gender," and I think those things can be pretty different (though there's obviously a great deal of overlap between them).

For example, although recent Tiptree-winning novel Light certainly explores and expands gender (those being the criteria for the Tiptree), I'm not convinced that it's a feminist book per se.

To put it another way, I don't interpret the WisCon FAQ definition of feminism as indicating that any work that deals with gender issues is inherently feminist. Then again, I may really just be reacting to the WisCon FAQ definition being a little broader than my own.
Jun 16, 14:28 by Allan Rosewarne
Remember, too, that many critics of the Tiptree have called the women's SF award. Misunderstanding the purpose and criteria for the Tiptree is hardly new. (reference discussion by D. Brin at 1996 WorldCon).

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