Changing The Map: Mid-Century Feminist Science Fiction Pioneers

This month on Changing the Map

So if the turn of the twentieth century produced the First Wave of speculative feminist fiction (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Rokeya Hossain), and the late 1960’s ushered in the great Second Wave (Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia E. Butler, Margaret Atwood), what was happening in the middle of the century? Who were the speculative feminist writers of the ‘30’s, 40’s, and ‘50’s, and what were they writing?

Finding those stories isn’t easy. Much of this pioneering fiction was never reprinted and rarely received the kind of thoughtful, critical study it deserved. Writer and scholar Justine Larbalestier thought that omission was a shame. Larbalestier’s excellent 2006 study, Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, begins to fill in that gap by reprinting eleven feminist short SF stories, each one accompanied by a thoughtful essay discussing the story’s meaning and impact on the literary landscape.

The collection includes many wonderful entries from the second wave of feminist spec fic, including stories by Kate Wilhelm, James Tiptree, Octavia Butler, and Karen Joy Fowler. But this month I’ll focus on the earliest stories in this collection: three pioneering tales of science fiction from the 20’s, 30’s, and 50’s.

Spoilers: Some plot, few endings


“The Fate of the Poseidonia”
by Clare Winger Harris, 1927

About the Author:

Born in 1891, Clare Winger Harris was one of the first women to submit and publish science fiction stories under her own name instead of a gender neutral pseudonym. During the 1920’s, she wrote eleven short stories and one novel. By the 1930’s, she’d stopped writing in order to raise her three children.

“The Fate of the Poseidonia” was her second published story. She submitted it to Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in response to a contest he ran asking writers to create a story from an artwork prompt. “Poseidonia” won her third prize in the contest along with the princely sum (for 1927) of $100.00. Gernsback wrote of his surprise at her accomplishments in unsurprisingly sexist terms.

That the third prize winner should prove to be a woman was one of the surprises of the contest, for, as a rule, women do not make good scientifiction (science fiction) writers, because their education and general tendencies on scientific matters are usually limited.

About The Story:

Amazing Stories June 1927

Male protagonist and astronomy enthusiast George Gregory has a disturbing encounter with a strange-looking Mr. Martell at a lecture about the planet Mars. According to long-range photography, Mars shows signs of intelligent beings, and also seems to be running out of water at an alarming rate. “Just suppose,” the odd Martell says after the presentation, “that the Martians were the possessors of an intelligence equal to that of terrestrials, what might they do to save themselves from total extinction?”

Gregory ignores the strange man and forgets about him, until he discovers that Martell has taken up with his lovely girlfriend Margaret, and catches Martell communicating through a strange, mist-producing box in his boarding house room.

“The Fate of Poseidonia” is a classic alien invasion story, peppered with personal spacecraft, interstellar communication and transportation, and a little ecological disaster thrown in for good measure.

Although the protagonist of the story is George and not his ex-girlfriend, Margaret, she is a vision of quiet strength, poise under pressure, and possesses an eagerness for exploration. Despite what she endures, she doesn’t have the kind of panicked female response we’d expect from fiction written in the 1920’s.

Although the story contains some obvious anachronisms (including comparing the repugnant Martians to American Indians), “The Fate of Poseidonia” is a tight story with tension and surprises from beginning to end. It’s definitely worth a read, as is the accompanying essay by Jane Donawerth, who examines science fiction in the pulps and anxiety about race mixing in the late 1920’s.

How It Changed the Map

What makes a speculative fiction story a feminist story? In this case, it’s the ground breaking nature of Harris’ contribution to science fiction — she was the first woman to write for the pulps under her own name. Additionally, her female character’s presence of mind and calm under pressure is a surprising break from the way 1920’s pulp writers typically portrayed women — as helpless clinging appendages to be rescued, as sexually voracious alien femme fatales, or as the lust objects of monsters.


“The Conquest of Gola”
by Leslie F. Stone, 1931

About the Author:

Born in 1905, Leslie F. Stone wasn’t the first woman to publish science fiction stories, but she was certainly one of the field’s early stars. A favorite of editor Hugo Gernsback, she published frequently until she left the field in 1940. “The Conquest of Gola” is her most famous story.

About The Story:

“The Conquest of Gola” is a role reversal story, a battle of the sexes story, and an alien invasion story, told from the perspective of a female alien fighting off an invasion of earth-like men.

It’s this “outside looking in” aspect of the story that gives “Gola” its charm and its horror. We get an alien view of how obviously ridiculous human anatomy is, how blundering aggressive and stubborn human men can be, and how clear it seems that they should all be destroyed before they can get a foothold on the beautiful, peaceful women-centric Gola.

Stone is quite good at making us sympathize and identify with the Golans, so much so that when they exact their revenge, it takes us a while to feel sorry for the humans. As for the role reversal themes in this story, fans of feminist utopian novel The Sultana’s Dream will recognize the subversive power of portraying men as delicate adorable creatures who must be kept indoors — for their own good, of course.

The story is accompanied by a wonderful essay by Brian Attebery discussing Stone’s subversion of common SF tropes.

How It Changed the Map:

“The Conquest of Gola” is similar to utopian novels Herland and The Sultana’s Dream in their portrayal of women as capable, brilliant thinkers, planners and doers. Where the story diverges from these early feminist writers is in its portrayal of the Golan women as cold-blooded killers, perfectly willing to capture earth men for dissection, or wipe them all out if that seems necessary. In this story we leap from Herland’s “women are peaceful creatures who don’t need men” to Stone’s “women are dangerous creatures and you’d better leave them alone if you know what’s good for you.” It’s a breathtaking jump.


“Created He Them,”
by Alice Eleanor Jones, 1955

About the Author:

Alice Eleanor Jones was a commercial magazine contributor as well as a brilliant science fiction writer. She published essays about storytelling and the writing life, giving common sense advice to would-be writers. She offered up this fascinating (and daring, for 1962) advice:

Suppose you simply aren’t interested in the events that end with a wedding. Suppose your mind leans more to the dark than to the bright. What if your stories are offbeat, because you are offbeat?

About the Story:

“Created He Them” starts slowly, seemingly a tale of domestic abuse, a day in the life of a frightened woman protecting her children from an angry, dangerous husband in a 1950’s suburban enclave. The science fiction elements of the story creep in softly, with comments about the electricity never coming on reliably anymore, and then we discover that the seasons themselves aren’t reliable any more as well. The reader is left subtle clues as to what’s going on in the greater world, and how this woman fits into it.

“Created He Them” is a perfect example of the kind of worries the public had after Hiroshima, about nuclear wastelands and how the human race seemed to be on the brink of destroying itself. Alice Eleanor Jones takes this paranoia down to the personal, portraying the day-to-day struggles of one of the last contaminated women who could “breed true” and how that locks her into an unhappiness that readers of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale will recognize instantly.

In the accompanying essay, Lisa Yaszek discusses the romance narrative in science fiction and sheds light on the kinds of industry pushback female authors received in the 1950’s.

How it Changed the Map:

This story was given the disparaging label of a “diaper” story or a “housewife heroine” tale. As women began to enter the field of science fiction in greater numbers, their stories of the cultural and social implications of science didn’t always sit well with some readers. Stories like “Created He Them” received harsh criticism from members of the SF community, which claimed such stories written by “a gaggle of housewives, out to spoil SF for everyone” had no place in the pulps or the publishing world. Conservative fandom believed that these kinds of stories, with their personal focus rather than sweeping space narratives, weren’t really science fiction at all. Stone and her contemporaries believed a woman’s personal story, impacted by science, set on earth or set in space, was important and profound.


Next Month: We take a jump forward to the late 1960’s and the start of the Second Wave of feminist speculative fiction with Ursula Le Guin’s ground-breaking novel of gender identity, The Left Hand of Darkness.

6 Comments

  • Lane Robins January 10, 2017 at 1:49 pm

    These sound really interesting! One thing that’s been really standing out to me is that women were writing horror and fantasy in increasing numbers while the SF market was still reeling from the idea that women could even conceive of SF ideas, much less write about them.

    Reply
    • sharonpatry January 10, 2017 at 8:56 pm

      Yes! Because it’s easier to think of us as fanciful than scientific, apparently. Sigh…

      Reply
  • Shara White January 10, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    You’re making me wish I was reading along! I read this anthology and its accompanying essays about ten years ago, and I’m curious how my thoughts would change on these stories reading them now versus then, back when I was reading them for grad school. Though, here are my thoughts on the three you mention, all the way back from SEPTEMBER 24TH 2007!!!!! Holy crap, that has almost been 10 years go!

    Please forgive 26 year-old me. She lacked a lot of insight.

    “The Fate of the Poseidonia”
    by Clare Winger Harris, 1927
    Essay by Jane Donawerth

    This is a story that completely lacks any kind of power without the historical context in which it was written, at least, it does for this reader. In fact, it appears to be an odd selection for this anthology given that its the only story with a male narrator (okay, it’s NOT the only story with a male narrator), and the woman involved in the story is a love interest who ends up being a damsel in distress. However, the history of the story gives it far more weight: supposedly, it’s the first SF piece published that was written by a woman. It got published because it won third prize in a contest that Hugo Gernsback sponsored, and let me say, his introduction to the piece, while I’m sure “complimentary” at the time, is enough to set my teeth on edge. And then there’s the history involved. It’s interesting to read a piece written prior to the horrors of the Second World War and all that came after. Fears at this time involved the technology of television, and what it might mean for the world, as well as the more subtle but equally powerful fears of interracial mingling. All of this is relayed through a story about the planet Mars, a mysterious stranger who is wooing the narrator’s lady love, and the disappearance of water on Earth.

    To my eyes, the story’s nothing special. The historical context gives me an appreciation for it, and particularly interesting is Donawerth’s interpretation of the love interest’s fate. There’s no heroism in this tale, nor does the lady get saved. But it’s interesting nonetheless, and the companion essay is a definite read.

    “The Conquest of Gola”
    by Leslie F. Stone, 1931
    Essay by Brian Attebery

    Now this was a story I was excited to read. I’ve heard about it several times, definitely in Larbalestier’s The Battle of Sexes in Science Fiction, and I want to say I heard mention of it in Russ’s To Write Like A Woman. After hearing so many interpretations, I was eager to read it for myself.

    It’s a classic story. Men land on planet where a matriarchy is firmly in place, men try to take over, and men are ultimately defeated. It’s kind of a fun piece, especially looking at it today, simply because the men appear so ridiculously sexist, though at the time, I suspect such a blatant attitude was enlightening for readers. Whatever the case, I was interested to note that the pivotal scene in which our heroine, the narrator, has a brief moment of contact with one of the human men. He’s been her slave, and during an uprising, he captures her. There’s a moment where she finds herself enjoying his strong arms around her, but when he recognizes the look in her face, the moment turns sour. Some critics have pointed to this scene as showing the weakness of women, of how all it takes is the right manly-man and she’ll be putty in his hands, but Attebery has a different interpretation: the narrator doesn’t give in to man’s ways and turn her back on her people and beliefs, as is common in many “battle of the sexes” stories, but rather, after that initial spark, she continues to fight, and helps her people repel the men from their planet. This is one of the many twists on the usual formula that Stone employs, and while I haven’t read other “battle of the sexes” stories, it was fascinating to learn just how much this one differed.

    “Created He Them”
    by Alice Eleanor Jones, 1955
    Essay by Lisa Yaszek

    This was the first story that really grabbed my attention and got me thinking. Even without the essay examining this piece (in fact, I remember very little of the essay itself, no wait, I lied, I remember, it’s about “housewife SF”), this story stands on its own and speaks to concerns I think still plague women in the here and now. It’s a chilling tale of a post-apocalyptic future, and examines the family dynamic in a world where the ability to have healthy children is a gift. It’s a great story, and one of my favorites in the book.

    The essay itself, now that I remember, actually discusses how this tale fits with other stories that are labeled as “housewife SF,” which explore how science and technology impacts the family dynamic and/or how a simple domestic action performed by a housewife can save the world. It’s actually a fascinating essay, drawing on the differences between feminist SF and women’s fiction in home journals. All of which really made me wish I could get my hands on more “housewife SF,” for the pure sake to see how telling they really are.

    Reply
  • sharonpatry January 10, 2017 at 9:03 pm

    Shara, that’s awesome!!!! I’m so glad you were able to find that file. The thing I liked most about “Poseidonia” was the idea of this poor woman stuck on mars by herself, having to deal. I love your comments 🙂

    Reply
    • Shara White January 10, 2017 at 9:46 pm

      I have commentary for ALL the stories! So if you cover them all, I can offer what 26-year-old me thought of them, and who knows? Maybe I’ll get around to re-reading and can offer a comparison! Though I seem to suck at getting reading done lately, so who knows?

      Reply
      • sharonpatry January 11, 2017 at 5:40 pm

        I might go back to some of the Second Wave entries. It’s a fabulous book!!!!

        Reply

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