Like most of my contemporaries, I cut my speculative teeth on male authors. I still feel grateful to Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick (“Mountains, Bruce, mountains…”) for making me feel perhaps the world was crazy, not me. I also devoured Isaac Asimov, James P. Hogan, Robert Heinlein, John Varley, Harlan Ellison, et. al.
Slowly, along with my elevating political consciousness, my collection of women spec writers started growing. Many of them came in the back door and into my avid hands by using pen names. I still remember what a kick it was to find out that these prominent, in-your-face sci-fi writers were women.
James Tiptree, Jr., as I have previously noted in this column, was really Alice Sheldon. And according to Wikipedia, “C.J. Cherryh (pronounced ‘Cherry’) appended a silent ‘h’ to her real name because her first editor…felt that ‘Cherry’ sounded too much like a romance writer. Her initials, C.J., were used to disguise the fact that she was female.” Well, yeah.
The late great Ursula K. Le Guin was one of the few women who found an early market for sci-fi written under her own name, publishing her first story in Fantastic Science Fiction in 1962 after multiple rejections of mainstream stories from literary publishers.
It’s easy, given Le Guin’s talent and ultimate stature, to assume she was just such a good writer that the editors of the time simply had to publish her even though she was a woman. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find out that the editor of Fantastic at the time was one Cele Goldsmith (1933-2002).
Goldsmith started her sci-fi publishing career as a previous editor’s secretary. In 1958, when he left, she took over. It’s safe to say that she brought a new openness to the lively spec magazine publishing scene; her male predecessors and counterparts might not even have read submissions from someone named Ursula. Even with a woman at the helm of two major magazines, during that period and for many years to come, sci-fi covers of the time feature all male author lists and lots of sleazy half-dressed girl art.
At Fantastic and Amazing Stories, Goldsmith nurtured authors like Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Keith Laumer, Larry Eisenberg, and many others, including lesser-known women writers such as Sonya Dorman. In the early 60s she received a special Hugo from the World Science Fiction Convention for her work, and during her tenure, the magazines received multiple award nominations.
In 1965 Ziff Davis sold Fantastic and Amazing Stories and the new owner hired a male editor. Goldsmith stayed on at Ziff Davis, becoming Editor-in-Chief of Modern Bride magazine. She stayed there for 30 years.
If going from space ships to brides sounds like a betrayal of our cause, remember that even accomplished, educated women had few options in the higher echelons of publishing, or any industry for that matter. Women were grateful to have serious careers and loyal to employers who valued them.
It’s not just a quaint Mad Men-esque meme that women were once given the choice of becoming a secretary, teacher, or nurse; that was the condition my father put on helping me pay for college. I was grateful that I was a middle-class Jewish girl whose parents assumed I would go to college, even if they had husband-shopping in mind. Women without financial resources had far fewer options.
Still, I can’t help but wonder how Goldsmith felt about overseeing stories about centerpieces and bouquets after rising so high in the heady world of spec and nurturing the careers of some of its greatest luminaries. Maybe it was a welcome change. I don’t like to make assumptions. I just wish she could have lived a bit longer to see how far the world of women’s spec has come.
One of the most uplifting things about this story, for me, is that women do help and promote other women. Not all women, all the time, sure. But lets not accept the toxic cliché that we are all out for ourselves. We aren’t, and we never were.
Next month I’ll talk about some radical women writers who quickly followed through the doors opened by Tiptree, Le Guin, and Cherryh.