A Woman Was Here: An Introduction

Most people are at least passingly familiar with Frankenstein and can crack a joke about the true wisdom in recognizing that it is Dr. Frankenstein who is the monster of the tale. Many also praise Mary Shelley as one of the mothers of science fiction, imagining her scribbling her story alongside Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori on a fateful, stormy evening. Given Frankenstein’s concerns with the act of creation and the responsibilities of the creator, the honorific seems fitting. Shelley was also the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Using the rhetoric of revolutionary treatises in the late eighteenth-century, Wollstonecraft asked that the “the rights of woman may be respected” (even if her argument sometimes rested on less-than-progressive foundations) and she called out male authors who inadequately portrayed women as “alluring mistresses [rather] than affectionate wives and rational mothers”.

Despite her insistence on the domestic role, Wollstonecraft’s objection is not without its own present relevance. The existence of the Bechdel test alone indicates a preoccupation with understanding how women are represented in the media we consume on a daily basis—and a concern about who is presenting said women. Especially in the last year, as #ownvoices has come into its own, responsible readers and creators are being asked to consider the power that the writer and the producer have to shape the way that we see ourselves and others. As a woman and an active consumer of speculative media (short stories, novels, poetry, movies, TV shows, graphic novels, and on and on), I wanted to start this monthly column to consider the creators of speculative fiction who are women. Some of them, like Shelley, will be instantly recognized. Others—many others—not so much.

In 2008, a Romantic scholar argued that Frankenstein was more shaped by Percy Shelley than has been previously credited. He pointed out editorial changes: e.g. the phrase “unable to endure the aspect of the creature I had created” had morphed into “unable to endure the being I had created.” I respect the work that goes into such archival research and the effort it takes to trace these sort of textual evolutions. However, the consequent suggestion that “[t]he book should now be credited as ‘by Mary Shelley with Percy Shelley’ ” provokes an argument about the act of creation and the role of editing. And it raises a concern about erasing the efforts of women in speculative fiction (and the world of literature at large). Joan D. Vinge, who won the Hugo in 1981 for The Snow Queen, expressed her concern about this very invisibility (even in a purportedly self-aware readership) in her introduction to the 2015 edition of the prize-winning book: “A peculiar sort of intergenerational amnesia seems to have afflicted some of these younger writers (and probably a lot of readers), which has led them to believe that not only the female pioneers who wrote SF in the earlier decades of the twentieth century, but also the First Generation Feminist science fiction writers of the late sixties and seventies, who truly opened the door wide for women writers, are as dead as the dodo”.

This column will attempt to address our cultural amnesia, to remind us of the women creators who have and continue to profoundly shape the field of speculative media. Each month, I will try to frame a different creator within her context and her work—whether she be a medieval poet or a modern singer. I hope you’ll join me and share the stories of these brilliant women, because the more we talk, the less we forget.