Talking About Crones at Worldcon and Beyond

Photo courtesy of Shel Graves

On my way to the 77th World Science Fiction Convention, I was reading Travel Light, a slim novel by Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison, first published in 1952. In 2005, Small Beer Press republished Mitchison’s work. More about this in a moment…

At Worldcon, there were many discussions to be had about fiction, science, and the interplay that creates science fiction. On just one day of the five-day convention, there were more than 120 panels to choose from. One I attended was, “Send in the Crones: Older Women in SFF.”

Like all panels at the well-attended Worldcon there was a queue to get in and a packed room of attendees. “For crones!” I thought. “So much interest!” Fiction featuring older women began to catch my attention when I was a hospice volunteer spending more time with aged women and hearing their stories.

Some of my favorite speculative stories featuring older women protagonists include:

  • Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet
  • Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Lady Astronaut of Mars
  • Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
  • Margaret Atwood’s Torching the Dusties

Before attending Worldcon, I’d read Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life by Darcey Steinke and attended a Town Hall Seattle lecture with Steinke and marine biologist Dr. Deborah Giles about menopause and whales. Menopause and whales! More about that in a moment…

So, I was excited to hear about older women in speculative fiction at Worldcon. However, panels can be hit or miss, and I have a few pet peeves:

  • Too many examples from TV and movies (I want books!).
  • Too many audience questions and interjections.
  • Those times when I want to question and interject.

The crones panel was one of those times when I had things to say: There are a few things to be more carefully considered in this discussion of older women in science fiction and fantasy.

Crone — Why are we using this term? Maiden. Mother. Crone. — Rich in history, this framing of female identity also carries a lot of baggage. Crone infers white hair, brittle bones, creaky joints, and witchiness. It sounds nicer than hag, but with similar implications. It’s problematic. “To be called crone isn’t a compliment…” writes Cathrin Hagey in “Crone.” And if you’ve skipped “mother,” like me, then what? Go directly to crone? I expect co-opting the “crone” label may seem less fun the more fitting the term becomes. It’s a good idea to explore this narrative more deeply. As Karen Joy Fowler writes in “Ten Things I Learned from Ursula K. Le Guin“, “The values of patriarchy are buried in the very plots of our stories. New plots are needed.” We need to tell new stories about ourselves.

Photo courtesy of Shel Graves

Older women — Who are they? By consensus, the panel generally decided that their approximate age (over 40 or around 50) fit the definition. I get it. I’m in that category and tempted to claim the “crone” label, but I expect it’s a mistake. Looking back at my 20-year-old insecurities, I shake my head in wonder. Thoughts of “getting old” at 30 now make me laugh. So, I can imagine what I’m going to think if I am fortunate enough to become 70, close to 80, 80 close to 90, etc. Forty, fifty, sixty — a crone? Hoo, child, you don’t even know!

Underrepresentation — What do we want and what do we mean? In TV and film we’re seeing more 60-year-old female heroes leading the resistance. As older woman become a market demographic with more money, there are a few more grey hairs and wrinkles on screen. There’s this narrative that women become invisible when they age. It’s good to be seen. However, invisibility is more valuable as a metaphor for lack of power. So, the question really becomes, “What are older women doing?” in stories. Then, there’s this discussion of sexiness. Can an older woman be portrayed as sexy? Frankly, this isn’t what interests me. It feeds into the existing narrative that defines women’s worth or “visibility” based on either sex appeal or reproductive capacity. I’d rather explore something different.

So, back to the books:

Naomi Mitchison’s last book (of more than 70 works) was published when she was 100 years old. However, like any author, if her books don’t get talked about, they fade. Older women may be in stories. They may be writing stories. However, if they are not included in discussions, they’ll be forgotten or hard to find. That’s why presses republishing this work and keeping it available are vital.

Let’s not assume fierce older women protagonists in novels and stories aren’t there. Let’s find the ones we love, talk about them, and keep them in conversation.

Photo courtesy of Shel Graves

In Flash Point Diary, Steinke writes about learning that whales are the only other mammal (we know of to date) that experience menopause. In whale culture, those past menopause lead their pods. Steinke talked about the role of older women as leaders and the need for us to tell our stories.

This resonates with me. I’d like to see more stories about older women leaders (and leading with feminist values) and more feminine characteristics — such as empathy, sensitivity, compassion, and nurturance — in leaders in general.

In November 2018, Luna Station Quarterly put out a call for stories featuring crones. Reading through submissions, some stories faced aging only with themes of annihilation and despair. However, we found a number of fun and empowering stories, too. If you haven’t read them, please check out Issue 36! It’s been great seeing more stories submitted with uplifting older protagonists since then.

On the way back from Worldcon, I read Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray. It’s about older women who literally become invisible and how they find their power.

Crones or not, to claim our power, we need to tell our own stories and discuss the ones we love.

What’s your favorite speculative fiction featuring older women?