Why we don’t need to fight for women to “break in”

Every so often, you will hear of some new outrage being perpetrated on women in speculative fiction, comics, the tech industry, or some other corner of geek culture. (Or the world at large, but I’m trying to keep focus here). Typically, it goes like this: Sexism happens.  A woman calls out said sexism.  Then the Internet loses its collective mind and issues everything from furious and voluminous apologetics to “fake geek girl” memes to rape threats. Some men are surprised by this, and most women are not. Some of the men write long thoughtful pieces on the subject, and others write less thoughtful but heartfelt ones. Inevitably, there will be calls to help women “break in” to a previously masculine domain. Get some women in there! Storm the citadel! That will fix the problem!

Except, it hasn’t yet, and we’ve been storming for quite a long time. The problem is that this approach is predicated on a false assumption, which is that these domains historically “belong” to men in the first place. They don’t. They never have. You will find women at the beginnings of every aspect of “geek culture,” which is another term for marginalized, innovative culture. Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. Mary Shelley and Margaret Cavendish and Jane Loudon. Nell Brinkley and Ramona Fradon and Elizabeth Holloway Marston. The truth is, because women artists and thinkers historically tend to work at the margins due to entrenched sexism, they also tend to be involved in innovation. They enter fields (like novel writing) that are disparaged, because nobody has too much invested in keeping them out. Once something becomes proven and lucrative, it becomes more mainstream, and then the troops start assembling to co-opt and declare it male territory only, no girls allowed.

We have always lived in the citadel. The problem isn’t getting in. The problem is that men keep trying to push us out. Why does this keep happening?  And why does it seem more and more ferocious…that it gets worse rather than better?

A clue can be found in N. K. Jemisin’s Guest of Honor speech for WisCon 38. The entire thing is woven of wondrous gold, but at the beginning she offers a quote from Samuel Delaney from an essay on the topic of racism in science fiction which I find both pertinent and telling: “As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field.

Substitute “sexism” for “racism” and contemplate these statistics, if you please: A Guardian article from May 2014 reported that women in “chief information officer” positions in the European Union has held at 15% for the last ten years. According to NPR, about 20% of all computer programmers in the US are female. Also from the Guardian, 32% of the science fiction manuscripts submitted to Tor UK last year were from women. In other words, we are right at and sometimes above the threshold where Delaney predicts more prejudice, not less.

When we encounter backlash, when some young snot on the Internet tells us to make him a sandwich or we encounter the semantic equivalent from colleagues and supposed friends, it can be disheartening.  How long can this go on? Why aren’t things better than this by now? Why can’t we seem to get over the wall? But the truth is, things are better. They are much better.  Try watching Mad Men, and realize that they have watered it down. After just a few episodes, I wanted to go find every woman above the age of 60 I could locate, especially anyone who worked in a male-dominated profession, and give her a hug. And then I couldn’t watch it any more, because there was only so much of that I could stand. Better still, re-read The Feminine Mystique, and feel in your bones how radical it actually was. Realize that The Left Hand of Darkness won a Hugo and a Nebula just six years later, in 1969, and how amazing that was.  Then go re-read How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, realize how applicable it still is, and get mad all over again…

And realize we are winning.  If we weren’t, certain people wouldn’t be so upset. Yes, it’s taking a long time. So long that we keep forgetting and buying into the story that we aren’t getting anywhere. It’s important to remember that we are, and also to light a fire under our own asses from time to time. We need sustenance along the way…history, facts, amusement, critique, rants, truthful voices. I hope to provide some of those things, talk about the history of science fiction and geek culture in general, and the role of women in same.  And remind you of something important:

We have always lived in the citadel. We belong there. It is ours.