Women Everywhere: The Success of WisCon

“To join with others to shape a future,” Charlie Jane Anders concludes her reading of The City in the Middle of the Night at WisCon 43, “is the holiest act.”

The quote sums up the endeavor of WisCon, a science-fiction convention held each year in Madison, Wisconsin, over Memorial Day Weekend. The convention, established in 1977 by the Society for the Furtherance & Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction, consciously styles itself as feminist, a place where social justice is recognized as the explicit aim of speculative art. This art is produced, recreated, and analyzed in a number of formats—the dealers’ halls, the art show, the panels, the viewings, and the readings—and, in each format, it consistently underscores the convention’s tenets of inclusivity and active engagement with social ills.

I attended WisCon this year in order to read my own work, but it occurred to me that the convention was worthy of a discussion in this column as well, since it is a gathering shaped by the presence and attendance of women. Women were there, in droves, and the convention’s mission to cater to feminist interests has served as a driving force for it to address marginalized voices more broadly in the world of speculative art. The 2019 guests of honor, Charlie Jane Anders and G. Willow Wilson, were representative of revolutionary voices in the field. (You can revisit my column on G. Willow Wilson to read about how she has helped to transform the world of superheroes.) Given these foci, the convention was a unique experience, shaped from beginning to end, by a desire to make attendees feel at home and to promote healthy conversations.

In my own experience as an academic, I have attended many conferences, but I have never participated in a convention so easy to navigate as WisCon. The organizers paid particular attention to accommodations, from their simple phone app which provides the complete program of events, maps, and rules of conduct, to the availability of customizable and fluid name tags, to the free food provided with your registration, to the repeated requests to tip waitstaff and prioritize elevator space to those with accessibility concerns. Special spaces were set aside for those who needed a break from sensory input and those who sought out safe space as a member of marginalized populations. There were also programs set aside for children, as well as childcare, so that whole families could attend the convention and enjoy separate activities. All of these efforts reflect the convention’s “recognition of intersectionality,” its acknowledgement that the people who create and enjoy speculative art are not a homogeneous group. And these efforts pay off. WisCon is a very successful convention, less plagued by conflict than many of the larger conventions in the field.

Jeanne Gomoll attributes part of WisCon’s success to its foundation in “the ‘second wave’ of the women’s movement.” The convention does not shy away from its roots and a storied history, including past guests of honor like Ursula K. Le Guin. This was beautifully encapsulated by Anders’s description of the convention as one that generates ideas rather than exhaustion. A convention that specifically caters to populations who have been marginalized by mainstream speculative work has the potential to change and complicate that work. As the world of science-fiction and fantasy writers becomes more diverse, we must thank the efforts of WisCon for promoting and elevating a broader discourse.