Women’s History Month and Honoring SF Pioneers

March is an ideal time to revisit the works of Mary Shelley, Margaret Cavendish, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the many other women pioneers of science fiction who worked to set the machines of this genre in motion. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to reading these authors’ writings only during Women’s History Month, of course. But we would do well to be reminded that our experience of reading SF would be enriched by reading–or rereading–their stories, novels, and essays.

This month provides us with a good reminder to honor women’s contributions as well as to examine more closely our own ways of viewing the past. There is a continuing need in the 21st century for a month to focus explicitly on women as pioneers in their respective fields. Though science fiction, its creators, and consumers have, on the whole, progressed away from the sorts of sexist views that plagued its past, there remain pockets of sexism. One useful question to ask ourselves in light of this is how we read SF–contemporary and classic–in a way that respects the work of women authors, editors, and critics and informs us about our own views on gender, sex, and society.

Reading Women’s Work

The obvious first step to honor women’s contributions to SF is to support women authors, editors, and publishers by reading, reviewing, and buying their novels and collections as well as by requesting them from libraries. Much has already been written about this. A number of people have dedicated recent years to reading only books written by women or, importantly, books written by living authors other than those with the most privilege (i.e., white men). A couple articles worth reading on this include a 2013 writeup by Lilit Marcus, and this challenge posed to readers for 2015 by K. Tempest Bradford. The Guardian has a summary of similar projects in 2014 here: “‘Year of reading women’ declared for 2014.”

Along these lines, projects such as We Need Diverse Books highlight the significance of books for children by diverse writers featuring diverse characters. The project’s website features a compilation of resources for finding diverse books. This conscious shift toward inclusive reading is a good step toward becoming a more informed reader.

Should We Only Read Women’s Writing?

That said, I think that reading fiction written by women (or any underrepresented group) is only the first step. Situations may arise, as they did for Marcus, wherein a reader wants to read fiction written by white men. And since the focus of Women’s History Month is historical, we should look at these steps in light of historical SF, with all its problematic portrayals. To become a better informed reader, a more responsible reader of any genre, we would do well to take another couple steps.

SF is, unfortunately, a genre that can easily slip back into socially harmful tropes. Bradford touches on this in her article, noting that some of the content in “best of” compilations and higher profile magazines is, to her, offensive. The obvious problem with reading SF–especially classic SF–is that we may run across portrayals of women, ethnic and cultural minorities, persons with disabilities, and so on that are problematic. I won’t go into examples here, as my aim is not to call out one author or another, only to acknowledge that these issues exist. Past is past, however, and current writers are well aware of these problems–so as readers, we’re good, right?

Not exactly. These past narratives and problematic portrayals have not, unfortunately, been cast from the collective ship into space like so much unrecyclable debris. When major movie studios can release films with, for example, the “white man savior” narrative or the “women as mindless trophies” trope as has been the case in the recent past, we can marvel at how the creators didn’t critically examine their work and see these issues. What’s troubling to me as a consumer of SF media is the amount of money these movies make. We see these problematic patterns again and again, and we’re so used to them that we–collectively–aren’t bothered by them. The creators make money and the cycle starts again. The old narratives sanction their reiterations.

So the next step is to have a good working 101-level definition of feminism, especially with respect to intersectionality. Books such as bell hooks’ Feminism is For Everybody, which Bradford mentions, offer a good foundation in feminism and would provide the sort of background I’m suggesting. (Granted, most readers interested in reading in a more socially informed manner will probably already have a good handle on the issues, but this would be an opportunity to revisit as needed.) By knowing what issues to watch for–and, I hope, call out–we can consume media more responsibly.

Reading SF Beyond the Fiction

So far, we’ve focused on reading fiction by women and reading fiction with an eye to problematic portrayals of women. But we’ll still need to take one more step, I think. Marcus started her project after reading Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing. This parallels my last recommendation: to read the essays, criticism, and reviews written by women authors, editors, critics, fans, etc.

While we can be informed readers of fiction by reading with an eye to social issues, we need the critical eyes of others–often others whose lived experiences differ significantly from our own–to appreciate the scope of certain problems. Science fiction itself provides a good platform for exploring societal problems; the affiliated non-fiction sheds further light on these problems and why they happen to be problematic. Understanding these problems as they are presented in fiction, read through the lens of feminism and underscored in essays, can help us better honor the women who pioneered the genre.