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New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Virginia Woolf

When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, she extolled the virtues of the androgynous mind: the mind that sails on serenely, undistracted by circumstances, like Shakespeare, Emily Brontë and Jane Austen (of whom more anon). As an example to avoid, she chose Charlotte Brontë, who “had more genius in her than Jane Austen,” but whose rage makes her books “deformed and twisted.” Woolf continued:

“She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance.  She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience. // One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism. // She was thinking of something other than the thing itself.”

About twenty years later, Virginia Woolf dared to express direct gender anger herself in her Three Guineas, her last non-fiction work before she committed suicide and her most political one.  In it, she systematically deconstructs the patriarchal system one of whose apexes at that time was the Nazi regime.  That book is universally deemed by male Woolf aficionados as “her sole major failure” because, well, it’s not up to the standards of detached “reason” they expect.

Women have only recently (and only in small pockets of the world) managed to attain quasi-human status.  They managed to excel before that in dire contexts, even with Harrison Bergeron ankle weights and brain-noisemakers piled on them, if they had a modicum of free time, money or other niche privileges.  So it’s really silly at best (and usually malicious) to ask “So, where are the outstanding women in X?” where X is any sphere that seems threatened by major girl cooties, from paradigm-shifting science to politics to “hard” SF.  For one, there are always outstanding women in every X.  For another, every X is mostly inhabited by mediocre and below-average men with nary an outcry.

Those who deem themselves extra clever in the Gotcha! department say that, according to statistics, women try less or get more easily discouraged, hence their lower status, fewer awards and thinner wallets.  However, there is one aspect of this that’s valid, and related to Woolf’s observation.  Women indeed have fewer chances to do earthshaking “olympian” stuff for three reasons, even in places where they don’t have acid thrown in their faces for daring to attend school: they often need to defend their legitimacy before they can proceed to primary non-reactive creative work; they are invariably asked to clean up the literal and metaphorical messes of their male relatives, whether blood or chosen; and to show that they’re worthy citizens of X (and of the human species) they do so routinely as unpaid labor, with zero acknowledgment or support, in the vain hope of not being called by their body parts.

stylish-hatA textbook example of this were the last four issues of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) Bulletin, the organization’s official publication.  The content of these issues included a pornokitsch cover showing a barely clad woman “warrior” with the standard spine-shattering pose required to push breasts and genitals simultaneously forward; an article advising women to emulate Barbie’s “quiet dignity”; and two lengthy dialogues that, inter alia, called objections to blatantly sexist remarks “censorship” and Stalinist “thought policing”.  As the saying goes, Feminazis: because asking to be treated as a human being is the same as destroying most of Europe.  If race had been treated the same way as gender was in these four issues, the “controversial” items would never have landed on the editor’s desk, let alone cleared it.  Yet in today’s self-labeled “progressive” circles, which include SFF, blatant –isms are generally not permitted (or have consequences) except one: unapologetic misogyny.  We still have gender discussions that should have ended in 1973, at the latest.

For those like me who are in the last third of their lives and lived in real dictatorships bolstered by fundamentalisms, this is being bitten to death by ducks.  The same whiny infantilism, the same smug lip-smacking prurience, the same blathering of long-discredited pseudoscience.  After a while it becomes boring, even as it remains debilitating.  And, of course, the reflex reaction I described earlier recurred in the SFWA incident like clockwork: women dropped whatever they were doing and rushed into the breach to once again explain 101 concepts and to clean up (for free) the PR mess for which the perpetrators got paid pro rates; and the advocates for “reasoned discourse” who eventually condescended to behave like proto-humans were showered with flowers, kisses and bravery medals for essentially not (or no longer) slapping women in the face – while the volunteers are expected to clean up these Augean stables with zero kudos, infrastructural support or funding.

So here are stories that won’t get written or, if written, will carry the same dislocations that Woolf discerned in Brontë.  Here are stories that won’t get awards or pro rates because they were sandwiched between stints of soul-withering labor that nurtures the infantilism it tries to cure – because we share this world and cannot afford to have it turned to shit, and because, unlike other marginalized groups, we cannot sequester ourselves or stop loving our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons.  Here are hours, days, weeks, months, years, lifetimes that could have been spent, if not in creative fever, at least in pleasure rather than bitterness and fatigue.  There is no way to win this, as activists learn.  It’s a Sisyphean labor.  If we do nothing, we lose; if we do something, we still lose – blood and bone marrow, time robbed and effort wasted, the luxury (yes, for us a luxury) of considering ourselves, for fleeting moments, human beings rather than battered furniture.

Even the olympian composure of Jane Austen cracked at the end of her short life.  In her last novel, Persuasion, her stand-in, Anne Elliott, finally cries out in anguish and protest.  But Jane Austen still had to put her work aside to attend to the needs of her male relatives, as did the three Brontë sisters.  Women who are geniuses or charismatic and insist on showing it get treated like Camille Claudel or Rosalind Franklin, or… the litany is endless.

I’ve said this before, and will repeat it now: I personally believe that our intractable problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human.  Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled.  If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far.  However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.

Related articles:

Is it Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Steering the Craft – Reprise


Images: 1st, Virginia Woolf late in life; 2nd: Aubrey Beardsley, drawing for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors, detail); 3rd, a hefty subcategory of the responses (many verbatim) that greeted women’s protests at the SFWA.

26 Responses to “So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?”

  1. delagar says:

    A brilliant essay, Athena. And I wish it wasn’t 100% true.

  2. Athena says:

    Thank you, Kelly! So do I, but I’m resigned not to see that modest accomplishment in my lifetime.

  3. After a while it becomes boring, even as it remains debilitating.

    Not to mention exhausting. For me personally that’s the struggle: it’s not just THIS thing but, as you point out, a million million instances of this thing or things like it over and over and over again. Damn big flock of ducks.

    Yesterday some of the men I train with were decrying how a woman one of them knew had been treated in her workplace, and I thought, how sad is it that I’m feeling grateful right now that they have a clue, instead of having the luxury of taking their attitude for granted?

  4. Athena says:

    Exactly. Grateful for not being belittled non-stop.

  5. Mephane says:

    “I’ve said this before, and will repeat it now: I personally believe that our intractable problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human.”

    It has been this, throughout history. You may replace “women” by a number of other things regarding place of birth, color of skin, religion, social status etc. We are not truly civilized as long as any kind of distinction between “better” and “worse”, “higher” and “lower”, “worthy” and “unworthy” people exists.

    One thing that is not mentioned in the article (and would have been a needless digression, but I think needs to be mentioned in the comments), is that there are indeed some women who seek to reverse the situation, i.e. establish the notion of women being “superior” to men. Which is just as rubbish as the current status quo. They are effectively hurting a just cause and only providing fake-arguments for those who are still against true equality.

  6. Athena says:

    There may be women who think that the situation should be reversed, but it’s not a symmetric one. We’re starting from a long-established and oppressive precedent of men’s default superiority in everything and/or of everything that is male/masculine deemed better/more worthy, etc. I think that the argument that radical feminists “hurt the cause” is irrelevant at best: those who don’t consider women fully human existed (and had power to enforce their views) long before radical feminists did.

  7. Caliban says:

    Another terrific article, Athena.

    I also admire your calm demeanor in the face of straw-women arguments such as “there are indeed some women who seek to reverse the situation,” which frankly is as bad a derailment of the topic as Malzberg and Resnick equating any criticism with fascist censorship.

    Though I personally know many, many feminists, I’m hard pressed to think of any who argue that women are superior to men. Whereas I see undermining and discounting of women all the time in all sorts of venues–and as a guy, I’m probably noticing only the tip of the iceberg. The *closest* I came to is when I was lucky enough to take a couple of writing classes from Joanna Russ, who certainly wrote stories of lesbian separateness. Brilliant and brilliantly provocative stories, I should add. But in her class she treated me very well; in fact, once, when she was not feeling well, she asked me (a man) to moderate the discussion!

  8. Jim Fehlinger says:

    It seems the milieu of SF authors and fans, if not the
    rest of the world, hasn’t changed all that much since
    38 years ago, when the SFWA newsletter was all a-smear
    with Arthur C. Clarke defending astronaut Mike Collins’
    comment to Time magazine that women shouldn’t be in the
    space program because their boobs are too distracting in
    zero-g (resulting in male astronauts’ blood leaving their
    brains and pooling elsewhere in their bodies, as
    illustrated above).

    > . . .two lengthy dialogues that, inter alia, called objections
    > to blatantly sexist remarks “censorship” and Stalinist
    > “thought policing”.

    Yes, well, Sir Arthur is no longer with us, but never fear:
    these days, we have Richard Dawkins writing letters to
    such whiners addressed as “Dear Muslima. . .”.

  9. Mephane says:

    Yes, of course. I merely wanted to point out that there is stupidity and backwards-oriented thinking on both sides of a divide that sadly still persists in many areas. But while that kind of women are a tiny (albeit sometimes, sadly, vocal) minority, men who try to defend gender inequality for all kinds of dubious reasons, are probably a (relative, at least) majority.

    I am sorry if I made the appearance of trying to digress this thread.

  10. Athena says:

    Calvin, this is the “not get instantly angry” part of the equation. I give people longish ropes, though they mostly use them in the obvious way.

  11. Athena says:

    Mephane, “Fair and balanced” only works if the problem itself is so. This is rather textbook not so. It’s also interesting that the trend I discussed continues on the SFWA boards and SFF blogs: men who write about this are invariably told what great guys they are. Women who do so… mostly crickets (with about two exceptions).

  12. Athena says:

    Jim, we have many eager to take up Clarke’s prophet status in all the self-labeled “progressive” groups, the “women are holes” part of the sermon included.

  13. Christopher Phoenix says:

    To proclaim “So, where are the outstanding women in “X” field?” is about as meaningful as asking “Well, if your horse was so fast, why didn’t it win the race?” when said horse had been hobbled to begin with, in a race where even if it had won, no one would pay attention.

    Men have expected for women to take care of all the tasks men deem not worthy of their time, like scrubbing the floor and taking care of the children and whatever, which consumes much time and effort. Historically women were barred from or at the least discouraged from studying various “X” fields which they threatened with the dreaded girl cooties, often on such flimsy excuses as “All that thinking will shrivel their wombs!! (clearly the only useful part)”. And in many parts of the world women did (or still do not) not even have enough control over their own lives to educate themselves, and those who try face extreme violence and terrorization.

    All the same, women do excel when given half a chance- but when they do make important contributions, very often their work is ignored, as with Rosalind Franklin being the first to recognize the spiral structure of DNA- and then being forgotten in favor of Watson and Crick even though their description of DNA was built on her work.

    When the horse is no longer limping because its foot has been maliciously cut, then the statistics may actually be meaningful. Until then those who trot it out this tired old argument are engaged in an activity only a step above ape excrement-slinging in defense of what was always a rigged game.

  14. Kristine says:

    Mephane, I have been traversing the internet in search of feminism for nearly four fruitful years, and I have yet to have seen one example of a feminist who thinks men should be relegated to a lower class than women. I would hardly call that vocal. In fact, the only time I ever hear about them are when other people talk about this “vocal minority” in the abstract. Nobody is ever able to name a group or even an individual spokesperson associated with this “vocal minority.” Rarely does anyone provide any anecdotal evidence, and no one seems capable of providing any proof whatsoever that they exist.

    I think the term you’re looking for is straw-feminist.

  15. Athena says:

    Christopher, exactly.

  16. Athena says:

    Kristine, the internet is a perfect medium for starting, inflating and propagating such rumors.

  17. Mephane says:


    Oh, then it may very well be a phenomenon unique to Germany; and the only examples I could point to apply only here, too, particularly with regards some annoying cliques of pseudo-science.

    In retrospect, I am now a bit embarrassed of even mentioning it. I am all for equal rights and treatment, no exceptions, no “but”.

  18. Linden says:

    Kristine — The two women I see most named around the Internet as the “leaders” of the “vocal minority” are Valerie Solanas (deceased) and Andrea Dworkin (deceased). Whereas the vocal majority in favor of male supremacy has many living leaders in every field of human endeavor.

  19. Athena says:

    Thank you for your stand also, Catherine!

  20. Kari Sperring says:

    This is wonderful: thank you.

  21. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Kari!

  22. Brilliant, Athena.

  23. Athena says:

    Thank you, Ophelia!

  24. Adam says:

    Hi Athena
    I had no idea how bad the bad old days were, even in SF circles. That was a real eye-opener. Makes me glad to be a Gen Xer and not some Baby-Boomer (present company excepted) or from Ante-Diluvian days. Does explain the lack of real women characters in so many books I was a fan of as a kid. I think Clarke, at least, tried to reverse his earlier misogyny in his later stories somewhat, though still writing from the point-of-view of male characters.

    Here’s a question: In your opinion Athena, are there any good examples of female characters written by men? In SF and in wider literature? Women writers usually IMO write male characters well – in fact, often with more insight than a lot of men. Female principal characters I can remember by men often read like another man, or like a sock-puppet of the author (Heinlein, I’m looking at you.) And I’m not really sure of why the character feels that way when I read – I don’t know enough english theory to explain why they read that way.

  25. Athena says:

    Well, people always point to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary as complex female characters written by men. However, by my metrics, truly believable women exist in such works as Chekhov’s later plays (The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters), Tsirkas’ short stories (not his epic trilogy), Don Lee’s Country of Origin. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single SFF work written by a man that contains a fully realized woman (though that may change as I delve deeper into the memory banks).

    I’d argue that in most of literature women as portrayed by men are usually muses, bitch goddesses or wet blankets. In other words, conduits rather than fully embodied persons with their own agencies/agendas. A linked issue, as briefly discussed in my Iron Madonna article, is that there are usually not enough women in male-written works to make them more than symbols or types or allow them complex interactions.