Although a genre defined and long dominated by men, sf has a particular affinity with feminism. This became clear in the 1970s with the publication of such challenging books as THE FEMALE MAN (1975) by Joanna RUSS, WALK TO THE END OF THE WORLD (1974) and Motherlines (1978) by SuzyMcKee CHARNAS and WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME (1976) by Marge PIERCY.One of the most obvious attractions of sf to women writers - feminist or not - is the possibilities it offers for the creation of a female HERO. The demands of realism in the contemporary or historical novel set limits which do not bind the universes available to sf. Although the history of sf reveals few heroic, realistic, or even original images of women (WOMEN AS PORTRAYED IN SCIENCE FICTION), the genre had a potential recognized by the womenwriters drawn to it in the 1960s and 1970s. The desire to write (or read) about women who wield swords, pilot spaceships or simply lead lives from which the threat of male violence is absent might be seen as escapist, but such imaginings can also be read as part of a political agenda. As Pamela SARGENT wrote in a letter to Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Fall1977, "Science-fiction writers are limited only by human potential, not human actualities. Sf can serve to show women, and men, how large that potential can be." And Suzy McKee Charnas remarked in the same journal: "Women's realities are still highly circumscribed by various forms ofoppression . . . One place for us to imagine new strengths, goals, and ways of being human is in the world of fantasy, where we can work around our present limitations in ways that may help to point us . . . out of and beyond those limitations."Despite the reputation sf has as a mind-expanding, possibly subversive, always questioning form, these strengths were seldom brought to bear on the subject of male/female relationships, sexual roles or the idea of "woman's place" prior to the rise of the Women's Liberation Movement. As Kingsley AMIS pointed out in New Maps of Hell (1960 US), "Though it may go against the grain to admitit, science-fiction writers are evidently satisfied with the sexual status quo." He was referring, of course, to male sf writers. With a very few exceptions (e.g., Philip WYLIE's The Disappearance (1951), Theodore STURGEON's Venus Plus X 1960) and John WYNDHAM's "Consider Her Ways" (1956)), the men who tried to imagine alternatives to patriarchy did so only to "prove" how nasty and impossible life would be without the "natural" dominance of woman by man. (For more novels featuringwomen-ruled societies SOCIOLOGY.)One of the major challenges of modern feminism has been to the idea that gender roles and relations are in some way permanent, arising from a natural and immutable law. In The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970) Shulasmith Firestone located the site of women's oppression in their role as child-bearers and -rearers, and argued that feminist revolution would not be possible untilwomen were freed not only from the sole responsibility for child-rearing (which should be taken by society as a whole) but also, by technology,from the tyranny of reproduction. Although the idea that women might have to give up the physical act of child-bearing in order to achieve a truly egalitarian society has never achieved wide popularity, the force of Firestone's argument is powerfully illustrated in Marge Piercy's WOMAN ONTHE EDGE OF TIME, and its influence can be traced also in the writings of Charnas, Russ and Sally Miller GEARHART.Not all work by women writers is feminist - not even when it concentrates on the "woman question" - and there are different interpretations of what comprises feminist sf. The only specifically labelled feminist sf list from any publisher is the one established by The Women's Press in the UK under the direction of Sarah LEFANU in 1985. Anything published by The Women's Press, sf included, isconsidered, by definition, feminist, and is often ghettoized in bookshops. Yet many of the books on this list were first published in the USA andeven in the UK by nonfeminist houses either as straightforward sf, as for example A Door into Ocean (1986) by Joan SLONCZEWSKI, or as mainstream literature, like The Book of the Night (1984) by Rhoda Lerman (1936-). The Women's Press list also includes books by writers who had notpreviously been seen as, and would not define themselves as, feminist writers, such as Josephine SAXTON and Tanith LEE.Diane Martin, an editor of the fanzine Aurora (where sf stands for "speculative feminism" - JANUS/AURORA), in 1990 proposed, with tongue slightly in cheek, "TheMartin Scale" as a tool for measuring the feminist content of a work of sf or fantasy:Level One: Doubts about patriarchy/women escaping victimization (e.g., most Andre NORTON novels)Level Two: Men and women as equals (e.g.,DREAMSNAKE P1978) by Vonda MCINTYRE)Level Three: Women are better than men on some levels (e.g., FrostFlower and Thorn (1980) by Phyllis Ann Karr)Level Four: Women are uniformly better than men (e.g., Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Tomoe Gozen saga)Level Five: Can't live with 'em/can't live without 'em (e.g., "The Women Men Don't See" (1973) by James TIPTREE Jr)Level Six: Men are tragically flawed and pitiable (e.g., Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden ELGIN)Level Seven: Men as slaves (e.g., B-movies like Amazon Women on the Moon (1987); Joe DANTE)Level Eight: Separatism is necessary for survival (e.g., THE GATE TO WOMEN'S COUNTRY (1988) by Sheri S. TEPPER)Level Nine: Positive depiction of lesbian/feminist utopias (e.g. , The Shore of Women (1986) by Pamela Sargent)Level Ten: Parthenogenesis and/or scenes of actual castration (e.g., Motherlines (1978) by Suzy McKee Charnas)In what is probably the most thoughtful and accessible survey of the topic, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (1988; vt Feminism and Science Fiction 1989 US) by Sarah Lefanu,the author makes a distinction between feminist sf and "feminized sf". The latter, she argues, while it challenges established sexism by valuing women and feminine values over men and masculinity, and has been an important influence on the development of sf as a whole, does not dispute the man/woman paradigm or question the construction of gender as more radical feminist writings do. Feminist ideas are able to flourish within sf despite reader resistance because, she claims, sf at its best "deploys a sceptical rationalism as its subtext" and "feminism is based upon a profound scepticism: of the 'naturalness' of the patriarchal world and the belief in male superiority on which it is founded".A forerunner to modern feminist sf can be seen in the spate of utopian stories written by women as part of the movement for women's rights which began in the 19th century. Unlike the utopias of male writers, these fictions always question the sexual status quo and foreground the position of women, sometimes - as in Mary E. Bradley LANE's Mizora (1890) and Charlotte Perkins GILMAN's Herland (1914; 1979) - by depicting an all-women societyand showing its superiority to societies in which men rule.The utopian tradition in women's writing was forgotten in subsequent decades until its rediscovery by feminist scholars in the 1970s, and there is some worry that, however well established women writers may seem now, the same fate may befall feminist sf. Russ has described many of the ways in which women's work is discounted in How to Suppress Women's Writing (1983); and, in "An Open Letter to Joanna Russ" in Aurora 25 (1987), Jeanne Gomoll expressed her feeling that her own experiences of FANDOM and sf in the 1970s were being rewritten by men choosing to ignore the impact offeminism and characterize a whole decade as "boring" because their personal interests were not always given priority. To many, women as well as men, the revolution is over, equality has been won, and we are living in a post-feminist age. In addition, the label "feminist" has never been either safe or comfortable; while it had in the 1970s - particularly in the USA - a certain novelty value, by the mid-1980s to be called a feminist writer was to be announced as writing for a limited audience of like-minded readers.On the positive side, the impact of feminism can be seen even in much nonfeminist sf. Men as well as women writers are more interested in creating believable female characters; and, as a ground for "thought experiments" relating to gender, social relations and new ways ofbeing human - topics central to feminism - sf is extremely fertile.
   Further reading: Future Females: A Critical Anthology (anth 1981) ed Marlene S. Barr; Feminist Futures: Contemporary Women's Speculative Fiction (1984) by Natalie M. Rosinski; Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy (anth 1985) ed Jane B. Weedman; Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers(1985) by Rachel Blau DuPlessis; Feminist Utopias (1989) by Francis Bartkowski.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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