The Magic of Wisdom
When I was a kid, I believed that adults of a certain age became wise. Maybe some fairy godmother came down from the sky and touched them with a wand, igniting a previously unused portion of the brain. Maybe the hormones raging through the system settled down enough that thought became more important than emotion. Or maybe that was a lie my parents told me to keep me quiet.
One of the greatest disappointments in my adult life is learning that—nope, no wisdom comes with age. Just some experience and, if we’re lucky, the ability to understand how somethings work—generally from hindsight. And yep, that passes for wisdom in most circles, because really, it’s almost impossible for someone under the age of 20 to do.
In college, I was a history major. I still read great thick history books for pleasure. I love digging into the past. I love old books and old newspapers, old radio shows and ancient newscasts. I love finding out the “truth” of a time period, and not the things that people believe to be true about that time period.
Now, looking back from the vantage of 55 years, I realize that all the things I’ve experienced of late have happened before. (Yes, history does repeat itself.)
The first wave of feminism happened to my grandmother’s generation. Those women, many of whom were born in the 1880s and 1890s, got women in the United States the right to vote. They marched on Parliament in the U.K. and changed the way women were perceived all over the world.
Women of the 1920s had a lot more freedom than the previous generation, and they ended up taking a lot of that freedom for granted. Let’s be fair, though—their world collapsed on them, and they spent the 1930s trying to feed their families.
Women of the 1940s fought a world war alongside their men. These women manned factories and fixed cars. They flew airplanes and defended their countries—only to be forced into “female” roles when the men came home. Those women had a lot of bitterness, and most of them never discussed those shockingly repressive years between 1946 and 1966.
The second wave of feminism came from the writings of those women, their experiences, and influenced their daughters. I grew up at the end of that wave. My older sisters (19 and 16 years older, respectively) actually made headway in that second wave of feminism. They fought battles big and small, all of which are too personal to mention here.
I felt like a tagalong. I got some of the benefits of those battles, but not all of them. I still tear up when I see female athletes receiving the same kind of recognition that their male counterparts receive. Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act here in the United States had a huge impact on the world we live in now.
Title IX states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
It didn’t start being enacted until 1975 (and the litigation continues on some aspects). But those later changes—which occurred in 1975, 1977, and 1980—all meant that female athletes were entitled to the same treatment as male athletes from childhood on.
I graduated from college in 1982—too late to benefit from Title IX. I was an athletic kid, but I couldn’t play baseball in school (even though I beat the boys on our neighborhood team) or run track (not that I would have). So seeing girls succeed—girls who actually get a chance to excel at something they’re good at—makes me tear up to this day.
The playing field was leveling as I grew older, and there were certain parts of the playing field that always seemed completely level to me. Writing and publishing seemed completely level. After all, I read books written by women writers—a lot of women writers. I submitted stories and articles to female editors. I knew of female publishers.
When I became the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1991, I became the first (and only) female editor of that magazine, but I was not the first female editor in science fiction by a long, long ways.
There are a few arguments about who should be considered the first female editor of science fiction. Should we count Miriam Bourne, who acted as an associate editor and managing editor for Amazing Stories, beginning in 1928, its first year of publication? Or Madeline Heath, who edited All-Story Magazine in 1929? I’m sure there were female editors before that at other publications, now lost to history, who published things we would count as science fiction.
Women continued to be influential in the field from 1928 until now. For example, in the 1990s, the award ballots and the bestseller lists for science fiction were dominated by women.
So imagine my surprise a few years ago, when a young female writer told me that there were no women writers in science fiction. When I looked at this writer in surprise, she realized who she was talking to and added, “Present company excepted, of course.”
This woman had been a student of mine and had taken science fiction classes from me because I wrote science fiction. I wrote off her comment because, frankly, she was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. I figured she was just as unobservant about the history of the field as she was about the world around her.
Then I saw the same comments crop up online. An entire generation of young female writers started going on and on and on and on about the fact that there were no female science fiction writers. This prompted award-winning writer Eleanor Arnason to write a brilliant blog post called “What Are We, Chopped Liver?” on Strange Horizon’s website. (I reprinted it on my women in science fiction website late in 2015.) Eleanor expressed how a lot of us felt. We’d always been here. We had blazed some trails, yes, but mostly, we stood on the shoulders of giants.
Female giants—from Andre Norton to Leigh Brackett to C.L. Moore—none of whom, by the way, changed their names because they were discriminated against. (That’s another myth.)
Of course, there were women in sf—a lot of us—and we’d been here since the beginning of the genre.
A month or two after those comments mushroomed on social media, I taught a writing science fiction class. Years and years and years ago, I got tired of using examples from movies to illustrate my point when I teach writing, so before each class, I hand out a reading assignment. That way, my students and I always have the same touchstones for discussion.
I decided, given all this silly “controversy” about the lack of women in sf, to have my students read the best women writers in the business. I was teaching a short fiction class, so I wanted short stories. Considering the fact that women dominated the short categories of the awards ballots for nearly a generation, I figured that would be easy.
But it wasn’t.
Almost every award-winning short story by a woman was out of print. Most award-nominated (and winning) stories by men were still in print.
I’m not exactly sure. I think it was a combination of factors, including something called unconscious bias. A person who has unconscious bias, unlike a hardcore bigot, will prefer someone who looks like him to someone who doesn’t.
Since almost everyone who edited science fiction bests of the year in the past twenty years were male (and white, another topic for another day), most of the contributors to the years best volumes were male as well. And, in fact, most of those stories did not end up on award ballots, let alone win.
I couldn’t find classics of the genre by Kate Wilhelm, Octavia Butler, Lois McMaster Bujold or Connie Willis in one volume or even two volumes. I had to have the students buy those authors’ collections for one or two stories. I had to hunt those stories out.
Suddenly, I understood why these young writers believed there were no women writing science fiction. Historically speaking, we had been wiped off the map. There was no record of the work we did.
This had happened for the generations of women who had come before. Pamela Sargent had edited Women of Wonder in the 1970s because there was no record of the women who had written the most influential science fiction of the 1930s through the 1950s. Pam set the record straight, and as she says in a blog she wrote for the women in science fiction website, she thought the work was done.
She wrote, “The WoW anthologies remained in print for over a decade and in my naïveté, I thought the point had been made: Women could write fine science fiction, and had been writing it for some time; no longer would we be relegated to being tokens, exceptions to the rule, or a kind of ladies’ auxiliary of sf.”
She added, “Little did I know. Few disputes are ever completely settled and battles almost always have to be refought and cogent points made over and over again.”
I guess we all had to learn that. With great disappointment—and more than a little anger—I went to Toni Weisskopf, the owner and publisher of Baen Books. Toni—a woman of the same generation as me, who has worked as a writer and editor in the field as long as I have—was as angry as I was about this lack of respect for previous generations.
I proposed an anthology for Baen—not a new Women of Wonder which showed what women are capable of. I think we’ve proven that over the years (over and over again). The anthology I proposed is the one I wanted for my sf class.
I wanted the best stories from women, the ones that should have been in the years best volumes or the best of the century volumes, and were not. I limited myself to stories from the 20th century, and to writers who influenced sf by winning a lot of awards and selling a lot of books—writers like Anne McCaffrey and Andre Norton, writers whose work influenced entire generations like Leigh Brackett and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Women who wrote spectacular science fiction—not just sf about women or women’s issues. But plain old excellent sf with no political agenda at all.
I reread a lot of stories to make sure they held up for a modern audience. Some of the classics of the 1970s did not. They were really dated. But a lot of the older works from the 1930s and 1940s held up just fine (with the exception of some dated language). One thing I discovered—or rediscovered—was that so much of sf (not just the stuff by women) was romantic, sweeping, epic. Love stories, buried inside adventure fiction. Great heroes and even greater heroines. Strong women and strong men.
Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
Then I ended up with the herculean task of picking 100,000 words of fiction out of an entire century’s worth of good stuff. I left out much more than I could ever put in.
But if I could time-travel back to that sf class, I would use that book. I would show these young writers who think women were not part of the science fiction field all of the great women who came before them, and the spectacular stories those women wrote.
I hope to do more volumes. And I will do some award volumes with John Helfers, bringing back a lot of award-winning stories from the past that never got anthologized properly.
Until then, though, my new project for Baen is in the process of publication. The book, which we titled Women of Futures Past, will come out in the fall of 2016—just in time for the next science fiction writing class that I plan to teach.
This has been quite a journey for me. It has put me in touch with my roots—as a trained historian, a woman who used to participate in feminist gatherings, and as a science fiction fan.
It has also educated me. Just because I know something happened in the past doesn’t mean anyone else does. As Pam Sargent said, these battles never really end. They crop up in new and different ways.
I now know why my grandmother used to smile so mysteriously at my sister when she complained about the lack of respect she received as a woman. Why 50-year-old Gerda Lerner started the first Ph.D program in women’s history (at my alma mater, The University of Wisconsin) in 1980 in the first place.
I get it now. Because history gets lost—especially the history of women and minorities.
We need to honor that history and respect it.
One way I have honored that history is to edit a book that brings back wonderful short fiction, stories written in the 20th century that speak to the 21st.
I’ll find other ways as well.
I don’t want to be caught by surprise again. I don’t want our history to get lost.
So I’m doing what I can to help my favorite writers inspire new generations. And to help readers find some great writing.
I’m not wise. I just have a lot of experience. And I’m putting some of that experience to good use.