Women of Futures Past; edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch


I bought this book because I thought there was an Andre Norton story in it that I hadn’t read as well as a few others, though it turned out later that I HAD read that Norton story and forgotten it. I didn’t mind seeing it again, though, as well as reading the stories that were new to me (which turned out to only be the Cadigan, the Kress and the Bujold). The stories themselves were uniformly excellent; though I was familiar with most of them, having read them in the Eighties and Nineties.

The preface, though, seemed – tendentious. Kristine Kathryn Rusch states the problem that women in the history of SF seem to be forgotten too quickly, even citing the fact that Locus once completely omitted her own tenure as the editor of F & SF when naming past editors, also that younger writers, including women, seem unaware of most of them. She states that the purpose of her anthology was to introduce the stories to younger readers who may not be aware that the stories and their writers existed. I was a little nonplussed at that at first. I’d read most of those stories in anthologies printed decades after they were first published, and didn’t think of them as ‘forgotten’ classics, but then I reminded myself I’m becoming a decrepit Old, and it’s surely a good thing to have a primer of these writers for the young who were not yet reading in the 80’s and 90’s.

I also didn’t have any objection to another of Rusch’s stated goals, to choose some of the stories in which men are the protagonists, and don’t deal exclusively with “women’s issues” because ‘feminist anthologies’ tended toward choosing stories which deal solely with such issues and have female protagonists. Given that another of Rusch’s stated goals was to choose writers who were ‘successful’ in having a larger following of fans but have been left out of the “so-called canon” (who called it a canon? Rusch doesn’t say) of accepted classic female writers, even though those omitted writers had a much larger following than the “canon” writers, I can’t blame her for choosing stories to have as broad an appeal as possible to increase potential sales.

What I do have a problem with, is her broad statement that “The idea that women are discriminated against in science fiction is ludicrous to me.”

Yes, it is certainly a problem that younger female writers feel that SF is hostile to women, and feel that the few female predecessors they know of are ‘the exception’, and that they are ignorant of many others. But I think to flatly state that their impression of discrimination is utterly false isn’t necessarily convincing…and the fact that she uses a series of straw men to ‘prove’ her argument doesn’t strengthen it.

“But the narrative in which there has been no female participation in SF, no women writing SF, in which women had to hide under pen names and initials because of being discriminated against…that narrative has triumphed over the truth.
That narrative is insulting. It’s demeaning. And it’s wrong.”

Sure, it’s insulting and demeaning and wrong. But I’m pretty sure no one – not even the young ignorant writers she rails against who believe in the laughable bogeyman of discrimination – believes that there has been NO female participation in SF. AFAIK, they only believe that women have been published less, and marginalized and forgotten more than their talent actually warrants.

As for pen names and initials…in Rusch’s introduction to C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” (a story I love, BTW) Rusch tells us:

“And now, we ease into the mythbusting part of our anthology…Articles on discrimination against women in SF consistently cite Catherine Lucille Moore’s 1933 decision to use her initials as a byline as proof that she was afraid she would be discriminated against for her gender. Nothing could be further from the truth.” She then cites some biography to say (not in a quote from Moore) that “she used her initials because writing for the pulp magazines was a disreputable thing to do – for men and women – in the 1930’s, and she was afraid of losing her job in the depths of the Depression.”

This is pretty thin stuff. The fact that she wanted to protect her job does not logically exclude the possibility that she might ALSO have wanted her gender to be less obvious to publishers and readers. It becomes even thinner when you realize Rusch is well aware that Moore used many pseudonyms in her career – she even mentions it herself (“She was so prolific under many names, with Kuttner and on her own…”). But, oddly, Rusch omits to mention that most of those pen names – maybe ALL of them – were either asexual or masculine. Since I doubt such an eminent SF personage as Rusch was ignorant of that, I can only conclude she deliberately omitted it to strengthen her argument of ‘no discrimination in SF’.

Why? I’d guess because of something she said about another goal of the anthology: “I did not want the stories in this volume to have a political slant. This introduction and the introduction to the stories have a slant, because I’m trying to introduce the important women writers of science fiction to a generation who does not know they exist.”

To Rusch’s credit, I think her selected stories do not have an overt political slant. But the introductions – why do they require Rusch to pooh-pooh the idea that women in SF were ever discriminated against before she allows the reader to dig in to their goodness? Who is her intended audience of people who do not know women in SF ever existed, but need a spoonful of sugary reassurance that them feminists were full of it before downing what they anticipate to be the bitter medicine of a story by a woman? Do I hear the dulcet tones of puppywhistles in the air?

The rest of her proof of nondiscrimination is equally thin. She cites someone who made a careful count of all stories in SF magazines from 1926 to 1965 (a heroic work indeed) and found “at least” 233 women writers who published a total of 1055 stories in that time. Gosh wow! That’s a lot. And how many total stories and male writers of such, so that we can do the simple math ourselves and see whether the percentage of women is near the 50% we would expect if we accept Rusch’s premises that women have no specific handicap in writing sf AND that there is no discrimination against them in the field? Oddly enough, that number’s not there.

The most upsetting part of the introduction, to me, was Rusch’s treatment of Joanna Russ. To me, if you’re going to talk about the erasure of women from the SF field, you kind of HAVE to talk about Russ’ contribution regarding how to suppress women’s writing – whether you’re going to agree or vehemently disagree with her views. Rusch does neither. She only brings up Russ to dismiss her briefly: “In the 1970s, Joanna Russ doubly dismissed hearth-and-home stories in her analysis of the kinds of SF women tend to write. She called hearth-and-home stories either ‘galactic suburbia’ or ‘ladies magazine fiction’ which she defined as stories ‘in which the sweet, gentle, intuitive heroine solves an interstellar crisis by mending her slip or doing something equally domestic after her big heroic husband has failed.'”

Now, Russ is pretty clearly castigating writers like Mildred Clingerman, whose ladies-in-the-domestic-sphere stories do match Russ’ sarcastic description. Russ was no doubt wrong to dismiss such writers wholesale. But Rusch is wronger than Russ when she says this:

“Russ, as with many critics, often couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Clingerman’s fiction, for example, is extremely subversive and biting. Yes, her intuitive heroines solve problems in untraditional not-always-heroic ways and that is the point. Clingerman, [Shirley] Jackson, early Kit Reed, all focused on powerless people who managed the world much better than the powerful.”


Do you REALLY think that Joanna Russ was such an idiot that she described any of Shirley Jackson’s protagonists as “the sweet, gentle, intuitive heroine” who problem-solves the apocalypse with her sewing kit? Again, I can’t imagine that you do, and the picture of you straw-manning words of attack on Shirley Jackson into Russ’ mouth that she surely didn’t intend is distasteful to me.

Funnily enough, after defending Mildred Clingerman from Russ, Rusch – didn’t actually include any stories of Clingerman’s in her anthology. Though some of Clingerman’s stories are pretty good, I’d guess that despite all Rusch’s condemnation of Russ’ judgement, Rusch DID tacitly agree by omission that Clingerman’s works aren’t quite good enough to have withstood the test of time.

So, in conclusion – the set of stories themselves are an excellent introductory anthology to these writers. But Rusch’s editorializing is not a lot of value added to it.


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