One of the most important books published in the past forty years in the science fiction genre—or perhaps in any genre—is Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder. Although many editors have done similar books in the ensuing years, none have had the impact that this anthology had. I read it years after it came out, and it seemed fresh and new then. I reread it earlier this year as I prepared Women of Futures Past, and realized at that moment how many anthologies tried to do the same thing, sometimes misunderstanding what Pam was doing. She hadn’t been providing a model of how to do a women-only anthology: she was correcting the historical record and reminding everyone in the field at the time that women were–and always had been—a force in the genre.
I asked her to write a guest blog, hoping she would tell us how Women of Wonder came about. As is always the case with major anthologies, indeed, with major books, the story behind the volume is just as interesting as the volume itself.
Pam has done a lot more than edit anthologies. She published her first science fiction story in 1970 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She has won the Nebula and Locus Awards and was honored in 2012 with the Pilgrim Award, given by the Science Fiction Research Association for lifetime contributions to sf and fantasy scholarship. Her many novels include Venus of Dreams, Ruler of the Sky, The Shore of Women, and Climb the Wind. Her most recent novel, Season of the Cats, is just out in hardcover from Wildside Press.
Women of Wonder: Looking Back
by Pamela Sargent
More than forty years ago, Women of Wonder, the first anthology of science fiction stories by women about women, came out from Vintage Books. It was my first anthology and also the first book of mine to be published, right at the beginning of 1975, a year ahead of my first novel, Cloned Lives. The very first copy of Women of Wonder was handed to me by Janet Kafka, the editor who had worked with me on the book, at a meet-the-editors party held by SFWA in New York City in late 1974.
I first thought of doing such an anthology sometime in 1971 and can’t recall exactly what inspired me, although at least part of it was the increasing prominence of feminist issues and the women’s movement at the time. I do remember how I came up with the title; brainstorming with my partner George Zebrowski and our lifelong close friend Jack Dann. As beginning writers, we had all formed a kind of informal workshop, although we didn’t call it that, where we discussed our stories and showed one another drafts for criticism, and which one of us actually came up with the title remains obscure. At one point – it might have been after a mention of the comics character Wonder Woman – somebody shouted, “Women of wonder!” I think we might have all shouted the title in unison, but memory can be misleading.
I submitted my proposal to rejections from every publisher who saw it. In fairness, at least some of those rejections might have been for understandable reasons. After realizing that there were few jobs for philosophy majors in academia and dropping out of grad school to write, I had only a few published stories and an unpublished novel-in-progress to my credit, so some of the rejections surely might have been prompted by doubts about offering a contract to someone that young and inexperienced. But doubts about my ability to edit such a volume weren’t the only reasons for rejection. I’m paraphrasing here, but these are a few of the comments on the proposal:
“Are these real science fiction stories or something else altogether?”
“The audience for an anthology like that is very limited.”
“The largely male audience won’t buy a book that includes only women writers.”
“Really? I don’t think so.”
Occasionally I would get a sympathetic response from somebody who thought a women’s sf anthology was a splendid idea but basically unsalable, either because the audience for such a book wasn’t there or the editor wouldn’t be able to convince his or her publisher to buy the book.
I had almost given up on the project when Vonda McIntyre called. She had heard that I was trying to sell an anthology of sf by women. Not long before, after seeing a new sf anthology from Vintage Books, a publisher that normally didn’t publish science fiction, she had contacted an editor to complain that every single one of the stories was written by a man. Why not a book that included women? she asked. The editor replied, “Why don’t you edit one for us?” In her phone call to me, Vonda said, “Why don’t you contact Vintage about your anthology?” Vintage, then a trade paperback division of Random House, was a publisher that seemed totally out of my league, since at the time they were best known for publishing serious contemporary works of fiction; I hadn’t even thought of trying them. The editor I spoke to, Janet Kafka, asked me to submit my proposal and made an offer for the book a few weeks later.
Not long after that, Vonda sold her own original feminist anthology, Aurora: Beyond Equality, which she edited with Susan Janice Anderson, to Fawcett, the publisher of her first novel, The Exile Waiting, so this story has a happy ending in which her generosity was rewarded. I have considered Vonda the godmother of the Women of Wonder anthologies ever since.
I had my contract with Vintage. Then it dawned on me that if I screwed this anthology up, it wouldn’t be only my reputation that would suffer; a substandard anthology would provide anyone who considered women writers marginal to science fiction with some ammunition to use in that battle. The pressure was on. There were also a few physical obstacles to overcome while doing some of my research. George and I had recently moved to a new apartment, meaning that I had to spend several weeks crawling over the floor among packed boxes of books and magazines, pulling out the ones I needed to consult, then sitting on the floor to make notes on a legal pad before crawling to another box.
Because Women of Wonder was published by Vintage, it probably reached many readers who otherwise might not have picked up the book. Reviews appeared not only in the sf magazines and trade publications such as Publishers Weekly but also in major newspapers and publications outside the genre, bringing the anthology to the attention of people who weren’t habitual sf readers. More Women of Wonder, which Vintage asked me to do after they saw how well the first was doing, came out in 1976 and The New Women of Wonder in 1978, with Gail Winston taking over as my editor after Janet Kafka left Vintage. (Janet tragically died in a car accident not long afterwards; in her honor, an annual prize, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, has been awarded annually since 1975 to an outstanding work of fiction by an American woman by the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies and the Department of English at the University of Rochester. One past winner of the award is Ursula K. Le Guin for her 1985 novel Always Coming Home.) 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.
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.
In his 1989 article “The RAPE of Science Fiction,” (yes, that word was in caps and in a title implicitly labeling women as the rapists) Charles Platt contended that women had “softened” and eroded science fiction. In other words, women weren’t writing “real” or “hard” science fiction, as men presumably did. “A new soft science fiction emerged,” Platt wrote, “largely written by women…Their concern for human values was admirable, but they eroded science fiction’s one great strength that had distinguished it from all other fantastic literature: its implicit claim that events described could actually come true.” Or as I put it in a speech at the 1991 Wiscon (the same Wiscon at which Pat Murphy made a memorable speech announcing that she and Karen Joy Fowler were founding the James Tiptree, Jr. Award to honor sf and fantasy that explores gender issues, an announcement greeted with, as I recall, a standing ovation), “Once women were discouraged from entering the boys’ clubhouse, and now we’re influential enough to be responsible for the decline of the field.” But the kind of hard sf Platt accused women of undermining has always been a small part of the field and still is, written by a minority of all sf writers.
Maybe it’s a bit unfair to single out Charles Platt, as he wasn’t the only one saying this; his comments were in keeping with a general backlash in the wider culture during the 1980s against feminism and women’s rights. In any event, it wasn’t long before Anne Freedgood, an editor at Random House and Vintage who had worked with Ian Watson and me on our 1986 Vintage anthology Afterlives, was suggesting that the time might be right for another Women of Wonder volume. Another incentive for editing one was getting a chance to reprint stories by some of the fine writers who had begun publishing science fiction after the 1970s. (I only wish that I could have reprinted even more of them, but that would have required volumes at least four or five times the size of the ones that were finally published.)
Few disputes are ever completely settled and battles almost always have to be refought and cogent points made over and over again.
Eventually, after negotiations involving my then-agent, Joseph Elder, John Radziewicz at Harcourt Brace, and, behind the scenes, Anne Freedgood, retired but still a consulting editor with various publishers, Harcourt sent me contracts for two new WoW anthologies, one to cover the period from the 1940s to the 1970s and the other to cover the late 1970s up to the 1990s. It was my good fortune to work with two excellent and demanding editors on both books, Michael Kandel and, especially, Christa Malone, who was also my editor at Harcourt for the three Nebula Awards anthologies I put together.
I recall that even with all the challenges involved in putting together the first WoW anthologies, one problem I didn’t have was protracted and overly complicated negotiations with writers and/or agents. Some were more demanding than others, but most of their requests involving advances and contractual clauses seemed reasonable. Sisterhood ruled! But by the 1990s, negotiations got somewhat trickier. One writer’s agent asked for an advance so large that there would have been little left over to pay the rest of the authors in that volume; I had to give that fine story a pass. Another writer absolutely refused to have the story I wanted from her reprinted; luckily there was another good story of hers that could take its place. A third writer engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth for months before coming to an agreement; one agent required months of trans-Atlantic faxing before we came to an agreement. While editing the Vintage WoWs, I had made sure everyone was paid a fair reprint rate plus royalties; I wasn’t about to undercut my point by paying substandard advances, and the same was true of the Harcourt WoWs. But I chose to regard these increased demands in the 1990s as a sign of progress. These women and their agents knew what they were worth and didn’t shrink from asking for more. Women of Wonder, The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s and Women of Wonder, The Contemporary Years: Science Fiction from the 1970s to the 1990s came out from Harcourt Brace/Harvest Books in 1995.
In 1996, at that year’s Wiscon (marking the 20th year of that convention), many of the writers reprinted in the WoWs were present for a mass book signing. I had the rewarding and emotionally overwhelming experience of not only having other writers tell me how happy they were to be included in the anthologies but also hearing others speak of how the first WoWs had inspired them by revealing how much had been done by women in sf and how much still remained to be accomplished.
Since then, I’ve occasionally thought of doing another Women of Wonder anthology, if only to include even more writers whose short fiction I hadn’t had the space to reprint, or have had editors ask me if I would consider such a project (interest heightened temporarily around 2000, when I was approached about doing a Millennial Women of Wonder sort of book before the editor who had brought this up was distracted by other things). I once again figured that the point had been made, that maybe such a book was unnecessary, and that there were others besides women writers whose contributions to sf hadn’t been properly recognized – the LGBT community, writers of color, writers who weren’t British or American, writers who wrote in languages other than English and drew on different traditions and cultures – to mention only a few examples.
Obviously I had remained somewhat naïve. I didn’t anticipate the present, with yet another cultural backlash that seems even more regressive than the one of the 1980s, and with the accomplishments of women writing sf now hailed in some quarters as if they’re something entirely new and different that has never happened before. By the time 2014 rolled around, I felt as though the Women of Wonder anthologies – indeed, a couple of generations of writers, many but not all of them women – had disappeared down the memory hole. I had very mixed feelings, to put it mildly, when I learned secondhand about a convention held last summer in which the stated theme was “Women of Wonder,” the purpose of the convention was to honor women writers and artists who had contributed to sf and fantasy, and any reference to the WoW anthologies was nowhere in sight.
Clearly there’s still plenty of room for all kinds of anthologies to clear away this fog of amnesia, but I wonder if the time is past for the kind of “comprehensive” anthology I tried to put together. The field has become considerably more diffuse, for one thing, with so many genres and subgenres that editing any kind of anthology that could include them all would require at least a thousand pages; happily it has also become more diverse. For another, it seems appropriate that because of all these different and distinct threads in the sf tapestry, other anthologists should be putting together anthologies that can properly focus on pieces of that tapestry, and in fact they are. We’ve got Sheree R. Thomas’s Dark Matter anthologies, Octavia’s Brood, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Sisters of the Revolution, Kris Rusch’s Women of Futures Past project, a Spanish Women of Wonder anthology to be translated and made available to Anglophones in 2016, and those are just the ones that I can think of off the top of my head. There isn’t just one dominant center for sf now, and that may be for the best, but there is sadly, a history being lost and writers unfairly forgotten who can inspire and nourish future visions.
Information about the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize is at http://www.rochester.edu/college/wst/kafka_prize/
Pat Murphy’s speech about the founding of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award is here: http://www.wiscon.info/downloads/patmurphy.pdf
Pamela Sargent’s speech at Wiscon 15, originally titled “The Sheikh’s Daughter,” is here: http://wiscon.info/downloads/sargent.pdf