Guest Blog by Toni Weisskopf

When it became clear to me that the sf field was losing its history, particularly the history of women in the field, I decided to do an anthology. And I immediately knew who would be the perfect publisher/editor: Toni Weisskopf of Baen. We’ve been the field for the same amount of time, and I knew, without checking, that all this talk about the fact that there are no women in sf had to bother her as much as it bothered me. We got together last February at a conference, and sure enough, I was right.

So when I set up this website, I knew I needed a guest blog from Toni. She’s one of the most influential women in the genre, and has been one of the most influential women for decades. She succeeded Jim Baen as the publisher of Baen Books, a leading publisher of sf and fantasy, in 2006. Her career at Baen began after she graduated from Oberlin College in 1987. Throughout her publishing career, she has worked with writers from Mercedes Lackey to Lois McMaster Bujold. She has been the guest of honor at many sf conventions, and has won several awards for her editing. I have no idea how many anthologies she’s edited, how many books she’s written, and how many writers she’s discovered, but I can guarantee you that the latter category must be in the hundreds.

I’m pleased to give you this essay from Toni.


Women and Science Fiction—So What Am I, Chopped Liver?

by Toni Weisskopf


Toni Weisskopf photo by Paul Cory

Toni Weisskopf photo by Paul Cory

Let me begin by digressing…. A while back I found myself in Rome on my own for a few days. I was on my way to Vienna to rendezvous with my family, meeting to deliver the ashes of my grandmother to her chosen resting place in the family plot. I didn’t have a lot of lead time for the trip, so I bought a couple of traveler’s phrase books (this was before laptops and ubiquitous translation programs) and studied these books on the flight over. When I arrived I found I was in fact able to make myself understood when ordering in restaurants (a youth spent in New York helped with that), buying tickets, and making simple tourist requests (Dove si trova il bagno?). But unfortunately this gave the people I was talking to the false impression that I could actually speak Italian. When they answered in Italian I could pick out a word here or there but did not really understand what they were saying, and I had to resort to the universal language of gestures and smiles.

This is what it feels like to me when people talk about the question of women in science fiction, and how isn’t it wonderful that women are finally succeeding in the field. I understand the shape of the words they use, but I don’t think we are speaking the same language. I am tempted to use a gesture (also learned as a youth in New York), but will instead smile and try to explain what I have seen as a reader, fan, and editor in the field for the last four decades.

There were two things you needed to make it big in science fiction circles: interest and competence. Nobody checked to see if you peed standing up; you did not need to swear a loyalty oath to anyone or anything.

I started reading SF as a child in the ‘70s and got my first job in the field in the late ‘80s. My first exposure to an SF library was my dad’s. I never noticed any particular lack of women writers on his shelves. Andre Norton was one of his favorites (and yes, he knew she was a woman), but there were others, from Gaskell to Brackett. From the middle school library I got both Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper (that library was my first taste of what it was to be an industry insider—I volunteered in the library, and in exchange was allowed to grab the first books in series I was following before everybody else). When I’d exhausted these libraries, I started in on public libraries in New York and Alabama, and spending all my Christmas money in bookstores.

There was no dearth of great science fiction writers to be found in the ‘70s and ‘80s, in libraries or in bookstores. Part of this, no doubt, was due to Anne McCaffrey’s success, the first one to break us out of the SF ghetto and onto the national bestseller lists. And what was that thanks to? Why, her talent and the marketing genius of Judy-Lynn Del Rey. When I came to work in the field a few years later there was no dearth of science fiction editors in positions of power, either. Betsy Mitchell first at Analog, then Baen, Shawna McCarthy at Asimov’s, Beth Meacham at Tor, Susan Allison at Ace, Ellen Datlow, Betty Ballantine, Ellen Asher at the SFBC, just off the top of my head. There were powerful agents who were women, too, with Eleanor Wood leading the field. There were women who owned SF bookstores, women who were artists, who wrote fanzines, who edited apas, who ran conventions. How ‘bout that.

And I had been interested in fan history from the start, reading the memoirs of the Futurians, checking out old fanzines, and generally just listening when fans talked about the history of the field. Like Ginjer Buchanan, I came up through fandom, and never once felt excluded because of my sex (or because of my age, my style of clothing, or my Jewish background, for that matter).

So I knew that the inclusion of women was not a new phenomenon, but that there were women important to the field professionally and in fandom from the start. Because no one was excluded who expressed an interest in science fiction.

It was a proud and lonely thing to be a fan. [See this link] There’s an ad on TV right now (for mortgages) that says “everyone likes rockets.” True today, but in the past they were that crazy kid stuff, and my late husband remembered when his family made fun of his conviction that man would walk on the Moon. Unlike today, where “geek” culture is predominant, science fiction was not considered cool or chic, but slightly odd.

There were not a lot of us, so those who chose to work in the field and interact with other fans were welcomed. There were two things you needed to make it big in science fiction circles: interest and competence. Nobody checked to see if you peed standing up; you did not need to swear a loyalty oath to anyone or anything.

David Hartwell wrote a study of science fiction and fandom in the ‘80s, and in it he used a then-unusual rhetorical trick of alternating male and female pronouns. I don’t approve of this tactic as an editor, but inasmuch as it accurately reflected both women’s and men’s contributions to the field, I understand why he employed it.

Women of Futures Past Cover. Art by Christine Mitzuk

Women of Futures Past Cover. Art by Christine Mitzuk

So I never experienced this mythical time of science fiction being an old boys club, with the Man oppressing women, keeping us down. What do these people imagine all the women in field before them did? I didn’t need Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg to remind me about the contributions of editor Bea Mahaffey at Other Worlds, or the obituaries to tell me about Alice Turner at Playboy; in my circles, they were both still remembered. Same with Kay Tarrant at Astounding/Analog and Cele Goldsmith at Amazing.

So one wonders who is really devaluing the work of women. Perhaps it is those who imply that the women who are successful in SF today need some sort of special consideration. Or is it simply that these people have not bothered studying the history of the field they are talking about? I finally begin to understand the purpose of those lists of names in epic poetry and the Bible: these people existed, they were there. It is my hope that Kris’s anthology will do something towards balancing the scales and prove a resource for anyone who loves great SF and cares about historical accuracy.


22 comments for “Guest Blog by Toni Weisskopf

  1. Frank Earl
    January 26, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    Well said, Toni. VERY well said.

  2. Doug Lugthart
    January 26, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    Hooray, Toni! You nailed it.

  3. January 26, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    In 1969 a woman opened a doorway for me. Stepping through to the other side I found myself on an alien world, and never returned to my point of departure. Forty five years have come and gone since I took Andre Norton’s ‘Storm Over Warlock’ down from a bookshelf. I have journeyed a long distance since that day in many senses, having become unstuck from space and time by the act of reading it. Over the years, as I’ve tramped my way though innumerable science fiction universes, women have consistently been among the best and most interesting of my guides.

    Thanks Toni. Once again, a signpost when it’s needed.

    • david mills
      January 27, 2016 at 10:16 am

      My first was ‘I Robot’ by some Polish guy. I missed ‘Storm over Warlock’, but I think I have read everything else by Norton.

  4. January 26, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    Excellent post, Toni. I’m looking forward to this anthology.

  5. January 26, 2016 at 6:26 pm

    Excellent post– in fact, somebody should nominate you for the Best Fan Writer Hugo on the strength of this post.

  6. January 27, 2016 at 4:15 am

    Very interesting article. Sci fi became a passion later in my reading life, about 35 years ago. CJ Cherryh, Melissa Scott, Joan Vinge, Lois Bujold, Sheri Tepper as well as Asimov, Herbert and Heinlein – though them all I rediscovered my sense of wonder. With a mother who worked as a physicist it seems natural for women to have always written sci fi just as it seems natural for me, a woman, to enjoy reading it. For more than 20 years I have owned a used bookshop with a specialty in sci fi/fantasy.

  7. January 27, 2016 at 5:52 am

    Nice post, Toni.

  8. William Underhill
    January 27, 2016 at 9:14 am

    Thank you, Ma’am.

  9. Daniel Goldman
    January 27, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    I am in my thrities now, i have Loved SciFi since i learned to read. and where did i start you ask?
    Why Anne McCaffrey, which lead to Elizabeth Moon, To Andre Norton, To Heinlein, To Weber.
    But to this day when i close my eyes in wonder Dragons will fly and Ships can Sing

  10. January 28, 2016 at 3:27 am

    My career was largely nurtured by women in the field. I hope they’re all still glad they did it!

  11. James May
    January 28, 2016 at 4:24 am

    “Not bothered studying the history” together with an ideology where disdain precedes an event is the culprit. One need not study a history if one believes where there’s smoke there’s fire.

    This should all never have been as issue in the first place and only looks like it is an issue if one starts with the Munsey era of 100 years ago and isolates the next 50 years of SFF from all other expressions and contexts of American culture, as well as chiseling off more than a few names from pulp SFF’s Egyptian pillars like Inez Gillmore, Francis Stevens, Leslie Stone, Jesse Kerruish and Claire Winger Harris.

    The truth looks more like the Stratemeyer Syndicate publishing scores of novels written by women with women as the star character in the era between Burroughs and Stanley Weinbaum. The truth looks more like Field & Stream over there then and Cosmopolitan over here today. The truth is one of marketing, not exclusion, not prejudice, not patriarchy and not misogyny. So SFF was a field of boys’ adventure fiction – so what? Why the need to ascribe the worst possible motives and irrational suspicions to dead people you never knew?

    Don’t forget Mary Gnaedinger edited Famous Fantastic Mysteries for its entire 1939-53 run, one of the most loved and informed pulps of its era when it came to knowledge of its field. Don’t forget that unless it’s to your advantage to do so or you make assumptions based on ideology that get articles by a Hugo-nominee at the HuffPo rewritten because of where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire-style “research” otherwise known as a “memory hole.”

  12. Tim McDonald
    January 28, 2016 at 5:04 am

    Outstanding post! Thank you for articulating what I understood in my gut from my years of fandom, but was unable to express without rancor as you have done so well!

  13. John Lance
    January 28, 2016 at 5:12 am

    Very interesting, I’ve always enjoyed reading about the history of SF/F and I’ll definitely check out some of those authors you mentioned. I completely understand your frustration with the people who can’t even be bothered to do a cursory check of the field they are (supposedly) critiquing.

    Thanks for the post and keep up the good work! (by the way, Sarah Hoyt posted the link to this webpage, so be sure and buy her a drink at the next get-together).

  14. January 28, 2016 at 5:21 am

    Hurray! It is so true that the more one reads back issues and old books, the more one discovers that women writers and women in publishing are part of the basic fabric of the field. Mystery readers find the same thing; it is amazing how much good mystery (by both women and men) was printed in US magazines between Poe and Doyle.

    Of course, the romance reader finds the real case of trying to cut off one sex from an entire field, as all the male love story writers start to disappear from the pulps and slicks in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In reality, many hardcore writers just changed to female pseudonyms; but you don’t see men being encouraged to submit stories as a usual thing; and the magazines stopped printing letters from male readers as the idea changed from “stories for romantics of both sexes” to “stories for women only.”

  15. January 28, 2016 at 7:48 am

    It’s awesome to hear about these figures – the question for me is how do we recover some of that history? So much of it seems to have just faded away and oddly enough it’s a fading that seems to have affected the women more. It’s something still going on, I think, and that’s a sad thing. Because it’s the history that teaches and inspires us, and if it gets lost, we’re losing a valuable resource.

    But this website’s one of the steps to holding onto the history, I think. Go Kris!

  16. Sam L.
    January 28, 2016 at 7:55 am

    I can’t remember what books of Andre Norton I read; I suspect it was every one in my junior high school library and public library. Didn’t know she was a woman until much later. I just enjoyed the books.

  17. Lenora Rose
    January 28, 2016 at 10:09 am

    When I was 8, Mom read me the Hobbit (and as soon as she was done I flipped to the first page and read it again for myself; her reading to me was a pleasure not a need), but at age 9 I discovered Robin McKinley, and it’s to the latter, not the former, I attribute my lifelong passion for fantasy (And science fiction as a close second). I have been reading female authors pretty much ever since, in close to equal numbers to men.

    So fora long time, when women talked about feeling marginalized, isolated, etc. as SF fans and writers, I didn’t get where it was coming from.

    I have, as it happens, never met anyone who denied the existance of women in SF. The first works by C.J. Cherryh and Tanith Lee people pointed me to, and the oens I found myself by Nancy Springer, were at least a decade older than I am. Similarly, I’ve heard C.L. Moore lauded for forever. Joan D. Vinge was about the first thing I took out of the adult side of the library SF shelves. And of course it seemed like Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffrey’s works filled my teen years.

    And yet. I have, as I have gotten older, seen how Sf lists of the best work of those women’s peak decades invariably seem to list 30 men and one woman (almost always Ursula LeGuin), as if none of them wrote. I have seen people, male and female, reel off their favourite authors as a kid and noticed nary a woman on them, until I mention mine and some of their brows furrow and they say, “Oh, yeah, her. Iiked her.” (Does anyone do that to Heinlein or Herbert? “Oh, yeah, him.”)

    I have heard people, mostly men, say, in all sincerity, that they don’t ever read female authors because they don’t like what women write about. (Except, if they don’t read them how do they truly know?) I have never heard anyone (until Tempest’s controversial post in 2015) say they don’t read MALE authors because they don’t like what they write, and any attempt to summarize what men write about immediately gets laughed at as absurd, because men write about so many different things.

    Yes, women have been writing all along, and alongside men. But it isn’t the modern group of female writers who have been erasing their accomplishments. Yet we’re the ones who get the blame.

  18. Bob Durtschi
    January 29, 2016 at 7:07 am

    the Time Traders series started in 1958 by Andre Norton is still one of my favorites and still very readable nearly 50 years later. They and many of the SciFi classics have been reissued as eBooks by Baen. The first of the series is a free download at Her novels Star Guard and Star Rangers are also available as a free omnibus, Star Soldiers, here:

  19. February 1, 2016 at 11:19 am

    I just discovered this great site. Kudos to all involved!!!

    Back in the mid-50s I met a young ad copywriter who, like me, was devoted to SF. No romantic chemistry resulted but she’s still a friend here six decades later. She wanted to write, as did I. She, however, was a born story-teller. My characters refused to come alive. So we discussed such stuff for hours.

    It was the time when Zenna Henderson’s “The People” were at their peak. Geo and I both liked cats. I suggested to her that a story about “homo felis” might find a home, and over several weeks things began to jell.

    Fearful that editors would not look at a female’s submissions, she submitted it under the name “Merle Benedict.” Accepted by Fantastic Universe, it became a runner-up for nest new author of the year!

    She’s still writing but not under that name. I won’t mention her current one; she tends to be a bit shy of personal publicity. Suffice it to say she’s still not recognized as one of the pioneers, because she stopped selling her copy for several years, and when she returned it was under a different name.

    I think I’m going to be around here, mostly lurking as is my habit, for quite a while!

  20. February 1, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Can’t wait to pick up this anthology! Thanks for the work you do, Kris.

  21. Bill Good
    February 2, 2016 at 6:15 am

    I started reading science fiction by mistake. Browsing in my High School library I was annoyed by the very existence of a book. Even then I had a vague understanding that it took a significant period of time to get a book published after it was written, and here’s this book about a rock group that has only in the last months had a couple of big hits. (My peevishness made me miss that I was in the fiction section.)
    And so I took the book down from that shelf and found that ‘The Rolling Stones’ was not about musicians.
    I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy ever since, and I have never considered checking out who or.what the author was to decide if I felt it was worthy.

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