Reclaiming Her Story

Women of Futures Past Cover. Art by Christine Mitzuk

Women of Futures Past Cover. Art by Christine Mitzuk

As I sat down on the eve of the official publication date of Women of Futures Past, I am filled with mixed emotions.

I’m pleased the book is finally out. I did a lot of work to find the right stories for the volume. I was thwarted in some instances by estates or by the administrators of estates. I was also thwarted by word length.

I discovered something about myself as a reader: when it comes to science fiction, I prefer novellas and novelettes. That story length gives the writer room to world-build and tell a marvelous story. It also enables writers to really explore their characters in-depth.

So, as I reread and compiled my original list, I had far too many novellas, just as many novelettes, and far too few excellent short stories. I put some longer stories in the book, and found some marvelous short ones.

I wish the book could have been longer, and I have some wonderful ideas for future anthologies. If this one sells well, the future volumes will happen.

I was also thwarted by time. Oh, not my deadline—which was ever-present—but the way time changes things, particularly language and attitudes.

Some stories that I absolutely loved when I first read them decades ago creak with age. Others that I absolutely love now show their age in their language and attitudes—referring to people of color using terms that are deeply, deeply offensive today. Strangely, many of those tales were not racist in and of themselves. In fact, some were actually calling for equality and tolerance. But the language—which was the language of the time—was excessively racist.

Other time period issues I ran into included attitudes toward women. Yes, women wrote stories about women as inferior beings. Sometimes those stories proved that the women in question weren’t inferior, but other times, the stories showed just the opposite.

I am a woman of a certain age—and that phrase alone should tell you that I’m from a different generation than many readers today. I’ll be clear instead of the coy that my mother taught me to be: I’m 56 years old. I was born too late to be part of the second generation of feminists, but old enough to still suffer through many of the things they protested against.

For example, I cry when I watch women succeed in sports. The fact that the United States women’s teams outdid the United States men’s teams in medal count in the Olympics this summer made me sob. Really sob. (I just teared up writing that.)

Because, when I was a little girl, the only place I saw women participating in sports was at the Olympics, and back then, the women’s teams didn’t do as well, at least in the medal count.

For example, NPR explained the reason for the difference last month in their Olympics wrap-up.

The women who participate in sports now benefit from Title IX, which the United States Congress passed in 1972. The changes that Title IX mandated wouldn’t become widespread in the culture for another decade or so. If you’re not aware of all the good Title IX did, please click on this link.

In 1972, I was 12. In 1972, the Olympics were held in Munich, and are still well known for the horrific terrorist attack that took place there—an attack I remember vividly. I also remember Mark Spitz winning tons of swimming golds and becoming a superstar. I don’t remember who the winning women were.

NPR tells me that of the 78 medals won that Olympics, 23 of them went to the U.S. women.

This year? The U.S. women won 27 out of 46 American gold medals. Not the overall medal count as I just listed for 1972. The gold medal count.

Why is that important to me?

Because Title IX, and all the other changes it brought, the changes wrought by the second wave of feminism, came a hair too late for me.

I — and all young women — still had to put up with sexual discrimination in school and in the workplace.

For example, I was one of a handful of teenagers in my high school selected to be considered for a page position at the United States Senate. But I didn’t even get to travel downstate to interview for the position.

The teacher who recommended me pulled me aside one afternoon, red-faced and unhappy, to tell me that the senator’s office would not consider a girl in the page position. Ever.

The teacher—broadminded and open-hearted—apologized to me. He was furious. So was I. But that door, like so many others, hadn’t just slammed shut. It had never been open in the first place, not to me.

Because of my gender.

I am a member of one of the last generation of American women who had no legal recourse when we were groped in the workplace and told to sleep with our male employers to get ahead. Instead, when we complained, we were asked, What did you expect, honey, when you decided to compete in a man’s world?

We found our own ways to deal with the harassment. I confronted the men who harassed me, usually with humor, although occasionally with my elbow in their gut. They learned to leave me alone. I was lucky; many other women weren’t.

Fiction was my refuge.

I want to do justice for the women who really did blaze the trail for all of us. I want this book to be the best it can be.

I read stories by great women writers without knowing those writers were female. I thought Andre Norton was a man. I thought Leigh Brackett was male. There were no author bios to correct me. Like a good product of my culture, I defaulted to white and male when faced with a neutral-gender name of a person I did not recognize.

I later learned I had read a lot of fiction by people who were not what I had thought they were. I devoured the novels of Frank Yerby, without knowing that he was the first African-American to make a million dollars writing fiction. I also didn’t know that at the time I was reading his books, he was being attacked in the African-American press for not confronting the racism of the historical time periods he was writing in.

(Full disclosure: I cannot recommend Yerby because I have not reread his books since I was twelve—that Olympics summer, when I also read those incredibly racist novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs about Tarzan. I did try to reread the Burroughs books because I wrote a Tarzan story for an anthology a few years ago, and I had to confront the racism inherent in the stories that I loved. Ouch.)

Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I read everything I could get my hands on. Stuff too old for me. Stuff too conservative for me. Stuff too liberal for me. Stuff too intellectual for me. Stuff dealing with concepts I was unable to understand with my level of education.

I knew that writers existed pretty early on. (Some writers, when they were young, had no idea that the writers they admired were actual people.) I wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember.

But as I got older, I realized that writers were more than names on a book cover. They had lives and families. They struggled with their work and they strived hard to learn their craft.

And no one—not a teacher, not a politician, not a critic—discouraged me from becoming a writer. Girls, I realized, could be writers.

I slowly understood that many of the writers I read were women and I hadn’t even known it. In those days, before social media and the internet, writers worked mostly incognito.

It didn’t matter that Andre Norton was a woman. What mattered to me—the reader—were the adventures she took me on. She was my favorite science fiction writer, back in the day when I did not know I read science fiction.

I had no qualms about trying my own hand at becoming a writer. I did a lot of reading about publishing, though, and I worried early on that I would be discriminated against because I was female. So some of my earliest works were written (and published) under my initials K.K. and my married name at the time, which was Thompson.

An editor disabused me of the notion that I would be discriminated against because of my gender. He wanted me to use my full name.

So, I did. By then, I was getting a divorce, so I went back to my family name (called my maiden name; how quaint, right?), and I never looked back.

Did I suffer discrimination? As a writer, not really. Occasionally critics with agendas would come after me for my writing being too emotional (read: female) or conversely, for not being female enough (whatever that means). But I never had any doors close to me because of my gender, nor did anyone warn me they would close.

The editors I sent stories to included Ellen Datlow at Omni, who recommended I go to Clarion, and Alice Turner at Playboy, who wrote me nice letters.

When I became the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1991, I encountered the same kind of sexual harassment that I had suffered at all of my other day jobs. Men touching me inappropriately at conventions, letters decrying my editorship because, as a woman, I was going to ruin that precious magazine.

But I had lived through things like that before, and I shrugged the harassment off. I was the editor, like Ellen and Alice and Shawna McCarthy and Judy-Lynn Del Rey and Betty Ballantine and…and…and…

Women wrote, women edited, and women put up with piggish behavior. The laws changed over time, and the piggish behavior became illegal in some contexts, but it didn’t go away entirely.

With the changed laws, and with more and more women stepping into the opportunities those changes provided, I—and so many other women of my generation—thought the battle had been won.

We could get jobs in publishing. We could write whatever we wanted. We could be editors. We could be executive editors and publishers. We could write feminist fiction or fiction without a trace of politics in it.

Women dominated the science fiction awards ballots in the 1990s. We created —and dominated –the bestselling genre in the world (romance). We held more jobs in publishing than men.

We didn’t need to call attention to our gender.

We had moved, we thought, from female writers and editors to writers and editors, no clarifying adjective needed.

Apparently, we were wrong.

While we were doing our jobs and enjoying our writing, the world shifted again. And we didn’t wake up until a group of young female writers started talking about the discrimination against women in science fiction.

What? Huh? How was that possible?

What was most deeply offensive about those claims to those of us who have worked in the field for the last twenty to forty years is this: women have always been part of science fiction. We haven’t left. We haven’t closed any doors. But we slowly started to realize that the young writers coming in had no idea we were here.

We were invisible. And I hate to tell you this: that’s how women of a certain age get treated in this culture—as if our work and our existence doesn’t matter.

A lot of women who have been around a long time responded with anger. I know I did. I’ve reprinted some of the better essays on this topic on this site, particularly Eleanor Arnason’s (titled “What Are We, Chopped Liver?”).

We felt we had to educate the younger generation all over again. And that was…oh, I’ll say it.

That was infuriating.

So I started investigating why these intelligent new writers believed women did not exist in the field—even when some of them were studying with us. It turns out that because of changes in publishing, with short story anthologies going out of print and blockbusters taking over the book racks, a lot of our classic works went out of print too.

But worse, the histories didn’t list us. Wikipedia was an embarrassment. (Since I started complaining two years ago, the listings have cleaned up—thanks to efforts from a lot of other folks.)

I decided what we needed was a corrective volume of fiction by the women of the field—the influential women of the field. I didn’t want to pitch this book to science fiction lines that would be gone in a week.

I knew exactly who I wanted to pitch this book to—the woman who heads a major science fiction publishing house, who published and continues to publish some of the most famous women sf writers in the field. I sat down with Toni Weisskopf of Baen and talked to her about the invisible women in the field and what we could do about it.

Another full disclosure here: the science fiction field assumes that Baen’s politics are right of center, even though the house publishes some very left-wing writers. I knew my politics and the perceived politics of Baen were on opposite ends of the political spectrum—and that was another reason that I went to Toni.

Because I don’t feel that the invisibility of women in the history of the science fiction field is a left-wing or right-wing issue. It’s an issue for the entire field of science fiction.

So the pairing of two long-time female professionals, me and Toni, from different backgrounds and with different perceived political perspectives, was something else this project needed. I want the field to understand that women work in all parts of the field, both physically and intellectually. We don’t have the same views of the world, but we’re here, we’re working, and we’re making a difference.

Toni and Baen have strongly supported this project. They’ve done some wonderful unorthodox marketing, and they’ve overseen the project in great ways. My first surprise was a care package from Hank Davis, filled with lots of books and magazines from the field’s history, helping me with my research.

My second surprise was how willing Baen has been to go the extra mile.

Toni has been hands-on. She wanted me to write a long essay about the history of women in the field, which I did. You can read it if you go to Baen.com, but I’d prefer it if you buy the book and read it in context.

I realized early on that I had to put some limitations on the anthology or I’d be lost forever in great material. I decided that I would look at stories published in the 20th century in the United States, because most of those stories have disappeared from conscious memory.

That decision had consequences, mostly on the types of stories I could choose. It limited the options for multicultural sf by women and it prevented me from picking some of the best works by writers of the past twenty years.

That’s a future volume or two or three.

But those self-imposed limitations, combined with the word count, and the sheer impossibility of representing all of the great women writers who have graced the pages of science fiction, led to another of my mixed emotions.

As this book enters the world, I’m terrified.

I know the limitations of the book and the project. I know what I would have put together with an unlimited word count and cooperative estates. I know how much more work needs to be done.

And I’m also terrified because I am a woman of a certain age.

My generation entered the workforce as strong human beings. We did not complain (although we filed suit on occasion). We were taught that the best way to handle the discrimination that we faced was to be better than the men.

As we often say, we’re Ginger Rogers. We can do everything Fred Astaire can do, only we do it better. Because we do it backwards and in heels.

What does that mean? It means we were taught—I was taught—that quality would get recognized without calling attention to what we were doing.

This book is just the beginning. We need more books reclaiming our history.

That was true in the heady 1990s, as women dominated the field. But because we thought things were better (and they were), we didn’t see the need to call attention to what we had done.

Now, I’m calling attention to it. And I’m discussing politics, which is something I do in my fiction, but not in my nonfiction. If you read my fiction, you know what my passions are.

But I generally refrain from discussing politics on my blog and on social media because I know that a lot of my readers hold different opinions. I’d rather they read my work and think about what’s presented there than argue with me online.

So, stepping out of my corner without the veneer of fiction, feels uncomfortable and more than a little scary.

Plus, as a woman of a certain age, I learned long ago that when I speak up about women’s issues, a barrage of crap will fly in my face. While I can handle it, getting a faceful of crap is never fun.

So I’m braced, and more than a little apprehensive.

I’m also worried, because I want to do justice for the women who really did blaze the trail for all of us. I want this book to be the best it can be.

So far, the reviews are good. The response from fans is even better.

I’m well pleased.

But, I’m going to be frank here: This book is just the beginning. We need more books reclaiming our history. It’s being lost.

We need these books to reside in our libraries and we need these books to be studied in our schools. We need to share them with like-minded friends and with people we disagree with.

This is our history. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum we hail from. It doesn’t matter what our gender is or what our sexual orientation is. It doesn’t matter what country we’re from or what our religion is (or isn’t).

The things that divide us will always be there.

But fiction—good fiction—unites us. It doesn’t always make us feel good about ourselves. It often challenges us. It makes us think and it makes us look at our world anew.

I’m hoping that this anthology will make many of you look at our past anew, and realize that the things you were taught about the past are not true.

Women have been in the science fiction field since the dawn of the genre. We have been influential members of the science fiction field since the first sf magazine hit the stands 90 years ago.

Don’t dismiss our past as irrelevant. Don’t dismiss the women who came before.

It’s time to take a look at us, and realize we’re here. We’ve always been here.

Take a look.

And, while you’re at it, enjoy.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

September 6, 2016

 

“Reclaiming Her Story,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 

 

9 comments for “Reclaiming Her Story

  1. September 6, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Wonderful perspective, Kris. Thank you.

  2. September 6, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    I am another woman of a certain age who is even older (I am 69), and who worked in men’s fields a good part of my life. I am not a writer, but my youngest son is and my late husband was a librarian and book collector extraordinaire who was so supportive of women writers. I too read everything I could get my hands on throughout my childhood and early womanhood. I then had to pare it back as life took over. It’s a little better now that I am retired. I have read several of your books. Others are definitely in my reading plans. I applaud this effort and look forward to the book. May it be well received and the crap blowback be nonexistent. Cheers.

  3. Bill Wade
    September 11, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    Much of the best SF I read in the 80s and 90s (you and I are of the same generation) was written by women. The more you bring back to print, the better. Kudos to you and Toni, and keep the ball rolling.

  4. September 16, 2016 at 2:21 am

    I really enjoyed reading this. I’m a bit younger than you, and don’t have the same reading history as you, but I feel like I’m more in your camp than in younger women’s, in that I always knew women were there and have often thought, over the past 10 years, or so, “What are they? Chopped Liver?!?”
    Thank you for this book, which I’m going to go out and buy RIGHT NOW.
    I’m looking forward to the subsequent volumes!

    • September 16, 2016 at 12:09 pm

      Thanks, Diane. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book (and had the same thoughts!). I hope there will be a second as well. Depends on sales, of course. 🙂

  5. Rose
    September 16, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    “Women have been in the science fiction field since the dawn of the genre. We have been influential members of the science fiction field since the first sf magazine hit the stands 90 years ago.”

    So what are you whining about?

  6. Kerani
    September 18, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    Thank you for doing this.

    My original reaction to this anthology was an eyeroll and a mutter of “oh, god, yet another womyn’s anthology.” (Which I stand by as a perfectly reasonable reaction to the ignant idea that women are new comers to SFF.)

    However, what you’ve said about the difficulty in finding old reprints, and the “disapearance” of women editors, and just the on-going peep-frog natter about “no-wo-men, no-wo-men” makes it obvious that *something* needed saying.

    And you’ve said it so very well.

    Thank you for doing this.

    Do more of it.

    (Just sent you a longer email saying most of this.)

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