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
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.
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.