Resources: Women Science Fiction Fans

Discussion Leader: Camille Bacon-Smith

NOTE: This is an archive of our 2002 website. For current information, please see our updated site for 2003.


It seems possible, now, to look at women's struggle to gain a place in the science fiction community as nearly won, far more so than in the mainstream population. Women hold positions of power, authority, and creative prestige throughout the field of science fiction. Even First Fandom, those members who created the science fiction community in the '30s, now makes its bow to the growing change in the demographics of the science fiction world. In Orlando, Florida, at the 1993 Worldcon, David Kyle explained why most of the winners of the First Fandom Award have been men:

I want to mention that it seems to be masculine dominated, these old fan awards, but it was for a very good reason. That is, women were only entering the fields of science fiction fandom back there in the twenties and '30s and thank goodness things have equalled out since then...

When I was researching Enterprising Women in the 1980s, I could not have imagined hearing a statement like that at a major awards event. Back in 1981, of course, men and women were nearing parity in their numbers at science fiction conventions, and a very few women were breaking through into the major prize categories given in the community. Many women writers, however, found their books still relegated to the feminist ghettos that kept the advances down and the distribution of women's books low in the '70s.

Women in Fandom: the '50s and Early '60s

When I returned to the study of science fiction fandom, I did not question my original perception, that the presence of women was a relatively new phenomenon, in part because feminist criticism and analysis supported my on-site observation at the time: the 1970s mark the great divide in fandom. Before that time, the sf community belonged to men. During the 1970s and early '80s, women stormed the fortress, demanding a place in all aspects of science fiction life, and the men in place repulsed the invaders with all the tools at their command. Writers like Joanna Russ, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Ursula K. Le Guin regularly appear in the feminist criticism, but earlier science fiction was usually represented by the works of utopian rather than science fiction writers. Foremothers within the science fiction community such as Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and even C. L. Moore were often "disappeared" from the feminist record, or anachronistically criticized for their sensibilities. But, as Robin Roberts points out and my own research confirms, many of the feminist writers of the '70s and '80s began as readers of the pulps, science fiction magazines of the '40s and '50s. Like the examples in Roberts book, Joanna Russ described to me her roots in the science fiction of the '50s:

Ethnographer: Why did you decide to go the science fiction route, rather than mainstream or another genre?

Joanna Russ: Why SF? I always loved it and read it omnivorously. I was also a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search getting out of high school (1953). One of the top ten, I recall, and the only female in the top ten...Science had always fascinated my father, who made his own reflecting telescope at one point...and poetry had always fascinated my mother, who'd had one year of graduate school...and wrote it until she was thirty or so and I came along. They were my models, really.

Russ's story, like that of so many women in the science fiction community, defies the common perception that women bring to the community a lesser history of identification with the genre than men. That perception crumbles further when even a cursory survey of convention attendees in the '90s turns up numbers of women who participated in the community during the early '50s and '60s and who resent the way they have been written out of women's history of science fiction. These community members remind us that women did not suddenly appear with the rise of '70s feminism, and that, in fact, feminism has had many faces in the years since fandom began.

To understand the place of women in the science fiction community, however, we must first internalize the obvious: science fiction began as a subset of and reinforcement for the mainstream patriarchal culture of technological heroism during the '30s, when the Great Depression had taken from most men their primary source of patriarchal power: their ability to create wealth. The men and women drawn to the science fiction community in the late twenties and early '30s found in the fiction a hope for a brighter future through technology. More importantly, they found in the world of pulp publishing a future that had the potential to return to them status and financial security that the Great Depression had shattered for most of the middle class.

More surprising, however, early poverty seems to be a common theme of fandom right through the early '60s. While science fiction fandom still draws large numbers of young members with disposable incomes that are relatively small in relation to the cost of participation, the demographics since the late '60s has slowly shifted to a more upscale professional level in all areas of participation.

From the start, intelligent, active women were a part of this new world as professional and fan writers, as convention organizers, and as readers. Women like Karen Anderson, who talks about her participation in fandom of the '50s, for example, likewise maintained a wide variety of activities and interests, including, in Anderson's example, little theater, Sherlock Holmes fandom, and the study of science and history. Until the 1970s, however, the number of women participating in the community never exceeded a small minority, as Karen Anderson describes of her experience of fannish social life in the early '50s:

Anderson: Now, at the WSFA [Washington Science Fiction Association D.C.] meeting, there were two women members when I joined, and two others joined shortly after me, and there were fifteen or twenty men members. So we would sit around make a stab at following Roberts Rules of Order, with new business and old business, and discussed whatever we had to discuss, and then a number of us would go to a bar...So I'd have one bottle of beer and make it last...and then go home on the streetcar. And go to school the next morning. It was college by then.

In 1952, Anderson went to her first Worldcon, where she met Poul Anderson, already a successful author and soon to be her husband. Karen, a fanzine publisher in her own right, participated on the 1954 Worldcon committee with another science fiction couple, committee chairs Les and Es [Esther] Cole. When asked about the common assumption that science fiction was a male domain until the 1970s, Anderson bristles with indignation:

Ethnographer: Not many women were involved in fandom in the '50s.

Anderson: More than they think today.

Ethnographer: This is what I'd like to talk about. [When I was looking at science fiction] fanzines, a lot of women were involved. A small percentage, but more than I thought.

Anderson: [A]n editorial entitled "The Women Science Fiction Doesn't See" ...was about the [professional] writers of the '60s, '50s and '40s, who are ignored because scholars say it was Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin who opened science fiction to the female...And there were an awful lot of women fans around. Many of them have dropped away. Many have died. And many of them you just don't realize they've been around that long. Let's see. Es Cole I'm sure hasn't been to a convention in years, but she was on the 1954 Worldcon committee, she and her husband... Nancy Share and Nan Gerding, they were well known in their time. Bjo Trimble, she was Bjo Wells when she went to her first Worldcon, which was the same as mine. She was one of the major fans of the early '50s, and never lost her prominence.

In fact, Bjo Trimble was responsible for the write-in campaigns that kept Star Trek alive past its first season, as she is responsible for the successful campaign to name the prototype space shuttle after Star Trek's Enterprise. She accomplished both feats because she knew the workings of the fan communications systems intimately from her work in the science fiction fanzines, and because she had at her command the address lists that she collected as a fanzine editor and fan organizer. There were, of course, always exceptions to the feminist generalization and my own early observations. As Anderson points out, some women were famous as fans in their own right- occasionally to the confusion of their male counterparts. Walt Willis wrote about his experience with '50s fanziner Lee Hoffman:

In February, 1951, Lee Hoffman sent me a Valentine. And I didn't realize...How can I have been so stupid? But I had such a clear picture of Lee as a tubby brown-eyed fellow that I just put the Valentine down to fannish eccentricity...I had to have a house fall on me. This happened--at least it felt like it--when she sent me her photograph....

As professionals in the field, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, and Marion Zimmer Bradley had large readerships for their commercial science fiction and fantasy in the '40s and '50s. When we begin to analyze the responses of the women fans to their surroundings, however, and compare them to the comments of women who found fandom difficult in the period before the "great divide," we see an interesting pattern. Most of the women I have met who object to the historical depiction of fandom as a male domain were or are married, most often to men they met through science fiction or fandom itself. Anderson is the wife and sometime collaborator of Poul Anderson as well as being a fanziner in her own right. Sarah Goodman, longtime fan and programming chair at Confrancisco, likewise married within the community, and Karen Anderson's discussion of the way women felt accepted in science fiction fandom in the '50s is very telling in this regard:

Ethnographer: As a woman in fandom, did the guys ever give you a hard time?

Anderson: Oh, heavens no. They were so happy to have women they could talk to. Most women they knew, if they had a brain, they hid it. So, oh, read The Female Man, find out how women were supposed to conduct themselves, especially young women who wanted to get married. This has soured Joanna [Russ]'s whole life, being brought up that way. The reference to The Female Man is telling. An excerpt exemplifies Anderson's point:


SACCHARISSA: I'm Your Little Girl.

HOST (wheedling): Are you really?

SACCHARISSA (complacently) Yes, I am.

Host: Then you have to be stupid too.

And another: For fifteen years I fell in love with a different man every spring like a berserk cuckoo-clock. I love my body dearly and yet I would copulate with a rhinoceros if I could become not-a-woman. There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placating training.

Like Joanna Russ in the 1970s, the women fans of the 1950s rebelled against the perceived need to present themselves as mindless children in the larger society. As Russ describes above, women who succeeded in fandom of the '50s entered into the search for compatible mates with as much enthusiasm as the men who pursued them--but generally with more success than the Joanna of The Female Man. These women did not feel that their role of "femmefans," as women in fandom were called, restricted their access to a voice in the community:

Anderson: I managed to escape it [the frustration of women's roles in the '50s], and one way I escaped was by finding men who were interested in my mind...there was no resistance to femmefans ever. And in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis fantasy society had about five men to each woman. Poul tells me that these women had their pick from the men, and the men were just so delighted to have women they could talk to, women who understood what they said...we had our pick.

Ethnographer: And you [women fans] actually talked to each other and weren't in competition? Anderson: We were the only frogs in a world of fishes. And we male and female frogs were so glad to find each other. Well, I guess the men were sort of competing for the women's attention, but the women were by no means competing with each other, at least as far as I know.

If we see early fandom as organized around the patriarchal structures of the outside world, we find that it did have a place for women who identified themselves to a major extent with the male agenda. In 1958 in England, a woman who coedited a regularly published fanzine with her husband demonstrated this identification in an article about the gullibility of women. Using as her source of evidentiary support Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders, she scorned women who, she claimed, could be convinced to buy anything offered by advertisers. According to this woman fanziner, women in general did not apply any critical or analytic thinking to the reading of advertising, unlike men, who could be influenced, but not completely persuaded by advertising. She concludes that women like herself were a breed apart, by implication sharing the male critical facility rather than the female gullibility.

None of the women to whom I spoke about this topic during the fieldwork on this book ever made so sweeping a negative statement about their sex, but in some ways all made it clear that their participation in science fiction fandom was part of a difference they saw between those women around them who were socialized to the more passive roles of women, and those who, including themselves, were not. At the same time, it is also clear that the ability to synchronize their behavior to the expectations of men in the community accounts for much of their success. Women who wanted to be wives and mothers, who saw that role not as limiting but as opening new doors for them, could succeed in the world of fandom, in many cases matching or surpassing their husbands in the fan community. Few might have identified themselves as feminist during their early days in fandom, but all lived the maxim that they could compete in the male world on male terms and succeed without sacrificing their "basic female nature."

Still, no woman broke the guest of honor barrier at a Worldcon until 1964 when Leigh Brackett appeared as a writer guest of honor, a position no woman held again until 1975. And women who could not adapt to the male agenda or shape it to fit their own needs, often felt oppressed by the community, which could exert as much pressure on its members to conform as the outside world did.

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