An Evolution of Consciousness: Twenty-Five Years of Writing About Women in Science Fiction

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Title: An Evolution of Consciousness: Twenty-Five Years of Writing About Women in Science Fiction
Creator: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Date(s): August 1977
Medium: print
Fandom: Darkover, science fiction
Topic:
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An Evolution of Consciousness: Twenty-Five Years of Writing About Women in Science Fiction is a 1977 essay by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

first page of the essay

It was published in "Science Fiction Review" #22 in August 1977 and was eleven pages long.

The essay was written, in part, to Bradley's anger over a letterwar in The Witch and the Chameleon, as well as other venues which criticized her book Darkover Landfall.

The timing of the essay suggests it was published in reaction to the July 1977 book by Joanna Russ called We Who Are About To....

Bradley also makes mention in the article of the the year being 1976, so perhaps she had been working on it for a long time.

Bradley's anger was about many things, but had a focus on "feminism."

Some Topics Discussed

  • Bradley provides much detail about her characterization of female characters in her books, both Darkover and others
  • Bradley discusses her journey through writing in the science fiction field
  • the novel "Darkover Landfall": "The women who attacked this book I think, fell into a common trap; that success in life is, and should be, nothing more than personal happiness."
  • the topics of lesbianism, bi-sexuality, homosexuality, feminism
  • the novel "World Wreckers": "Some homosexuals have interpreted it as an impassioned defense of homosexuality. I have even received hateletters defining it as pornography."
  • some fiction discussed "For Women Only," "Centarus Changeling," "The Web of Darkness,""Window on the Night," "The Planet Savers" (originally a novelette in Amazing Stories), "World Wreckers," "Sword of Aldones," "The Bloody Sun,"Star of Danger," "Winds of Darkover," "Falcons of Narabed," "The Dark Intruder and Others," "Death Between the Stars," Conquering Hero," "The Endless Voyage," "The Shattered Chain"
  • "If any woman still believes that science fiction and fantasy publishers are closed to women, she is either gravely misinformed, or she is making excuses for her own incompetence by attributing her failure to editorial prejudice. The prejudice simply is no longer there, in this year of 1977."

Excerpts

I have been writing science fiction now for almost a quarter of a century. My first sale, in 1952, was a very short story called FOR WOMEN ONLY, and I had written it largely for my own pleasure; I hadn't seriously expected to sell it. It's a sad strange little piece, and reading it over at 25 years removed, half a lifetime away from the girl just out of her teens who wrote the thing, I find I have no idea what it's really about.

It's told in the first person by a woman; actually an android, who, to medical surpirse and consternation, has conceived and borne a child:

"They aren't going to let that thing live, are they?"
"No, of course not... it's just kind of a scientific freak, they want to study it awhile."

Unable to face the implications of this overheard coversation, the female android disconnects herself.

When I wrote, and sold, [FOR WOMEN ONLY], there were not many women writing science fiction. C.L. Moore, collaborating voluminously with Henry Kuttner, had ceased entirely to publish under her own name. Leigh Brackett still did, but she wrote in much the same way as any other writers from PLANET STORIES; the heroes in her stories were all big touch macho types and the women were beautiful, and very few of Leigh's stories gave a clue to her feminine authorship. Recently Pamela Sargent, in WOMEN OF WONDER, has criticized Leigh for this, saying contemptuously, "She writes like a man, and a man steeped in machismo at that." This simply reveals Sargent's total ignorance of the facts of life at that time. Most of the readership of science fiction -- an estimated 95% -- were men. The few who were not, were women who had no interest in the fiction supposedly proper to women, dull domestic tales about women hunting for husbands, jewelry or household goodies in suburbia. These stories bored me -- as they bored Leigh before me -- to tears; we fled to science fiction to read, and later to write, about people actually doing things. Therefore, perforce, I read stories by, and about, men, because in those days women didn't do interesting things, in or out of fiction. In those post-World War II days, even Rosie the Riveter had been banished back to the kitchen. I am sure that some women who discovered during the war that they could do things, were asking themselves how women in America were really better off if the Germans had won and sent the women back to <kinder,</u> kuche, und kirche.

... my first big sale, in 1953, was "Centarus Changeling," an almost woman-oriented story. The Earthwoman, Beth, has become pregnant on a world where no Earthwoman has ever borne a living child; her friend, a mutant Cassiana, breaks the taboo and helps Beth reach a successful end to her pregnancy.

Modern feminists would probably shudder at this story. I wrote it honestly, with my deepest convictions, and it contains such statements as the following:

"A woman's got to be damned abnormal to be conscientious about conception."

Because I hungered for children, lots of them, and like Beth, I was denied them. This story was also said to have lesbian overtones. I'm not so sure I see it myself, but it certainly did emphasize strong emotionalized friendship between women, which was, and is, vanishingly rare in science fiction. The story found its way into a Checklist of Lesbian Literature. There is no physical contact between the women except for weeping in each other's arms, but I am sure the emotional overtones are there.

As I said, these women -- eager for babies, preoccupied with their homes and children -- would make a modern feminist shudder, and in 1976 I am a little surprised at them myself, but then, I am no longer baby-starved.

But I had done it [with WINDOW OF THE NIGHT]. I had written a serious, major novel whose main characters were all women and all scientists: medics, radiologists and female test pilots. I still like the book and wish I could revise the characters for a current one. And,at one point, when a member of the crew has been killed and they are debating a replacement member of the crew who has been turned down for being "not quite a normal woman," the brilliant woman aerodynamics experts says:

"Let us have done with this nonsense. If they want normal women, ordinary women, they would not have chosen any one of us, no, not one. Of course, Nina is not an ordinary woman; she is an expert in space medicine. Fern is not a normal woman; she is not going to Ascot and giving tea parties and opening bazaars; she is here testing our jets. There is not one of us that is normal. Anne is not normal or she would be teaching freshman at her college and marrying her professor. I am not normal or why am I not home in Bermuda teaching my little daughter to read in her primer? We not want normal women here; we want qualified women for what we are doing.
Feminists would debate this meaning of normal, but when I wrote this passage I was being bitterly sarcastic about the mood of the fifties, which Betty Friedan, ten years later, was to identify as the "Feminist [sic] Mystique." [1]

I am not sure I understand WORLD WRECKERS even now. I never know what a book is about until I have written it, and sometimes not for years afterward; I did not, until twenty years had passed, even begin to guess why I had created the chained, savage Dallisa in DOOR THROUGH SPACE, nor do I fully understand David, and his fears that, having come to love Keral in male phase, he will not retain his love for the-woman in Keral. Possibly I was trying to discover for myself the essence of male-ness and femaleness, and why one person chooses one love object rather than another? Tentatively, and hesitantly, after five years, I wonder if I had been nosing around at the familiar crisis of anyone who has known what it .is, to be intensely, passionately involved in a love relationship with one's own sex. That identity crisis is acute enough, but it is nothing, compared to the later crisis when, having redefined one's self as homosexual, and made a commitment of this kind, one again finds the self struggling with an equally sincere, equally passionate and equally irresistable attraction to one of the opposite gender. At this point the bisexual begins to know . what an identity crisis is_. Heterosexual privilege (if there really is such a thing) has been renounced once and for all; yet the new homosexual identity is threatened, and the very roots of the personality seem to waver and disappear. .Most bisexuals must at this point make a choice, strangle one or the other , identities and exist thenceforth conventionally as heterosexuals' or defiantly as homosexuals. The rare one who insists that both aspects of the self are equally valid, and neither can be destroyed without living a lie, gets no support or sympathy from anyone.

I have received equally mixed messages on the book which immediately followed WORLD WRECKERS; DARKOVER LANDFALL. When I started this book, I hoped to discover, by the act of writing, why I had given DARKOVER such an overwhelmingly sexist/patrist background. I had begun writing books about the conventional universe of the adventure-story writer, without thinking much about it; a world where men are brave and beautiful women exist to be rescued from the science-fictional equivalent of dragons. But unlike the traditional male science fiction writer, the R.E. Howards, the Michael Moorcocks and Lin Carters, I could not simply go on writing about such a 'world without thinking much about it. I felt compelled to find out why it should be so, why I still felt it was a rational universe, how a "lost" Terran colony became a society like DARK-OVER? I started with the knowledge that emancipated, self-sustaining women, during the years of the hippie explosion, joined communes which put them back to bearing their babies by natural- childbirth and baking their own stone-ground whole wheat.bread. In the confessions of one such woman I read:

"I who had been an emancipated woman since I was fourteen now wanted nothing more than to be a sincere, authentic, clear-eyed, organic Earth Mother."

[snipped]

This makes sense. Men can take over every other social function known -- but not this one. Women bearing children in primitive society, as survival statistics show, have a risk to.bear more major even that of war, and since they are already bearing the greatest.risk known to mankind, it makes sense to protect them against all other risks And, of course, a "protected" class quickly becomes an exploited class.

This book has been attacked as being "viciously antifeminist" because the self-determined women of the crew accepted their new role as childbearers. I don't think this is necessarily unlikely. I was not, after all, depicting an ideal, or even a very desirable society, nor was I suggesting that the colony made the right choices; I was simply exploring a way in which DARKOVER could have gotten there from here. The free manners of the Second Empire gave way to the neurotic anti-sexuality of the Victorian era. .The 1840 upswing of free-love communes such as the Oneida community gave way to a world in which piano "limbs" were draped.

Much of the attack was centered upon the character of Camilla Del Rey, second officer of the starship, who became pregnant against her will and was denied an abortion. Certainly my own emotional bias was involved, but it seemed to me that necessity and the needs of the society would, and should, override one woman's personal prejudice, which was, as I tried to make clear, based on her own conditioning. After all, the society had no further need of that woman's technological skills, and it did need her function as a bearer of children; the problem was, should she be allowed to refuse to bear children to further a career which had ceased absolutely, to exist? I said no. Other women would have had other answers, but it was my book.

After three years of second thoughts, spurred by the intense feminist attacks on DARKOVER LANDFALL, (many of them, I think, read the scene where Ewen denies Camilla an abortion, and simply tuned out on everything else I wrote, since feminist rhetoric insists that abortions are Always Good), I would make only one change in the novel. I would have the statistics of survival spelled out to Camilla neither by Moray nor by Ewen, but by the women of the New Hebrides commune, who long for children and are realizing that too many of them will be sterile, will miscarry, will lose their children at birth, pleading with Camilla, whom they perceive not as"she sees herself -- victim -- but as one of the lucky ones who can become pregnant and bear her child to term. The perspective of this scene would make it clear that any one of these twenty or thirty women would willingly change places with Camilla, and emphasize the dramatic irony of the one woman in the crew who does not desire children, being uniquely able to bear them. I would also make clear something which I felt was clear, but which I discover, on rereading the book, was buried in other smaller details: that there is one side of Camilla which wholly accepts her love for Rafe and the knowledge that she will have children...

But nobody who read the book [THE ENDLESS VOYAGE] --including those who had attacked DARKOVER LANDFALL as anti-feminist -- seemed to notice that I had written a book completely without sex-roles. When one emphasizes such a theory, one is accused of writing polemic. But when I took it completely for granted, and wrote of a society with no discussion of sex-roles because there weren't any, nobody even noticed.

Lester Del Rey, in reviewing [THE SHATTERED CHAIN], said I had written "the obligatory feminist novel," but called it "free of polemic." It is, of course, free of the basic statement of feminist rhetoric... the idea that all women, are oppressed, even if they consider themselves to be free. Yet the idea of "invisible chains." in retrospect, a year after the book was published, seems to me, now, to smack of this feminist rhetoric. On the surface, of course, Kindra's flat refusal of sympathy for the chained women of the Dry Towns, saying that they could be free if they chose, echoes my own belief that nay woman who has been oppressed by men is the architect of her own prison* and his merely been unable to defy convention for freedom. Everything has its price, and in my teens I endured' unpopularity as the price of independence in a milieu where women weren't supposed to be too brainy. Naturally I, had little sympathy for the woman who was too timid or too eager for popularity, to follow my example.

And where do I go from here? I don't think I will ever again be able to write the kind of story where the woman is a passive nonentity, there for the hero to admire -- but then, I don't think, once I stopped imitating Leigh Brackett, that never did. Even as early as DOOR THROUGH SPACE, my women were independent and had their own ideas. But they have evolved and changed; and, even more the climate of science fiction has changed, and, that I can now write them as I always knew them to be; strong, independent, courageous, no longer yielding even lip service to the custom that they must sit and wait for the men to rescue them. I don't have to cover up their strength with a mask of conventional femininity.

And for this I have to thank not only the movement of the times, but my own editor, Don Wollheim, who has never hesitated to let me write honestly about women, provided I told a good story while doing it. He would be enraged, and rightly so, if I tried to write feminist propaganda thinly disguised as fiction, and for obvious reasons he cannot afford to publish fiction which will alienate -his entire male audience. Within those limitations, which I accept whole-heartedly -- it's my bread and butter too, and I'm an entertainer, not a political pamphleteer -- I can write as I feel it best, and he has never tried by word or hint to make me write other than honestly.

But my women have evolved, because I have evolved. I have grown, in 25 years; and God willing, after another 25 years (Dame Agatha Christie wrote her last novel at 84!) I will look back on another enormous period of evolution between SHATTERED CHAIN, and whatever unthinkable thing I shall then be exploring in my work. It will be science fiction; unlike other widely publicized writers, I have no desire to desert or "outgrow" science fiction; for me it holds challenge enough for a lifetime. All the more that I am now free to, write as I wish of women, and of all the subjects which were taboo when I entered the field.

I think science fiction is being greatly enriched by its expansion. My favorite editor [2] tells me that a full half of the manuscripts on his desk now have recognizably female names, and that all the good new writers seem to be women. If any woman still believes that science fiction and fantasy publishers are closed to women, she is either gravely misinformed, or she is making excuses for her own incompetence by attributing her failure to editorial prejudice. The prejudice simply is no longer there, in this year of 1977.

References

  1. Actually, "The Feminine Mystique."
  2. Likely Don Wollheim of DAW Books.