The author Joanna Russ once said “There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women.”
Certainly in Russ’s time, pulp books and movies relegated women as symbols of mere male fantasy: whether as crew members with breasts protruding from their uniforms or scantily-dressed whores from Venus or morally pristine queens, female readers were often discouraged that, for a genre in which any future at all can supposedly be imagined, an intelligent future for women seldom was.
This week’s picks, one from the turn of the 20th century and one from 1972, both depict intelligent women forced to conform to the notions of femininity and accepting a docile role in a cage, established by the male characters.
First up, we’ll meet Janet Evason, an inhabitant in a colony on another planet, called Whileaway . . .
“When it Changed” by Joanna Russ
On Whileaway, 30 generations ago, a plague killed off all of the men, and the population now consists only of women, who have learned how to combine eggs to produce offspring.
Today, Whileaway is largely an agricultural society. When a crew of astronauts from earth arrives, they are bemused by the all-female society, find it quaint, and are sure that the women must be missing men.
What will happen now?
The winner of the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1972, nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story 1973, and included in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Again, Dangerous Visions . . .
What does the title of this short story (“When it Changed”) mean? What do you think changed? And exactly when did “it” change? Was it for the better?
Note: The story was anthologized in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions.
In Russ’s story, the male astronauts attempt to assign gender roles to the characters of Katy and Janet when they interact with the women. They seem to decide that Katy is the “woman” in the relationship because they find her attractive. They suggest that her life will improve when men come to the planet because she will be able to find a satisfactory (male) mate.
While hyperbolic and, in an ironic twist, presenting a “turnabout is fair play” bland stereotype of the male characters, Russ drives home the point that although the women do not live in a utopia, it is much closer to one than with these males there, whose violence and need for domination are obvious. She forces the reader to imagine a world in which the women are free to do as they want and it’s the men relegated to stock character roles.
Russ, in fact, was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and often examined both how women were depicted as characters in science fiction and also how women authors were discounted because they did not subscribe to the male fantasy-oriented pulp.
The story is certainly not perfect. The character of Janet is not well-explored and in some ways Russ hoists with her own petard by creating a character without substantial dimension.
Additionally, Russ creates a world which imbues some of the issues of prejudice of her time: the fact that the male astronauts are Russian, and “ugly,” for example, is a clear allusion to the political zeitgeist of the later 20th century.
However, fear of “the other” has been explored in Sci Fi since its earliest days, such as in the work of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds until today’s news headlines regarding immigration and terrorism.
Russ’s work is important because it boldly confronts gender stereotypes in a literary genre long dominated by men, presenting territory for women in charge while raising issues of violence, aggression and where those impulses come from.
. . .A bit about Joanna Russ
Joanna Russ (February 22, 1937 – April 29, 2011) was an American writer, academic and radical feminist. She is the author of a number of works of science fiction, fantasy and feminist literary criticism such as How to Suppress Women’s Writing, as well as a contemporary novel, On Strike Against God, and one children’s book, Kittatinny. She is best known for The Female Man, a novel combining utopian fiction and satire, and the story “When It Changed.”
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a classic horror story, often compared to Poe, which has been anthologized in countless collections.
After the birth of her one daughter, Gilman experienced depression. The “rest cure” her doctor prescribed became the basis for this story.
Although “The Yellow Wallpaper” may seem hyperbolic, it speaks to the cavalier cures in existence at the time.
The author herself talks about why she wrote the story:
“For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia–and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. This was in 1887.
I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.
Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad.
He never acknowledged it.”
Here is “The Yellow Wallpaper” (with great book illustrations!) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Enjoy!
What does Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wall-paper” suggest about middle-class women’s place and role(s) in this society?
“Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wall-paper” was written during a time of great change. In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, “domestic ideology” positioned American middle class women as the spiritual and moral leaders of their home. Such “separate spheres” ideals suggested that a woman’s place was in the private domain of the home, where she should carry out her prescribed roles of wife and mother. Men, on the other hand, would rule the public domain through work, politics, and economics. By the middle of the century, this way of thinking began to change as the seeds of early women’s rights were planted. By the end of the 1800s, feminists were gaining momentum in favor of change. The concept of “The New Woman,” for example, began to circulate in the 1890s–1910s as women pushed for broader roles outside their home-roles that could draw on women’s intelligence and non-domestic skills and talents.
Gilman advocated revised roles for women, whom, Gilman believed, should be on much more equal economic, social, and political footing with men. In her famous work of nonfiction Women and Economics (1898), Gilman argued that women should strive-and be able-to work outside the home. Gilman also believed that women should be financially independent from men, and she promoted the then-radical idea that men and women even should share domestic work.
First appearing in the New England Magazine in January 1892, “The Yellow Wall-paper,” according to many literary critics, is a narrative study of Gilman’s own depression and “nervousness.” Gilman, like the narrator of her story, sought medical help from the famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell prescribed his famous “rest cure,” which restricted women from anything that labored and taxed their minds (e.g., thinking, reading, writing) and bodies. More than just a psychological study of postpartum depression, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” offers a compelling study of Gilman’s own feminism and of roles for women in the 1890s and 1910s.”¹
The “Rest Cure” and Theodate Pope
“Theodate Pope Riddle (February 2, 1867 – August 30, 1946) was an American architect. She was one of the first American women architects as well as a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.
Here’s an interesting excerpt about Pope’s subjugation to “The Rest Cure” when she was a young woman:
“The next year, in March 1888, her parents sent her to Philadelphia, to be examined and cared for by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a physician famous for treating patients, mainly women, suffering from neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion. Mitchell’s solution for Theodate was his then-famous “Rest Cure,” a period of forced inactivity lasting up to two months.
“At first, and in some cases for four or five weeks, I do not permit the patient to sit up or to sew or write or read,” Mitchell wrote, in his book Fat and Blood. “The only action allowed is that needed to clean the teeth.” He forbade some patients from rolling over on their own, insisting they do so only with the help of a nurse. “In such cases I arrange to have the bowels and water passed while lying down, and the patient is lifted on to a lounge at bedtime and sponged, and then lifted back again into the newly-made bed.” For stubborn cases, he reserved mild electrical shock, delivered while the patient was in a filled bathtub. His method reflected his own dim view of women. In his book Wear and Tear; or, Hints for the Overworked, he wrote that women “would do far better if the brain were very lightly tasked.”
― Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Crown Publishers 2015)
The publication of Herland
Herland is a utopian novel from 1915, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The book describes an isolated society composed entirely of women, who reproduce via parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). The result is an ideal social order: free of war, conflict, and domination. It first appeared as a serial in The Forerunner, a magazine edited and written by Gilman between 1909 and 1916. The book is the middle volume in her utopian trilogy; it was preceded by Moving the Mountain (1911), and followed with a sequel, With Her in Ourland (1916). It was not published in book form until 1979.
The story is told from the perspective of Vandyck “Van” Jennings, a student of sociology who, along with two friends (Terry O. Nicholson and Jeff Margrave), forms an expedition party to explore an area of uncharted land where it is rumored lives a society consisting entirely of women. The three friends do not entirely believe the rumors because they are unable to think of how human reproduction could occur without males. The men speculate about what a society of women would be like, each guessing differently based on the stereotype of women which he holds most dear: Jeff regarding women as things to be served and protected; Terry viewing them as things to be conquered and won.
On feminist utopias
Both Gilman’s and Russ’s work explore the idea of a feminist utopia as well as fluid concepts of gender (Gilman’s is an important feminist work, although in her own life she was accused of racism and xenophobia.)
On Whileaway, Russ makes it clear that women too have their faults and that the society they’ve developed, while admirable, is also not perfect. They have their own aggression. As readers we must ask what lies in between our polarizing traditional stereotypes. “Masculine” and “feminine” are perhaps aspects of the same organism as opposed to two clear-cut, distinct creatures; and “Male” and “Female” are not the same as “Man” and “Woman.”
Russ later went on to write her novel The Female Man, which is considered a classic of Sci Fi. It explores gender and challenges the rigid sexist male dominance of Science Fiction until that time, asking readers to consider a fluid of view of gender not strong-armed by body building astronauts saving evil or helpless beautiful pin up Martian models in distress. Both authors set their stories against the fictional backdrops of other worlds, to provide a safe fantasy space for us to consider the “outlandish” notion.
For further reading . . .highly recommended:
The Screwfly Solution” – a 1977 science fiction short story by Raccoona Sheldon, a pen name for psychologist Alice Sheldon, who was better known by her other nom de plume, James Tiptree, Jr. It received the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and has been adapted into a television film.
What happens when a disease causes male sexual impulses to instead become violent impulses?
A disturbing, powerful, and necessary story.
Also see this interview by Celeste Schantz with Marge Piercy, author of Woman on the Edge of Time, an iconic work of science fiction, and He, She and It, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
A bit about Charlotte Perkins Gilman . . .
Charlotte Perkins Gilman/Charlotte Perkins Stetson (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935), was a prominent American feminist, sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist and served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” which she wrote after experiencing postpartum depression. She would later go on to write Herland,” a classic of feminist science fiction.
Gilman, like so many other feminist authors who succeeded her, would be subjected to ridicule, censor and criticism.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
For additional study, see Billy Collins’ poem, “Man in Space”
Also see the work of Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, James Tiptree Jr. and others.