I really hope I don't make a habit out of writing editorials on airplanes. I'm usually distracted and irritable on airplanes, and that isn't going to make for particularly good editorials. More than that, though, I really hope that I stop being on airplanes so nearly-constantly. I remember (barely) being a kid and being excited about flying, finding something really magical about looking out the window and seeing the clouds underneath us. At this point in my life, though, I hate just about everything about airports and airplanes. The only thing I don't hate about air travel is the fact that it gets you to your destination faster.
Right now, the destination is Oakland Airport; I'm on my way back from spending a few days in the hometown that my mother thinks I unfairly maligned in a previous editorial. I was there to help celebrate my father's birthday, but since he seemed pretty tired of everyone talking about his birthday, I'll spare you the birthday-tribute editorial in which I reveal (to no one's great surprise) that I was a princess-like daddy's girl when I was younger and that it still means the world to me when my father tells me he's proud of something I've done. Instead, I'm going to look ahead a little bit to both WisCon and high school graduation season, and I'm going to tell you about one of my high school teachers.
I was always very lucky, as far as teachers went. I grew up in a town with an excellent public school system, but it goes further than that. I had the exceptional good fortune to have a handful of teachers who weren't just good at teaching but were also good at teaching us to think for ourselves. It's a difficult balance to strike, teaching your students to be well-behaved citizens and also teaching them to be self-confident and independent. When I think about what teachers have to put up with on a daily basis, I can't fault most of them for being primarily interested in getting their students to sit still and be quiet. The first extraordinary thing about Ms Weinthal, then, was that she mostly wasn't interested in keeping us quiet or orderly.
My senior year was Ms Weinthal's first year at our high school, and (if I'm remembering correctly) her first year teaching high school English after a number of years spent teaching at community colleges. She joked with us on the first day of class that she'd realized if she wanted to make any real impact on her students she needed to get to them when they were younger. A lot of the English teachers in my high school had been experimenting with some creative writing techniques in class, assigning personal writing journals or the like, but Ms Weinthal started the year off with a different kind of creative assignment. She passed around a photocopy of a picture (I think I later identified it as coming from Ms Magazine) of a woman whose mouth had been digitally blurred out, and then she asked us to spend fifteen minutes writing about our reaction to the picture. I was surprised to find that the picture unlocked in me an enormous anger that, at seventeen years old, I'd never realized I had. I found that I was angry at having been told for years that I shouldn't make too much noise, make a fuss about things in public, laugh too loudly, or ever cause any kind of trouble, because "young ladies don't do that." I realized that I'd been told all my life to be quiet and polite, and that I was damn tired of it.
I like to think that I would have come around to that realization anyway, but in September of 1993 my mother had no one but Ms Weinthal to blame for my announcing at dinner that I had decided I was a feminist. We all had Ms Weinthal to blame for replacing Jane Eyre with Wide Sargasso Sea in our curriculum that year (although looking back I'm not sure how I feel about that choice -- on the one hand, we couldn't properly appreciate the Rhys since we'd never read the Bronte, but on the other hand, reading Wuthering Heights the year before had left us a little tapped out on the Bronte sisters). Her most significant influence on my life was extracurricular, though. Sometime that year she brought five or six of the women in the honors English class together for a reading group, having us read books that didn't fit in to the standard coursework and then meeting with us during our lunch hour to talk about them.
The first three books we read for those lunchtime sessions were Dorothy Bryant's The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You, Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. It would be several years before I realized that Ms Weinthal's reading group had provided me with a kind of ground-level primer to feminist science fiction, but even at the time I knew I had gotten into something exciting. The Piercy and the LeGuin together managed to shake up my understanding of every major philosophical infrastructure I had, everything from economics to politics to romance to social relations, and suddenly the world looked like a much more interesting place. To this day, they're both books I re-read every year or so with a mixture of familiarity and discomfort. (To this day also I think that The Dispossessed is LeGuin's most radical book, and possibly her best; it's not that I don't love The Left Hand of Darkness, it's just that it's never challenged me quite as much.) Some large portion of my personal and political philosophies can be traced back through books (and authors) I first encountered in Edie Weinthal's classroom, even if I did have to encounter them outside of regular classroom hours.
I was a senior in high school when I first really engaged with both feminism and feminist science fiction. That connection has been on my mind for a number of reasons, the most obvious of them perhaps being this trip back to my hometown and the realization that I have a high-school reunion coming up. Only slightly less obvious, as reasons go, is that in a couple of weeks I'll be getting back on another stupid airplane, this time to go to Madison for a feminist science fiction convention. There's another connection, though, this one to a brief discussion on the Strange Horizons forum a couple of weeks ago. Someone asked if the magazine has any official policy on gender roles or relations in fiction, and I said that we don't, but that there's almost certainly some effect from having three fiction editors who have been known to call themselves feminists. The questioner wanted to know what that effect was, and I didn't have a good answer at the time. I think I have an answer now. I can't speak for my fellow fiction editors, but from where I stand, I see science fiction as a genre particularly well-suited for questioning assumptions, and much of the work of contemporary feminism is the questioning of the assumptions that make up an inequal or stratified society. For me, feminism is very much about asking those same questions that I first came across in that lunchtime reading group, and science fiction is still a good place to do the asking.
Copyright © 2004 Susan Marie Groppi
Susan Marie Groppi is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
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