As Joanna Russ noted in How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), one of the ways we as a culture silence women’s writing is by erasing it from our historical memory. “When the memory of one's predecessors is buried,” Russ argues, “the assumption persists that there were none and each generation of women believes itself to be faced with the burden of doing everything for the first time. And if no one ever did it before . . . why do we think we can succeed now?” (p. 93). Russ notes that even Virginia Woolf, in her seminal A Room of One’s Own (1929), accepted this erasure, certain that there had not yet been any women writers worth mentioning. In the British Library she must have been surrounded by evidence to the contrary: Emily Dickinson, Anne Bradstreet, and Mary Shelley, among many others. (The few women writers that Wolfe does mention—Jane Austen, the Brontës—she also denigrates, claiming the “narrowness” of their experience, as women, “deforms” and “twists” their work.)
Why does this erasure matter? For two reasons, as Russ notes. First, when we are denied models, it’s much harder to believe that we can succeed. If it were possible for women to write science fiction, we ask as young writers, wouldn’t there be lots of science fiction written by women? Any writer needs to believe her task is possible if she is to make it through the many years of struggle. Second, if almost all women writers are erased—so that we’re left, for instance, with only a few names (Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis), writers who seem to exist in isolation—then it’s much easier to believe that these very few women succeeded not because women can write science fiction, but because they were some sort of freak. (She wrote it, but she’s not really a woman.)
All of this is to note why Sisters of Tomorrow is such an essential text. The intent of the book, as Yaszek and Sharp note in their introduction, is to “recover the history of women’s contributions to SF in all their forms.” Covering the early decades of twentieth century science fiction, from the 1920s through the early 1940s, Sisters of Tomorrow is a critical work as well an anthology—it includes selections of stories, poetry, non-fiction writing, editorials, and art created by women in these early years of the genre. By doing so the book provides evidence that, in fact, an abundance of science fiction has been created by, edited by, and promoted by women. Furthermore, it includes short critical essays written by the editors focusing on each of the writers, artists, and editors, as well as an afterword by Kathleen Ann Goonan which discusses more recent history, as well as methods by which present-day women can challenge the narrative of erasure.
Yaszek and Sharp succeed in part by bringing forward the less well known—perhaps entirely forgotten, for those of us living in the twenty-first century—women of science fiction. Their introduction provides a useful overview of the women working in the field of science fiction during these early years, as well discussing why these women were drawn to the field at all, and how they changed and enriched it. Specifically, they note (in their introduction to the section on SF authors) that women writers:
invoked the representational strategies developed by earlier generations of popular women writers to critically assess the patriarchal impulses in modern science and imagine other, more egalitarian technocultural arrangements. In particular, they drew inspiration from women’s work in Gothic, utopian, and domestic fiction to introduce into SF the new spaces and modes . . . that, they insisted, would foster truly new and better futures for all.
This introduction also notes that women writers also brought social science, anthropology, and psychology into the craft, and discusses how the writers used these genres and sciences in transgressive ways.
The editors' short essays also place these works and their creators in their historical context. We learn how the SF world reacted to stories and poems written by women; we learn how women from the start of science fiction publishing struggled against the conception that women couldn’t or didn’t write science fiction. And, perhaps most importantly, in the sections on Editors and Journalists, we learn how pervasive women were in the field, doing the hard work that is often overlooked. As Goonan says in her Conclusion:
[W]omen did more than just write stories about egalitarian futures. They helped shape those futures through the work they did in the SF community writing editorials, reporting on groundbreaking scientific and technological phenomena, and producing cover art. They performed these activities in professional and amateur publications alike, some of which they published themselves. Statistics… show that this involvement in SF never slowed – in fact, over the decades, it increased. Women were always a part of SF.
Sisters of Tomorrow is divided into five sections. The first covers Authors, and includes nine short works (both short stories and novellas). Though the science in these SF stories is often outdated, the stories remain intriguing. As Yaszek and Sharp note, the influence of both utopian and domestic fiction is clear in many of them. The most common shared theme involves a contemporary human (that is, a human from 1930 or 1940) who is transported, via spaceship or abduction by aliens or by some other method, to a different society—a far future society in Lilith Lorraine’s “Into the 28th Century,” or a coeval one out on a distant planet in Leslie F. Stone’s “Out of the Void.” I’m a sucker for utopian fiction, so I liked these a lot—though Stone’s utopia turns out to be more dystopian than utopian, in an interesting plot twist.
The influence of the Gothic on women writers of this era can be seen in such works as C.L. Moore’s “Shambleau,” and Dorothy Gertrude Quick’s “Strange Orchids.” In “Shambleau,” for instance, we see several features common to Gothic literature: the strange or foreign location (in this case, a small town on Mars); a “damsel” in distress (though this distressed damsel is not what she appears); a romantic hero, in this case Northwest Smith, a tough-talking cowboy-like smuggler, who takes action to save the woman in peril; and mythic or supernatural elements (in this case, Shambleau herself, who turns out to be a scary female monster). There’s also a strong element of romance, in that Shambleau uses the desire men feel for her to lure these men to their deaths.
Likewise, we see many of these same elements in “Strange Orchids.” Once again, we have a damsel in distress—in this story, many of them, since there’s a very strange serial killer at work. One of these women in distress is the narrator of the story, Louise Howard, who encounters the killer at the beginning of the story. This killer, Angus O’Malley, embodies the supernatural elements of the story—he is a mesmerizing villain, a Mad Scientist, who is described as having a Byronic appearance, with eyes like “a mysterious unfathomed pool,” which Louise stares into like a “bird fascinated by a snake.” The hero, Rex Stanton, who comes to the aid of the woman in peril, is conversely described as “kindly” and “straightforward,” though he also has characteristics typical of a romantic hero—bronze skin, a “tall, well-knit, muscular body,” a forceful personality, and the need to take action. Angus O’Malley, like Shambleau, lures his targets to their deaths via their desire for him. And his method of killing—turning women into orchids while feeding on their life-force—is typically Gothic. In an interesting modification of the Gothic, however, our author, Dorothy Quick, has the damsel in distress save herself (for the most part) when she ends up trapped in O’Malley’s (very Gothic) house.
Leslie Perri’s “Space Episode” likewise subverts this central trope of Gothic literature—the damsel in distress rescued by a Romantic hero. In this story, three astronauts are trapped aboard a failing entry capsule. The forward rockets, necessary to braking the capsule, have become jammed. Someone must suit up and go outside of the ship to unjam them manually. Whoever does it will not have time to reenter the capsule—they will die as the capsule enters the atmosphere. The time is limited, but the stakes are clear: either one of them goes outside to free the rockets, and dies; or all three of them die. So far, a standard SF story. However, two of these astronauts are men, and one, Lida, is a woman.
Lida demands action—they should draw straws, or flip a coin, do something, now, to decide who should take up the task of unjamming the rockets. But the two men, Michael and Eric, are frozen in panic, and with the desire to live. In the end, when neither of them will act, Lida puts on the suit and saves these two “gallant” men.
The section on Poets includes works by Virginia Kidd, Julia Boyton Green, and Leah Bodine Drake. I especially enjoyed Drake’s “They Run Again,” and “The Wood-wife,” in which we can also see the influence of the Gothic, with its supernatural heroine who lures a handsome young Squire to his death. The section on Journalists, on the other hand, includes both straightforward factual science pieces, such as Ellen Reed’s “Natural Ink” and Lynn Standish’s “Scientific Oddities”; and scientific essays, such as Standish’s “The Battle of the Sexes,” a fact-based examination of the differences between men and women. L. Taylor Hansen’s “The White Race—Does it Exist?” lays out the arguments for the origin of the different races of humanity, and posits various explanations for the “white race.” The science here is very dated, but the essay is worth reading as an example of how women writers used the science of their time to turn a critical eye on white supremacy.
Finally, Sisters of Tomorrow provides samples of the work of Editors such as Mary Gnaedinger, Lilith Lorraine, and Dorothy McIlwraith; and of Artists such as Dorothy Louise Les Tina and Olivette Bourgeois. Yaszek and Sharp do an especially good job in these final two sections in addressing how women qua women changed and influenced the field of science fiction.
In this context, Kathleen Ann Goonan’s conclusion, “Challenging the Narrative, or, Women Take Back Science Fiction,” is invaluable. Here, Goonan connects the dots, linking our current state of science fiction and its attitude toward women with these works from the early days of the field. After a brief history of women’s involvement in science fiction both since the early years of the genre and over the past decade—the outrage of the Puppies at women gaining recognition gets a mention—Goonan examines the fact that even in this new century, women remain a minority, and often an ignored minority, in the field of science fiction. “[I]n 2014, women publish only 28.1 percent of SF short fiction . . . [and] author a mere quarter of all SF novels.”
Goonan examines the usual reasons given for this underrepresentation—women don’t write science fiction, women don’t read science fiction, women writers for some reason just won’t submit their stories to editors, magazines, and publishing houses—and shows why these reasons are inadequate. She goes on to analyze the manifold reasons that more likely are behind the relative lack of women in the field: unconscious cultural bias; blatant sexual harassment; and cover art, tables of content, and editorials which signal clearly to women writers that their work will not be received or read on a level playing field. She notes also a laissez-faire attitude from editors and publishing houses. “We can’t publish what we’re not submitted,” one editor claims. As Goonan argues, editors and publishers who seek out women creators tend to both publish better work and to have a more equal representation among their artists and writers.
Goonan concludes with what can easily be said to be the theme of Sisters of Tomorrow: women have always written science fiction, have always edited science fiction, have always created science fiction art. Further, just as in the world outside of science fiction, it is the participation of women that creates and accelerates the changing landscape, the new worlds that most of us look for when we read science fiction. “Women did not just participate in the accelerated, exhilarating, mad rush of change that has marked the rise of technosociety—women were the change.”
Sisters of Tomorrow is not without flaws. For instance, both race and LGBT issues get very little attention. In the introduction, the first use of a black hero, by the writer Leslie Stone, is mentioned. And one Lesbian writer appears—Edith Eyde, or Tigrina, a SF poet who also published early fanzines. Further, L. Taylor Hansen, as mentioned above, wrote about racial issues—and we’re also told that Hansen was the first woman to “intentionally masquerade as a man in the genre community.” But this seems more like Hansen using a male pseudonym than being a legitimate trans writer. It is possible, I suppose, that no writers of color, or trans or Lesbian writers, were working or publishing science fiction in this era. If so, I would have liked some discussion of that, to explain the omission.
Nevertheless, Sisters of Tomorrow is an important critical and historical work, well worth the attention of anyone interested in the history of our field.