From “Introduction: New Work for New Women”
In a 1974 speech delivered to the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, Leslie Frances Silberberg—better known to science fiction (SF) fans by her pen name, Leslie F. Stone—cheerfully noted that “while I cannot claim myself as the pioneer SF woman, since Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley beat me to it in 1818 with Frankenstein . . . I do happen to be one of the first woman writers in the fantasy pulps” (Stone, “Day” 100). As an author in the “fresh and new” genre magazine community of the early twentieth century, Stone was able to accomplish a number of firsts, including the creation of the first woman astronaut, the first black hero, and the first alien civilization to win a war against human characters (100). These innovations did not go unnoticed. Fans debated the merits of Stone’s action-packed but socially provocative stories in the letters pages of the early SF magazines, and at least one such fan—a young man named Isaac Asimov—was so inspired by her 1936 story “The Human Pets of Mars” that he “decided to try, for the very first time, [writing] science fiction” (Asimov, Before 773).
While Stone was one of the first women in “the fantasy pulps,” she most certainly was not alone. More than 450 known women published SF in professional and amateur venues between 1926, when Hugo Gernsback created the first dedicated SF magazine, and 1945, when the end of World War II ushered in a new constellation of practitioners and periodicals. As such, they made up approximately 16 percent of the SF community in the first two decades of its formal existence. Most of these women (like their male counterparts) were fiction writers. However, they took on work as SF artists, poets, journalists, and editors as well. In doing so, they helped shape their chosen genre at a critical moment when its meaning and value were hotly debated throughout the nascent SF community. Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction is an introduction to their collective accomplishments.
So who were these women? Most were born and raised at the turn of the century, when progressive political ideals—including first-wave feminism—were opening new doors for women as social, economic, and even sexual subjects. In many ways they were exemplars of the “New Woman.” As the U.S. public intellectual Randolph Bourne put it in a 1915 letter, such women “are all social workers, or magazine writers. . . . They have an amazing combination of wisdom and youthfulness, of humor and ability, and innocence and self-reliance, which absolutely belies everything you will read in the storybooks or any other description of womankind. They are of course all self-supporting and independent, and they enjoy the adventure of life; the full, reliant, audacious way in which they go about makes you wonder if the new woman isn’t to be a very splendid sort of person” (qtd. in Stansell, 231). This was certainly true of the two dozen women featured in this anthology, who embraced their work as writers, artists, and editors. The author L. Taylor Hansen, the poet Leah Bodine Drake, and the editors Mary Gnaedinger and Dorothy McIlwraith spent decades in the SF community, while the author/poets-turned-editors Lilith Lorraine and Virginia Kidd dedicated their entire lives to their chosen genre. Clare Winger Harris and C. L. Moore received awards for writing excellence from their peers in SF and fantasy, while Drake and Lorraine earned numerous poetry prizes and the fan poet Tigrina (the pen name of journalist and folk singer Edith Eyde) was inducted into the Lesbian Hall of Fame for her pioneering work in gay news reporting.
The first women of SF were New Women in other ways as well. Most were middle class and white, with the notable exceptions of Lorraine and Hansen, who proudly claimed Indigenous American ancestry. Many achieved independence through education: more than half the women featured in this anthology attended art school or college, and Hansen and Long pursued graduate work as well. Still others, including Hansen, Harris, the author/illustrator Dorothy Les Tina, and the poet Julia Boynton Green, pursued “the adventure of life” through extensive travel across North America, Mexico, Europe, Greece, and Egypt. The adventure continued for some in second careers outside the SF community: Gnaedinger and Tigrina worked as journalists; Les Tina wrote domestic and children’s fiction; Moore taught creative writing and produced television scripts; the writer Leslie F. Stone was a prize-winning gardener and ceramicist who also worked at the National Institutes for Health; and the author Amelia Reynolds Long served as curator for Harrisburg’s William Penn Museum.
A number of these women were also social activists who connected their art to their politics. The artist Margaret Brundage participated in the Chicago African American arts movement, the author-turned-journalist L. Taylor Hansen encouraged Amazing editor Ray Palmer’s interest in Indigenous civil rights activism, Tigrina modeled the first U.S. lesbian newsletter on the SF fanzines published by her friend Forrest J Ackerman, and Lorraine was the first—and, as far as we can tell, only—person to have an FBI file opened for the dissemination of seditious speculative poetry. Taken together, these achievements suggest that women working in the formative years of genre fiction imagined brave new worlds in their art precisely because they were forging such worlds in their own lives.
So where did these women work in the SF community? Our survey of the forty-three specialist, multi-genre, and amateur magazines that featured SF in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s indicates that while women published in almost every one of these magazines, their work appeared most prominently in three key venues. Authors who specialized in scientific extrapolation gravitated toward magazines founded by Hugo Gernsback, including Amazing Stories, Amazing Stories Quarterly, and Wonder Stories. In 1927, just one year after he founded Amazing, Gernsback regretfully noted that women rarely made good SF authors, because their science education was all too often “limited” by social convention (“Headnote to ‘The Fate’” 245). Yet he was quick to publish those women who did write SF, and by 1931 his successor, T. O’Conor Sloane, could claim women such as Leslie F. Stone as “staff writers” without undue comment. In many ways, women’s rapid assimilation into the Amazing fold was inevitable. Gernsback featured women writers in the scientific magazines he published prior to the founding of Amazing Stories and continued this practice in his genre magazines. Moreover, he encouraged authors to draw on literary traditions that had long been popular with women writers, including utopian and Gothic fiction, and women easily adapted his conception of SF as a vehicle for scientific inspiration in order to explore how the genre might also serve as a vehicle for social change. Gernsback’s successors at Amazing, Sloane and Ray Palmer, expanded the mandate of their magazine to include the work of women poets such as the critically acclaimed Julia Boynton Green and science journalists such as the provocative L. Taylor Hansen, who used her monthly column to challenge scientific racism. Meanwhile, the managing editor of Wonder Stories, David Lasser, cultivated the progressive political visions of women writers, including Stone and Lilith Lorraine.
Women were also significant contributors to the multi-genre magazine Weird Tales. In direct contrast to their counterparts at Amazing, the editors Edwin Baird, Farnsworth Wright, and Dorothy McIlwraith never directly commented upon this trend. Indeed, the relatively high proportion of women contributors might not have seemed significant to them because the first generation of pulp magazines that appeared in the 1890s, including All-Story Weekly and the Black Cat, were also multi-genre magazines targeting and featuring women writers. Moreover, Wright and his fellow editors were even more committed than Gernsback to showcasing speculative fiction written in literary traditions forged by earlier generations of women writers, including Gothic romances and fantastic poetry as well as newer ones in which women were just beginning to make their mark, such as the laboratory monster and bizarre SF adventure tale. Indeed, Harris—an early woman writer of carefully extrapolated SF usually associated with Amazing Stories—was actually a Weird Tales discovery (Ashley, History 28). Additionally, Weird Tales was home to artist Margaret Brundage, whose sexually and racially charged cover illustrations made her one of the most-talked-about artists in the early SF community, regardless of race or gender. It was also home to editor Dorothy McIlwraith, who was tied with Mary Gnaedinger of Famous Fantastic Mysteries for the honor of being named the first female lead editor in SF and who successfully oversaw her magazine’s transition from pulp magazine to midcentury slick.
Amateur and semi-pro publications offered many women a third way to engage their chosen genre. Lilith Lorraine was a true pioneer in this respect, appearing in the May 1930 debut issue of SF’s first recognized fanzine, the Comet, and contributing regularly to the Hugo-nominated fantasy fanzine the Acolyte. Between 1943 and her death in 1967 Lorraine founded more than half a dozen of her own amateur press publications, including Challenge, the first magazine dedicated to SF poetry. While Lorraine moved from commercial SF to semi-pro publishing to better enact her own vision of SF, other women launched professional careers based on their involvement with fanzine culture. Virginia Kidd, an active member of fandom, published her first poem in the Fantasy Fan in 1933, when she was just twelve years old. Kidd cofounded the Vanguard Amateur Press Association in 1945 and published many of her own fanzines, including Heeling Error, Snarl, and Quarterly, through that organization before trying her hand at professional writing and establishing herself as a literary agent. In a fascinating variation on the same theme, Tigrina wrote weird poetry for the Acolyte, served as an associate editor for the Detroit-based fanzine the Mutant, and edited Hymn to Satan, the first SF and fantasy music publication. Inspired by her positive experiences with genre fandom, in 1946 Tigrina launched Vice Versa, the first publication in the world devoted to lesbian issues, and embarked on what would become a decades-long career in gay journalism.
So what exactly attracted women to SF? The women featured in this anthology addressed this subject in a wide range of interviews, guest lectures, and essays, offering four main reasons for their interest in this genre. First and perhaps foremost, women were drawn to SF because they had an affinity for science. Clare Winger Harris connected her lifelong love of SF to the “love of science” that she developed at Smith College, a single-sex institution that was the first of its kind to create a dedicated science building for its students (Harris, Away 11). The SF author and science journalist L. Taylor Hansen claimed that the impetus for her work was the desire “to capture something of the thrill” of scientific discovery while overcoming the limitations of traditional scientific perspectives: “Most laymen who live within the limited horizon of a daily job can never experience the personal thrill of a scientific discovery which is the near look of science; while by the same token many scientists . . . through lack of multidimensional concept, [have] lost contact with the advanced horizon which is, in essence, scientific far vision” (Ancient Atlantic 7). Hansen’s stated desire to re-create the thrill of science for laypeople and encourage a “scientific far vision” was very much in line with Gernsback’s influential definition of SF as a “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision,” and so it is perhaps no surprise that she published most of her early work in Amazing Stories (Gernsback, “New” 3). SF also offered women a way to engage science when there seemed to be no other option. As Batya Weinbaum’s interviews with the author’s family reveal, Leslie F. Stone turned to genre writing in large part because while she was interested in science, her family saw it as “a male pursuit” and so did not provide her with “any encouragement” to study it (35). In an era when increasing opportunities for women in education and the professions competed with patriarchal assumptions about the proper sphere of women’s work and the masculinization of science, SF provided women with opportunities to engage science in both critical and creative ways.
Women also chose careers in SF because they loved the genre. Clare Winger Harris “grew up reading the stories of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells” (Harris, Away 11). Leslie F. Stone grew up loving the John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and said that she wrote SF as “a creative outlet for my rather vivid imagination” and “for the sheer pleasure of it” (“Day” 101–102). C. L. Moore, too, said that she was “weaned on the Mars books” of Burroughs and loved the fun of reading SF, which “was a grand, glorious experience, a new way of looking at the world and sharing in exciting new adventures” (qtd. in Elliot 46). Moore recounted the moment she rediscovered SF: it was “at a local newsstand across the street from the bank where I was working at the time. On my way to lunch one day, I spied this copy of Amazing, which stood out like a sore thumb. . . . I just loved the stories, the fact that they took me out of myself and my narrow little world” (qtd. in Elliot 45–46). As a thirteen-year-old, the future SF poet and literary agent Virginia Kidd related a similar story in the readers’ forum of Wonder Stories: “Many years ago, I saw a magazine . . . on the drug store mag-racks, and investigated its presence . . . one of stories was Part One . . . of Taine’s The Time Stream. I’ve been reading [SF] ever since” (“From” 628). Whether they grew up reading the classics of Wells and Burroughs or the new pulp magazines, girls fell in love with SF just like their boy counterparts and were inspired to contribute to the ongoing development of this new genre on their own terms.
For some women, SF was an ideal way to contribute to the creation of new and better political sensibilities as well. The most direct advocate of SF as a form of political expression was Lilith Lorraine, who argued that genre fiction was “not an escape literature,” but a powerful mode of storytelling that “holds out a challenge” for humanity through its propensity for “constructive dreaming” and “by cutting the imaginative patterns for better social conditions, more mature systems of government, more advanced biological research . . . and more daring encroachments upon the secret of life itself” (“Not” 13–14). Even “prophet of doom” SF had a progressive political function for Lorraine because it could be used to show readers “the picture of a world charred and atomized,” thereby prompting them to “wonder what we can do to prevent it” (13–14). Although she was less direct in her discussion of it, Leslie F. Stone appreciated the political possibilities of her chosen genre, too. As she rather gleefully recalls, even when “women’s Lib was just a gleam in feminine eyes,” she was able to provoke controversy among readers with stories about adventurous women, skilled African Americans, and less-than-all-powerful white men (“Day” 101). For authors such as Lorraine and Stone, the future-forward orientation of SF provided an ideal way to explore widespread cultural hopes and fears regarding the politics of nations and the politics of everyday life.
Finally, women were attracted to SF because it offered the opportunity for meaningful paid labor in a relatively egalitarian environment. Margaret Brundage sought employment at Weird Tales because she was “trying to break away from fashion” illustration to better support her family during the Great Depression and the magazine paid her a handsome “$90 a cover” (Everts 28, 31). Authors generally received less monetary compensation than artists such as Brundage—Leslie F. Stone calculated that she received a “not-so-very-grand total of $1872” for the twenty stories she published over the course of her career—but appreciated that for the most part they were welcomed as equal partners in the creation of a new popular genre (“Day” 103). As Stone put it, “On his discovery of my gender, Hugo Gernsback accepted it quite amiably. In fact, I’m sure he liked the idea of a woman invading the field he had opened. Nor did T. O’Conor Sloane . . . have any qualms about women writers” (101). Amelia Reynolds Long had similarly fond memories of her time in the early SF magazine community, noting that “being a woman [did not hold] me back with any of the science fiction magazines” (qtd. in Williamson). Similarly, C. L. Moore recalled that “I’ve never felt the least bit downed because I was a woman” (qtd. in Elliott 47). For women such as Stone, Long, and Moore, the opportunity to be treated as equals in the workplace seems to have been even more important than the fact of a paycheck itself.
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