Sunday, June 5, 2011

Differences conceptualizing "feminist sf"

Over at Torque Control, Niall Harrison has posted transcript of a BBC Woman's Hour segment that I (and perhaps others) have been having a difficult time trying to access, featuring a discussion by Gwyneth Jones, Karen Traviss, and Farah Mendlesohn about their take on the current situation of women writers and readers in science fiction. The discussion opens with Gwyneth voicing her regret at not having adopted a male pseudonym from the beginning of her career. I can understand that regret, since--providing she either disguised her physical appearnce or chose not to have a public life as a writer, which is, to say the least, difficult these days, given how important a public face is for selling one's work--she'd have been taken more seriously than she is now. (Arguably, she's taken more seriously than just about any other woman science fiction writer today than Ursula K. Le Guin. But she is also, I think, regretting the effect of the female name on her sales.)

But as I read on, I found her elaboration of her statement of regret fairly startling. Her reasoning, apparently, has nothing to do with the differential treatment accorded women writers (and not just by Naipaul), but, rather, centers on a dated, peculiarly narrow definition of "feminism" and "feminist science fiction":

My later books, which are in my reading not at all feminist science fiction, although they have female characters — it would be strange if they didn’t — are now feminist. And I find that a disadvantage on two counts. First, because I know what feminist science fiction was about, it was about disentangling the battle of the sexes and I’m not doing that, and I don’t want my books to be read as feminist when they’re not addressing that agenda and second, yes, because the word feminist is poison to many sectors of the science fiction audience. And that’s a shame.

For a US feminist, at least, this formulation of feminism might apply to 1970s cultural and liberal feminisms, but it never applied to, say, socialist feminism. Granted, for all of the 1970s socialist feminists struggled mightily in their efforts to fit two dualistic systems of political thought together (in what was commonly called "the marriage of feminism and socialism"), so that they would not have to choose between socialism and feminism, but by the late 1970s and early 1980s, when black feminists' theorizations of intersectionality began to gain traction with white feminists like me, the "battle of the sexes" orientation of feminism pretty much went the way of the dodo. Consider WisCon's Statement of Principles, written in late 2010 by Mikki Kendall, Debbie Notkin, and Victor Raymond, with input from Jeanne Gomoll, Cat Hanna, Liz Henry, Lou Hoffman, Jackie Lee, Kafryn Lieder, Karen Meisner, and Lisa Petriello. It offers, here, its sense of feminism:
Our focus includes science fiction, fantasy, and speculative literature of all sorts. Science fiction itself has been critiqued as a colonialist and imperialist genre, and in many ways this is true. But many of those influenced by it are dedicated to changing the genre to more accurately reflect the field's vital role in our society: envisioning positive futures for all people. WisCon's focus on science fiction has played an important role in the exploration of feminist futures: futures where people of all colors, and backgrounds flourish, where women's rights and women's contributions are valued, where gender is not limited to one of two options, where no one is erased out of convenience, hidden discrimination, or outright bigotry.

Feminism, at its root, is the belief that women and men are equal, and the rejection of sexist beliefs and practices. We, as feminists, have come to realize that all forms of oppression are interrelated. Our practice of feminism is based on a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of all. Feminism is part of a larger constellation of movements seeking social, political and economic equality for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, sex, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, creed, ability, status, or belief.

Feminism is vital to WisCon's identity. Feminism itself has grown and changed over the decades, and WisCon has worked to reflect those changes. Since its inception, WisCon has worked to create a space for feminism and its consideration within the science fiction community.

At base, we recognize that a commitment to feminism means a commitment to social justice of all sorts--we might not be able to focus equally on every issue, but still we cannot pick and choose which people deserve justice and which issues we are more comfortable with. We are called to be true to our principles, even (and especially) when they are unpopular.

WisCon's commitment to feminism is also reflected in our processes. Meetings, decision-making processes, program development, and guest of honor choice all reflect a commitment to feminist ideals of equality, respect for everyone's right to be heard, and the obligation to hold each other accountable for what we say. WisCon's commitment to feminist process means that we reject hierarchies of oppression, recognizing that "the nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive." (paraphrased from Audre Lorde's essay, "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," which can be found in her collection Sister/Outsider.)

For 35 years, WisCon has aimed high. By our long existence and commitment to our goals, we have changed the face of science fiction and we will continue to do so. When we make mistakes, we keep working to improve. WisCon's commitment to feminist science fiction and feminist process is a commitment to ensuring that our future is not just for not just white, well-off, able-bodied, straight men, but rather includes everyone.

What Gwyneth's narrow definition of feminism omits is both intersectionality and feminist process.

Mind, I don't mean to single Gwyneth out. I suspect this is a difference in conceptualization between US & UK sf circles. A few WisCons back I spoke briefly with Niall and afterwards, puzzling over our exchange, realized we had been talking (and thinking) at cross-purposes. My impression was that he didn't understand why feminist sf (in the US) even existed. (IIRC, he said that in the UK feminist sf did not exist and that there was no reason there for it to do so.) I suspect our conversation would be very different today because he's had so much more exposure to feminist sf since then.

As many regular readers of this blog know, because I publish "feminist sf" I felt it necessary to publish my collection of four essays, The Grand Conversation, which explains my own conceptualization of "feminist sf." For me, only a narrow area of feminist sf concerns the Battle of the Sexes, and its an area I attend to only when outside forces make it impossible not to do so. Those who've read much of Aqueduct's list will of course already know this, since I doubt that even one of the books I've so far published could be characterized as "disentangling the battle of the sexes," not even the first two volumes in our Heirloom Series, which reprints materials from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (except, of course, through misreading, which people who haven't gone beyond Feminism 101 are heavily prone to do with feminist work). For me (and for many other readers), Gwyneth's novel Life (one of her "later" works of science fiction) is permeated with feminist issues. (I don't really see how anyone, feminist or not, can escape feminist issues when they set out to show a woman doing science, given the prevailing attitudes of the day.) Any author is free to characterize their work as they wish, but their view does not really carry much more weight than that of the most articulate of the book's readers.

Here's how I see it: Life is in critical conversation with other works of science fiction in general and other works of feminist science in particular. The former makes it science fiction, the latter makes it feminist science fiction. If books like Life become part of the broader conversation of the field, if female authors and their books are as commonly included in the field's conversation as male authors, feminist science fiction will go away as a sub-genre. At that point, Aqueduct Press would stop calling itself "feminist." It's that simple.


Josh said...

It's weird to see the editor of a fine book on Joanna Russ make such a misleading claim about her in that conversation.

Niall said...

I suspect our conversation would be very different today because he's had so much more exposure to feminist sf since then.

For the record, yes, it would be! I think what I was trying to say a few years ago was that I felt the UK mainstream of sf was more accepting of feminism than is the US mainstream of sf; I'm no longer sure that's true. I do still feel there are some differences between the UK and the US on this score, but I now know enough to know that I wouldn't feel qualified talking about them except in the a tentative and partial fashion.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I always cite Life as the best feminist SF book of the 21st Century so far. Not only does it raise all kinds of interesting gender questions, but science dealing directly with biological sex is at the heart of the story. It is, of course, also a great work of science fiction without any recourse to a subgenre listing.

I can understand worrying that your books will lose readership if they're typed as feminist SF; I'm sure there are readers who fear they'll get cooties from reading it. But sometimes you can't avoid being classified even if the place is uncomfortable.

Gwyneth's Bold as Love series, which I adore, doesn't seem to me to be particularly feminist, though it certainly incorporates some feminist thinking in places (and criticizes some of it in others). So I can understand her wanting to be recognized as something more than "just" a feminist SF writer, especially given the bias out there. But if you're going to write about gender and sexuality seriously -- and she does -- you're going to stray into feminist SF.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Having now taken a brief look at the original discussion, I find it interesting to note that Gwyneth said she wished she'd written her feminist SF under a male pseudonym.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

I'm going to post this over at Cheryl's blog as well.

As far as I know, Gwyneth is very involved in intersectional movements. However,second wave feminism came to the UK a lot later than it did to the USA and was never configured quite the same way. There are no big national organisations, few major theorists.

The clearest "voice" of 1980s feminism in the UK was the magazine Spare Rib which was always inter-sectional and considered ultra radical at the time.

I'd say that the feminism of that period in the UK had a lot of clearer arguments about class than I see in the US but was often wilfully blind about race (although you might want to look up the Grunwick dispute on wikipedia).

Cheryl notes that I look more like a US feminist than some, but I suspect that this has more to do with my position as the daughter of an activist feminist than it does my time in the US: that position is common among my American friends, but a lot less common among my UK friends.