The Pen, issue#1

by Laurel Sills

Why are there fewer women than men picking up a pen and scribbling about spaceships, monsters and magic?

Square Square Square

According to Tor UK ** women are only making up approximately 33% of their Fantasy submissions, 22% of Science Fiction and only 17% of Horror. (Let us stress submitted, not published.) There don’t seem to be any industry wide stats on this, (I wish there were; it would be very interesting to know) but seeing as Tor is a major player in Speculative Fiction, I think it is a good example to use as a vague guide. (As a point of interest, female submissions for this issue of holdfast about women in speculative fiction were only 30%!)


So why are less women submitting? In her book How To Suppress Women’s Writing, Sci-Fi author Joanna Russ looks at ‘patterns in the suppression of women’s writing.’ She tells us that ‘[T]he absence of formal prohibitions against committing art does not preclude the presence of powerful, informal ones.’ So basically, just because throughout history women didn’t get sent to jail for making stuff up and writing it down, doesn’t mean that the patriarchy hasn’t done everything in its power to discourage, deny, belittle and discredit them. ‘Informal prohibitions’ have surrounded women that write for as along as women have written.


Let us look for example specifically at Science Fiction. As mentioned above, over the last few months the controversy has exploded online about sexism in SFF For a very comprehensive timeline, go here.


Let’s think about this for a moment. I hate to state the obvious, but if we look at how long women have been free to seek education, earn a decent wage, own their own property, organise their own lives, and have had time to think about what they actually want to do, and do it, we are looking at a ridiculously short period in our worlds history. Women weren't allowed to graduate from Oxford University until 1920, and it wasn’t until 1928 that all women over the age of 21 were even permitted to vote in the UK.


Caitlin Moran sums this up brilliantly. In her book ‘How to Be a Woman,’ she talks about the fact that women have only very recently emerged from literally thousands of years of institutionalised repression. It’s like coming out from a very long, controlling abusive relationship. As a sex we’ve had to sit quietly for a while and ask ourselves, ‘are we ok?’ and heal.


This healing process is not complete, but we are, I think, past the pioneering phase of ‘doing’ that Joanna Russ was a part of. Great swathes of women are getting out there and doing stuff. And that is an exciting time to be living in!


However as yet, we have not drawn level, numerically speaking, with male writers. As evidenced in submissions, publications and the out-dated attitudes we see trolling the net.


Women’s long-term involvement within SF is proven by long-standing arguments, present within SF fanzines and magazines, as to whether or not women had any business reading, writing, and featuring in Science Fiction. If women had not been annoyingly showing an interest in sciency things above their level of comprehension, and generally getting on those real SF fans masculine tits, then they wouldn’t have been whining about girls not knowing their places then, would they? One such example of a letter from a reader in 1938 complains of ‘females’ being ‘dragged into the narratives’, and that ‘a woman’s place is not in anything scientific...Yours for more science and less females.’(Merrick:2011)

'women have had to have a lot of courage and self assurance to stick their heads above the parapet'

fiction featured author non fiction reading list playlist a letter to... cross media story chain the unbelievers fiction featured author non fiction reading list playlist a letter to... cross media story chain the unbelievers

Growing up in my own reading bubble on Dartmoor, often seeking out books written and centred around interesting women, it never occurred to me that things are still somewhat imbalanced when it comes to women in genre fiction. This really hit home earlier in the year when all that stuff about sexual harassment at SF cons in the US* came out, and all of the important discussion that sprung up around it.


For me this highlighted the inequality I see on bookshelves, awards lists and in anthology content. More men are writing, submitting, and publishing Speculative Fiction than women. Let’s put aside for now the disgraceful sexism and harassment experienced at US cons, and focus on the issue I concern myself with here. Why are there fewer women than men picking up a pen and scribbling about spaceships, monsters and magic? And if there are as many women writing it, why are they not submitting?

This had the effect of dashing a cup of cold water in my face; forcing me to wake up, spluttering and blinking indignantly, from my own secure illusion that things are all rosy, equal, and better now.


In her book, ‘The Secret Feminist Cabal,’ Helen Merrick states that the debate as to a woman’s place in SF has been raging since the genre began in the 1920’s. Merrick explains that, while we are led to believe that before the 1960’s, ...‘women signified in SF only through their absence,’ they were actually reading it, writing it, and trying to get involved from the start. ‘[T]he continual (re)construction of SF as a masculine domain has concealed women’s interaction with SF, as readers, as authors, and as subjects represented through female characters.’(Merrick:2011)

This view of SF being a domain with no room for women, whilst seeming wildly outdated and out of use, is unfortunately anything but. After the recent uproar over the cover of the SFWA bulletin, and furore that it caused, we have to admit to ourselves that our work is far from done.


My point is, this is a ‘prohibitive’ climate. From the beginning of SF, women have had to have a lot of courage and self assurance to stick their heads above the parapet and say ‘I wrote this, and you should take me seriously.’


In 2013, the way this literature is received has improved, and the women’s movements of the 70’s and 80’s in SF that Joanna Russ was a part of have certainly made their mark. I also think that the bias that used to inhabit the publishing world is vastly improved, and all the publishers, agents and editors I have happened upon seem like forward thinking, genuine Speculative Fiction fans that want to support rather than inhibit gender equality.


So, what’s the problem now? Men are doing the dishes too, and they’re still producing and submitting way more speculative fiction than women. If women are supposed to be as good as men, why aren’t we proving it? Where is the evidence?

But you know what? For me, there was a truly positive side to all that sexual bigotry we saw online surrounding the debate about diversity in SFF. It was undeniable. Bigots have conveniently committed their outdated opinions to digital ink. The oft quipped adage of ‘we’ve/you’ve won, stop whining,’ cannot stand up against the overwhelming evidence that opinions have not moved on all that much from the 1930’s.


In this modern age of social networking, when we can get our views, concerns, and opinions out to thousands of people with the click of a button, it is so important to be having this discussion.


On a practical creative level, the greatest thing that I or any other woman can do to further sexual equality in SFF, is to write it ourselves. Are there enough female role models out there in Speculative Fiction? It’s better than it was thirty years ago, but still the answer to that question is no. So let’s go out there and model some roles!


Perhaps we don’t have to deal with the same things our foremothers had to. It is no longer openly speculated by critics that our husbands probably wrote it (Margaret Cavendish), or perhaps our brothers? (The Bronte sisters). There is no longer the mainstream belief that writing is an inappropriate, unnatural pastime for women, (“many critics bluntly admitted that they thought the book [Jane Eyre] a masterpiece if written by a man, shocking or disgusting if written by a woman” Russ:1983).


And yes, as I said earlier, men are washing dishes now too.


But we have to acknowledge that this is where women writers have come from. We have risen through this miasma of (in the words of Caitlin Moran) patriarchal bullshit. Our consciousness as a sex has grown out of this cultural inheritance, and women and men shouldn’t forget so quickly what women have gone through to get where we are, especially since it isn’t over yet.


Let’s go back to that 33% of Fantasy submissions. We have to scribble our way forward to that hallowed 50% mark. Time, confidence, ‘informal prohibitions’ still affect us, and we must continue to push through those restraints. Women, we must write!



*Something I must say I have not experienced at the UK cons, which I have found very inclusive and welcoming. (Although I have only been to three, not exactly a seasoned con-goer.)


** Julie Crisp makes the very good point that we cannot demonise publishers. They are speculative fans and writers too! They are not evilly rubbing their hands and cackling as they throw submissions from women into the bin! But we do need to look culturally at not just the industry, but society at large. Because the reason women are not submitting is not because they are disinterested.



Books referenced:

Merrick, Helen (2011) The Secret Feminist Cabal, Aqueduct Press, Seattle.

Moran, Caitlin (2012) How To Be A Woman, Ebury Press, Croydon.

Russ, Joanna (1984) How To Suppress Women’s Writing, The Women’s Press, London.

Do you have something to say about this article? Write a letter to the editors and we may feature it in the next issue. Write 'Letter to the editors' in the subject line and send your email to [email protected]


Did you enjoy this article? Please donate so we can pay our talented writers.

return to current issue