I remember growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, looking out at the vital civil rights movement and imagining that I would one day live in a world where women were seen as equal partners in all things, a world where we didn’t suffer from a gender gap in terms of respect, power, airplay, or paychecks. I envisioned a world where gender wouldn’t matter, unless someone wanted to create a new baby. In contrast, I looked at stuff like Dick Tracey’s cool wrist communicator more as science-fantasy.
Yet today, videophones (ones that also check your e-mail, host videogames, live-stream TV and radio, and take better pictures than my single-purpose camera did back then) are commonplace, while equal pay for equal work is still a dream, and women and genderqueer people continue to suffer prejudice and disadvantages in nearly every legal and social aspect of life.
So, what does this have to do with science fiction and fantasy? Everything. As a race, homo sapiens is incredibly adaptive. With our technology and culture, we have found ways to survive, at least for a while, in every environment we’ve been to, even the vacuum of space. We have found ways to defeat terrible birth defects, viruses, bacteria, and injuries. We have even created more than a million ways to defeat boredom. But we have limits—we cannot create what we don’t dream first.
Over and over, I’ve seen our dreams made real in big and small ways. Not only do we, like Captain Kirk, have the ability to speak to our computers and be answered in plain English, but you can answer many cell phones by flipping them open just like his communicator. We can look inside a pregnant woman’s belly to see her baby-to-be has a heart condition and do surgery while the child is still in the womb. There are many, many examples of how, technologically, we are living in the future. But gender equality is not one of them.
Is it simply that it’s easier to create gadgets than change how people behave? I’m not convinced of that. People were changing human behavior long before the industrial revolution, after all. No, I think the problem lies elsewhere.
I look back at the literature I loved while I grew up, and I see many male authors, and not so many women. Of the women I do see, many, like Andre Norton and C. J. Cherryh were not published under names like Alice and Carolyn. I see male hero after male hero, and while there are a few fabulous female heroes, they remain (like female CEOs) in the distinct minority. Many, like Red Sonja, exist in the shadow of more famous males. To put it bluntly, I see a failure of vision regarding equality in gender even in the literature that I love and that helped me grow into an independent woman.
This isn’t just a matter of behavior in decades past. Less than two weeks ago, Charlie Stross asked, “what do you think is the most important novel of the past 10-and-a-bit years (published since January 1st 2000)?” and he states that although 55% of speculative fiction writers are female, less than 10% of the responses were novels by women. This prompted him to do another poll at http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2011/08/more-on-books.html asking only about female authors. One respondent admitted to not having read any female writers in the last ten years; a number of others just didn’t think to include them.
If we cannot knowingly respect female and male writers equally in the literature of the future and imagination, how can we expect more conservative parts of our society to provide equal economic opportunities?
In modern society, our writers and recording artists are our dreamers. I think it’s important to be aware that our visions of fictional futures and alternate worlds, both bright and dark, help shape the thoughts and dreams—and culture and technology—of our own present and future.
To me, writing as a feminist means imagining a world where all people—boys, girls, intersex, and genderqueer—have an equal chance to achieve their dreams and live the life they choose. It means imagining not just the goal, but the struggle to achieve that goal, and depicting one or the other in stories. Working for change isn’t easy, and we need role models for how to confront and undermine prejudice as much as we need visions of what a world without that prejudice might be like. (Besides, you need conflict to make a good story, and people who succeed against the odds make great heroes.)
My primary goal regarding my protagonists, however, is to write about interesting, believable, and likeable people regardless of their gender (or lack thereof). Because at the core, what feminism has always meant to me is that people are people, and gender is just one of the many things that, taken together, makes each of us unique.