Guest Post by Alisa Krasnostein: The Invisibility of Women in Science Fiction

Alisa Krasnostein is editor and publisher at Twelfth Planet Press, maintains a blog at livejournal and is part of the team at the podcast Galactic Suburbia. In 2009, she published several multi award nominated works including the short story collection A Book of Endings by Deborah Biancotti, the science fiction anthology New Ceres Nights, the novella Horn by Peter M Ball and the novella double Roadkill/Siren Beat by Robert Shearman/Tansy Rayner Roberts. Forthcoming works in 2010 include the short story collection Glitter Rose by Marianne de Pierres and the suburban fantasy anthology Sprawl. Alisa Krasnostein is also Executive Editor of the review website ASif! and part of the Not if you Were the Last Short Story on Earth crew.

Over the last couple of years, there has been increasing discussion online about the ongoing gender disparity in science fiction (SF). We still see low representations of women in science fiction magazines and anthologies, many awards shortlists, and in criticism of the genre. One of the issues that has become apparent is that those who commentate and review the genre wield much power in directing what works get read and recognised. To me, this seems like a significant wall that needs to be broken down in the quest to see women equally respected and represented in this genre.

Two recent SF projects leapt out at me as additional examples of the ongoing reinforcement of the invisibility cloak over women in science fiction. Both projects sought to make commentary on the field, both sought to build the canon of the genre – that is, to establish a concise list and record of who the greatest writers are or were and which works are the best of all time. That they happened in rapid succession made interesting commentary material.

The first was a Mind Meld at SF Signal in May. Mind Melds pose the same question to a variety of prominent people in the SF community including writers, editors and critics. In this particular Mind Meld, presented in two parts over two weeks, the question was “What Science Fiction Books Should be In Every Fan’s Library?” The answers were fascinating. On first glance, a diverse variety of women’s works were listed in the responses but on closer inspection, when removing the answers (which were varied and diverse) provided by the women who were asked, in part 1, the lists made by the male respondents were either devoid of women or repeated the same one title – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. This was the entire contribution by women writers worthy of collection in every fan’s library according to these male critics who were asked. In part 2, this list expanded to include Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

On our fortnightly podcast Galactic Suburbia we discussed how often this is the case – that women writers’ contributions to the genre are often ignored in discussions like these and thus these kind of lists result in further marginalising women and their writing from science fiction, science fiction canon building and archiving. How sad it was to see brilliant writers like Octavia Butler and Joanna Russ so easily forgotten. And if critics can ignore their contributions so easily, is it any wonder that women’s influences in the building of a genre can so too be easily dismissed? After all, they weren’t considered worthy enough to be in every fan’s library …

Hot on the tails of this came a very unfortunate anthology entitled “Before They Were Giants” – a reprint collection of 15 first short stories by famous and admired writers in science fiction. The cover of this book alone is deeply offensive, I merely state the words “vagina dentata” to make my point. And inside, as pointed out by Farah Mendelsohn on contributor Michael Swanwick’s blog, only one female writer is included in the whole book.

To me these two incidents went hand-in-hand. Why the editor, James L Sutter, felt no need to question why his book was almost devoid of female contributors remains for me far more interesting and crucial than the actual editing process he went through. Sutter came online to address his own error (as he referred to it) and explained how it happened. The story was not unique nor one we have not heard before in exact examples like this one. He had made a list of writers he would have liked to include, careful to avoid overlap with other similar books, and then he had worked down it. When all but one of the women on his list declined the invitation, he proceeded. He himself admitted that it never occurred to him that there would be an issue with a male heavy table of contents and I, and other observers in this discussion, sighed the collective sigh of disappointment.

This discussion has never been about overt sexism or deliberate exclusion of women from publishing in science fiction. Ok, it has been in the distant past. But these days, when the supposed obstacles to women getting published and recognized in science fiction have been lifted, we remain often invisible and forgotten. These obstacles may once have included ideas like women couldn’t write “real science fiction” or that women didn’t write as well as men. These days, we argue that the lack of gender balance is a result of far more subtle and subconscious factors. And for me, those factors were at play and well evident in both the Mind Melds and in the lack of reflection by Sutter on his collection of SF “Giants”.

As always happens in discussions like these, there is the backlash commentary. I’m still trying to forget the outrageous backlash at the commentary over Mike Ashley’s Mammoth Book of Mind Blowing SF which also failed to include anyone other than white men. In the case of Before They Were Giants, episode 3 of the Skiffy and Fanty Show demonstrates the complete lack of understanding of the issue. Here, they argue that this book is not suffering from a case of gender bias because Sutter had originally intended to include women. This I think is the diversion point in the ongoing discussion.

For me, the struggle is always how to explain that the issue at hand is not a deliberate act of sexism, but that a subconscious, unmeaning, unthinking act can be just as harmful. This is especially true when the product is one meant to make criticism and build canon – to say who is worth remembering, and therefore by exclusion, who is not. This may not have been the deliberate intent, yet it remains the final result. And without criticism pointing this out, especially to those who might never see it otherwise, we are destined to repetition. 

Last week, links to the Periodic Table of Women in Science Fiction: 75 Years of Fabulous Writers was floated around and has become a meme. It says most succinctly just how many “Giant” women have been influential in this genre. And just how many are so quickly and easily ignored.

Note: I have included the links to the Skiffy and Fanty podcast for accuracy reasons. I did not include it in my own blogging of this issue because I did not want to be accused of sending over my friends to “erupt” a further “flamewar”. I respectfully ask readers here to refrain from doing so.

Categories: gender & feminism

Tags: ,

16 replies

  1. Ooh, I hadn’t seen the link to the Periodic Table of Women in Science Fiction – I’m glad to say that I’ve read at least half of the writers on that list.

    For me, the struggle is always how to explain that the issue at hand is not a deliberate act of sexism, but that a subconscious, unmeaning, unthinking act can be just as harmful.


  2. Since writing this I was pointed to the origin of the Periodic Table – this Youtube clip is well worth checking out:

  3. Fantastic post, Alisa. Very nicely done.

  4. In an article about Sydney Sci Fi convention Supanova, the organiser said:
    ‘It used to be more about the boys but these days there are just as many girls, particularly because they really love to get dressed up as their favourite characters.”

  5. Graaaagghhhhghh. It’s all about the clothes of course.
    Was glad to see many of my fave authors on that periodic table though.

  6. Your article prompted me to go back and take a look at a list that I compiled of the “top 150 classic sf writers” (
    The cut off for “classic” was “published prior to 1983″; the measure of importance was a point system based on inclusion in anthologies, awards won, etc., etc. (detailed in the article). Sources used were the magazines of the era, anthologies of the era and award lists.
    17 women appear in the list (11.3%), most of whom seem to have “been forgotten”
    I also aggregated the two Mind Melds ( and I think it brings a few interesting things to light: the individual number of female author names is small, but the prominence of those few is fairly large. Three of the most frequently mentioned novels are by women, three women are in the list of ‘most works by a single author’ and Le Guin is #4 in the “broadest representation” category. In fact, if you look at the extracts, you’ll see that the “top 4″ includes three males and one female (two different female writers in the top of the top lists).
    I don’t think those numbers are that far out of whack with reality; I strongly suspect that most of the contributors were thinking along the ‘must reads’ lines (like – if you haven’t read this, you just aren’t a fan and not worth talking to), and it is true that for whatever reason, the foundational works in SF were primarily written by males.
    I think that given our space in time right now, the take away is not ‘male to female ratio is out of kilter’ but rather ‘there are multiple female authors and works by them that ARE included in the “must read to be a fan” category.
    Where individuals take such a list when they go beyond it is what needs the influencing.

  7. Hi Steve – what I am arguing in this post is to question the kind of thinking that you mention here “I strongly suspect that most of the contributors were thinking along the ‘must reads’ lines (like – if you haven’t read this, you just aren’t a fan and not worth talking to), and it is true that for whatever reason, the foundational works in SF were primarily written by males.”
    I disagree with your assumption and I think what I have argued above is that men, and male critics, tend to think the foundation works in SF were primarily written by men. If you look at your own computations for top classic SF writers, your own criteria has biased the outcome – especially if you include awards as one component.
    I think that given our space in time right now, the take away is not ‘male to female ratio is out of kilter’ but rather ‘there are multiple female authors and works by them that ARE included in the “must read to be a fan” category.
    I think the Periodic Table of Women in SF disputes this too, that the male to female ratio IS out of kilter and that men should read more works by women in order to truly “be a fan” of SF.

  8. I didn’t mean ti imply that I didn’t think the ratio was out of kilter; what I was really trying to say is that where the effort in changing this ought to come about is not arguing over ratios from the past but in helping folks expand the list.
    Rather than concentrating on the negative (not enough female author representation), let’s concentrate on the positive (some women are considered to be at the absolute pinnacle of influence and importance).
    One set of arguments leads to endless and virtually pointless discussions of stats, while the other leads to “and there are other female authors just as important/good/influential as those that did make it onto the lists”.
    If you looked at the articles I linked to, you’d see that where I did make assumptions, they were based on the information at hand, (which were delineated) and not on preconceived notions. I went where the data seemed to indicate things were going.
    Bias because I included data from awards? Not my bias. Bias from including anthologies? Again, not my bias. I’d like to see someone construct a list of “influential SF authors” based on works that didn’t win anything, weren’t anthologized and weren’t mentioned on the covers of the eras magazines. Can’t be done because any effort along those lines HAS to be personally biased. All I can do is show folks where the information came from and what it was based on – but the results of that survey can’t be blamed on anything other than the potential bias of everyone who ever voted on a Hugo or Nebula award, the editors of the magazines and people like Groff Conklin or J. Francis McComas.

  9. I’ve been presenting this discussion for quite some time now and when I started out joining the voices of people saying that women were underrepresented and underappreciated, I was asked to substantiate this with statistics. It seems many people won’t believe there is a problem unless you can quantify it.
    My point about the bias is that if you aggregate information on an authors relative importance based on awards they have one, the outcome of that aggregation includes the bias that excluded women from winning those awards at that time. If we decide to not remember female authors because their influence was not acknowledged or ignored at the time, we perpetuate the process of exclusion – we need other ways to build our canon, in other words.
    I cite the periodic table at the end of this piece as it includes 117 important and influential women who are worthy of being read and of inclusion in “any fan’s library”.

  10. Octavia Butler is in there:
    I don’t get Joanna Russ. I’ve read part of The Female Man, but I can’t get into it except for a few scenes, not because of the content, but because of the experimental structure. I might give ‘We Who Are About To’ a shot, although the plot has been spoiled for me, and it sounds very depressing.

  11. @Steve: “Bias because I included data from awards? Not my bias. Bias from including anthologies? Again, not my bias.”
    If you’re going to use a biased dataset, then you need to correct for that bias in order for any conclusions from it to be useful.

  12. Octavia Butler is in there, but she wasn’t recommended by one of the men asked.

  13. This seems to me to have much in common with the JJJ “Hottest 100″ discussions we had last year. Which is no surprise, really.

  14. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffery, Andre’ Norton, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Elizabeth Moon, Diana Paxon, Octavia Butler, Elizabeth Waters, Deborah Wheeler, Dorothy Heydt, Jennifer Roberson, Diann Partridge, Joanna Russ, well, MY list goes on and on.
    But I have to give credit to the mothers of us all, Andre’ Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffery, and my absolute favorite, Mercedes Lackey.

  15. I hadn’t heard about the “Before They Were Giants” list before. LOL! Since when is Cory Doctorow a giant?

  16. I have been a huge science fiction/fantasy reader all my life. I am now writing science fiction/romance myself – featuring female leads. I may not be George R.R. Martin, but it’s a start!


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