Feminism, Aliens, and James Tiptree jr.

September 18, 2007 | By | 8 Replies More

One of the things that sends me straight up a wall to paw helplessly and violently at ceilings comprised of crushed glass, old nails, and asbestos fibers is when I hear a young woman blithely claim that she isn’t a Feminist and, in fact, “wouldn’t want to be one.” They make this claim with all the insouciant self confidence they might apply to choosing a new dress or deciding which shoes to wear or whether this or that club is trendy enough. Inside, I rage, and want to scream at them “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? DON’T YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU’RE SAYING?”

Of course they don’t. They’ve grown up in a world that has been substantially changed by feminism, a world in which it would no more occur to them that they couldn’t do a particular job if they wanted to than it would occur to them that they might be forbidden to vote, drink or smoke in public, or get a divorce from a man and expect to leave with actual belongings. They don’t understand that the very fact that they can choose not to be a feminist is because of feminism and the struggles of those they now see, probably, as dreary, frumpy, unromantic, possibly man-hating, poorly groomed sexless harridans.

And who wants to be bothered with all that politics and political correctness anyway?

I want to shake them, open their well-coifed heads and pour history into their brains. On the one hand, I’m thrilled they can make that choice, that it is a matter of choice, that they can go on about whatever lives they choose and not be concerned about the fact that some Male might decide—because they have no penis—that they should be barred from certain career choices, or prohibited from opting out of a marriage, or committed to an asylum because of a hysterical dissatisfaction with limitations they shouldn’t question anyway because, after all, women who work out of the home are “unnatural” and “neurotic” and women who want things beyond that which society deems appropriate for them to have are suffering delusions of self-ownership. I am happy about that.

But like any freedom, the utter ignorance of how it came to be infuriates me. As if the freedom now enjoyed is somehow permanent and will never go away.

I’d like to recommend a new book. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon. For those who may know a little something about science fiction, James Tiptree jr. was one of the finest writers of the Seventies. To my mind, it would not have mattered which genre the work came out in, Tiptree was a first class thinker. As suggested by the title, he was also a woman, one Alice Bradley Sheldon.

Myth surrounded Tiptree almost from the moment the stories began to appear in 1969. He was reclusive to the point of insanity, there were hints that he worked for the CIA, no one knew anything about him, not even the editors soliciting stories. Sheldon allowed and later fed the myths through voluminous letter-writing. It was finally revealed that Tiptree was a woman, after several major figures in the field had made pronouncements about her gender (Robert Silverberg’s is the most famous, made in print, that there was something “ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”), and it turned a world-full of preconceptions on end.

The Seventies was the decade of rising Women’s Consciousness. It came after a century of preparatory work and followed hard upon the Civil Rights movement. What women enjoy today in terms of freedom of self and action was established in that decade. So you can imagine that the dialogue was heady and a lot of bad ideas were being touted and shot to pieces and we were all learning a new language. Tiptree, in the small pond of science fiction, had a huge impact simply by virtue of writing work that transcended gender.

But the story is infinitely more complex. Alice Sheldon came from a famous family and had the kind of life we imagine for writers like Hemingway or Genet or Joyce. It took decades for her to come out from beneath the shadow of a very famous mother and find her own voice—and when she found it, perversely, she had to write it in the guise of a man.

Julie Phillips, a freelance journalist, became intrigued, wrote a couple of articles about Sheldon, then produced this superb literary biography which is also a textbook on the struggles of women in the 20th Century. She never makes the mistake of coopting Alice Sheldon’s story for larger purposes of politics, because she recognized how her life and the politics around it were essentially inseparable.It is a book I would like to thrust into the hands and down the cranium of any young female who disses feminism while clearly understanding nothing about it. One passage alone should suffice to suggest that things are Really Different Now—Alice Sheldon was one of the first to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in the early days of World War II (The WAAC preceded the WAC). Her company was part of a WAAC parade for the benefit of Eleanor Roosevelt in Des Moines. And—

“As the women marched in formation through the city streets to receive the first lady, they drew a large crowd of men who kicked slush at them and bombarded them with garbage.” Pg. 113

I suggest it as invaluable reading also for its psychological insight into the problem–the challenge–of any Out Group struggling to be heard by the majority culture. It is brilliant, well-written, and timely. A great antidote for the mindless acceptance of rights and liberties that, for no better reason than simple biology, a world of men are struggling today to remove.


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Category: American Culture, Art, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Events, History, Language, Noteworthy, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites, Writing

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (8)

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  1. I remember this discussion on a forum where this girl proudly proclaimed that she didn't like feminists, that she had a good education, many facettes and was very sexual. I told her that if she didn't like feminism she should go to Afghanistan where girls didn't go to school and were raised at home as nature had intended it to be. I wonder where she got the crazy idea that without feminism society would let talk about sex so freely, let alone have it.

    I so strongly disliked the women on this board who emphasized that they were not feminists. They were bitchy and quite competitive concerning men. Rejecting feminism just seemed a strategy to demean the competition and to elevate themselves in the eyes of men. And the bad thing is, the majority of the guys loved them… *rolls eyes and goes crying to bed*

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Jason: I have to wonder how much of the resistance to "feminism" is resistance to the word rather than the idea. More accurately, I think the word "feminist" means different things to different people. To neocons, "feminist" does mean (as you suggest) loud-mouthed self-centered butch lesbians who attempt to blame everything wrong with the world on men. To progressives, feminists include sensitive and intelligent women who choose to take away time from their jobs to raise their young children. To progressives, there are many other types of feminists, of course, and many of them embrace feminist principles without consciously thinking of themselves as "feminists." They might avoid the word "feminist" because conservatives have confiscated the word "feminist" just as they have confiscated the word "liberal," making derogatory caricatures out of anything self-describing with either of these terms.

    To have a real conversation about what all of us feel about feminists, perhaps we need to paste a thousand photos and bios of the various types of feminists on the side of a big building, make sure that everyone involved in the conversation can first agree that all of those women depicted are feminists in that they live and make choices as feminists. Then let the conversation begin.

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    I suspect you're far more than half right. Neocons have coopted the term and made it derogatory, indicative of women who reject "being feminine" in the name of political activism. You can get a sense of this in off-the-cuff polls regarding lesbians—how many (male or female) think of lesbians as ugly women who can't make it heterosexually. Show them a picture of so-called "lipstick lesbians" and they reject that such an attractive (and well-groomed) woman could be.

    But I think on another level it is simply a rejection of hard thought and self-awareness. "Getting by" is easier. Seeing gender roles for what they are and figuring out which is desirable and which is oppressive and under what circumstances….well, that's just hard work. Doesn't leave much time for–*ahem*–romance.

  4. Anybody who lets others take property of a word, be it "liberal" or "feminist", has never been truly liberal or feminist anyway. Are these women who are afraid to be called "feminist" too stupid to study history? Where do they think they would be now without other women who fought for their rights? It was in November 27 1990 that the last canton in Switzerland followed a court ruling and gave women voting rights (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frauenstimmrecht_(Schweiz))! I still believe the main reason for many women to reject feminism has more to do with competition and butt-kissing than butch feminists (how many of them are there anyway?).

    Who cares what Neocons think, really.

  5. Jason Rayl says:

    "Are these women who are afraid to be called “feminist” too stupid to study history?"

    In a word, yes.

    But the same can be said for male and female on most subjects at most times.

  6. I just don't like them and they don't like me. I can argue with people on other subjects and we will still be ok later on, but this is something that almost always gets personal. If you don't agree with them, you're automatically an ugly menhating lesbian. Maybe I should correct myself, it's not that they are too stupid to study history, it's that they choose not to understand it.

  7. Stacy Kennedy says:

    Synchronicity. Just a short while ago I was thinking about literature (short stories, actually,) by women, that packs a punch. A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O'Connor), The Jilting of Granny Wetherall (Katherine Anne Porter), The Lottery (Shirley Jackson)…

    Love is the Plan the Plan is Death

    (James Tiptree, Jr.)

  8. Erika Price says:

    On one hand, I feel as though we will have really "made it" as a forward-thinking society when you don't need words like "feminist" anymore. Sometimes the women who balk at the term do so because they no longer see the necessity of it. I'm kinda sorta in this camp- I consider myself far more postfeminist than anything else (but as I've mentioned before, I don't always identify very strongly with my gender, making the issue less salient). More often, however, the women who balk at "feminism" do so because they have grown up with the term's worst connotations- ugly, mean, unkempt man-hating dykey dykes.

    Yes, their ignorance can prove maddening. Yet most of these women take as a given that they have a right to their own self-determination, so perhaps they don't "need" the term anymore. Cultural assumptions and social mores change, and not every participant in the culture has to be a historian (or even very smart) in order to function within it.

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