When I was re-reading Euripides’ Medea in preparation for a class I’ll be teaching in the future, I came across an element I had forgotten, or maybe my mind had blanked it out. According to the conventional wisdom of ancient Greek culture, the god Apollo and his Nine Muses, the divine forces of artistic creation, did not commune with women. Women were believed incapable of creating anything meaningful or valuable — except babies, of course. This was ostensibly “how it was,” an unchangeable dictate of nature.
On the one hand, it delights me to see how far we as a society have moved beyond this idea. Yet at the same time, I’m saddened when I stumble across signs that some still hold to this view. It’s been tempered a little by time, but at its core it’s still much the same. Instead of “women can’t create art,” we now hear “women can’t create art good enough to deserve the attention of a male audience,” because of course only men are qualified to distinguish the gold from the dreck. One persistent form this idea takes is, “Women don’t write epic SFF.” Evidence abounds that this assertion is false; I’ve debunked it on this blog before. But it just keeps coming up, most recently in an article in the National Review, supposedly intended to expose the Bechdel Test as “useless political correctness.”
Here’s the article’s most fascinating aspect: it doesn’t deny that women lack representation on the Big Screen. It admits that the biggest blockbusters tend not to include many female characters, and the scarcity of women in important movie roles is just what the Bechdel Test was designed to highlight. But according to the article, this inadequate representation is women’s own fault. Apparently we just don’t tell the right kinds of stories. The big blockbusters are written by men, and male writers/filmmakers can’t be expected to include women in any meaningful roles (or so this article seems to think). Just look at the SFF section of the bookstore, it says, the place where filmmakers get their ideas for big-budget spectacles. All, or nearly all, the writers are men. And like the ancient Greek permutation of the idea, it’s presented as “the way things are,” as if the strides that have been made since the days of War Games and The Last Starfighter were an illusion or a fluke.
So yet again, I’ve gathered evidence to show this notion is just plain wrong. First I turned to Goodreads, to the lists where readers voted on “Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century” and “Best Fantasy of the 90s,” and I focused on the first page of each list, the 100 highest vote-getters. Here books by male and female authors compete for space; how would the works by women measure up? Male-authored books did outnumber them, true — but on “Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century,” thirty out of the top 100 spots went to works by female authors, and on “Best Fantasy Books of the 90s,” thirty-seven of those top spots went to books by women. That is hardly an insignificant minority, let alone an invisible one.
But the National Review author referred to bookstore shelves, so I went to my closest used bookstore, Books for Less in Buford, GA, and took myself straight to the shelves reserved for SFF. I started writing down every female name I came across. (I only included ‘initial’ given names if I already knew the writer was a woman.) This is what I found:
Lynn Abbey. Shana Abe. Elizabeth Alder. Alma Alexander. Margaret Allan. Katherine Allred. Jessica S. Andersen. Zoe Archer. Keri Arthur. Catherine Asaro. Christina Askounis. Jody Lynn Nye. Jean M. Auel. Camille Bacon Smith. MargaretBall. Gael Baudino. Hilari Bell. Marcia J. Bennett. Nancy Varian Berberick. Carol Berg. Laura Bickle. Anne Bishop. Jenna Black. Cat Bordhi. Elizabeth H. Boyer. Leigh Brackett. Marion Zimmer Bradley. Rebecca Bradley. Andre Norton. Mercedes Lackey. Gillian Bradshaw. Patricia Bray. Patrica Briggs. Kristin Britain. Mary Brown. Kathleen Bryan. Lois McMaster Bujold. Anne Kelleher Bush. Rachel Caine. Trudi Canavan. Pat Cadigan. Marie Brennan. Jacqueline Carey. C. J. Cherryh. Deborah Chester. Jan Clark. Jo Clayton. Molly Cochran. Amanda Cockrell. Shirley Conran. Storm Constantine. Dawn Cook. Louise Cooper. Juanita Coulson. Joan Cox. Janine Cross. Terrie Curran. Julie E. Czerneda. Rowena Cory Daniells. Anne Elliott Crompton. Sarah Douglass. Mary H. Herbert. Margaret Weis. Carole Nelson Douglass. Alyssa Day. Dianne Day. Pamela Dean. Susan Dexter. Diane Duane. Doranna Durgin. Kate Elliott. Rose Estes. Annaliese Evans. Erin M. Evans. Linda Evans. Jennifer Fallon.
But wait. I’m not finished.
Janny Wurts. Jane S. Fancher. Lynn Flewelling. Quinn Taylor Evans. Mary Gentle. Alexis A. Gilliland. Carolyn Ives Gillman. Christie Golden. Maggie Furey. Jeaniene Frost. Shayla Black. Sharie Kohner. Yasmine Galenorn. Kathleen O’Neal Gear. Kelly Gay. Diana Pharaoh Francis. Cheryl J. Franklin. Margaret Frazer. Nancy Freedman. Lorna Freeman. C.S. Friedman. Esther Friesner. Elaine Cunningham. Lisa Smedman. Gayle Greeno. Nicola Griffith. Barbara Hambly. Joan Lesley Hamilton. Laurell K. Hamilton. Virginia Hamilton. Tara K. Harper. Deborah Harris. Elizabeth Haydon. Lian Hearn. Barb Hendee. Zenna Henderson. Marie Lands. Laura Hickman. Robin Hobb. Tanya Huff. Angela Elwell Hunt. Mollie Hunter. Elaine Isaak. Michelle Izmaylov. Jean Johnson. J. V. Jones. Sherryl Jordan. Aline Boucher Kaplan. Katharine Kerr. Katherine Kurtz. Patricia Keneally Morrison. Elizabeth Kerner. Kimberly Iverson. Gini Kock. Elizabeth Knox. Sharon Shinn. Rosemary Edgehill. Lynn Kurland. Anne McCaffrey. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Julian May. Adriane Marine Barnes. Ann Maxwell. Karen Marie Morning. Janet Morris. Marianne Marcusi. Louise Marley. Ann Marston. Juliet Marillier. Jessa Slade. Morgan Llewellyn. Elizabeth A. Lynn. R.A. McAvoy. Jacqueline Lichtenberg. Rebecca Lickiss. Jane Lindskold. Holly Lisle. Julie Leto. Margaret Lawrence. Tanith Lee. Sharon Lee.
There’s still more.
Ursula K. LeGuin. Lynda LaPlante. Dinah McCall. Patricia McKillip. Juliet McKenna. Lyda Morehouse. Fiona McIntosh. Vonda McIntyre. Karen Miller. Donna McMahon. Richelle Mead. Shirley Meir. R.M. Meluch. Judith Moffat. Elizabeth Moon. Alanna Morland. Kate Mosse. Sharan Newman. Shann Nix. Lisanne Norman. Naomi Novik. Theresa Oliver. Fiona Patton. Julienne Osborn McKnight. Diana L. Paxson. Donita K. Paul. Irene Radford. Marita Randall. Melanie Rawn. Micket Zucker Reichert. Laura Resnick. Jenna Rhodes. Jennifer Roberson. Joyce Ballou Gregorian. Jane Routley. Kristine Katherine Rusch. Michelle Sagara/West. Melissa Scott. Josepha Sherman. Susan Shwartz. Jan Siegel. Joan Slonczewski. Kristine Smith. Jeri Smith-Ready. Julie Dean Smith. Midori Snyder. Melinda Snodgrass. Nancy Springer. Mary Stanton. Mary Stewart. Kathy Tyers. Deborah Talmadge-Blackmore. Judith Tarr. Sheri S. Tepper. Lisa Tuttle. Joan D. Vinge. Paula Volsky. J.R. Ward. Jo Walton. Elizabeth Willey. Liz Williams. Anna Lee Waldo. Kathryn Wesley. Catherine Wells. Kate Wilhelm. Connie Willis. Patricia C. Wrede. Susan Wright. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Jane Yolen. Lisa A. Barnett. Sarah Zettel.
This doesn’t include a number of well-known names, such as Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor, whose books haven’t yet found their way to these shelves. It also leaves out writers of best-selling YA fantasy, such as J.K. Rowling. Even so, surely all these names don’t represent only one to ten percent of SFF bookshelf space. If they do, boy, would I love to visit that bookstore.
So once again, the evidence shows that women do write SFF — some urban fantasy, some paranormal romance, some epic and historical fantasy. There is no subgenre in which female authors haven’t participated. So I’m left with the question: why does the myth that women have no significant voices in SFF persists, when it’s so obviously not true?
And I’m left with only one very sad answer. It persists because of those who want it to be true, and believe that repeating it often enough will make it true. This is what we’re up against.
So I have to do this again.
(NOTE: In my previous draft of this blog, I included a link to the National Review article. I have since thought better of it and omitted that link. The women whose names I have italicized deserve our attention. The author of that article does not. Tor.com’s latest Sleeps With Monsters commentary by Liz Bourke has some choice words to say about the ongoing foolishness. I link that instead.)