Much of the overt life writing of science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr., took the form of letters to friends. Tiptree carried on an extensive correspondence while being sure to maintain complete privacy by never telephoning or meeting in person any friends. In letters, Tip, or Uncle Tip, as some friends knew him, was extremely personable, gallant, and even free with information about himself. In 1977, when Tiptree came out as "a nice old lady in McLean," Virginia, named Alice Sheldon, it became clear why Tiptree had so guarded his privacy--his masculinity was at stake ("Contemporary" 351). In retrospect, however, Tiptree's short stories can be read as a public discourse on gender and sex within American society, and as a specific discussion about Sheldon functioning as a woman in a male-dominated world. Tiptree's fiction becomes Sheldon's life writings.
Tiptree frequently teases readers with details apparently right out of Sheldon's life. Take Ruth Parsons, from Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See." She represents the average white middle-class American woman: a middle-aged --"shading-forty" (315)--working mother, not attractive but not homely, smart, capable, energetic, polite, nearly invisible to men--and subversive. When Don Fenton, Tiptree's narrator, bumps into Ruth Parsons and her twenty-something daughter, Althea, he "register[s]" them as "nothing. Zero"--merely as "a double female blur" not worthy of notice or thought. He admits he "never would have looked at them or thought of them again" (308). They, like most women who are not supermodels, are "The Women Men Don't See." They do not exist in most men's worlds, like Don's world, unless they are irritating or the man is stranded in the middle of nowhere with them, when they start looking pretty good. Later, when he is thrust into their company and must begin pigeonholing these women, Don assumes that because mother is traveling with daughter--probably a college student--Ruth must be Mrs. Parsons. He soon pegs her as "Mother Hen protecting only chick from male predators" (313). But this cataloging does not hold up for long, so Don keeps grasping for a new pigeonhole because he does not know how to respond to women as people. He can only respond to them as types. He switches his definition for Ruth from Mother Hen to Librarian to Girl Scout to Female Predator Preying on Poor Unsuspecting Men to Man-Hater to Insane Other (313, 315, 322, 324, 334). He is incapable of dealing with her directly, and asking her what she is thinking and why. Instead, he relates to her through games: If I say this, then she should say that, which means A--but if she does not say that, she might say this other, which means B:
All right, let's test. "Expecting company?" It rocks her. She freezes, and her eyes come swiveling around at me like a film-take captioned Fright. I can see her decide to smile. "Oh, one never can tell!" She laughs weirdly, the eyes not changed. "I'll get the--the kindling." She fairly scuttles into the brush. Nobody, paranoid or not, could call that a normal reaction. (327)
Because Don approaches Ms. Parsons as a pigeonholed type participating in a game, it takes him a while to figure out what her intentions and motivations really are, and he never comes to understand her. She finally carries the label "insane," because no sane individual (i.e., a man) would willingly request what she does--that aliens take her and Althea away from earth (334). Her sanity must be questioned: to label her sane would mean that others like her would prefer to live among the unknown dangers and foreignness of aliens rather than stay amid the familiar comforts of home with people like Don. He cannot register that Ruth would find that unknown way of life better than the known dangers and foreignness of friends and family which produce no true comforts. Not only is Ms. Parsons eager to instigate a plan to run off with aliens, but her daughter without question follows the mother's lead and jumps at the opportunity: "Right on," Althea says, as she motors away with her mom and the aliens (333). "How could a woman choose to live among unknown monsters," Don wants to know, "to say goodbye to her home, her world?" (334). But he never quite gets that Ruth and Althea never have been welcome in Don's world: it has never been theirs and they have never been at home here. Ruth and Althea were not giving up anything, as they had nothing to give up. If Don must focus on the Ruth Parsonses of the world, if he must see "the women men don't see," then these women must be labeled insane, because they do not fit the master templates Don's world has created for them. Since they only exist outside these proper definitions, they are already outsiders--aliens--and they believe they would be much more at home with the "unknown monsters."
Tiptree gives Ruth an easy out. She can go off with the aliens. The rest of womankind must stick around "in the chinks of [the] world-machine" (326). Perhaps some women do not feel as alienated as Ruth because they are a part of the women men can see, who are valued for their ability to (re)produce. "The Women Men Don't See" focuses on a mature woman and her daughter, but the story is narrated by a central male character created by a menopausal author passing as a man. This Tiptree tale of gender and invisibility points out that it is often the older, frailer-looking woman, like Ruth or Sheldon …