Unhappy Housewife Heroines, Galactic Suburbia, and Nuclear War: A New History of Midcentury Women's Science Fiction

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Introduction: Revisiting Galactic Suburbia in the Cold War

* In 1971 Joanna Russ proposed that there were no real or well-rounded women in science fiction; rather, SF authors--male and female alike--typically relegated female characters to what she called "galactic suburbia," where they quietly fulfilled their roles as wives and mothers, tending the nuclear family while their heroic husbands were off solving interstellar crises (88). While at the time Russ's words were met with "a certain amount of male hysteria" (Lefanu 13). SF historians in the ensuing decades seem to have taken them to heart, praising recent generations of feminist writers for their efforts to imagine new and more complex modes of gender relations while simultaneously relegating their midcentury predecessors to the marginalized domain of what would come to be known as "housewife heroine" SF.

Although this simple dichotomy between past and present, housewife and real woman (and, implicitly, good and bad modes of SF representation) may well have been crucial to early efforts to define a space for feminist SF, I want to suggest that, 30 years later, we need to revisit Russ's argument. Russ posits that the bulk of midcentury women's SF is unworthy of critical attention because, unlike other modes of SF, it fails to "explore (and explode) our assumptions about 'innate' values and 'natural' social arrangements" (80). While I agree with Russ that housewife heroine SF is hardly feminist in nature, I propose that the women who wrote it did approach the intersection of gender and SF in critical and creative ways. Midcentury women's SF may have been anchored in galactic suburbia, but the stories that were told there are none the less science fictional for it. Indeed, the prefeminist figure of the housewife heroine had the power to engage many of the values and social arrangements trumpeted by the keepers o f Cold War culture. In dismissing housewife heroine SF for not engaging feminist issues, the SF community up to now has missed the important work this fiction did on the cultural front of the Cold War.

Accordingly, this essay provides readers with a new history of women's SF in the 1950s. After briefly considering how housewife heroine SF has been written out of the genre's history, I turn to a sustained consideration of this fiction. Focusing on short stories about nuclear holocaust by Judith Merril, Carol Emshwiller, and Alice Eleanor Jones, I show how these authors mobilized some of midcentury America's most patriotic (and culturally conservative) ideas about hearth and home to critique the new moral and social orders of the atomic era. Within these stories, nuclear weapons and the cultural logic of nuclear defense do little or nothing to preserve the American way of life. Instead, they engender a rage for order and conformity that ultimately destroys the nuclear family itself, pitting parent against child and husband against wife in tragic but inevitable ways.

Housewife Heroine SF, version 1.0: History as Usual

The term "housewife heroine" first appeared in Pamela Sargent's introduction to the 1975 anthology Women of Wonder. Writing at the height of the women's liberation movement, Sargent designed her introduction to provide readers with a concise history of women's contributions to SF over the past two centuries. Of particular interest here is the binary conceptual schema she uses to make sense of midcentury women's writing. First, Sargent singles out several individuals for praise: C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett for their relatively sophisticated writing styles and lengthy careers, Wilmar Shiras for her "sensitive" depictions of women and children, and Judith Merril for her extensive work as an anthologist (xix-xxiii). For Sargent, these authors were particularly important within the annals of women's SF because their work anticipated many of the themes and techniques of later feminist SF authors.

Sargent then goes on to oppose these exceptional individuals to a somewhat larger and apparently more homogenous group of midcentury authors whose "housewife heroine" stories unfortunately "reflected the attitudes of the time" by featuring "characters [who] were usually passive or addlebrained and solved problems inadvertently, through ineptitude, or in the course of fulfilling their assigned roles in society" (xxiii). …