The Women History Doesn't See: Recovering Midcentury Women's SF as a Literature of Social Critique

By Yaszsek, Lisa | Extrapolation, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Women History Doesn't See: Recovering Midcentury Women's SF as a Literature of Social Critique


Yaszsek, Lisa, Extrapolation


In last year's Wiscon issue of Extrapolation I argued for the importance of reclaiming midcentury women's SF in relation to the history of the genre as a whole. Conventionally speaking, postwar authors such as Judith Merril, Mildred Clingerman, and Zenna Henderson have been relegated to the sidelines of SF history because their depictions of love and life in "galactic suburbia" do not seem to have anything like the critical edge of later feminist science fictions (Russ 88). Although I certainly agree that most of the stories written by midcentury SF authors are not overtly feminist ones, that does not mean that they are not deeply enmeshed in the culture and politics of their historical moment. Instead, these authors often mobilized some of cold war America's most dearly-held beliefs about domesticity and motherhood in the framework of the SF narrative to create powerful interrogations of the new scientific and social arrangements emerging at that time. As such, they are very much a part of SF history.

The argument I make in this essay is that because it often forges strong parallels between interpersonal relations in the private home and broad social relations in the larger public arena, midcentury women's SF must be seen as important to feminist history as well. One of the oldest--and arguably still most important--tasks of feminist scholarship is to recover women's histories in all their complexities. This includes women's political practices outside those eras marked by overtly feminist activity. The decades between the end of World War II in 1945 and the beginning of second-wave feminism in the mid-1960s, often referred to as the domestic decades, are an ideal place to begin this kind of inquiry. As I demonstrate in the following pages, women participated in some of the most progressive political movements of these decades. Of course, court-rooms and city streets were not the only places where they expressed their political convictions. They also took their stands on issues such as antiwar and civil rights activism in the pages of those science fiction magazines that seemed to be, as Judith Merril recollects, "virtually the only vehicle[s] of political dissent" available to authors of the period ("What Do You Mean" 74). To demonstrate this point I first examine how authors Judith Merril, Alice Eleanor Jones, and Carol Emshwiller used one of the most then-fashionable SF story types, the nuclear war narrative, to interrogate the cold war status quo and champion the newly-resurrected peace movement. I then consider how Margaret St. Clair, Kay Rogers, and Mildred Clingerman adapted one of the oldest SF tropes, the encounter with the alien other, to advocate the cause of civil rights in America. Taken together, this group of stories provide a powerful demonstration of how midcentury women's literary practices both anticipated and extended the politics of their activist counterparts.

Recovering the Domestic Decades in Feminist History and Feminist Science Fiction Studies

The domestic decades are usually depicted as a low point in feminist history, a period when women were encouraged to become "domestic patriots" by exchanging their jobs in the public sphere for the more important work of raising children and tending their new suburban homes. (1) Over the past two decades, however, a growing number of scholars have suggested a more complex picture of women's lives at midcentury. (2) Women may have shied away from feminism in this period, but they did not abandon politics altogether. Instead, they channeled their energies into those causes that seemed most pressing at the dawn of the atomic era. Such activists usually made their arguments for progressive social change by invoking (and subtly revising) some of postwar America's most dearly-held beliefs about motherhood in particular and femininity in general. For instance, as Harriet Hyman Alonso has persuasively demonstrated, antiwar activists portrayed themselves as mothers reluctantly moved to action in the public arena by fear for the fate of all children born in the shadow of the mushroom cloud (131).

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