Women in Science Fiction: From Shelley to Jemisin

November 12, 2023
Science Magazine

Science fiction is a powerful reflection of how technology and innovation impact society. It looks to the possibilities of the future to critique and comment on social problems of the present. Some of the most famous works of science fiction emerged from the 1950s and 60s, an era in which writers like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov explored rapid technological and social changes from the Space Race to the advent of the nuclear family. Yet, the genre saw little exploration of changing gender roles or family structures—even when books were set centuries in the future. From Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), authors largely featured woman characters as mothers or daughters in nuclear families—and when they didn't, they were still written as weaker and less intelligent than male main characters. These books and many others fall into the category of what feminist sci-fi author Johanna Russ calls “galactic suburbia”: stories that capture the wealth of technological changes in future societies while retaining the social organization and gender roles of a 1950s suburban household.

Above: Cover of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from January 1954 depicting a woman lying on the ground while men fight behind her. Courtesy of Flickr.  

While science fiction seems like a genre written by men, for men, women played a pivotal role in its development. The 1960s and 70s saw the rise of second-wave feminism, affecting every facet of society including art and literature. Influential female science fiction authors like Ursula Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey gained fame and fans. Le Guin in particular played a massive role in shifting the focus of science fiction from the galactic suburbia trope to questions about social structure, family, and gender in her novels The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Eye of the Heron. Meanwhile, female authors like Joanna Russ pushed boundaries with works of speculative fiction like The Female Man that challenged existing notions of gender and sexuality. And while sci-fi television shows and films like Star Trek and Star Wars perpetuated sexist attitudes and contained at best occasional efforts toward female liberation, women constituted a large proportion of its fanbase. These societal shifts brought women into focus in science fiction and its discourse for the first time in the mid to late 20th century.

Above: Joanna Russ, author of groundbreaking feminist sci-fi novel The Female Man and first to criticize the paradigm of “galactic suburbia” in mainstream 19th-century science fiction. Image courtesy of The New Yorker.

However, second-wave feminism was not the driving force that brought women into science fiction. Women were writing science fiction in the 1920s pulp sci-fi magazine era—sometimes under male pseudonyms. Bengali author Begum Rokeya penned one of the first works of feminist science fiction, “Sultana’s Dream,” in 1905. Fans of the summer 2023 hit movie Barbie would enjoy her imagined utopia called “Ladyland,” where women dominate a futuristic society in a reversal of purdah (the traditional practice of secluding women and restricting their social mobility and behavior) in South Asia.

In addition, women contributed to the world of scientific thought long before the 20th century. During the 18th century Enlightenment, writers like Émelie du Châtelet and Francesco Algarotti were writing and translating books on Newtonian physics and mathematics specifically targeted to the growing audience of women interested in the sciences. One such woman, Mary Shelley, drew upon ideas about medicine and the natural sciences as inspiration for her 1818 novel Frankenstein, argued by many scholars to be the first work of modern science fiction. She created and popularized themes in science fiction like the mad scientist and the reanimated man that later influenced works from The Mummy movies to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Shelley later elaborated on her new genre of science fiction in The Last Man, a dystopian novel about a mysterious disease that sweeps the world in the 21st century (she might have predicted that one a little too well).

Above: Émilie du Châtelet painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour. Châtelet was a French mathematician and scientist who translated and contributed to Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Her translation is still the preferred version almost 300 years after its posthumous publication. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Above: Painted by Richard Rothwell, Mary Shelley is considered to have founded the modern genre of science fiction with her 1818 classic Frankenstein. Image courtesy of Britannica.

Social change has always implicated changes in the role of women, and science fiction is a genre designed to tackle these questions. So it’s not surprising that women have been integrally involved in shaping science fiction since its outset—or that a woman invented the genre itself. Male science fiction authors have historically tried to suppress women’s voices from the sci-fi community by omitting their works from collected anthologies of sci-fi and relegating their female characters to undesirable roles. But much like in the real world, science fiction suffers when women are silenced. It was women who advanced the genre beyond the trappings of galactic suburbia, and it is women like Margaret Atwood and Nora Jemisin who are writing groundbreaking works of speculative and science fiction today.

Above: Nora Jemisin, also known as N. K. Jemisin, author of the acclaimed sci-fi series The Inheritance Trilogy, is a four-time winner of the Hugo Award and a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant. Her work focuses on themes of oppression, subjugation, and cultural conflict. Image courtesy of N.K Jemisin’s website.

Sci-fi reflects the history of scientific thought—from the anxieties of post-Enlightenment innovation to modern questions of science and medicine in a post-pandemic world. Science fiction is, after all, the bridge between the scientific world and the imagination—accessible to scientists and laypeople alike. Moreover, the history of women in science fiction mirrors the position of women in the scientific world. Historically relegated and silenced, often still facing obstacles in their fields, women in both STEM and science fiction bring essential diverse perspectives to science and push the boundaries of thought and research. 

Katherine Long

Katherine (Trinity ‘24) is majoring in biology and chemistry with a concentration in cell and molecular biology. She is passionate about scientific communication and research and is excited to contribute to Vertices as a staff writer and peer reviewer. When she’s not in the lab or doing homework, she loves to paint, hike, and hang out with the Duke cat.

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