Opening your eyes is the first step towards wisdom

One of the talks that had everyone buzzing at Women in Secularism was Rebecca Goldstein’s. She introduced an idea that clicked for everyone — that all people have a need to matter in the world, that all of us strive to make some difference, have some effect, on others. It’s true of everyone, men and women alike, but what often happens is that women are ignored — a women has to work much harder than a man to matter. On a small scale, it happens at every committee meeting in which a woman proposes an idea and it’s neglected until a man echoes it (and then he gets the credit); on a large scale, open your history books and look at the genders of the notable names. There’s a bit of a numerical disparity.

Kameron Hurley has written an excellent essay on these narratives that make women invisible, ‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative. She’s coming at it from the perspective of a SF/Fantasy writer who has noticed all the lazy tropes we expect from our stories: the hero is a man, or if she’s a woman, you either get the novelty of her doing ‘man-like’ things (and isn’t it unfair that we tie those activities to gender?) or she’s constrained to stereotypical women’s ways. “Woman” is a synonym for “Other” so often.

If women are “bitches” and “cunts” and “whores” and the people we’re killing are “gooks” and “japs” and “rag heads” then they aren’t really people, are they? It makes them easier to erase. Easier to kill. To disregard. To un-see.

But the moment we re-imagine the world as a buzzing hive of individuals with a variety of genders and complicated sexes and unique, passionate narratives that have yet to be told – it makes them harder to ignore. They are no longer, “women and cattle and slaves” but active players in their own stories.

It’s a wonderful read, go read it.

Another recommendation: she references The Women Men Don’t See by James Tiptree. It’s online! You can read that, too! It’s a story that will make you think. You’ve heard of the unreliable narrator…this one features the irrelevant narrator, a man who comes along for the ride and really doesn’t understand anything that’s going on, because he can’t see the real protagonists as anything but a couple of women.

The theme resonates with me in so many ways. It’s not just feminism, but atheism and science that demand that you open your eyes and see the world as it really is. Every time we break out of our preconceptions, we gain.


  1. says

    I just want to add: James Tiptree Jr. is the pen name for Alice Bradley Sheldon. Born in 1922, she attained the rank of Major in the Air Force during WW II and had gotten a doctorate in Experimental Psychology in 1967. She began writing science fiction in 1967, writing under an assumed name to protect her academic reputation, and chose a male pseudonym because SF was still very much a men’s game at that time. She was married twice, but described herself as having a “complex sexual orientation”: “I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up.”

    She was a great author who used SF to question a lot of the assumptions of sex and gender roles. There is a prestigious award named after her, created in 1991, given to works of science fiction and fantasy that explore issues of gender.

  2. says

    Right. I was an SF nerd from an early age and got started on the classics — Asimov and Clarke. But I do vividly recall discovering Tiptree in the early 70s when I was just entering adolescence, and being blown away by Tiptree’s short stories. “Who is this guy?” I thought. “He can actually write and make me think and cause me confusion.” And the old guys suddenly looked boring and mechanical and clunky, and I couldn’t read them anymore, and I had to devour all the New Wave I could find.

    It was many years later that I learned he was actually a she and my brain experienced another torsional twist.

  3. says

    And in another bit of irony, the Tiptree Award will be given this weekend at WisCon, the first (no longer only) feminist* science fiction convention, held in Madison. For all those people who saw the #wiscfi hash tag last weekend and were asking about women in science fiction, this is the convention you’re thinking of.

    *With serious attention paid to issues of gender, class, race, age, and disability.

  4. vole says

    Yes, I remember an editorial in one of the major SF magazines – might have been Analog, not sure – saying that “in fact nowadays, with the sole exception of James Tiptree Jr, ALL of the best SF writers are women”, or words to that effect. By the next issue, Mr Tiptree had got in touch to say that her name was really Raccoona Sheldon. Happy days.

  5. says

    Ha! I followed your link to the Tiptree short story and just spent 90 minutes reading it from start to finish. I wasn’t a sci-fi fan when I was young in the 70s, so was very happy to learn all this (in comments too, thank you folks!). Excellent story. I am now going to read the other link. I wish I’d seen Rebecca Goldstein’s talk – I was meant to go to WIS2 but had to cancel at the 11th hour – but I will be looking for the video for sure! Saw Jason’s liveblog of it at the time and thought then that it sounded like an unexpected treasure in a weekend of amazing talks/panels!

  6. says

    I always suspected that Wall Street brokers were, in general, a very misogynistic, bullying lot. Now we have written proof. Not only should women be invisible, but they should also have no influence whatsoever over the decisions their husbands make:

    An internal document, known as the “Golden Pitchbook” to senior brokers at John Thomas Financial, has been leaked and it is very, very sexist.

    The document, given to top young brokers at the financial firm, is a script on how to pitch stocks to prospective clients …

    The pitches range from the overtly sexist to the plainly misleading, but each relies on bizarre mind games and high school-style bullying to “close” with a client. Basically, it confirms everything everyone already thought about Wall Street guys being misogynists and compulsive liars. Surprise!

    Excerpts from the guide, obtained by Mariah Summers at Buzzfeed:

    “Don’t pitch the bitch”

    According to the source, if a prospective client tells a broker that he (the ideal JTF client is always a man, naturally) wants to speak to his wife before committing to a stock, the broker is instructed to make the prospect feel like a total wimp for it:

    “(Prospect) if you want to call me back so you can ask your wife if you can buy the stock, I will call my wife and see if I can sell you the stock, come on! You make business decisions daily without your wife.” …

  7. chigau (違う) says

    I wonder if they have advice for when the prospect wants to consult with his husband.

  8. horrabin says

    The biography by Julie Phillips, “James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” is excellent, if you’re interested in her work. I first read a Tiptree story in Harlan Ellison’s “Again Dangerous Visions” collection. Harlan’s intro had one of those moments that were great in retrospect after the reveal of her identity. Ellison raved about how the story had blown away every thing else that had been submitted, and now ”the sf world at large will come to realize what those who’ve read this story in manuscript and galley have come to realize: we have a new Giant in the genre. Tiptree is the man to beat this year. Wilhelm is the woman to beat, but Tiptree is the man.”

  9. says

    I thought Tiptree was familiar.

    Anyhow, confusing little story, I liked it, although I don’t think I’d love it; aliens weren’t really needed I think except to hammer in how unreliable the narrator was. At that point I pretty much had gotten it.

  10. says

    …It actually made me think of how difficult it would be to direct a film or production of it. You’d constantly have to be pushing for actions, script fixes, actors and shot selections which just would be incomprehensible to the majority of the crew and financiers.

  11. Stacy says

    “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” — Robert Silverberg, “Who Is Tiptree, What Is He?”

    She also wrote The Screwfly Solution (under the alias Raccoona Sheldon), and–one of my all-time favorite short stories–Love is the Plan the Plan is Death.

  12. Stacy says

    –Back on topic, Goldstein was brilliant. That talk was riveting. And important.

  13. mikeyb says

    No secret that “whore” in the bible is the primary pejorative for all things evil from Jezebel to the “whore of Babylon.”

  14. Emilie says

    I first read the Tiptree story as a teenager and only saw the humans-meet-the-gentle-aliens thing then; the point about the unreliable and irrelevant narrator was completely lost on me. I’m glad I had the chance to re-read it again and see it in a different light.

    That was also the time when about half of the sci-fi anthologies in my bookcase had a cover featuring a naked woman (the rest being groovy Seventies eye-melting splashes of color) for no good reason whatsoever – ew.

  15. says

    I wonder if they have advice for when the prospect wants to consult with his husband.

    Yeah, I wondered the same thing myself. My bet is that they’d just want to know which guy played the “wife” and then they would dismiss him/her.

    As far invisible or ignored women go, you can’t get much more invisible than an aging woman.

  16. bad Jim says

    “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” is one of the most devastating stories ever written.

    “The Screwfly Solution” was featured as an episode of the Showtime series “Masters of Horror”.

  17. John Morales says

    She introduced an idea that clicked for everyone — that all people have a need to matter in the world, that all of us strive to make some difference, have some effect, on others.

    Not such a novel idea, and where it’s true it’s banal.

    (I am reactive, not active)

    In passing, I too was an SF geek, and so I found New Wave in general (and Tiptree in particular) boring.


  18. chigau (違う) says

    In passing, I too was an SF geek, and so I found New Wave in general (and Tiptree in particular) boring.

    *sending up-to-11 stink-eye at John Morales*

  19. John Morales says


    chigau, hey, at least “The Women Men Don’t See” ran off with aliens and not with elves!

    (Therefore, it was allegorical SF rather than allegorical Fantasy, right?)

  20. chigau (違う) says

    John Morales

    (Therefore, it was allegorical SF rather than allegorical Fantasy, right?)

    I remember those ‘debates’ about “Science” Fiction vs. “Speculative” Fiction vs. Fantasy.
    (talk about booooring)
    At a small college ‘Science Fiction’ conference in 1970mumble, Harlan Ellison yelled at my friend in response to a question that included the term “sf” (pronounced esseff).
    {we had planned to invite him for a beer but he was mean and scary}

  21. John Morales says


    chigau, I don’t doubt you remember the New Wave in its heyday.

    “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
    Seem to me all the uses of this world!
    Fie on’t! O fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
    That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
    Possess it merely. That it should come to this!”

    (It got better)

  22. chigau (違う) says

    [OT, I guess]
    Who I remember is Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy Mckee Charnas, et al..
    Not boring.

  23. says

    I didn’t know what New Wave SF was until it was over. It was all just SF to me. Except for the bits that were Fantasy.

  24. says

    chigau: {we had planned to invite him for a beer but he was mean and scary}

    Last time I saw him at a convention around here, Harlan’s preferred phrasing was ‘malignant little dwarf’.