The women history doesn't see: recovering midcentury women's SF as a literature of social critique

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Author: Lisa Yaszsek
Date: Spring 2004
From: Extrapolation(Vol. 45, Issue 1)
Publisher: Extrapolation
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,952 words

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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). In a similar vein, Susan Lynn argues that women in the civil rights movement made persuasive arguments for the logical connection between women's private duties as the primary facilitators of communication between family members and their public roles as mediators between members of different races (106). Thus activists positioned themselves as a new and more progressive breed of domestic patriots who translated their private-sphere skills into public-sphere action.

Unfortunately, new feminist histories of midcentury women's political praxis rarely involve an extended consideration of these same women's literary endeavors. For instance, in her otherwise comprehensive monograph Mothers and More: American Women in the 1950s, historian Eugenia Kaledin carefully chronicles the extensive aesthetic achievements of postwar women in a variety of canonical literary genres including fiction, poetry, and drama as well as popular genres including horror, romance, and detective fiction. Although she acknowledges that these authors often used fiction writing to "assert their individuality and their social imagination," she ultimately concludes that they almost never "attempted in any fictional way to comment on the real political anxieties of the time" (125, 136).

I find it significant that Kaledin did not include science fiction in her survey of midcentury women's writing, nor have many other historians done so since then. (3) This oversight is perhaps to be expected. As feminist SF scholars have long noted, our counterparts outside the SF community tend to dismiss SF as an aggressively masculine genre that had little to offer women readers and writers before the advent of second-wave feminism in the 1970s. (4) I suspect that this dismissal has been compounded by the enduring legacy of Betty Friedan's classic study, The Feminine Mystique (1963). As Joanne Meyerowitz notes, historians have questioned some of Friedan's claims about women's experience with domesticity at midcentury, but most have accepted her argument that women's magazine fiction uncritically glorified conservative notions of proper femininity (230). According to Meyerowitz, this has led to a nearly total silence about how women might have written differently--and more progressively--in other kinds of magazines or popular literary venues (231).

While it is certainly true that midcentury SF was dominated by men, over the past few years SF scholars have demonstrated that a significant number of women were actively involved in the genre at that time. (5) In contrast to a few well-known authors like Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and Andre Norton, who are remembered primarily for having written stories that were "as ungendered as their names" (Clute and Nicholls 1344), authors including Judith Merril, Mildred Clingerman, and Zenna Henderson produced tales that clearly addressed women's concerns with life in a high-tech era--and that were, as their bylines indicated, clearly written by women. In doing so, as Justine Larbalestier suggests, they paved the way for the more radical critiques of patriarchy launched by later feminist authors (172).

As these brief histories of feminist history and feminist SF scholarship might suggest, academics in both fields seem to be moving toward similar conclusions about women's political and literary praxis at midcentury. To date, however, there has been very little discussion of how the two areas of inquiry might productively inform one another. Accordingly, the rest of this essay is devoted to just that kind of discussion. In the following pages, I draw upon new research in both fields to show how postwar activists and authors alike engaged in the kind of future-oriented, extrapolative thinking most commonly associated with science fiction writing. I also show how they both deployed rhetorical strategies common to the progressive activism of the time, appealing to women as political subjects based on their common situation as wives and mothers (or potential wives and mothers) and advocating a feminine ethos of social reformation through interpersonal dialogue between members of different races and genders.

Midcentury Peace Activism and SF's Nuclear Holocaust Narrative

Although the peace movements of the 1950s and 1960s were modest compared to their Vietnam-era counterparts, they were nonetheless a significant outlet for women's political energies. At first, it might seem surprising that women raised on the twin rhetorics of cold war patriotism and the feminine mystique might have joined such movements at all. As Elaine Tyler May points out, the dominant professional and popular discourses of this time told American women that they could best serve their country as cold war patriots by carefully tending their suburban homes (105). Thus women were encouraged to embrace the feminine mystique not just because it was the natural thing to do, but because it was essential to the proper workings of national defense.

Of course, not all women were persuaded by this logic, and the more active of these dissenters were drawn into peace organizations such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the Catholic Workers and War Resistors' League (WRL), and Women Strike for Peace (WSP). These organizations also invoked specific equations between patriotism and domesticity, but to radically different ends than their governmental counterparts. For instance, throughout the 1950s WILPF recruited new members by appealing to common feminine experience, arguing that it was only by joining together in the peace movement that "you and I--and all the mothers in the world--can go to sleep without thinking about the terrors of the Atomic Bomb" (in Alonso 131). For WIPLF, it was the American woman's civic duty to protest against--rather than acquiesce to--the cold war status quo.

Peace organizations also justified their activities by aligning maternal instinct with scientific knowledge. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s WSP distributed educational pamphlets quoting Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the Federal Radiation Council on topics ranging from the dangers of irradiated milk to the futility of preparing for life after nuclear war. Thus WSP activists positioned themselves as rational beings reluctantly driven to public action by an understanding of nuclear weapons similar to that of the experts themselves. (6)

Similar political sensibilities and rhetorical strategies informed many of the nuclear war stories written by women in the midcentury SF community. As Edward James notes, SF authors of the 1940s and 1950s often used nuclear war stories to explore "how societies decline into tribalism or barbarism ... or develop from barbarism to civilization" (90). In the hands of writers like Judith Merril, Carol Emshwiller, and Alice Eleanor Jones, these stories showed readers how nuclear-age civilization inherently tended toward barbarism, especially for women and their families. (7) Indeed, these authors made their appeals to readers precisely by describing in sometimes grisly detail the nightmare fates of forced marriage, reproductive mutation, and familial destruction that inevitably awaited those women who managed to survive World War III. Writ large upon the postnuclear future, such stories were also clearly in dialogue with the progressive sensibilities of the midcentury peace movement. Indeed, as we shall see, they provided women writers with an ideal narrative space in which to make concrete those "terrors of the Atomic Bomb" that could only be hinted at in peace activist literature.

As a self-identified leftist and feminist at a time when it was unfashionable to be either of those things, it is appropriate that Judith Merril produced one of the earliest and best-known of these domestic nuclear war stories. Published in 1948, "That Only a Mother" brings together two of the primary fears of the early atomic age: the possibility of mutation from radioactive materials and the probability that an international nuclear war would effectively destroy all humanity (Trachtenberg 355). Set in a near future where exposure to radiation from an on-going nuclear war has produced a generation of radically mutated children, Merril's tale depicts an insane world where mothers struggle to protect their children against fathers who commit infanticide, juries who acquit the men of any wrongdoing, and journalists who report the whole process with tacit approval. Although such events are initially presented as part of a terrible new moral and social order located specifically in postwar Japan, the land of the enemy other, Merril ultimately suggests that this new world order--much like radioactivity itself--has no respect for national borders. The majority of "That Only a Mother" follows the story of Margaret and Hank, an American couple who give birth to Henrietta, a "flower-faced child" whose stunning intelligence is offset by her limbless body (349). Margaret responds to her child's deformity by retreating into her own insanity and insisting that "my baby's fine. Precocious, but normal" (345, 351), while Hank--equally horrified by both his child and Margaret's response to her--seems destined to repeat the insanity of his Japanese counterparts as he prepares to kill his child at the close of the story. Thus Merril's story effectively anticipates the kind of warning that peace groups like WILPF would issue in the 1950s: that "a bomb doesn't care in the least whether you are wearing a soldier's uniform or a housewife's apron" (in Alonso 130).

Alice Eleanor Jones's "Created He Them" (1955) also merges contemporary understandings of nuclear war with the maternalist sensibilities of women's peace activism. By the mid-1950s many Americans had exchanged their earlier convictions about the apocalyptic nature of the bomb for the new belief that a limited nuclear war was fightable and that society would simply have to adjust to this new reality (Trachtenberg 355). At the same time public concern about nuclear fallout continued to grow, especially as reports about unexpected illnesses filtered in from the Nevada Test Site and from the Marshall Islands, where the first H-bomb tests were performed in 1954 (Hafemeister 437-38). It should come as no surprise, then, that in Jones's story families do indeed survive World War III--but only because the government creates a ruthless breeding program that forces the few remaining healthy men and women into loveless marriages. When the offspring of these unions reach the age of three, they are taken away to mysterious Centers where "if any child were ever unhappy, or were taken ill, or died, nobody knew it" (132). Although the children produced by this breeding program are indeed physically healthy, family relations are anything but that. Instead, men like Henry Crothers treat their children as mere commodities to be exchanged for government bonuses. Meanwhile, women like Ann Crothers are forced to "lend" their babies to childless neighbors in exchange for black-market goods including eggs, cigarettes, and the Seconal they so desperately need to endure their husbands' nightly embraces (129-30). Much like Merril, then, Jones insists that the brave new world of the nuclear age will inevitably affect the soldier and the housewife alike in terrible--and terribly unexpected--ways.

Carol Emshwiller's story "Day at the Beach" (1959) literalizes the terrors of nuclear war in more subtle but equally tragic ways. Although expert discourses and public polls of the late 1950s continued to reflect the belief that America could (and should) fight a limited nuclear war if the situation arose (Trachtenberg 354), this period also saw the publication of numerous books that suggested otherwise (Stone 192). Popular novels such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957) and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) both insisted that even the most limited of nuclear wars would affect all peoples across space and time. Emshwiller's story offers readers a similar, if more specific, warning. At first, the family depicted in "Day at the Beach" seems to have survived World War III fairly successfully. Although Myra and Ben are bald and toothless and their child, Little Boy, is a feral creature who can only communicate through physical violence, the couple remain deeply in love with one another and struggle to give their child a reasonably normal life. This includes outings such as the one that gives the story its name; indeed, the beach feels so safe compared to the rest of war-torn America that it leads Ben to dream that the couple might resume the sexual relations they have refrained from since Little Boy's birth. Myra, however, quickly negates this dream, pointing out that "I don't even know a doctor since Press Smith was killed by those robbing kids and I'd be scared" (280). Herein lies the tragedy of Emshwiller's story: in a postholocaust world the family can only survive by avoiding normal reproductive activities since the birth of a new child might well mean the death of its mother. And yet, without more children, there can be no more family whatsoever. Thus Emshwiller appeals specifically to women readers as potential mothers and potential antiwar activists by insisting that there can be no future for children in a world where nuclear war (or at least its immanent possibility) has become one of the central facts of life.

As all of the above stories demonstrate, SF--especially in its short story form--provided midcentury women writers with a powerful narrative form through which to explore what might happen to women and their families if America continued down the path it seemed to have set for itself at the beginning of the cold war. But how might women prevent these nightmare futures from happening? What other futures might be available, given the then-current scientific and social situation?

Full-length novels like Judith Merril's Shadow on the Hearth (1950) suggest one answer that anticipates the maternalist politics of peace organizations like WSP: women can prevent these scenarios from occurring in the real world by allying themselves with other women and with scientists to build an antiwar community. Shadow on the Hearth begins much like its short-story counterparts by establishing a nightmare future designed specifically to hail women readers based on their common situation as mothers haunted by the possibility of nuclear war. The novel follows the story of Gladys Mitchell, a Westchester housewife and mother who is the epitome of domesticity, dispensing nuggets of wisdom about the effects of French toast on ill-tempered children while struggling with her conscience about whether or not she can abandon the laundry to attend a neighborhood luncheon (87). With the advent of World War III Gladys's life turns upside-down: her husband Jon is presumed dead in New York City, her daughters Barbara and Ginny are exposed to radioactive rain at school, and her son Tom, a freshman at Texas Tech, seems to have vanished off the face of the planet. In this brave new world, even the most familiar aspects of suburban life become terrifyingly strange: basic utilities fail and men become monsters who abuse their power as civil defense officers to harass the women and children they are meant to protect.

Of course, this is only the beginning of Shadow on the Hearth. The majority of Merril's novel follows Gladys's transformation from helpless housewife to activist mother who helps to prevent this world from becoming the kind of full-blown dystopia imagined elsewhere in midcentury short stories. First, Gladys allies herself with the other women populating her world, by rescuing her housekeeper Veda Klopak from the local civil defense officials who believe she is a Communist spy and by giving shelter to her neighbor Edie Crowell, a self-absorbed, aristocratic woman who fears being trapped alone in her home when the American government declares martial law. In turn, Veda quickly adapts the Mitchell household to the rhythms of its new circumstances (a good thing, since Gladys is a lackadaisical housekeeper at best), while Edie uses her sharp tongue to fend off the civil defense officers who hope to break up the household and regain control over the women. Thus Veda, Gladys, and Edie create a quasi-utopian community of women who work together--however temporarily--to protect themselves and their children from the dangerous new social and moral orders that threaten them. (8)

Much like her counterparts in the peace movement, Merril also suggests that women can most effectively challenge the new social and moral order of the cold war status quo by forging alliances with another group of like-minded people, namely scientists. The potential effectiveness of such alliances are made clear in Merril's novel through her depiction of the growing friendship between Gladys and Garson Levy, the local nuclear physicist-turned-high school math teacher who has been under surveillance by the government for years due to his antiwar activities. Gladys first meets Levy when he defies his house arrest and comes to warn her about the radioactive rain that her daughters have been exposed to at school; impressed by his concern for her children, Gladys invites him to stay with her and the other women. Significantly, it is by working together that Gladys and Levy manage to ensure the future well-being of the Mitchell household, pooling Levy's scientific knowledge with Gladys's social skills to secure medical attention for the Mitchell girls and to prevent the civil defense officials from evacuating (and thus breaking up) the household on what turn out to be rather dubious grounds.

Of course, it is important to note that for Merril, this alliance between mothers and scientists is at best an only partial solution to the problems posed by the threat of nuclear war. At the end of the novel the family unit is preserved, but its survival is far from guaranteed: Gladys's son Tom is located but much to her horror has been drafted into the army; her husband Jon returns from New York City but is wracked with radiation burns and gunshot wounds that prevent him from asserting his place as the head of the family; and Levy himself is diagnosed with a potentially fatal strain of radiation poisoning. (9) This ambivalence is key to Merril's project: if she depicts a postholocaust future where scientists can solve all the problems of nuclear war, then there would be no reason to protest that kind of war in the first place. But that is not her project. Instead, by demonstrating how even the natural sympathies of mothers and scientists might not be enough to guarantee survival in the future, she makes a strong case for the necessity of peace activism in the present.

The Civil Rights Movement and SF's "Encounter with the Alien Other"

Although nuclear weapons might have been the most pressing technological issue for women involved in midcentury political activism, it was certainly not the only one that captured their interest. Many turned their attention to what was undoubtedly the most pressing social issue of the day: the struggle for racial integration in America. In contrast to the antiwar movement, which continually had to justify its existence in an era when cold war politics seemed to necessitate the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were able to position themselves as a necessary part of America's effort to spread democracy and social justice throughout the world (Lynn 108).

In practice, overturning nearly 300 years of American prejudice was a much more complex task. Civil rights organizations took a two-pronged approach to this task, working to secure integration at the levels of both the state and the neighborhood. The efforts that occurred at the first level are those that have been most thoroughly recorded by history: the struggle to integrate public schools as mandated by the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (which firmly rejected the "separate but equal" doctrine that had governed U.S. policymaking since the 1890s); the year-long Montgomery bus boycott organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955; and, of course, the massive, nonviolent demonstrations initiated by King and other black leaders in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Kaledin 150-155). All these activities were carefully aligned with the liberal humanist ethos of the time as planned efforts to secure the rights of all individuals through the regular channels of participatory and representative democracy. (10)

But this is, as feminist historians have pointed out, quite literally only half the story. Efforts to ensure integration in public institutions were accompanied by efforts to do much the same in the realm of private relations as well. As Susan Lynn notes, progressive interracial women's organizations such as the Young Women's Christian Organization (YWCA) were certainly instrumental in lobbies for civil rights legislation. What has been less often recognized, however, is they were also central in developing new strategies for integration that "emphasized a female ethic as central to creating social change, particularly by building friendships across racial lines" (112). These strategies included the development of antiracist literature, lecture series, and, most centrally, summer conferences where black and white girls worked and lived together for months at a time. Hundreds of girls attended these conferences, and hundreds left testimonials reporting that the most important part of the conferences for them was the realization that "in hundreds of little ways we felt the same whether our skin was dark or light" (in Lynn 113). It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the girls who attended these conferences in the 1950s grew up to participate in the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, since both emphasized the connections between personal and political relations.

These connections were further demonstrated by women's activities on other fronts of the civil rights struggle. Throughout the 1950s women allied with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC, a mixed-sex group originally founded by Quaker activists in 1917) worked closely with local NAACP leaders to ensure that the Brown v. Board of Education decision would be enacted as smoothly as possible. These women enacted the feminine ethos of social change through interpersonal dialogue by facilitating meetings between black and white parents, students, school boards, and community leaders (Lynn 116-17). More than mere auxiliary to the rest of the civil rights movement, then, this new mode of social change became central to the daily implementation of civil rights legislation. (11)

Of course, the battle to integrate girls' associations and public schools was hardly the stuff of midcentury SF--or at least not at any immediately obvious level. However, the clash between two cultures most certainly was. John Clute and Peter Nicholls note that "encounter with the alien other" stories are as old as SF itself. Influenced by Darwinian theory, early science fiction stories ranging from H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (1898) to Edmond Hamilton's "Thundering Worlds" (1934) depicted alien others as the natural enemies of mankind. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, most SF authors had forsaken such crude depictions for more nuanced investigations of "the problems of establishing fruitful communications with alien races" (16). Women writing SF at that time were no exception to this rule. Authors including Margaret St. Clair, Kay Rogers, and Mildred Clingerman all inflected the new alien encounter narrative with an ethos of social change through interpersonal communication much like that deployed by their counterparts in the civil rights movement. In doing so, they created stories that explored the very real problems of establishing fruitful communications with human races on the American homefront.

Significantly, midcentury women's alien encounter narratives tend to focus on communication not between like-minded people working together in the public sphere, but between star-crossed lovers who can only flourish in the private worlds they create for themselves in the face of a hostile society. As such, these stories function much like the nuclear war ones written by Merril, Emshwiller, and Jones: as warnings about the nightmare future America might create for itself given present-day scientific and social arrangements. Midcentury women's alien encounter narratives also resemble their nuclear war counterparts in that both refuse the apolitical, ahistorical "love conquers all" mentality that dominated so many other forms of midcentury popular culture (and that continue to do so today). Instead, they show how private relations between individuals are always already conditioned by historical and material factors, and how reformation of these relations can only be meaningful if accompanied by a similar reformation of their institutional counterparts.

Women's alien encounter narratives from the early 1950s reflect much of the hesitation and pessimism attending the early years of the civil rights struggle. Although President Harry Truman established the first Civil Rights Commission in 1946 and then ordered the desegregation of the American military in 1948, he restrained from enforcing any more specific legislation at the time for fear of alienating white Southern voters (Chafe 91). It is not surprising, then, that stories such as Margaret St. Clair's "Brightness Falls from the Air" (1951) imagined that even the most wildly successful examples of interracial communication would inevitably fail in the face of an entrenched bureaucracy. St. Clair's story depicts a far future where humans have ruthlessly taken over every habitable planet they can find, leaving indigenous peoples to starve and die unless they are willing to participate in the deadly "battle sports" that have become the conquering race's favorite distraction. Kerr is a minor human bureaucrat who acknowledges his people's wrongdoings but shrugs them off as "a particular instance of the general cruelty and stupidity" that he believes characterizes all peoples in all times (162). He is forced to revise this opinion when he meets Rhysha, a beautiful bird-woman with whom he promptly falls in love. Rhysha is also intrigued by Kerr and the two exchange life stories. When Kerr learns that the battle sports are a perversion of the dignified leadership rituals that once structured life on Rhysha's world, Kerr vows to help her people escape extinction by sponsoring their immigration to a new world. But all is for naught: Kerr's petitions are denied and the young man falls gravely ill from his exertions; when he recovers, it is only to learn that Rhysha has sacrificed herself in the battle sports arena to secure food for her family. Thus the love between individuals from different races is rendered meaningless precisely because the new social perspectives engendered by this love are negated by the intransigency of public institutions.

A similar pessimism informs Kay Roger's short story "Experiment" (1952), where humans have been enslaved by the snake-like Venusians, a cold-blooded race with limited emotional capabilities. Intrigued by the human concept of love, one particular Venusian, Cobr, decides to perform an experiment in which he rescues a human woman from the slave pens and installs her in his own household with all the comforts that his people usually accord one another. In return, Cobr asks the woman (a professional performer who remains unnamed throughout the story) to help with his experiment by singing her people's love songs to him. Inevitably, Cobr becomes enchanted with the singer and is delighted when she learns the forms of courteous expression that pass for affection between members of his race. Before the relationship can progress further, however, the singer dies of a sudden illness and Cobr finds himself in a surprising position: alone and far too heartsick to continue the experiment with another human. Once again, then, love fails to conquer all--indeed, this love, such as it is, cannot even be named by the individual who experiences it.

Published at the height of the midcentury civil rights movement--three years after Brown v. Board of Education and two years after the Montgomery bus boycott--Mildred Clingerman's "Mr. Sakrison's Halt" (1957) treats the problem of racial justice in America in a more direct and complex manner than its predecessors. Here, the encounter with the alien other takes the form of a romantic encounter between the southern belle Mattie Compton and the northern liberal Mr. Sakrison. Although she initially dismisses him as a "Yankee beast" (39), Miss Mattie soon falls in love with the gentle man and his vision for a better world: "I'd never heard anybody speak so sadly about the nigras .... He put words to the little sick feelings I'd had at times, and I began to catch his vision" (40). The young couple decide to migrate north and marry, but their plans collapse when their train makes an unexpected stop in an unnamed town where beautifully-dressed people of all races live together in prosperity and harmony. Mr. Sakrison immediately gets off the train and is welcomed by a distinguished-looking black man; Miss Mattie, overcome by a flash of prejudicial anger and fear, hangs back--and promptly looses her chance for happiness when the train starts up and barrels on without her fiance. As a kind of penance, Miss Mattie spends the next forty years of her life riding the Jim Crow cars of the same train, desperately searching for the mysterious town where her beloved vanished. Much like St. Clair and Rogers, then, Clingerman suggests that interpersonal communication in the guise of romantic love may indeed be the first important step toward the elimination of racial prejudice in America but it is by no means necessarily enough to eliminate prejudice altogether.

This is not, however, the whole of Clingerman's story. "Mr. Sakrison's Halt" is narrated by an anonymous young woman born in Miss Mattie's hometown but raised in the north. To counteract the hostility she feels as an outsider when visiting her birth-town, the narrator makes friends with the only other person in town who does "too much traveling around": Miss Mattie (38). In contrast to the other townsfolk, Clingerman's narrator does not simply dismiss Miss Mattie's tale as the product of a lovesick mind; accordingly, she is given the privilege of witnessing its final act. During their last train ride together the narrator spots the mysterious stop that Miss Mattie has described so many times before. This time Miss Mattie does not hesitate to get off the train, where she is rewarded with the return of both her youth and Mr. Sakrison. Thus it would seem that with patience and continued communication between sympathetic individuals, there might be a future in which love--between individuals and between races--could prevail.

Again, however, this is not the entire story. Miss Mattie and her lover are only reunited in a magical, alternative America that the narrator glimpses but can never find for herself again, trapped as she is in a world of "firey crosses" and white supremacist rage (43). The narrator's closing observation underscores the difference between these two worlds:

   the Katy local was retired years ago. There's a fine highway now to
   the city .... I hear everything has changed. But I read in my
   newspaper last week how they've locked the doors to the schoolhouse
   and barred with guns and flaring anger the way to the hill, and I
   realize how terribly far [my birth-town] still is from Mr. Sakrison's
   halt. (43-44)

More than mere apocalyptic imagination, this final image encapsulates some of the most dreadful newspaper headlines of Clingerman's day: after all, "Mr. Sakrison's Halt" appeared in print the very same year that President Dwight Eisenhower sent out the National Guard to ensure the integration of Little Rock Central High School (and Alabama's governor shut down the entire state school system in retaliation). And much the same thing can be said of Clingerman's entire story. With all its twists and turns, the narrative structure of "Mr. Sakrison's Halt" closely mirrors the complex and sometimes contradictory hopes and fears attending the dream of racial justice in America. Although Clingerman's narrator--and by extension, Clingerman's readers--might have been able to catch glimpses of the brave new world imagined by civil rights activists and their sympathizers, in the American South of 1957 it might well have felt like that dream was still almost impossibly far away.

Conclusion: Feminist History and Feminist SF Studies Reconsidered

As Helen Merrick notes in her essay "'Fantastic Dialogues': Critical Stories About Feminism and Science Fiction," feminist SF has received a certain amount of critical attention from the feminist literary community, but "for the most part, dialogue across the genre-mainstream border has been rare" (52). This kind of dialogue is important to all feminist scholars interested in the recovery of women's diverse authorial activities throughout the modern era. More specifically, it is important to feminist SF scholars interested in establishing women's SF as more than a mere appendage to their more serious or canonical literary efforts.

As feminist SF scholars we are uniquely positioned to enable this kind of dialogue because we have access to literary histories and analytic tools that are neither apparent nor available to our counterparts elsewhere in academia. As I have argued in this overview of women's political and literary praxis at midcentury, women writing SF in the cold war era may not have endorsed an explicitly feminist agenda, but they did invoke culturally-specific ideas about gender to interrogate the predominantly patriarchal scientific and social arrangements of their day. By invoking these ideas in science fiction narratives, they both made concrete and in many cases directly anticipated the hopes and fears of their activist counterparts. For instance, nuclear war narratives enabled authors like Judith Merril, Carol Emshwiller, and Alice Eleanor Jones to show how cold war America's national security policies threatened the very same families they were designed to protect. Meanwhile, stories about the problems of communicating with alien races were, as authors like Margaret St. Clair, Kay Rogers, and Mildred Clingerman demonstrate, easily adapted to explorations of the problems attending communication between human races on the American homefront.

In the beginning of this essay I suggested that midcentury women's SF has been marginalized by SF scholarship because longstanding assumptions about its trivial nature have, until recently, precluded serious study of its relation to the development of science fiction as a whole. If this history has been "lost" to the SF community, we can hardly be surprised that the larger feminist community never even knew it existed in the first place. And this is precisely where we as feminist SF scholars can give something back to the discipline which has inspired so much of our own work. By continuing to recover the history of women's science fiction in all its diversity, and by continuing to talk about it amongst ourselves and with our colleagues from other fields of inquiry, we can make important strides toward the larger feminist effort to remember those women that history doesn't see.


(1.) For one of the most influential discussions of this trend in midcentury political and cultural discourse, see Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.

(2.) See Dee Garrison, "'Our Skirts Gave Them Courage': The Civil Defense Protest Movement in New York City, 1955-1961"; Harriet Hyman Alonso, "Mayhem and Moderation: Women Peace Activists During the McCarthy Era"; Eugenia Kaledin, Mothers and More: American Women in the 1950s; Susan Lynn, Progressive Women in Conservative Times: Racial Justice, Peace, and Feminism, 1945 to the 1960s; and Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike For Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s.

(3.) This tendency is not limited to feminist scholarship; science fiction is one of the few areas of midcentury popular culture that historians and cultural critics rarely examine. Consider, for instance, two of the most prominent anthologies published on this subject in the past fifteen years: Lary May's Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War and Joel Foreman's The Other Fifties: Interrogating Midcentury American Icons. Both offer essays that examine the political radicalism of midcentury art forms ranging from painting and social journalism to postmodern literature and film noir. Not once, however, do they reflect on science fiction.

(4.) For discussions of this omission, see Helen Merrick's essays "Fantastic Dialogues: Critical Stories about Feminism and Science Fiction" and "The Readers Feminism Doesn't See: Feminist Fans, Critics and Science Fiction"; Robin Roberts's "It's Still Science Fiction: Strategies of Feminist Science Fiction Criticism"; and Jenny Wolmark's "Science Fiction and Feminism."

(5.) Recent explorations of midcentury women's SF have taken a variety of forms. For discussions of how individual authors mobilized midcentury beliefs about gender relations to critique Cold War politics, see Farah Mendlesohn, "Gender, Power, and Conflict Resolution: 'Subcommittee' by Zenna Henderson" and David Seed, American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film; for an exploration of how these strategies circulated throughout a range of women's SF texts, see my essay Unhappy Housewife Heroines, Galactica Suburvia, and Nuclear War. For an examination of how women revised midcentury SF conventions to present readers with female-friendly futures, see Brian Attebery's Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. For arguments concerning the relationship between midcentury women's SF and its relation to feminist narrative strategies, see Jane Donawerth's Frankenstein's Daughters. And finally, for discussion of how midcentury women's "sweet little domestic stories" marked the emergence of a literary sensibility that would inform the feminist SF community of the 1970s, see Justine Larbalestier, Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and her essay co-authored with Helen Merrick, "The Revolting Housewife: Women and Science Fiction in the 1950s."

(6.) For an excellent discussion of how women became scientific experts in their own right during the midcentury peace movement, see Amy Swerdlow's Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s.

(7.) Some readers may recognize that I have discussed these short stories elsewhere, in Unhappy Housewife Heroines, Galactica Suburvia, and Nuclear War. I am briefly reviewing them again in this article to show how my thinking about midcentury women's science fiction has developed over the past year: in the first essay, I provide readers with relatively lengthy analyses of these stories in relation to science fiction history; here, I discuss them in relation to the history of women's political and literary practice at midcentury (and in relation to other kinds of midcentury women's SF as well). In doing so, I hope to demonstrate the complexity of these rich cultural texts.

(8.) This household utopia is temporary, of course, because Merril refuses romantic notions of rugged individualism. No suburban household can be magically transformed into a self-sustaining fiefdom, and the women must maintain contact with the outside world to get food and medical attention for Gladys's daughters and Edie Crowell (all of whom have been exposed to radioactive dust and rain). Nonetheless, Merril insists that the tenor of her characters' dealings with the outside world does change radically once the women realize that they can rely on themselves to take care of many of the problems they have traditionally delegated to their men, like fixing gas leaks and defending themselves against burglars.

(9.) The original ending of the novel--which Doubleday refused to publish--was even more pessimistic. In Merril's final draft, Gladys's husband survives the horrors of postwar New York only to be shot to death by civil defense officials in his own backyard (Merril and Pohl-Weary, 100).

(10.) Although men like Thurgood Marshall (who represented the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education) and Martin Luther King, Jr., are the people most commonly associated with the midcentury civil rights movement, black women were also important leaders in efforts to secure civil rights legislation. For further discussion, see Jacqueline Jones's essay "The Political Implications of Black and White Southern Women's Work in the South, 1890-1965" and Eugenia Kaledin's Mothers and More: American Women in the 1950s.

(11.) Susan Lynn's essay "Gender and Progressive Politics: A Bridge to Social Activism of the 1960s" and her book-length study Progressive Women in Conservative Times: Racial Justice, Peace, and Feminism, 1945 to the 1960s are the definitive works in this subject. For other discussions about race relations and progressive politics, see Jacqueline Jones, "The Political Implications of Black and White Southern Women's Work in the South, 1890-1965" and Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women's Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s.

Works Cited

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Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

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Foreman, Joel. The Other Fifties: Interrogating Midcentury American Icons. Urbana and Chicago: U Chicago P, 1997.

Garrison, Dee. "'Our Skirts Gave Them Courage': The Civil Defense Protest Movement in New York City, 1955-1961." Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, Ed. Joanne Meyerowitz. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1994. 201-26.

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Lynn, Susan. "Gender and Progressive Politics: A Bridge to the Social Activism of the 1960s. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960. Ed. Joanne Meyerowitz. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994. 103-27.

--. Progressive Women in Conservative Times: Racial Justice, Peace, and Feminism, 1945 to the 1960s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

May, Lary. Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War. Chicago and London: U Chicago P, 1989.

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--. "That Only a Mother." 1948. Reprinted in Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Ed. Robert Silverberg. New York: Avon, 1970. 344-354.

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Rogers, Kay. "Experiment." 1953. Reprinted in Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction, 3rd series. Ed. Anthony Boucher. New York: Doubleday, 1954. 96-99.

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Yaszek, Lisa. "Unhappy Housewife Heroines, Galactic Suburbia, and Nuclear War: A History of Midcentury Women's Science Fiction." Extrapolation 44.1 (2003): 97-111.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A119059676